I never got into war comics. Obviously I read them: take war stories out of a British boys weekly comic and some of them would be limp rags with about ten pages left, and that’s before the advent of Battle in the Seventies. But I would never have even thought of buying one of the DC War Comics in the Sixties. The handful I did read were from friends’ collections, sitting in the lobby of our old house in Brigham Street, in that private space between the inner door to the parlour and the front door, open to the elements. It was a tiny play-place on wet days, where we could read each others’ comics or play card games, get some fresh air but not soaked.
I was aware of Enemy Ace back then, and intrigued to a minor degree by a series about a German, who I knew very well from Eagle and Lion and Victor and Hornet were the baddies. But as with any of the others, like Sgt. Rock, or Gunner, Sarge and Pooch, the thought of reading any of the stories just didn’t even exist.
But the stories do, and for all my adult life I’ve known that they are amongst the most highly rated stories DC have ever published. The only ones I have read before are those that appeared in Showcase. Now it’s time to find out for myself.
Rittmeister Hans von Hammer, the ‘Hammer of the Skies’, the Enemy Ace, was introduced in Our Army At War 151, cover-dated February 1965, which would have been about right for when copies arrived in Britain. He was created by Bob Kanigher, Our Army At War‘s editor and writer of its lead feature, the famous Sgt. Rock, and drawn by Rock’s artist-in-residence, Joe Kubert. Von Hammer was teased on the cover as the blazing star they didn’t dare show and the whole concept was a controversial one, less than twenty years since the War in Europe ended.
Von Hammer was a pilot. Cleverly, Kanigher and Kubert went further back than the recent War, to World War 1, to 1918, and the ‘string-and-baling-wire’ planes of before. Von Hammer piloted a blood-red Fokke-Wulf triplane, the same as one of the Airfix models I had assembled and which hung from my bedroom ceiling.
Kanigher and Kubert, teamed on their natural subject. How could ‘Enemy Ace’ be less than superb? The first story was plain, but commanding, introducing the aloof von Hammer, a master of the skies, almost effortlessly establishing his superiority over the French and British planes, yet taking little or no pleasure from his prowess. Von Hammer is a man apart, in every sense, moving through the world behind a three foot thick sheet of glass. He is a killer, a cold, professional killer, putting his unique talent to the service of his country, aware of, and sometimes almost fearful of his degree of separation from everyone else. His only ‘friend’ is his lupine shadow, a Wolf that goes hunting with him.
All of this in one back-up story. For depth in economy I can only think of the original Swamp Thing story as comparable. And through it all, the remarkable thing is that von Hammer is simply von Hammer. He is not an indictment of the Germans as enemies. His nature is himself, and not the function of his country. Extraordinary stuff for late 1964.
The series was a gamble, with Rock soliciting comments from the readers. Von Hammer returned in issue 153, in a story about the superstition of not having one’s photograph taken before flying into combat, and again in 155. This last one was astonishingly good: von Hammer shoots down a British plane only to realise, too late, that its pilot had empty guns, was defenceless. Horrified by what he has done, von Hammer follows the doomed plane down, hoping the pilot can pull out of the dive and land, but to no avail. The next day, his airfield is attacked by the pilot’s Squadron Leader, challenging von Hammer contemptuously to a single combat. Von Hammer takes off with empty guns himself, deliberately, and fights unarmed until the British attacker runs out of ammunition. Then the later realises von Hammer was defenceless, understands the nature, the honour of the man, salutes him and breaks off. The enemy understands, but von Hammer’s own pilots see only the Killing Machine.
This was the context of von Hammer’s two Showcase appearances. The first was about the honour that existed between pilots in this new form of combat, in a sky where their presence could not be taken for granted, where enemies had more in common than with their ground troops, who had no conception of what it meant to be in the air.
There had now been five Enemy Ace stories, two of them book-length. They were each excellent, especially in Kubert’s depiction of aerial combat as it was being formed. However, I couldn’t help but recognise the ploys Kanigher used invariably. Von Hammer flies and kills. He lands, ‘hearing’ his plane repeat ‘Killer, killer’ and his men call him a Killing Machine. His babbling orderly praises his ever-accumulating Victory Cups. He meets the wolf in the Black Forest, talks to it as his only friend, the only ones who understand each other. Over and over.
Showcase didn’t win von Hammer a title of his own. Enemy Ace disappeared then, in 1965. But he was not forgotten. Two and a half years later, von Hammer was revived as the lead feature in Star-Spangled War Stories, his logo emblazoned on the cove. Enemy Ace returned in issue 138 and, with the exception of one issue, featured until no. 150 before once again returning to that undeserved limbo reserved for characters who are too bloody good for the audience.
Nothing had changed, not least the intensity that surrounded the character, the expert at flying and killing who is feared by everyone and kept a distance that he himself knows no way of bridging, the man trapped in what he is, addicted to the sky, knowing that one day it will kill him as thoughtlessly as it does everyone else, determined to give it every chance at his destruction that he can.
I could never have read and appreciated anything like this in 1968, but I should have done a long time ago.
The new series introduced a recurring foe for von Hammer, a French pilot of equal skill who goes by the name of the Hangman. In issue 140, a collision between planes downs both pilots and makes von Hammer the prisoner of the Hangman, himself an aristocrat. The two treat each other with the utmost courtesy, puzzling the Hangman’s sister, Denise, but once von Hammer escapes and regains the skies, the only place he will allow himself to die, they return to being implacable enemies, bending their skill to each other’s destruction.
And I may say Kubert’s art leads one into the skies and draws us on wings of paper-mache and string.
The artist had now taken over as editor of the war books but the writer continued to expand the range of the stories. In issue 142, von Hammer succeeds in shooting down the Hangman, only to gain a new and more bitter enemy in his sister Denise, an implacable foe, an equal flier, and a Harpy of hate, determined to wreak revenge upon an enemy whose honour forbids him from firing back at her.
The Hangman was brought back in issue 145 to lock horns with von Hammer again, tearing at him by killing his three ablest pilots first. Once again he appeared to die, though I’m not taking bets on it, whilst von Hammer crashed and would have been a victim of the wolves were it not for his black wolf friend.
Next issue, von Hammer appeared only as narrator for two unremarkable and indeed pretty flat WW1 air-fighting stories, presumably as a result of deadline difficulties. His return was with the series’ first complete schtumer, a gimmick-story featuring an OTT opponent who dressed up as St George and flew in a suit of armour, taking the run outside the bounds of believability for the first time. This was followed by von Hammer adopting a wounded puppy as a good luck mascot, only for him to fall from the cockpit in battle, to his death. Again, the insertion of the fantastic detracted from not merely the believability but the intensity.
Once again, something different was coming to an end, failing to match up to the sales of the superheroes. 1970 was looming. A story in issue 179 explained von Hammer’s duelling scars, but it was also cut to only two-thirds length to make room for Kanigher and Kubert on a revival of the Viking Prince, welcome in itself but in a war book?
But the writing was on the wall, or rather the cover. The Star-Spangled War Stories logo was spread across issue 150’s cover, and Enemy Ace reduced to a circle, and inside was the last story. Von Hammer is shot down over France but returns to his airfield thanks to the ironic aid of three people awaiting sons, brothers and fiances return from the skies, not knowing each are dead at von Hammer’s hands. But somehow the story failed to connect, largely because of a curious decision to switch from first person narration to second person, distancing von Hammer at the very moment we needed to be brought in close.
The lettercol spoke as if nothing would change but Enemy Ace was dropped, and the Unknown Soldier replaced him as the new lead feature.
That isn’t totally the end of the story. Rittmeister Hans von Hammer reappeared years later, in 1974’s issue 181-3, a three part back-up story by Kanigher, drawn by Frank Thorne in a close imitation of Kubert, sending him up against another of DC’s war characters, Steve Savage, the Balloon Buster. It wasn’t the same.
Von Hammer’s final appearance in Star-Spangled War Stories was a five pager, written and drawn by Kubert, this time going the full distance into the third person. It was dry and shallow and a poor end.
There have been other runs. Shortly after, von Hammer was restored to appear in eleven of twenty issues of Men at War between 1977 and 1979. Even though it was still being written by Kanigher, the art was that of lesser hands, lacking a fraction of Kubert’s expressiveness. I couldn’t bring myself to read it. I know disappointment when it’s spitting in my face. The same thing went for another series of back-ups between 1981 and 1982 in The Unknown Soldier (as Star-Spangled War Stories was re-named from issue 205), even with some John Severian art.
No, Enemy Ace was indeed as good as they said it was all those years, good enough for me to decide to ignore lesser versions. I don’t have to accept that they are canon in my head, just like so many contemporary series don’t exist for me. Seventeen issues represent the whole as far as I’m concerned, seventeen and no more. Seventeen was more than enough.