Monday, March 28, 2016

Star Spangled DC War Stories Part 75: August 1965

The DC War Comics
by Corporals Enfantino and Seabrook

Showcase 57

Enemy Ace in
"Killer of the Skies"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert

Jack: Hans von Hammer, the Enemy Ace, is on patrol with his squadron when they encounter a pair of planes, one French and the other English, bombing a German train. The German ace manages to shoot down both planes but is wounded in the battle. Returning to the airfield, von Hammer witnesses two German planes being driven to the ground by a single Canadian plane flown by the Hunter, who drops a note challenging the two planes to come back up and fight him in direct air combat.

Hans von Hammer leads the other two planes back into the sky, where they try to fight the Hunter but are both shot down as von Hammer stays out of the fray. The Hunter and von Hammer know that they will soon meet head on, but first the Enemy Ace must stop an Allied plane that is shooting at German observation balloons. That task accomplished, von Hammer receives a note from the Hunter challenging him to a duel. Evenly matched, the two experts take to the skies and shoot each other down. On the ground, von Hammer holds a gun to the Hunter, intending to take him prisoner, but the Canadian dies next to his plane, another victim of the killer sky.

Kanigher and Kubert show their mastery of the form in this 24-page story that features exceptional art and mature storytelling. I remember having this comic years ago and the cover is a classic.

Peter: After three appearances over in Our Army at War, Hans von Hammer ("The Hammer of Hell") gets a chance to shine at full-length, and shine he does. A multi-layered, textured script and eye-popping visuals combine to make this one of the greatest DC War comics I've ever read. Kanigher, obviously inspired by his new character, seems to become a novelist here rather than a short story writer. We know Bob is a good scribe, we've seen dozens of A+ scripts out of the guy this past six years, but "Killer of the Skies" transcends funny book writing and almost has a PBS war documentary feel to it. You just can't see this creation with a pooch or facing dinosaurs. The dialogue flows almost like a poem (I watched the great pilot speed toward his own line--a fighter who flew without helmet or goggles--the better to feel the wind of battle skies against his face.) and there is, literally, not one wasted word. BK has the unenviable position (and remember, this was 1965, before dark and gloomy comics were the rage!) of attempting to win over an audience with a character we should be hissing and booing at but, because this Enemy Ace is so valiant, so much a man of principle, we suddenly see there are two sides to war.

In this installment, von Hammer must face his counterpart, a Canadian ace who's been mopping up the skies with the Hammer's comrades. Even while killing this scourge, the Enemy Ace admires the man's dignity and valor. We see bits of von Hammer's "home life," nothing more than a butler and trophy cups of his kills to keep him company. He's just a man waiting for his turn to come out on the losing end.

Guest commentary by Marvel University Professor Mark Barsotti

There's a lot to unpack here, so let's hop in the cockpit and take to the air.

I read "Killer of the Skies" as a young kid, date unknown, but it wasn't upon publication since I was only four in mid-1965 and still mastering Dr. Seuss. The story was either reprinted in another DC war comic or I picked up the original at this non-chain store in our suburban Denver neighborhood that had odd stuff, like random, several year old comics selling for a quarter. I bought Avengers #6 there (circa '67), with Zemo and the original Masters of Evil, which, after reading several times, I cut up, pasting panels into a scrapbook...

But Von Hammer made quite an impression and was never subject to the scissors. While I couldn't have articulated it then, even as a kid it struck me how different Enemy Ace was. First, of course, Hans is the enemy, the Hun, the Kraut, and for Combat-watching, multiple G.I. Joe-owning tykes, hopping in the cockpit with the German Rittmeister was... remarkable easy. Such is the power of top flight storytelling.

"Before I do a script, two things must happen," says writer Robert Kanigher, as quoted on the webzine Dial B for Blog, "I must see the characters in the darkened theater of my mind. And I must feel their emotions as if I were inside their skins."

Kanigher creates a rich aristocrat who is neither prideful nor pompous, a "human killing machine" without bloodlust, who salutes the fallen, friend and foe alike, but is shunned by his fellow pilots as if he were a demonic force, a loner, whose "only 'friend' the world" is a wolf, another killer from the primeval Black Forest.

And Joe Kubert's art conjures a grim but gripping airborne ballet, scored by chattering machine guns - a series of vertiginous loops, swoops, turns and dives; men playing chicken at 10,000 feet in flimsy, wood and cloth contraptions - as the "Hammer of Hell" plies his deadly trade.

"I think trying to inject the feeling of flight on a six by nine inch piece of paper is not an easy thing to do, yet it was a very enjoyable task," Kubert* said. He just made it look easy, filling the skies with a variety of planes, rendered with verve and realistic detail. His Von Hammer is Prussian nobility personified, chiseled cheekbones and pale blue eyes, remote but not haughty. Kubert's characters were always varied and memorable; he was an early exponent of the "photo-realism" that Neal Adams would be lauded for bringing to superheroes a couple years down the line. Kubert's one of those artists that, at the top of his game, is so consistently excellent, he's easy to take for granted.

Re-reading this tale, what also strikes me is the downbeat realism Kanigher and Kubert bring to the meat grinder reality of war. There are no winners, only survivors. Von Hammer's aerial exploits are entirely believable (alas, this will start to change to meet the demands of the medium, with the very next issue), and comparing this war story to the over the top, "funnybook" exploits of, say, Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, completely upends that myth that Marvel was always striving for "realism," while DC trafficked in kiddy fantasy.

"Killer of the Skies" is about as real as comics got in 1965. It subverts the "evil German" stereotype, offers a non-heroic, bleak and bloody look at war, and all while telling a gripping, page-turning tale. Masterpiece is a high bar, an easy term to toss around, but Von Hammer at the controls of his crimson, Fokker Dr. 1 - at least for this issue - certainly flirts with that rarified atmosphere.

*quoted in the same blog post

Heath & Adler
Our Fighting Forces 94

"The Human Blockbusters!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Jack Abel

"The Zep and the Mosquito"
Story by Hank Chapman
Art by Irv Novick

Jack: A bit of R & R with some island gals is rudely interrupted when Gunner and Sarge are assigned to work with a tank corps to drive Japanese suicide bombers back from the Allied side of the island. After witnessing soldiers with TNT belts and engaging in some fierce hand to hand combat, G & S are menaced by enemy soldiers holding flamethrowers.

Fighting fire with fire stops the assault, but the two men are soon back in frogman gear, putting a radio-controlled belt on an enemy sub so an Allied sub can target it for a torpedo shot. A last-minute escape from the doomed enemy sub is in order when Sarge's foot gets caught, but avoiding an explosion only means swimming right into the waiting arms of enemy frogmen. Underwater hand to hand combat ends when Gunner uses his radio-belt to signal for another torpedo and blammo!--no more frogmen. Gunner and Sarge end the story (and the series) back on the beach with the native gals.

The cover says "Only DC features Gunner and Sarge--the marines who always fight on a bull's-eye!" and the last page of the story tells us to "watch for the next terrific TNT caper," but it was not to be the case.

Peter: Ah, parting is such sweet sorrow... not! After 50 long, tedious, inane, borderline-racist, and disposable installments, we must bid adieu to the trio known as Gunner, Sarge, and Pooch. At least for a while that is. Never fear, GS&P fans (I'm looking at you, Jack), the Martin and Lewis of DC War will return in OFF #123 (February 1970) as part of the aptly-titled feature, The Losers . The Losers will be comprised of several DC War characters who lost their own titles over the coming years (and, yes, that sentence is confusing, sorry). The feature section of OFF will now give way to several other short-term series, none of which can be half as bad as Gunner, Sarge, and Pooch (fingers crossed). One wonders if the fabulous and meticulously characterized Colonel Hakawa will become a victim of the axe or if his buck-toothed visage will pop up in the future. One can only hope! As for the final installment? Well, I have to admit the series goes out on a high note (for Gunner and Sarge, that is); a fairly readable script devoid of intelligent dogs and Hakawa one-liners. "The Zep and the Mosquitos" is about as silly as Hank can get, complete with Snidely Whiplash Commandant and his continual complaints about mosquitoes. The G.I. Joe toy ads are much more enjoyable.

 All American Men of War 110

"The Co-Pilot Was Death!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Irv Novick

"Aces of Dread!"
Story by Hank Chapman
Art by Irv Novick

Peter: Captain Johnny Cloud is perhaps a bit surprised that the newest member of his squad is his old nemesis, Silent Bear, once a competitor for the affections of (now Nurse) Running Deer. For her part, Deer has no idea which way she leans as far as her heart is concerned and she tries to remain neutral. The boys, however, remain just as competitive in war games as they were at romancing on the reservation. During a particularly hairy mission, Bear is shot down and Johnny lands to rescue him. Both men are taken prisoner by Nazis seeking knowledge of the Allies' new base, the Master Control Radar Complex. Using devious torture methods, the Germans intend to wear our heroes down but Cloud and Bear get the jump on the devils and escape in a Nazi plane. During the escape, Silent Bear is killed and, at last, Running Deer can make her choice.

The latest in a long line of coincidences that make up the life of Captain Johnny Cloud, "The Co-Pilot Was Death!" is samey but not a bad time-waster. Novick's art is stirring and his air battles well-staged. One of the fascinating tidbits that comes out when we're reading DC War stories is that the Nazi commandants were genetically engineered to have bad sight in one eye, thus the obligatory monocle. "Aces of Dread!" is yet another Hank Chapman sibling tale, this time centering on two identical twins who pilot Spads in WWI. And, before you ask, yes, they did compete in sports. These days, I really "Dread" reading something with the Chapman brand.

Jack: The Johnny Cloud story falls somewhere in the middle for me--not among the worst of the series but at the same time not among the best. The air battle sequences are good, as you point out, and the highlight of the story is Silent Bear's sacrifice at the end. Johnny Cloud always seems to be moping around, thinking he's not good enough and that someone else is better. Usually, he proves himself wrong, but in this instance I think Silent Bear showed he was the better man. Running Dear will have to settle for second best.

Our Army at War 157

"Nothin's Ever Lost in War!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert

"Spotter on the Spot!"
Story by Hank Chapman
Art by Irv Novick

Jack: A new outfit sent to relieve Easy Co. is wiped out save for a single soldier who has a haunted look in his eyes and who keeps repeating that everything and everyone are lost. Rock insists that "Nothin's Ever Lost in War!" and gives the soldier a well-deserved smack in the face, but to no avail.

The new soldier, nicknamed "Lost," tags along with Easy Co. and witnesses Rock's heroics as the sergeant mans the gun of a downed Allied plane and shoots down two Nazi planes. Rock follows this up by taking the controls of an Allied tank and defeating an enemy tank, but Lost still complains. Rock next takes the position of a dead machine gunner and tries to hold off enemy troops. Shaken by an explosion, the sergeant wakes to find that the Nazis have taken Lost prisoner. Easy Co. catches up with the enemy and a fistfight ensues; Lost finally rises to the occasion and takes a bullet meant for Rock. It's only a flesh wound, though, and as he walks off with Rock he finally admits that "Nothin's ever lost in war--especially a sergeant!"

I was on the fence about this story, filled as it is with one of Kanigher's patented phrases that are repeated over and over, until I got the the two-page spread by Kubert that depicts the hand to hand combat. I can't recall ever seeing Kubert do such a large format piece of art in one of the War stories we've read to date, and this alone put the story over the top for me.

Peter: "Nothin's Ever Lost in War" is the antitheses of "Killer of the Skies," it's RK on cruise control. I'll give the man the benefit of the doubt; the Enemy Ace classic probably sapped Kanigher dry for August 1965 and so what we got was the lesser Kanigher in the other titles. The constant "Lost! Lost! I'm lost! You're lost! My sister's lost! Pooch is lost!" is like a weak song that keeps coming back to its chorus to distract from the fact there's nothin' else there. The "lost" soldier reminded me of Doctor Smith from Lost in Space, constantly moaning: "We're doomed. Doomed, I say!"

Hank Chapman continues to churn out lots of stories that involve brothers who competed on their college football team and then are, inevitably, assigned to the same platoon/division/fortress/ submarine and "Spotter on the Spot" is nothing new or interesting with its dynamite pair of brothers as artillery commander and "spotter" (the guy who relays back co-ordinates of enemy whereabouts). Surely, Hank had more cards up his sleeve?

Next Week:
You Will Believe in Ghosts!

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