Monday, April 25, 2016

Star Spangled DC War Stories Part 77: October 1965

The DC War Comics
by Corporals Enfantino and Seabrook

Showcase 58

Enemy Ace in
"The Hunters--and the Hunted!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert

Peter: Rittmeister Hans von Hammer, the Enemy Ace, continues to fly the unfriendly skies of World War I, dropping the French and German pilots expertly but he's not above having his troubles. Thanks to his finely-honed skills, the Ace manages to get himself out of several scrapes and rule the sky, the enemy of all fighter pilots.

Spoiled by the insanely high quality of the first four Enemy Ace sagas, I was naturally looking forward to yet another well-written and finely-illustrated classic but what I got was "more of the same." "The Hunters--and the Hunted!" isn't crafted like the other EA adventures; it's more like a series of vignettes tenuously tied together by well-worn rope. Hans does daring somersaults in mid-air and takes out all pretenders; Hans listens patiently as his servant trumpets his master's kills; Hans overhears his comrades simultaneously diss and admire him for being a cold-blooded "hammer from hell," etc. etc. etc. It's all here--a catalog of greatest hits drawn from a quartet of the best DC war stories ever written. As Mark notes below, the skid was inevitable. Whether it will carry over to the next EA installment (not until May 1968!), only time will tell. Having said all that, there are still some bits here that shine through the haze:

- The Hammer plays possum while, all around him, bullets fly, and his thought is, "I waited for the blow which would split the back of my head open . . ."

- A bizarre 6-panel encounter with a woman in the woods, who recognizes the Ace and wonders what it would be like to be kissed by "the angel of death" and gets her wish. Her verdict? "(Hans's) lips-- are as cold--as death!"

- Fighting a British F.E. 2B Pusher Bi (yep, I knew all about that plane before I read this funny book), a two-seater manned by a pilot and an "observer" (picture an exposed tail-gunner), the Ace first kills the pilot then turns his attention to the second man. When his shots find their mark, von Hammer watches as the man falls from his seat and into thin air "like a high diver." A very powerful image.

So, a weak EA adventure but, by no means, a bad read.

Mark Barsotti: If last issue's installment came close to being a "perfect" war story, "The Hunters and the Hunted," takes a large step backward. This regression is perhaps inevitable, because it involves creators Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert simply doing their job, i.e. creating comic books, and here embracing--rather than struggling against--the expected tropes of the genre.

And K&K jump in the deep end right from the, er, splash page. Pre-zzeennting! An amazing, astonishing, logic-defying escape from death and dismemberment!

Three Spads on Von Hammer's tail present a problem, sure. Maybe he could, I don't know, out-fly them, but then its not like he's an ace or something. So he just lands, see? Then three experienced pilots strafe a stationary target at close range, and no only do they miss Hans with the Hasenpfeffer foot in his pocket, they don't even damage his Fokker!

He then takes off again and shoots 'em all down.

It's exciting stuff, but strictly funnybook as we burst the hooey barrier, trading last month's restrained realism for an almost super-heroic invincibility as, not content with the Spad trio, VH stunt-flies through a barn to shoot down yet another plane on his way back to the Jagsdtaffel, and all before walking away from a crash landing, without so much as hitting his funny bone.

Then he crash lands again a few pages later---albeit with a few boo-boos this time--taking us so deep into cartoon-land that I wouldn't be surprised if his friend the wolf shows up wearing pants and starts talking.

Okay, the last is a slight exaggeration, and I don't mean to suggest that this is a bad comic book. It is, in fact, a good one. The problem, at least for this reader, is that while Kubert and Kanigher would likely have scoffed at such highfalutin pretensions, they've proved themselves capable of producing "graphic literature." So quite the pity if, from here on out, their dour, aristocratic "killing machine" only gets cast in cartoons.

Jack: Like the Hammer of Hell, like the lone grey wolf in the forest, I stand alone in my admiration for this issue of Showcase. On a side note, I read that Kanigher had a hand in some of the panel designs and that, in his scripts, he would indicate to Kubert when to use multiple vertical panels to slow down the action and highlight something that happened quickly. As I read this story, I was reminded once or twice of Kanigher's Johnny Cloud series, especially when the Hammer of Hell salutes his victims and thinks that "the sky is the enemy of us all." The story opens with a long, exciting air battle sequence and then settles into familiar ground briefly, before introducing a German fraulein and--finally--a Sopwith Camel! If only Snoopy were here.

All American Men of War 111

"Jets Never Let Go!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Russ Heath

"Only One Ace Could Live!"
Story by Hank Chapman
Art by Irv Novick

"Tag--You're Dead!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Irv Novick

Peter: Captain Johnny Cloud must fight a deadly game of "Tag--You're Dead!" with a Nazi he had a run-in with back on the reservation years before. The Hitler youth tried to show Johnny the proud brave what a real man is made of but before they could finish their game, the war broke out and both took their places behind a stick. Now, years later, "fate" puts Johnny dead in Eric's sights but Cloud emerges victorious in the end. The once proud Johnny Cloud not only has to face ignorant and pompous Germans and his continued life of sheer coincidence but also sees his strip relegated to the cellar this issue. That's appropriate though since "Tag--You're Dead!" is the weakest story of the trio. I thought the opener, "Jets Never Let Go!" would devolve into one of those "I'm the jet and I can talk" bits of fluff but Kanigher goes in a different direction altogether (albeit through the narrative of the plane) and pulls a downbeat rabbit right out of his gargantuan hat. A fabulous little gem with unforgettable art from the great Russ Heath.

The somber finale of "Jets Never Let Go!"
It's nice to see that "Sgt. Rock's Combat Corner" contains a few letters of comment on DC war stories rather than just a litany of "What size bullets does a bazooka shoot?" questions. The "Enemy Ace" strip is the center of attention (as Kanigher would note years later) and the consensus is that the Hammer of Hell should get his own mag. Patience, kids! A couple of trivial notes: Johnny Cloud will  get an extended shore leave pass while Bob K. tries out another war hero and this issue marks the first time since #98 that we're treated to three stories.

Jack: A pretty blah issue overall, despite the welcome return of Russ Heath and some nice work by Irv Novick. The opening story is only four pages long and never really gets going. The second story takes place in WWI and pales in comparison to this month's Enemy Ace entry. The Johnny Cloud story reaches new heights of coincidence when a German tourist who visited Johnny's reservation just prior to the war turns up as Johnny's own personal enemy ace. The Germans must have had early cell phone technology to get the news that war had broken out while they were wandering around the Indian reservation out west.

 Our Army at War 159

"The Blind Gun!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert

"The Silent Piper"
Story by Bob Haney
Art by Joe Kubert
(reprinted from Our Army at War #91, February 1960)

Jack: Has the stress of constant combat become too much for Sgt. Rock? He's yelling in his sleep and volunteering for every patrol because he secretly is searching for two Nazis responsible for something terrible. Rock machine guns a group of Nazis and shoots a sniper out of a tree, but the men he seeks are not among his victims and he is blinded when an enemy bullet bounces off his helmet.

Taken to a field hospital, Rock is put in the care of a beautiful nurse named Wendy Winston and he blames himself for the death of her twin sister Wini. It seems that a year before, right after Anzio, Rock and Easy Co. were sent to the town of Deux Cheval to find a nurse named Wini Winston who had been left behind by mistake when the town was evacuated. Shot in the leg by a Nazi, Rock falls down a flight of stairs into a cellar and meets Nurse Winston, who is hiding from the enemy. She tells him about her twin sister and two Nazis throw a potato masher down into the cellar. The nurse throws herself on top of it, sacrificing her life to save Rock. Blaming himself for her death, he goes after the Nazis in Deux Cheval but has to be restrained by his own men for his safety.

A rare full page from Kubert
Back in the present, Rock has bandages over his eyes and becomes "The Blind Gun!" as he is helped along by the other Nurse Winston. He keeps her alive and locates the two Nazis who killed her sister. When the rest of Easy Co. finds him, it's not clear if he has beaten the enemy soldiers to death or if he has just given them a brutal thrashing.

Kanigher's love for flashbacks gets the best of him here, as the first half of the story is very confusing. Why is Rock looking for these two Nazi killers and who is the nurse for whose death he blames himself? The second half of the story is excellent, as we learn what happened and come back to present day to witness Rock's revenge, but the story as a whole could be better structured. Kubert's art is great, of course, and we are treated to a rare, full-page panel right before the end of the tale.

Peter: “The Blind Gun” is built around two outlandish coincidences —the first, that the Sarge would run across these two cold-blooded killers once again (in a war populated by hundreds of thousands) and the second (a real whopper), that Rock would be cared for by the twin sister of the nurse who died the year before. I’m not buying it. I’m also not buying that the prior incident has weighed so heavily on Rock’s mind that he’s constantly thinking about it and yet it’s never been mentioned in prior stories. Yes, it’s only a funny book but these speed bumps bother me. Nurse Wini and the two Nazis just happen to be the focus of Rock’s attention days before the inevitable showdown. Oh, and I’m really surprised Kanigher didn’t go with “Cold, Fish-Eyed Killers” as his title.

Our Fighting Forces 95

"Lt. Rock, the Fighting Devil-Dog!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Irv Novick

"Foul-Ball Frogmen!"
Story by Hank Chapman
Art by Gene Colan

Jack: Sgt. Rock's brother Larry is a marine fighting in the Pacific who has a problem--massive headaches that make him see red! During intense fighting on Corregidor, Larry was injured and ended up carrying a steel splinter in his head. A pretty nurse named Suzie helped ease the pain during recovery and Larry refused to go home, instead insisting on staying active as a Gyrene.

He K.O.'s his sergeant, Lennie, and climbs down a steep cliff face to avoid being sent home. Lennie follows "Lt. Rock, the Fighting Devil-Dog!" and when Rock saves him from drowning, Lennie agrees to keep Rock's injury secret. Rock's head starts pounding during his first assault on a beach, and he and Lennie wipe out a Japanese pillbox on the beach as the rest of the Marines are killed.

An exciting introduction to a new character benefits from solid art by Irv Novick and a "throw in everything but the kitchen sink" approach to story telling by Kanigher. We recently saw another Rock brother die in Our Army at War, so there must have been at least three in the family. This story does not compare well to those in the Sgt. Rock series but it's a welcome replacement for Gunner and Sarge.

Peter: The initial chapter in the saga of the “Fightin’ Devil Dog” is a decent one but would, obviously, have benefited greatly from a Joe Kubert embellishment. Novick is a decent artist but he excelled at air battle rather than the hand-to-hand combat stories. Larry Rock will only survive four issues but perhaps that’s for the best as the gimmicky series always ran out of gas before too long. How many stirring adventures could be plotted around a guy who constantly complains about headaches and sees the war around him as if he was on The Angry Red Planet? After Rock is booted from OFF, he’ll make an appearance in Captain Storm #13 (June 1966) and then go AWOL until Steve Skeates resurrects him in Unknown Soldier #205 (May 1977). Speaking of Captain Storm, the one-legged salty sea dog makes a cameo in “…Devil Dog,” rescuing Larry and Lennie from the drink. The PT boat skipper’s solo title managed eighteen issues from 1964-67. As with most recent Chapman scripts, it’s best to ignore the lettering and, instead, focus on the lovely art. Since this is my job and I take pride in reading every word so that you don’t have to, I’ll just say it’s yet another “brothers-in-arms” yawner. You’ve been warned.

Next Week!
We welcome Two-Fisted Tales to the EC Universe
Manly tales of war, espionage, and piracy!

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