Friday, April 24, 2015

Enemy Ace v. The Balloon Buster - The Unknown Soldier #267 (Sept. 1982)

Presenting the final meeting between The Enemy Ace and The Balloon Buster.  It ain't going to end well for one of them!

Continuing to back up the Unknown Soldier in #267 of his title, Hans Von Hammer, The Enemy Ace finds himself a 'guest' of the Army Air Service Squadron to which Steve Savage, The Balloon Buster belongs.  In this final chapter of the 3 part 'A Very Private Hell' by Kanigher & Severin, Von Hammer, grounded across enemy lines due to engine trouble, is escorted by a gaggle of American officers to a dinner in his honor (a customary practice for WWI adversaries and a display of the code of honor to which Von Hammer, himself, strictly adheres).

Conspicuous by his absence from the meal, is Steve Savage.  Earlier, Von Hammer had witnessed the maverick ace test-flying his own red Fokker - recently repaired and being put through its paces by the wild flying of the Balloon Buster.  Ostracized by his companions for being nothing but 'white trash,' Savage used the opportunity of the dinner (to which he probably wasn't invited) to hatch a plan to restore a sense of what he considers honor - yet another crack at a final duel between himself and Von Hammer.

Prison Break
Under the cover of night, Savage releases Von Hammer from his quarters and quickly escorts him to his triplane, so that they might duel at dawn.  What follows is a beautiful aerial ballet, gorgeously illustrated by Severin as Savage and Von Hammer chase each other through the sky.  Von Hammer finally gets Savage in his sights, but before he can deliver the killing burst, his guns jam!

Duel in the skies
Not willing to take advantage of an unarmed opponent, Savage gestures toward the ground - his single-minded obsession to decisively end this rivalry compels him to engage Von Hammer in a pistol duel.  Unaccustomed to the rules & ceremony of a formal duel (being nothing like the western-style shoot outs of his youth) Savage needs a quick lesson from Von Hammer.

Duel on the ground
They pace, turn, fire and - - Von Hammer takes a flesh wound to the shoulder, but Savage takes quite possibly a mortal wound to the gut.  Unwilling to finish his opponent off, Von Hammer helps Savage to his plane, as the maverick ace claims, 'If I'm tuh die . . . I'd rather be in the sky . . .'

Like a wounded bird spotted by a hawk, Savage limps back to his line, but captures the notice and draws the fire of Von Hammer's own squadron.  In a final, honorable gesture toward his respected opponent, Von Hammer waves off his cronies, allowing Savage to fly toward the sunrise - his fate unknown.

The Balloon Buster limps off into the sunrise, under the watchful eye of The Enemy Ace, his fate unknown
An ambiguous ending to this latest (and last) Enemy Ace/Balloon Buster saga.  Significant, too, as this is the last time these great war characters were written by their creator, Robert Kanigher.  Enemy Ace would go on to guest star in various titles throughout the 80s & 90s, and even star in his own graphic novel and a couple of mini-series'.  The legend of the Balloon Buster would alternately (and unfortunately) lie dormant for some time - the ultimate fate of Steve Savage would not be revealed for another 15 years.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Enemy Ace v. The Balloon Buster - The Unknown Soldier #266 (Aug. 1982)

Hans Von Hammer, The Enemy Ace, survives the attack suffered in last issue's cliffhanger, though his injuries force him into a short convalescence at the outset of Chapter 2 of 'A Very Private Hell' the latest Enemy Ace serial by writer/creator Robert Kanigher and artist John Severin.

During Von Hammer's absence, the maverick American ace Steve Savage, unaware of the situation, drops a note of  challenge over the German airfield, requesting a rematch with The Enemy Ace after being spared the German's bullets as a honorable courtesy due to his own lack of ammunition.  A brash German lieutenant, seeing an opportunity to earn some mega points by dueling such a notorious American pilot, steals Von Hammer's distinctive red Fokker and accepts the challenge on the injured Baron's behalf.

Steve Savage, once again Stetson-ed, shoots down the Enemy Ace 'stand-in'
Savage, once again topped by his trademark white cowboy hat, makes short work of the imposter, the lopsided duel witnessed from the ground by Von Hammer & Co.

Wracked with anger & guilt, and troubled the following day by morbid images of his deceased stand-in, Von Hammer composes his own note of challenge, explaining to Savage that he'd gunned down the wrong man.  Still not 100% healed from his injuries, but determined to face The Balloon Buster himself, Von Hammer makes his way in a replacement red Fokker toward the American airfield.

Haunted by visions, Von Hammer issues his challenge
Intercepted by a couple of British planes, piloted by bounty hunters after the huge reward sum placed on his head, Von Hammer manages to run both into the ground - just as his plane develops engine trouble.  Willing his plane the last few miles to the American field, The Enemy Ace manages to safely land, but is greeted by an armed detail of American soldiers.

Von Hammer runs his hunters into the ground
Pushing his way through the crowd, Steve Savage, in a strange reflection of a previous encounter between the two top guns, takes Von Hammer prisoner.

Not the fiery end to their relationship envisioned by the two WWI aces
The almost tidal, rhythmic quality over the course of these two characters' relationship is interesting.  Aerial chases, followed by one taking the other prisoner, followed by a daring escape.  Will this pattern repeat in the next chapter?  We'll see.  The next story does have some significance, as it is the last Enemy Ace (or Balloon Buster, for that matter) adventure written by series creator, Bob Kanigher.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Enemy Ace v. The Balloon Buster - The Unknown Soldier #265 (July 1982)

Hans Von Hammer is the lead in a new serial beginning in issue #265 of The Unknown Soldier, with Steve Savage playing the guest star this time around.  This 3-parter not only follows up on the 'Balloon Buster' saga from the previous 3 issues, but also serves as a sequel, of sorts, to the duel between the 2 WWI aces from issue #s 181-183 of Star Spangled War Stories published almost 10 years prior.  Despite having met on fairly cooperative terms during their last encounter, in this new adventure, Hans Von Hammer & Steve Savage are once again antagonists.

Pitting the two pilots against one another are writer Robert Kanigher (creator of both characters), and artist John Severin a long time vet, who'd worked on many titles for many publishers, specializing in westerns and war books (which would seem to make him the perfect artist to work on a Balloon Buster story).  He had worked with Kanigher previously on DC war features including the 'Losers,' 'Sgt. Rock' and an earlier 'Enemy Ace' serial.  Having served in WWII (along with most of the talent who'd previously worked on both Enemy Ace & Balloon Buster), Severin had a great eye for detail, and his aircraft & firearms are probably the most realistic looking of all the artists who worked on either WWI feature.

The bounty's out
This first chapter opens with a bold challenge in the form of leaflets dropped from the sky.  Though this is a familiar plot device from many EA or BB stories, this challenge is a little different - the leaflets advertise a $150,000 reward of the killing or capture of Von Hammer.  Having a job to do despite the bounty on his head, The Ace takes to the skies.

A familiar yellow Spad - could it be --?
Once there he's immediately confronted by a couple of French bounty hunters - of whom Von Hammer makes short work.  Making his way back to his own lines, Von Hammer witnesses the explosion of a German observation balloon, it's assailant in a familiar American yellow Spad.

For the balls necessary to bring a pistol to an airplane flight, a strangely hat-less Steve Savage gets the ol' Enemy Ace salute!
The Balloon Buster, Steve Savage, makes a move on another balloon, emptying his guns into the target as Von Hammer approaches.  Completely out of ammunition, Savage (looking strange sans his distinctive cowboy hat) attempts to ram Von Hammer, who manages to swerve away from the attack.  Characteristically not giving a f*** about no ammo, Savage takes a couple of potshots with his sidearm from his cockpit - though this, too, is easily evaded by Von Hammer with a salute.

To unwind the next day, Von Hammer engages in one of his favorite pastimes, hunting.  Returning from his excursion, Von Hammer is attacked by another bounty hunter, and in the cliffhanger, his car is shot off the road.  'The Hunt for Von Hammer' (my cheesy title, not Bob Kanigher's) would continue in the next issue of The Unknown Soldier.  Nice start to an exciting serial, and John Severin's art makes a nice contribution to the adventures of both The Enemy Ace and The Balloon Buster.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Hooked by the House Ad: 'Mazing Man

Through the years, DC Comics has published innumerable house ads, highlighting new books, or changes in existing titles.  Many of these have been memorable (here's one advertising our good friend Steve Savage, the Balloon Buster's book at the time), and some I'd consider 'Hall of Fame'-worthy.  My one rule for a Hall of Fame house ad is simple: did it directly lead to me buying the book, either new on the shelf or by hunting through back issue boxes?

One of my favorite house ads was for the title 'Mazing Man.  I consider 'Mazing Man to be something of a masterpiece by series creators, writer Bob Rozakis & penciller Stephen DeStefano.  This series presented readers with episodes, humorously & poignantly, in the life of a Queens, NY neighborhood, whose residents' lives were touched by the presence of a strange (possibly deranged), but good-hearted little man dressed in a DIY hero outfit & going by the name, 'Mazing Man.  'Maze's title was a unique comic that had a tragically short run - 1986 was the year of The 'Maze, as the book ran from January of that year and ended 12 issues later in December (3 annual specials followed in 1987, 1988 & 1990).  The book, in a way, was part of a long tradition of humor titles DC had published since the 1930's, but this one was different.  It had heart and a self awareness other humor comics in the past lacked.  It was a modern title, made for the 80's and tackled seemingly mundane, everyday issues confronting everyday people ('Mazing Man, aside). 

The house ad introducing the book appeared in various DC Comics with the same cover date as 'Mazing Man #1, Jan. 1986 (the above scan came from Green Lantern #196).  The ad made a big impression on me: the 8 year-old accustomed to flipping by ads depicting various muscle-bound Hulks or bodacious babes stopped short at the image of a mock-up cover to issue #1 under the slogan 'In this crazy world we all need a friend like . . . 'Mazing Man'  Who doesn't?  At the bottom of the ad the copy reads, 'DC. We've made comics fun again.'  This was significant and must have been a breath of fresh air to readers who at the time may have been overwhelmed by the violence and grittiness of the vigilante adventures that were increasingly the norm from comic companies both major and independent.

My 1st issue - a well-loved, dog-eared copy of 'Mazing Man #7
The little headshots of 'Maze's buddies surrounding him on the cover mock-up stood out, too.  'Eddie?' not something-Man?! Instead of whose-it-Woman, we get 'Brenda?'  And in 'color'-'noun'-Man (ala the Red Bee)'s place, is 'Guido?!'  Denton looks like a cartoon dog, but it turns out he's a man that just happens to look like a cartoon dog.  It also turns out that the people in 'Mazing Man's life, despite some caricature-like moments resemble real, well-rounded people.

Slice of life stuff that 'Mazing Man did so well - set up for the night out; Brenda and Eddie can't agree on B.'s new hairstyle
When I write 'turns out,' I mean to say that despite being drawn to this ad which promised a new kind of comics reading experience, as an 8 year-old I had not yet the grasp of a monthly release schedule, or the means of transportation to hunt down comics that were not offered at the local drug store.  It wasn't until issue #7, that I was able to fulfill my desire to hop aboard the 'Mazing Man express, at a point when it was almost too late.  And you know what?  It didn't matter.  Having since completed my 'Mazing Man collection, I can attest to the fact that the quality of this book never faltered (though I will say that it's with Karl Kesel on inks that the art is at its sharpest), and #7 was as perfect an entry point into the world created by Rozakis & DeStefano as any other.

Denton meets a brick-wall-of-a-bouncer; these panels were opposite a house ad for Angel Love, a new attempt at an old genre (romance)
A night at the local bar for 'Maze & his friends was the 'plot' of my initiation story, and I find Brenda & Eddie's domestic squabble, Guido's inferiority complex, and Denton's frustrating experience getting in to the bar, just as hilarious re-reading the story now as I did back then. It just holds up.  I'm still looking for a bar like 'October's.'

Stephen DeStefano's superb storytelling - Guido & friend renew a rivalry
Now, I've got a feeling that the 8 year-old age group was not DC's target demographic for this book, 'Mazing Man was never able to find the right audience during its publication life.  Had 'Mazing Man been published 10 years later, in black & white by an independent publisher, I bet we'd now be seeing the trailers for the Netflix original series.  I'm tempted to use my 'Where's the Trade?' label on this post, because damn it, where's the trade?  This series needs a new shot at a new audience, and a slim Showcase Presents . . . (like the Bat Lash one) would give it just that.