Monday, January 4, 2016

Star Spangled DC War Stories Part 69: February 1965

The DC War Comics 1959-1976
by Corporals Enfantino and Seabrook

Irv Novick
All American Men of War 107

"Flame in the Sky!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Irv Novick

Peter: The mind of Navajo Ace Johnny Cloud wanders back to a girl he had fallen in love with as a boy, the gorgeous Running Deer. Synchronistically/ coincidentally, Cloud happens to be listening to the radio one night when Running Deer's voice blares over the airwaves, first as a shill for the Nazis then showing her true colors as an Ally. Coincidentally, Johnny discovers that Running Deer is now being held captive at a nearby Nazi terror base called Nachtzig and that base is about to be bombed by... you guessed it, Johnny's boys. Cloud asks his C.O. if he can opt out but the chief shames Johnny into staying. With a heavy heart and lots and lots of memories, the Navajo Ace realizes that, to bake a cake, you must break some eggs. All is not lost, though, when Johnny decides he's really got to save Running Deer (and thereby risk the lives of his men) and veers his jet into enemy fire. He's shot down and taken prisoner but (as we've come to learn) there's a bright side to every bad DC situation as Johnny learns that Running Deer was not on the bombed base but (coincidentally) at the very spot he's being held! The two are put on an experimental, pilotless, magnet plane designed to guide rockets to their destination. Knowing that the Great Spirit awaits them in death, the daring duo opt instead simply to break the glass between cockpit and cargo and fly the plane to safety!

A really big groan escaped my lips after finishing "Flame in the Sky," a padded 22-page "explosive air-war novel!"  After 25 JC adventures, I'm mostly immune to the whole "Johnny's thinking back to a time when a man stole one of his weenies at the camp fire and became a life-long enemy and then, lo and behold, the villain's one of the Nazis dropping bombs on Johnny's vegetable patch!" plot line but, seriously, this one contains about five too many coincidences to remain even a bit believable. Just how many of these precognitive flashbacks are swirling around Johnny's head at one time? Wouldn't it be great if he had two of them at once and then ran into both characters/farm animals from his past? And how about Cloud's forgiving skymates, dismissing any foolish behavior on their comrade's part and, instead, praising him for his smarts and bravery when the suicide mission JC initiates could have spelled curtains for the entire squadron? Irv Novick, usually very reliable when it comes to the art chores, mucks up several of the air battles this time around by trying to cram way too much into some very little boxes. This story reminds me of the time when I was young...

Clutter, clutter, clutter.

Jack: One of the best Johnny Cloud stories I've read so far, "Flame in the Sky!" shows how good Robert Kanigher could be when given space to stretch out and tell a longer story. While the tale begins with a heavy dose of Indian cliches--"lift my scalp" and "rip at my tail feathers," for example, it has a thrilling conclusion and a good mix of past and present. At one point, Kanigher looks like he's again trying to make an Easy Co. out of Cloud's flying mates, naming them Tex, East Side-West Side, Slim and Tall Man, but I doubt this will stick. Running Deer is an appealing character and I hope we see her again; in a flashback, Johnny displays his silver tongue when he slays her with the compliment that "You paint like a medicine man!" Irv Novick may muddle some of the air battle scenes but his human figures in action are great, especially a couple of panels where Johnny's body is thrown by an explosion.

Joe Kubert
Our Army at War 151

"War Party!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert

"Enemy Ace"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert

Jack: WWI German pilot Hans von Hammer is the "Enemy Ace," so named for the 50 Allied planes he's shot down in battle. On his 51st mission he is shot when a British pilot fires wildly from a Lewis gun, but von Hammer recovers in time and shoots down the Englishman's plane for his next kill. Even though he is victorious, when he is on the ground he is lonely, so he escapes to the Black Forest and meets his only friend, a black wolf. Von Hammer comments that they share the "lonely business of killing." He takes off again at night, silhouetted by a full moon, and flies above a zeppelin, intending to protect it from attack. Battle ensues and the Enemy Ace downs two French planes before the third flies into the zeppelin, destroying it as he sacrifices his own life. As von Hammer returns to his base, he thinks that the French flier deserves respect and realizes that it's "kill or be killed" in the skies of WWI.

Finally! Kanigher and Kubert take a chance by presenting us with an anti-hero, but the risk works perfectly. Von Hammer is a German pilot who wrestles with his conscience and remains true to his calling as a killing machine. The story would not have worked in WWII, where the nature of the enemy was so different, but it will be fascinating to see it unfold in the context of WWI. Couple this story with a great Sgt. Rock lead-in and we have one of the classic issues of DC War comics.

Peter: Totally agree, Jack! It's a pretty bold experiment for Kanigher, placing the enemy at the forefront and jettisoning the usual cliches of the dirty rotten stinkin' Germans. Von Hammer is a very human character; he doesn't have pointy ears and a tail, he has a conscience, he questions the duties he's to perform, and we see the enemy's side of the war through his eyes. According to Bill Schelly in his superb bio of Joe Kubert, Man of Rock, Kanigher was able to push the project forward thanks to his "special arrangement for creative autonomy." Effectively, Bob could get away with whatever he wanted thanks to his past success with not only the war books but writing for such superheroes as Wonder Woman, Hawkman, and the Flash. Enemy Ace became a very popular feature for decades and even had some crossover appearances in Swamp Thing and Detective Comics. In an interview Kanigher gave to The Comics Journal in 1983, the writer claimed none of his other projects received greater positive fan response.

More Enemy Ace, please!

Joe Kubert
Our Fighting Forces 90

"Stop the War!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Jack Abel

"Number One"
Story by Hank Chapman
Art by Joe Kubert

Jack: All his life, Lacy has been "Number One" at everything, so when he's drafted he's certain that he'll be the first G.I. to hit the beach. As D-Day approaches, everyone in Charlie Company puts in a dollar and the first man to reach the beach wins the pot. Lacy thinks he has it made, but a Nazi plane and a Nazi sub make his task more challenging then expected. Shot as he swims toward the beach, he blows up a pillbox before being pulled back and sent to a British hospital, where he is first to win a medal for the D-Day invasion. Kubert does his best to tone down Chapman's trademark goofy writing, and he does a nice job--much better than the opening story in which Gunner, Sarge and Pooch see right through Col. Hakawa's fake surrender.

Peter: I had had enough of "Number One" by the third page. He's the number one boy born in the number one hospital and he'll be the number one guy to drink Coca-Cola from a can and he'll be the number one guy to... Even Joe Kubert's customarily great art can't save this exercise in tedium. This was the "Number One" most repetitive story this month. And, strangely enough, I didn't hate the Gunner and Sarge story as much as usual, possibly because there was a bit more of a story line and it avoided an overload of buck-toothed Asians. It's a so-so waste of paper.

Joe Kubert
80 Page Giant 7
Sgt. Rock's Prize Battle Tales

"The Rock and the Wall!"
(from Our Army at War #83, June 1959)

"Flying Saddle"
Story Uncredited
Art by Irv Novick
(from G.I. Combat #58, March 1958)

"The Steel Ribbon!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert
(from G.I. Combat #69, February 1959)

"The Sparrow and the Hawk!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Russ Heath
(from Our Army at War #80, March 1959)

"Mission X!"
(from Star Spangled War Stories #96, May 1961)

"The Silent Jet"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert
(from G.I. Combat #64, September 1958)

Peter: Of the six reprints collected for this 80 page giant, there are four stories that were published in the years prior to the scope of our journey. Of the four, the standout is easily "The Silent Jet," wherein Korean War pilot Nick Brady bounces from one tension-filled mission to the next. After being shot down in enemy territory Nick must use first his wits then his fists to survive. Though the gorgeous art is clearly that of Joe Kubert, it's almost as though the master hadn't yet... mastered the form and his work is closer to that of Frazetta or Al Williamson than the JK we've come to know and love on the Sgt. Rock series.

Joe Kubert
Showcase 54
GI Joe

"The Battlefield Jury"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert and Irv Novick

"Blind Night Fighter"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert
(from Our Army at War #75, October 1958)

Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito
(from Star Spangled War Stories #50, October 1956)

"The Clean Sweep"
Story by Bob Haney
Art by Russ Heath
                                                             (from All American Men of War #67, March 1959)

Jack: According to the Grand Comics Database, "The Battlefield Jury" is a four-page framing sequence, where Kubert drew page one and Novick drew pages two and three. Who drew page four?

Next Issue!
The multi-talented Frank Robbins returns!
On Sale January 11th!

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