When I started reading comics, World War II had been over for less than fifteen years, and war comics were still incredibly popular. As I may have mentioned here before, the first comic I remember buying was an issue of OUR FIGHTING FORCES, featuring Gunner and Sarge (and Pooch!), a couple of Marine riflemen in the South Pacific and their dog (who was probably an honorary Marine, I don’t recall for sure). I read OUR FIGHTING FORCES fairly regularly, as well as OUR ARMY AT WAR, which featured the legendary Sgt. Rock of Easy Company, and over at Marvel, SGT. FURY AND HIS HOWLING COMMANDOS. But it was the mid-Sixties before DC Comics took the daring – for the time – step of producing war stories in which the protagonist was a member of the enemy forces. It was right there in the title: ENEMY ACE.
Rittmeister Hans von Hammer is a German pilot in World War I, modeled fairly blatantly on Baron Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron. Starting as a back-up feature in OUR ARMY AT WAR, the character proved popular enough to graduate to a couple of full-length stories in SHOWCASE, then faded away before returning a few years later in another series of full-length stories in STAR-SPANGLED WAR STORIES. As conceived by writer Robert Kanigher, the Hammer of Hell, as he was sometimes known, was a brooding, morally conflicted character who thought of himself as a human killing machine, while at the same time being tortured by that self-realization. He hears voices that aren’t there, including that of his own Fokker tri-plane, and when he’s not flying patrols over No Man’s Land, he wanders around the Black Forest and talks to a black wolf that befriends him because they’re both killers. At least, that’s the way von Hammer views the relationship.
Providing the art for Kanigher’s scripts was Joe Kubert, who even then was already a legend in the comics industry. Kubert’s research was impeccable when it came to the aircraft and battle tactics of World War I, and no one was ever better at capturing the brooding melancholy of characters like von Hammer. The first volume of the Archives Edition of ENEMY ACE reprints the early back-up stories from OUR ARMY AT WAR, the two SHOWCASE stories, and six issues from the character’s run in STAR-SPANGLED WAR STORIES. It’s a beautiful, beautiful book, too. Kubert’s spectacular artwork has never looked better. Kanigher’s scripts suffer from some repetition early on, with the same scenes and even lines of dialogue showing up again and again in the first stories, but the character is so well-conceived and the artwork so good that the reader is willing to forgive a certain sameness to the scripts. At least, I am. And once the run in STAR-SPANGLED WAR STORIES begins, the scripts improve greatly as Kanigher introduces a continuing antagonist for von Hammer, a French pilot known as the Hangman.
The only story in this collection that I’d read before was the first SHOWCASE issue, which I vividly remember buying off the spinner rack in Tompkins’ Drugstore one summer morning in 1965. At the time I was a little put off by the lead character being a German, when I was used to reading war comics in which all the Germans were villains. But I encountered the Enemy Ace in other comics over the years and grew to enjoy reading the stories. Going back now and reading all of these early appearances makes me realize even more what an achievement the character was. These are truly ground-breaking stories that hold up beautifully today, and this collection gets my highest recommendation.
WAR HORSES (Part Two) by VONN McKEE
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