Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Showcase Presents: Enemy Ace Vol.1 review:

While I consider myself second to none in my affection for Silver Age DC, I would be lying if I said that they surpassed what Marvel was doing at the time. I don’t deny that some fans and historians have unfairly dismissed DC’s output and overlooked Marvel’s flaws, but by and large, Marvel really did deserve all of the hype it was getting at the time. Spider-Man, The Hulk and Dr. Strange were being discussed in magazines like Esquire, studied by sociologists and held up by some as counter-cultural icons, while nothing DC was putting out was (unless you count the camp craze surrounding the Adam West Batman show). Apart from the typical overzealous fanboys engaging in company wars online (many of whom probably have never read a Silver Age comic from either company, and whom you couldn’t get to read one unless you put a gun to their head) and the typical revisionist bullshit from The Comics Journal, few people have challenged this. Oh, there were definitely comics from DC that attempted to ape Marvel’s style and did so quite well (Doom Patrol, Metamorpho, Metal Men, Creeper), but almost none surpassed them.
 I say almost, because there was one series DC put out during the Silver Age which, conceptually at least, blew Marvel’s entire anti-hero shtick out of the water. That series was Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert’s Enemy Ace. Marvel’s heroes were losers, monsters and everymen, and although making them like that was an unusually dark move, none of Marvel’s series were as dark and instantly provocative as the premise for Enemy Ace; a WWI aviation series, told through the eyes of a German, and one who routinely shot down scores of allied fighters.
 Perhaps this wasn’t too revolutionary, WWI did seem set in the distant past in comparison to WWII, and WWI was so full of gray areas and not seen as a “good war” that it didn’t seem too offensive to portray the enemy in a positive light, indeed, the book and film All Quiet on the Western Front were already considered classics and had also depicted the war through the enemy’s eyes. Hell, even during WWII there were enemy officers who were admired by the allies (Rommel, for instance). Still, in a country already being torn apart by protest over Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement, Enemy Ace was the comic book equivalent of lighting a match and dropping it in a powder keg. A comic book about people who were (supposed to have been) the bad guys in real life? And one that portrayed them sympathetically? For comics, this was a revolutionary concept.
 The series followed (and was narrated by) Rittmeister Hans Von Hammer, a German aviator known as “The Hammer of Hell” to his men. Von Hammer was as cold as the grave and brooded in a way that made even Peter Parker’s most intense introspective moments in Spider-Man seem almost puerile in comparison. Von Hammer sometimes thought he could hear his own plane calling him a killer (he might have been on to something there; his plane did appear to have a face on it!). Indeed, even Von Hammer’s own men seemed to fear him. Women would often be morbidly fascinated by him, then repulsed. His only friends were a fawning Smithers-like butler named Schmidt and a wolf that Hans considered a kindred spirit, and even the wolf was often implied to be a figment of his imagination or supernatural in origin.
One might wonder how a comic starring such a character managed to squeak past the code, but how it was handled was rather ingenious, since it helped to define the character. Von Hammer was characterized as neither a hero nor a villain in the stories, but as insanely noble; treating his dogfights as duels between gentlemen, allowing retreating pilots to escape and constantly saluting his opponents as he shot them down, shifting blame not towards himself, but to “the killer skies”, which he regarded as the true enemy, constantly trying to “claim” all who flew. It was a subtle way of saying that the only one whom Hammer bore any malice towards was God himself. Other comics would probably have found some contrived way to absolve Von Hammer of blame by not having him actually shoot down his opponents, or made all of the pilots whom Von Hammer killed out to be scumbags who deserved their death. There was none of that here; all pilots on all sides were shown to be hard-working, loyal men simply doing their duty. A memorable moment early in the series had Von Hammer nearly go mad when he finds that he shot down an enemy pilot who was retreating.
The moral of pretty much every story

 I suppose one could argue that this approach also painted an unrealistic portrait of war by depicting all involved as noble, selfless and honorable, saluting their opponents while killing them, but the main point came across: War was a brutal, bloody business fought by ordinary people, each of whom saw themselves as the good guy. With exceptions such as EC’s war titles like Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat, this level of balance had almost never been seen in war comics before, hell it’s almost never seen in “adult” war movies now.
 Artistically, these comics were easily the high point of Joe Kubert’s career. Kubert could evoke a simultaneous feeling of grit and elegance like no other. He could draw elaborate, symbolic splash pages wilder than any of Jack Kirby’s two-page spreads or Dick Sprang’s full page drawings of oversize props, and make it feel totally natural and not in any way out of place. Truth be told, the art loses something in this black and white Showcase edition, but the stark lack of color does fit the mood.  
Kubert near his peak

 If there was any flaw to these Enemy Ace stories, it was that there were no stories. There was just one. Pretty much every Enemy Ace episode had the same plot as the last one, often with the only varying details being whether it was the British or French who Von Hammer’s unit would be going up against. This was a trademark of Kanigher and Kubert’s war comics, which sought to tell the most realistic war stories as possible under the restrictions of the code and the fact that the main characters had to survive each story. They captured as much as they could about military life, and related it to page and panel, including the monotony, the routine. Read in one sitting (which these stories shouldn’t be), this approach can be very grating. It got to the point where I was differentiating stories and individually “rating” them based solely on minor things like how many men Von Hammer’s squadron lost or how the sky was drawn. The killer *sighs* were what threatened to claim me.
 At least, this is how I felt about Von Hammer’s adventures as related in Our Army at War and Showcase. Later, the series was moved to the ironically titled Star-Spangled War Stories, and well, there are some pros and cons about what happened to the Enemy Ace stories when this happened.
 On the pro side; the plots became more and more varied. Von Hammer was given more characterization, he became more humanized, becoming almost fatherly to his men, and the familiar “heroes on both sides” mentality got shaken up, with Von Hammer put through moral dilemmas that would drive most men insane. For instance, in one story, Von Hammer is downed over enemy territory and taken in by a kindly old couple…then he discovers that their only son was a pilot he had just previously shot down. Sometimes Von Hammer’s biggest conflicts would be with the men on his own side; such as a glory hungry bully, and a deranged superior officer who blamed Von Hammer for his son getting downed, who then began intentionally sending Von Hammer’s men on suicide missions. Von Hammer’s own upright morality also got thrown into question, such as in one story where he completely abandons all of his principles and slaughters an entire enemy squadron (who were retreating) because one of the aerial maneuvers he had to pull caused his puppy to fall out of the cockpit.
 On the con side; In order to appeal to superhero fans, the Star-Spangled stories soon gave Von Hammer costumed or bizarre antagonists to fight. There was his archenemy The Hangman, a disfigured French count who wore a hood with a noose attached to it (and who seemed to be a bit in love with the Hammer of Hell), there were men dressed in skeleton costumes, and of course; the infamous St. George.
The Hangman

 It was all very well-written and entertaining, especially the Hangman stories, which saw the hooded pilot and his relationship with Von Hammer change from almost literally faceless antagonism, to considering each other worthy opponents, to one of the single most downright homoerotic protagonist-antagonist relationships in comics, and ultimately ending with the Hangman disappointingly becoming yet another cackling lunatic out for revenge. Von Hammer’s outfit also steadily became more elaborate, making him resemble something of a superhero.

 Did all of this destroy the realism of the series? Perhaps, but it also probably kept the series from folding early. Besides, the quality of the storytelling went up, and that’s what really mattered.
Foes, friends, and perhaps more...

By the way, it might be a good idea before reading these stories to do a little research about the various types of planes and military terms used during the era so that you won’t be too confused. I’ve been a lifelong history buff, particularly of WWI, and some of the terms here left even me saying “huh?” a few times.
 These 60s-70s era stories are masterpieces, and make up the bulk of the book. The rest of the stories are from various failed attempts to revive the character, and while they don’t necessarily feature the silliness of the Star-Spangled stories, they’re a bit too generic, with rather simplistic espionage plots, and carry little of the emotional weight of the originals. Some of the artwork, such as John Severin and Russ Heath’s efforts, is quite good, while others, such as the work of a young Howard Chaykin, are almost embarrassingly bad. It’s all passable stuff, but not a patch on the Kubert stories. The final story is a classic Neal Adams Batman story called “Ghost of the Killer Skies”, which I’ve seen reprinted about a million times, but which was still refreshing to see in black and white. I have to say that I’m proud of DC for not cynically playing this single story up in order to entice Batman fans, but instead letting the collection stand on it’s own merits, which are considerable.
 Also, let’s just pray to the killer skies that Warner Brothers doesn’t try and make an Enemy Ace movie and screw it up the way they did DC’s other historical fiction-based anti-hero; Jonah Hex. I doubt that audiences would be interested in seeing a film where the hero kills a bunch of allied pilots, but then again, audiences flocked in droves to see American soldiers slaughtered by the dozen by the “heroes” of Avatar, so maybe Enemy Ace’s time has come.
 If you can get past the monotony of some of the earliest stories (or just skip to page 96 after reading the first few stories), you’ll find this to be an amazing collection of some of the very best comics of the era, with even the later non-Kubert stuff being at least entertaining. I cannot recommend this volume enough. 5/5.

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