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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

'Enemy Ace Archives' belongs on every comics-lover's shelf

Out of the handsome, library-quality books that DC Comics published during the 1990s and 2000s as part of their Archive Editions series, few have content as worthy of the upscale format as that within the two volume Enemy Ace Archives. (Note: In 2008, DC Comics collected every Enemy Ace story published through the mid-1980s in a low-cost b&w book that contains everything in these two volumes and alot more for less than half the price of what one of these books will cost. However, unlike many classic comics, the color actually enhances the experience here... the sense of depth of planes tumbling through the air while tracer bullets stream at them isn't felt quite as effectively in the b&w book. I'll be covering it in Shades of Gray shortly.)

The Enemy Ace Archives, Vol. 1 (DC Comics, 2002)
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Artist: Joe Kubert
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

In the skies above World War One's muddy, body-strewn battlefields, no one frightened Allied fighter pilots more than Hans von Hammer, nicked-named alternatively "The Hammer of Hell" and "The Enemy Ace." Soldiers on both sides of the war both feared and respected this German officer who took to the new form of aerial warfare as if he had been born for nothing else. With over 80 confirmed kills in his blood-red Fokker Dr-I, he was one of the greatest pilots of his time, and he was widely viewed viewed as a coldhearted predator who lived for nothing but prowling the Killer Skies.

Von Hammer, however, was not comfortable with his reputation. He viewed himself as a warrior performing his duty to his country, and he did not take any particular pleasure in shooting down other pilots. Von Hammer did what his duty required, and he did it within the confines of a strict code of chivalry and honor that was recognized only among Aces of his own stature. As such, the more fearsome his reputation as a combat pilot grew, the more isolated from those around him he became. Eventually, he found only companionship with a wolf he befriended while hunting in the Black Forest.

DC Comics, in "The Enemy Ace Archive Vol. 1" have reprinted the earliest stories featuring this intriguing character, who was possessed with a depth that you still rarely find in comics these days. Although it takes Kanigher a few tales to seem to fully get a handle on the lonely, honorable-man-in-a-dishonorable war, by the second half of the book, the reader can't help but sympathize and fully respect Von Hammer. Kubert, meanwhile, is in top form from the get-go, and as his style evolves, the quality of the art just keeps getting better. There are times when one can almost hear the roar the engines and the tearing of the canvas on the wings as bullets tear through them during the pictured dog-fights.

There are certain elements of the stories that are a little repetitive, because in the time they were written and originally serialized, creators assumed that every issue was someone's first issue, so they felt they had to establish the complexities of Von Hammer's character each time out. (Plus, the repetition is more obvious when you're reading them in one sitting, instead of spread out over several months and years.) There are also a couple of times where Kanigher strays dangerously close to superhero-style comics, such as when he introduces a masked nemesis for Von Hammer, a French pilot known as the Hangman. However, these weaknesses are more than outweighed by the powerful, earnest stories that unfold, and by Kubert's spectacular artwork.

I can't recommend this book highly enough for those of your who enjoy high-quality comics, fans of war stories, or simply love bi-planes like I do.

The Enemy Ace Archives, Vol. 2 (DC Comics, 2006)
Writers: Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert
Artists: Joe Kubert, Frank Thorne, Russ Heath, and Neal Adams
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

"The Enemy Aces Archives Volume 2" reprints tales featuring one of legendary comic book writer Robert Kanigher's signature characters--Baron Hans von Hammer, a brave and valiant soldier who took to the new battlefield of the sky during WWI for the German side, a reluctant warrior who believed in his country and the war, but who hated the waste of young lives he witnessed every day. The stories are mostly illustrated by Joe Kubert during the time he was height of his artistic abilities, but Russ Heath, Frank Thorne, and Neal Adams bringing their pencils and brushes to the character...and in doing so, they produce some of the very best work of their stellar careers.

Like the first volume in this series, this is a book that lovers of the comic book as an artform and lovers of World War I planes and aerial combat will relish to an equal degree. Either or both books would make a great Christmas present for the right person. Like the first one, this is a handsome hardcover book that will look great on any shelf.

Artwise, there isn't a page in "The Enemy Ace Archives, Vol. 2" that isn't true beauty. There isn't a scene that's not so well-rendered that the reader can almost feel the cold wind whipping across his face as the biplanes tumble through the sky, their machineguns chattering... and the smell of burning wood and gasoline as planes and zeppelins explode furiously in the skies above the muddy battlefields of Europe in 1917.

Storywise, what we have is a bit of a mixed bag. To some extent, Kanigher (who served as his own editor) obviously feel at this point in the "Enemy Ace" series' history that they don't have to heavyhandedlyKanigher spends more time adding depth to Von Hammer's character, exploring both the code of personal honor that rules his life, as well as his growing disgust and frustration with the war he is fighting.

Stories like "The Devil's General" (where Von Hammer must protect the life of a general's son that is foisted upon him as a combat pilot, despite Von Hammer's objections that the young man is not skilled enough yet as a pilot), "Luck is a Puppy Named Schatzi" (where Von Hammer adopts a mascot other than his infamous black wolf hunting companion... it's a tale that could easily have been silly or overly maudlin in the hands of lesser talents, but here it's dramatic and ultimately sad), "Reach for the Heavens" (where patriotism, honor, and duty are compared and contrasted, as we learn the origin of Von Hammer's scar when he is reunited with an officer he went to flight school with as planes were being introduced to the battlefield), and "Three Graves to Home" (where Von Hammer is shot down behind enemy lines and comes face to face with those left behind by pilots he has shot down) stand as some of the greatest war comics ever published, period.

Also of note is the Thorne-illustrated three-parter, which saw Von Hammer contrasted with another DC WW1 pilot--the tough-talking, rules-bending cowboy of the sky, Steve "Balloon Buster" Savage. It's an interesting contrast of characters, although the brash and blustering Savage really does come out poorer by comparison with the ever-cool, ever-chivalrous Von Hammer. Still, they're fun tales, and Thorne's somewhat more cartoony style still gives great impact to the tales.

With all that raving, you may be wondering why this book is only being rated 9/10 when I gave the first book 10/10. Well, it's due to the fact that a few of stories included aren't all that good. Now, they feature spectacular Kubert art with some genius-level coloring--Kubert was doing the sort of gradation and shading that is so commonplace now with computer-aided coloring back when most people barely knew what a computer was--but where Kanigher flirted with a superhero flavor in the first book in a few stories, he plunges head first into the genre with three of them here.

First, we have "Death Takes No Holiday" where Von Hammer's Jagtstaffle come up against a French airwing that operates from secret, camouflaged hangers and who dress up like skeletons to strike fear in the hearts of the Germans. Then, we get "Return of the Hangman", which, like the title reveals, sees the return of Von Hammer's masked archnemesis from earlier tales; this is an ill-advised story on many levels--stylistically, Kanigher breaks with the standard of showing us the world through Von Hammer's eyes, but also because a further story with the Hangman's sister from "The Enemy Ace Archives, Vol. 1" could have been more interesting than this lame effort. Finally, we move into fullblown, costumed-hero craziness with "A Grave in the Sky", as Von Hammer squares off against a British pilot who believes he is the legendary knight St. George and who flies around in his Sopwith Camel wearing a greathelm and breastplate while waving a longsword around. These three lows of the book are presented back to back, and, despite the absolutely fantastic Kubert art (and some very nice scenes of a mournful Von Hammer in "Death Takes No Holiday" and "A Grave in the Sky"), they really are out of step with the rest of the Von Hammer "canon", and they manage to just barely pull the book down to a Nine-Star rating.

Nonetheless, I consider this a "Must Have" item for lovers of WWI air combat and non-superhero comics. It represents some of the very best work done in the comic book field, anywhere in the world.

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