Friday, May 29, 2015

Whatever Happened to The Balloon Buster?: Legends of the Dark Knight Annual #7 (1997)

So - the last Balloon Buster story.

Writer James Robinson took the reigns of the Balloon Buster legend 15 years after Robert Kanigher's last BB story, and in one full issue, plus hints dropped in various others, made sweeping changes to Steve Savage's history - and in the process, and with help from 2 excellent artists, produced what might be the best ever Balloon Buster story.

Spinning out the 1994 crossover event Zero Hour (which made some loosey-goosey, but mostly minor changes to the timeline established in Crisis on Infinite Earths), James Robinson's title Starman, besides being an excellent title in its own right, did something very important - it made the idea of legacy important.  In the time between the Crisis (which while celebrating the long history of DC Comics, kind of closed the book on many of its characters) and Starman, DC Comics seemed to try to forget its history and classic characters.  The Justice Society of America, DC's 1st superteam, comprised of such golden greats as Hourman, Starman, original incarnations of The Flash, Green Lantern & Hawkman among others, was shuffled off to an alternate dimension, then eventually brought back only to have 1/2 the team murdered.  This treatment of its past by DC Comics was entirely disrespectful, perhaps, in the eyes of James Robinson, as he used Starman to celebrate not only the golden age of heroes, but many aspects of DC's long history.

1 panel appearance, revealing Steve Savage as Son of Scalphunter - from Starman Annual #2 (1997)
The lead character of Starman, Jack Knight, is the son of Ted Knight, the very 1st hero to go by the name of Starman.  The series follows Jack's struggle to come to grips with his father's legacy and his effort to become his own man - his own kind of hero.  Along the way, Jack stumbles upon the legacies of all the heroes throughout the history of DC Comics that used the Starman name, which (though seemingly preposterous to think there could be any relation at all between the Golden Age hero & the mystery man from the 50s, the Starmen from space & even Star Boy from the 31st century Legion of Super-Heroes) James Robinson ties together with skill & artfulness.

Equally preposterous is that Robinson applies this affect to Steve Savage, The Balloon Buster.  The name Savage is used to link 3 separate and previously unrelated DC Comics features.  Robinson (in various issues of Starman, but finally illustrated in Starman Annual #2) proposes that the man who raised the young Savage and taught him to 'be the GUN!' was not his father - Steve Savage was the son of Brian Savage, the former Old West vigilante, Scalphunter.  After Brian Savage's scalphuntin' days were over, he became sheriff of Opal City (Robinson's fictional city in the tradition of Metropolis, Gotham, Central City, etc., and longtime home of the Starman line), and was eventually shot & killed.  A family friend, possibly a relative, took in the infant Steve Savage, and the story could resume as told in Steve's 1st appearance in All-American Men of War #112. It is also suggested that Brian Savage was the son of an even earlier Western hero, Matt Savage, Trail Boss, so Steve Savage was the inheritor of a newly fabricated heroic legacy, courtesy of James Robinson.

Batman v. a faux-Balloon Buster

Final fate of Steve Savage - as related by Batman's thought balloons
Steve Savage, and his connection to Opal City via his father, found their way into Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight Annual #7, written by Robinson and illustrated by Steve Yeowell & Balloon Buster original artist, RUSS HEATH!  In this issue, Batman becomes embroiled in a mystery: a man is murdered by an assailant masquerading in the garb of legendary WWI pilot Steve Savage, The Balloon Buster.  The killer is apparently after a treasure Savage brought home from the war (it's here established that Savage must have survived his wounds at the hands of The Enemy Ace in his last story appearance 15 years prior).  During his investigation, Batman comes across newspaper articles detailing Savage's post-War existence - gained mild fame stunt flying, opened his own airfield (since named Savage Field), and a finally, mysteriously disappears over the Opal City skies - Savage took to the air one last time in an effort to confront a rumored dragon who may have been the cause of a fever epidemic (one gripe - all of this begs to be depicted on the comics page, as opposed to being read in Batman's thought bubbles sitting in a local library).  Batman takes the time to read a chapter in a rare published biography of Steve Savage, called I Am a Gun, and this sequence - detailing Savage's last days in the War - are illustrated by none other than original Balloon Buster artist - Russ Heath!  What a coup!  This is Heath's first work on the character in over 30 years, and it is excellent!  At this point in his career, Russ Heath was still drawing the best aircraft in the business, and the action in this flashback sequence is wild!

Steve Savage - inheritor of a grape - I mean GREAT - family tradition
In the waning days of WWI, and on the verge of being tamed by French farm girl, Rochelle, the one true love of his life, Savage is a little surprised by the quick acceptance by his betrothed's vintner father.  While bestowing his approval on the imminent union, he passes on to Savage the 'family treasure' (which in the present has been the impetus of a string of murders).  Returning from his next flying mission, Savage finds that a rogue squadron of retreating Germans has raided the nearby town, and his fiance and her entire family have been brutally killed.  Fueled by rage, Savage, in his yellow Spad, hunts down the fleeing band and in a magnificent action sequence manages to kill each and every one.  The centerpiece of this issue, the Heath illustrated flashback is sad & brutal, but so well executed and really shines an unprecedented light on the character of Steve Savage.

In the present, Batman finally confronts the Balloon Buster-look-alike killer and is forced into an aerial chase in which Bats pulls some Steve Savage-esque stunts such as jumping from one biplane to another to rescue a hostage, then jumping BACK to his own plane in time to make a safe landing.  WOW!

Batman reads through Steve Savage's life story - a minor gripe: Bruce has it wrong - the battles between Hans Von Hammer & Steve Savage were very much conclusive, decidedly in VON HAMMER'S favor.  To Steve Savage's credit, however, to take on The Enemy Ace on more than one occasion & SURVIVE - this is no mean feat!

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery - Batman performs a Steve Savage-esque stunt by jumping from one biplane to another (with a hostage in tow!).
With the killer brought to justice, the mystery of Steve Savage's treasure remains: it's soon discovered that the inheritance brought home from Europe and war was - a grape vine.  Savage's near in-laws were, remember, farmers and vintners.  Though it was too personal a venture to attempt to grow the grapes and make the wine himself, Savage was still determined to extend the legacy of Rochelle and her family in the U.S.  The plant apparently took to Savage's home soil, and its descendents were still producing wine.  The story ends with a rare depiction of The Batman imbibing, as he raises a glass of red to a portrait of The Balloon Buster.

Pouring one out for The Balloon Buster
And the story really was over for Steve Savage - though it was nice to see it end on such an incredibly high note.  Savage was given a noble, ambiguous ending (not a million miles away from the one given by his creator, Bob Kanigher), and was reunited with his original artist.  I'm so glad that James Robinson dug up this obscure character, and was able to breath new life into it, and also in a small way through Scalphunter, and the world of Opal City, connecting Steve Savage to the larger DCU.  This connection also reinforced the character's original conception - having one foot in the Western comics tradition and the other in war comics.

With this issue re-cap, the initial mandate for this blog has been fulfilled.  I've loved looking back at these obscure and mostly uncollected Balloon Buster stories, and hope to have posts on topics I love equally - sometime soon.

For the time being, I'm contemplating a tropical vacation in an alternate universe . . .

Friday, May 22, 2015

Artist Spotlight: Gray Morrow's Jonah Hex

I wouldn't call Gray Morrow's output for DC Comics prolific, but throughout the the 70s & 80s, the artist illustrated many stories in many of the genres the publisher printed.  Morrow drew mystery stories, war comics, westerns, romance, and even left his unique mark on a few super-hero features.  It was his work on The Vigilante (actually it was the entry for the character that Morrow drew for Who's Who) that 1st attracted my attention.

Morrow was a superb draughtsman, excelling in an almost photorealistic rendering of - equally - people, weapons & vehicles, and drew some very attractive ladies.  An excellent storyteller, if he had any weakness, at all, I'd say it was with action.  I consider Morrow to be the anti-Kirby, on the complete opposite end of the artistic spectrum from The King.  Where Jack Kirby's figures seemed packed with more power than they could contain, Morrow's figures were statuesque by comparison, frozen in time, and sometimes a little awkward inhabiting their space.  And although Morrow was able to convey a great deal of detail, sometimes with minimal linework, some of that detail suffered & was lost in the printing process, especially in some of his 80s work.

Despite working in genres that supported an anthology-type of storytelling (mystery, romance, etc.), Morrow put in some work on a couple of established characters including Zatanna, The Spectre, the aforementioned 'Prairie Troubadour' - The Vigilante, and DC's longest running and most popular western character, Jonah Hex.

Morrow's work on Jonah Hex consisted of exactly 1 cover (#10, March 1978), 3 full length issues (#s 90-92, the last three issues of the series, 2 of which he also colored) and a Secret Origins story - all of which were written by Michael Fleisher, whose long association with Jonah Hex has only recently been rivaled by Jimmy Palmioti's & Justin Gray's long & excellent run.

Good grief, indeed!  Carolee 'thanks' Hex for getting her an audition. From issue #91
Fleisher's Jonah Hex scripts play to Gray Morrow's strengths - issue #s 90-92 (April-Aug. 1985) follow Hex's search for estranged friend/lover Emmy Lou Hartley.  Along the way he meets a couple of other femme fatales, including Silver Ames, a gun fighter trying to climb the ranks by knocking off the best of the best; Carolee, a stunt rider who uses more than just her feminine whiles to get an audition with a traveling show; and Emmy, herself, on the run from some outlaw low-life - all rendered smokin' hot by Morrow.

Jonah Hex, himself, is drawn with handsome features - Hollywood good looks, even, and his disfigurement is toned down, though it is most certainly present.

Michael Fassbender played a creepy lackey in the 2010 Jonah Hex film, though I swear Gray Morrow cast him 25 years earlier in the lead role (in that bottom panel, especially, doesn't Hex look remarkably like Fassbender? ). From issue #92
The pacing of these issues is interesting, especially at the end of each story - there's something very abrupt & uncomfortable about the way each issue ends.  The last page of issue #90, featuring what ends up being the 1st & last confrontation between Hex and Silver Ames is probably the most abrupt and brutal last page of a comic I've ever seen.  Despite a 1 panel cliffhanger depicting Emmy in trouble, #91's strangely beautiful page depicts a frustrated Hex in full clown makeup (?) smashing a mirror, and, of course #92's last page (which happens to be the very last page of the series) has the  strangest cliffhanger of all - Hex disappears from a saloon just at the moment of confrontation with Emmy's pursuer, only to reappear the following month in the pages of Hex #1, Fleisher's complete left turn re-vamp, plopping the Western bounty hunter in the midst of a 21st century post-apocalyptic war zone.*

The most abrupt last page of a comic I've ever read.  No 'The End,' no 'Next Issue: Jonah Says I'm Sorry! Brutal.  From issue #90
Weird western - yep, that's Jonah under all that clown makeup.  The 2nd of 3 strange finales.
Exit Jonah, hello Hex; another strange, awkward ending, though this time it's the end of the series

*These adventures would be illustrated by a different artist, but I'm kind of curious what Gray Morrow would have done in this interesting, but to my mind misguided, series.

Fleisher & Morrow were reunited in the pages of Secret Origins #21 (Dec. 1987) for an interesting story involving Jonah Hex's preserved corpse.  A scholar who'd written a Hex biography is called upon to judge the authenticity of a stuffed figure thought to be the body of the long deceased gunfighter.  The writer is pulled into a tug of war for the remains, eventually helping Hex's late-life companion, Tall Bird, secure the rights to the body, ultimately fulfilling Hex's final wishes.

This story is another fantastic piece of work by Morrow, who transitions easily between the present day and flashbacks (through Tall Bird's eyes) to earlier episodes in Hex's life.

A stuffed Jonah Hex gets the drop on one bad hombre.  Wonderfully foreshortened revolver in that bottom left panel.
Jonah Hex gave Gray Morrow something to chew on.  The stories, with their horses, guns & babes, were right in his wheelhouse, and he delivered - with style.

The very month this issue of Secret Origins was released, Morrow began the longest uninterrupted run on a DC title, drawing 7 issues of The Spectre.  I'd love to take a look at those in a future post, and also publish a checklist of the stories Morrow drew for DC's horror/mystery anthologies, so look for those soon!

Friday, May 15, 2015

Who's The Balloon Buster?

I think the 'Balloon Buster' logo is lifted right from the cover of his earliest appearances in All-American Men of War.
After limping off with a potentially mortal wound to the gut in the pages of The Unknown Soldier #267 (Sept. 1982), Steve Savage, The Balloon Buster was given a trio of minor appearances in 3 very special publications that DC Comics released between the years 1985-1987, in celebration of the company's 50th anniversary.  The first of these appearances was in Who's Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC UniverseWho's Who was a 26 issue mega-series containing illustrated profiles of just about every character the company had published in its half-century history.

Each character was assigned to an artist - some of these artist/character pairings made for an eye-opening surprise, such as Brian Bolland on Lady Blackhawk, while most took advantage of a previous association between the feature and the illustrator and made perfect sense.  In the case of The Balloon Buster's profile entry in issue #2 (April 1985), Joe Kubert on art made perfect sense.  Apart from a couple of tiny cover illustrations in recent appearances in The Unknown Soldier, Kubert hadn't done any significant work on the character in 20 years, but nothing was lost during their long separation, and Steve Savage looks great.  Except for Russ Heath, I couldn't think of a more appropriate artist for the entry.

There are no surprises in the text, by either Marv Wolfman or Len Wein (Who's Who's writing credits were unclear entry by entry), though despite some conflicting information in earlier Balloon Buster stories, Steve Savage's home town seems to be definitively established as Mustang River, Wyoming.

This is a fantastic piece - it's Joe Kubert - and does the character justice. 


Savage next turned up in a cameo in Who's Who's sister title, Crisis on Infinite Earths, issue #9 (Dec. 1985).  It was this 5 panel appearance that first turned me on to the character, and I reproduced those panels in the blog's very 1st post.

Following Crisis's reality & time warping finale, a new, streamlined chronology of the DC Universe's historic events was laid out in the 2-issue prestige format title, History of the DC Universe, written by Crisis author Marv Wolfman.  A beautiful 2-page spread (gorgeously illustrated by George Perez & Karl Kesel) in the 1st volume is devoted to WWI, Steve Savage & Hans Von Hammer, The Enemy Ace.  I'm kind of surprised today to see each WWI ace treated to equal page real estate and given the same prominence, considering the much larger role Enemy Ace had played in DC's war line to that date.  Reading this 20, or so, years ago for the 1st time, and after doing a little independent research, I was astonished to find how few stories Balloon Buster had actually appeared in, as opposed to Von Hammer.  I'd like to think this 1 page appearance raised Balloon Buster-awareness enough to send a few other collectors to their comic shop's back issue boxes.

I (badly) reproduced Savage's 1 panel from History of the DCU in the aforementioned introductory post to this blog, but have thought better to include here the full spread - which pit, one last time, The Balloon Buster against The Enemy Ace.


This is -snff- the penultimate Balloon Buster post for I'm The Gun.  Steve Savage had only 1 more appearance, to date (that's a hint, DC Comics!).  This appearance came more than a decade after these other few reminders that the character even existed, and was written by someone who took some pretty startling liberties with Steve Savage's history.  It will be a bittersweet experience for me to have a look at (of all titles) Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight Annual #7 (1997) in a near-future post.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Hooked by the House Ad: Booster Gold

Booster Gold was the 1st new super-hero concept DC Comics published after it's landmark maxi-series Crisis on Infinite Earths, a story which not only celebrated the publisher's 50th anniversary, but also, in a pure storytelling sense, consolidated many of the company's disparate timelines, dimensions & realities.  A clean slate was created for a universe of characters, and the time was right for new talent to put a new spin on the idea of what it means to be a hero.  Booster Gold, the idea of Booster Gold, at least - as premiered in a memorable house ad just in advance of the series launch, held some promise of a new kind of hero.

Readers thumbing through their comics with a cover date of February 1986 (the above scan comes from a copy of Wonder Woman #329, the last issue of one of DC's longest running titles), were greeted by a brilliantly colored full page ad for a new title, its main figure striking a typically heroic pose - legs straight, arms akimbo.  A big smile creases his face, as he's surrounded by some slightly faded objects and vignettes.  These little scenes aren't of the hero, Booster Gold, saving victims from a fire or rescuing pets from trees, these are the trappings of a hero of the 80s: a killer logo (who designed this? Anyone?), an attractive woman, a flying robot buddy, billboards, a luxury car (was the Boostermobile a Bentley?), the Metropolis skyline, CASH!

The first super-hero of the era was a for-profit hero.  Not a mercenary, per se - Booster Gold had a heart of -- well, his heart was most often in the right place, but he didn't shun the spotlight.  He reveled in it.  He accepted endorsements, courted the press, and made lots. Of. CASH!

Booster was the brain child of Dan Jurgens, a new-ish talent at the time who'd spent most of his career to date behind the drawing board, having a 2+ year stint on Warlord.  I'm pretty certain this was his first published work as a writer - he'd go on to write and pencil all 25 fabulous issues of Booster Gold, before moving on to other projects at DC including that other hero from Metropolis.

For his greatest creation, Jurgens came up with a pretty interesting concept - Booster (real name, Michael Carter) was a disgraced college athlete from 500 YEARS IN THE FUTURE, who cleaned toilets at a place called the Space Museum.  Frustrated with his life, he thought to turn it around by stealing equipment from the Museum, including a time machine and Skeets the security robot, and high-tailing it to the past, using his & Skeets' future knowledge to earn lots of money and save lives as a super-hero on the side.  Not your typical bitten-by-radioactive-responsibility origin story.

Booster would just as soon solve problems with his checkbook as with his fists
The thievery & outlaw-ism (?) was not evident in the house ad - this would all be revealed rather slowly in the series, but the ad pointed the way, and provided a hook that make me want an issue of Booster Gold more than I wanted a Pogo Ball (which was quite a bit, I'll tell you).  Unfortunately, it
took me even longer to find an issue of Booster Gold than it did to find one of 'Mazing Man.  It wasn't until issue #19 that I was able to read about the Corporate Crusader's adventures.

My 1st issue of Booster Gold, and still one of the most cherished books in my collection
Booster ended up being well worth the wait.  Booster Gold #19 was the perfect issue for me to start with, as it made a big impression on me for a couple of reasons.  First, it definitely did CASH in on & drive home the self-serving nature of Booster's career as the hero.  He was not ashamed to reap the benefits of his celebrity (the hot girlfriend that we never see again, the ability to crash fancy art openings, etc.).  This was different from the true blue heroics on display in Super-Friends.  Something else I'd not quite seen before, was the hero of the story getting his ass completely handed to him.  The villain of the issue was the Rainbow Raider, a former Flash foe, who due to his outright dismantling of Booster Gold, I assumed was some heavyweight villain.  It wasn't until much later that I discovered his reputation as an also-ran in the Flash's Rogues Gallery.  This revelation failed to diminish the impact of the, frankly, ease with which The Raider defeated Booster Gold.  The issue also has quite a memorable cliffhanger - one of my favorites of all time. It would be over 10 years until I found out how Booster managed to come back to beat the bad guy & regain his sight, but being left hanging didn't detract from what a great introduction to the character this issue was for 9-year old me.  And following his later adventures in the Justice League was a clue that things from this particular adventure turned out alright.

One of the more 'vivid' cliffhangers in my memory
So I'd say the promise of the house ad, in this case, had been fulfilled.  It pledged something new, the beginning of a legend (and a FREE PIN with purchase) and despite many of Booster Gold's adventures in his own title and beyond being pleasant, conventional super-hero stories, and his long standing role as joke of the Justice League, the concept of a hero-of-the-time (which he most certainly was), one with a novel and quite refreshing origin story still holds true.  Booster was a departure, of sorts, from many of his super-hero contemporaries, and remains one of my favorite characters of all time.

By the way, does anyone have an extra Booster Gold pin they'd be willing to part with?

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Super Blog Team-Up: 10 Great All-Star Squadron Covers!

#10 - The one that started it all, by Rich Buckler & Dick Giordano
I'm The Gun is delighted to join in with the 6th installment of Super Blog Team Up!  Today, and today only, a bunch of fantastic blogs are running down all kinds of Top 10 comics goodness.  In keeping with this theme, here you'll find my 10 favorite All-Star Squadron covers.  All-Star was a series with dozens of great covers, so it was some exercise in restraint to choose only ten!

All-Star Squadron, writer Roy Thomas' Golden Age revival title that ran from 1981-1987, was probably my first 'favorite' comic.  Before I had the comic book IQ to negotiate a monthly release schedule, I somehow ended up with several of these in my budding collection.   Thomas' encyclopaedic knowledge of these heroes (some familiar to me at the time like Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman, others more obscure like the original Green Lantern in his fabulously garish costume or Liberty Belle) and his ability to tell stories taking place in between the panels of the original run of All-Star Comics (we're talking about comics published between 1940-1942) blew my young mind, and always left me wanting more.

Drawn as I was to the inevitable & colorful cavalcade of 1940s superheroes that graced All-Star Squadron's interior pages, it was always the remarkably striking covers of this comic that (doing their job) provided that hook to get me to pick them up.

I would go so far as to say that A.S.S. had perhaps the best run of covers of the 1980s, illustrated by some of the best artists of the day.  After the iconic cover to issue #1, which was handled by the series' 1st artist Rich Buckler along with inker Dick Giordano, no less an artist than Joe Kubert drew the first year & a half of covers, all of them outstanding.

#9 - A Joe Kubert standout  - maybe the most superheroes he's every drawn in one composition; Superman seemed to get knocked around quite a bit on the covers of All-Star Squadron - I can think of at least half a dozen examples
As hard as it is to believe, I think the quality of The Squadron's cover art went up with issue #19, when Jerry Ordway took over as regular artist on not only the covers but also the interiors, as well.  A long run of absolute knockouts followed, even when Ordway stepped away from the interior art, but continued to ink Rick Hoberg's cover pencils.

Sometime after issue #50, All-Star Squadron started to lose steam - admittedly, DC's company-wide cross-over event Crisis on Infinite Earths wreaked havoc on Roy Thomas' cast, and a title that already had a hard time holding on to an art team suffered through even more inconsistency in that department.  A.S.S. eventually folded with issue #67, but not before dazzling the comic-buying public with its eye-grabbing cover art and introducing a generation to the guys and gals of DC's Golden Age.

Feast your eyes on 8 more gorgeous covers below, and be sure to check out other Top 10's at these fine locations:

#8 - I would NOT want to be this Hastor guy - the fury of The Hawkman, as only Joe Kubert could depict

#7 - Superman taking some more lumps at the hands of the Monster Society; Mike Clark was on the All-Star artist merry-go-round at this point, this cover being the high-point of his stint
#6 - The Spectre v. Dr. Fate!  The JSA looks on as their 2 most powerful members slug it out!  An awesome Jerry Ordway solo cover, just as he was leaving regular interior art duties.
#5 - The JSA returns just in time for All-Star Squadron to wind down.  Another Jerry Ordway jaw-dropper.
#4 - One of Jerry Ordway's 1st solo covers; Ordway always got a lot out of the zipatone, which lent a certain moodiness to his artwork.
#3 - Rick Hoberg & Jerry Ordway.  The All-Star who dies (SPOILER ALERT) was the until-then inconsequential Red Bee; I hadn't seen anything before like his brutal murder at the hands of the villainous Baron Blitzkrieg.  Despite this rough treatment, his tragic end somehow ennobled The Red Bee, and much like The Legion of Super-Heroes' Ferro Lad, the character became defined by his death.
#2 - Another Jerry Ordway solo knockout; an excellent composition with every color at the printer's disposal represented in the costumes of the various All-Stars.  Issue #50 was something of a last hurrah before the quality of the title began to slide.
And #1 - Still my favorite cover on any comic, ever.  Who wouldn't buy this?  Superman v. Captain Marvel? - Yes, please!  Wonder Woman v. Mary Marvel? - hot before I knew what hot was! This is most certainly the 1st time I'd ever lain eyes on that wonderfully garish costume of the original Green Lantern.
Did I leave any of your favorites out?  You really can't go wrong with most of the covers over the 67 issue run (plus 3 Annuals) - I'd love to read the thoughts of any other All-Star Squadron fans, so feel free to leave comments below!