Saturday, May 31, 2014

Favorite DC Characters #8 - Enemy Ace

Character: Hans von Hammer, the Hammer of Hell!

Creators: Robert Kanigher, Joe Kubert

First appearance: Our Army at War #151

First encounter: Hmm, could be any one of my dad's various war comics. Let's go with Star Spangled War #151, it's the earliest issue of that title he had. I'm using an earlier cover because by issue 151, the Unknown Soldier was the lead feature, and I wanted one that highlighted Rittmeister von Hammer.

Definitive writer: Robert Kanigher

Definitive artist: Joe Kubert. Who else would it be, in either case?

Favorite moment or story: And again, lack of handy back issues rears its ugly head. If only I had known five months ago, that four months from then, I would finally get down to working on this series, I would have done my preparatory research. So no specific issue numbers, sorry. There's a story where von Hammer shoots down an enemy pilot, but as he does so notices the man has both hands in the air. He recognizes the symbol for touchdown, and experiences intense regret as he had badly wanted to learn about American - no wait, it's the sign for the other guy being out of ammo. He had shot down a man with no means to defend himself. As all his squadmates whisper at how he is a heartless killer, he dwells on it. Eventually, a wingman of the pilot he downed issues a challenge, which von Hammer accepts, naturally. And he goes up with empty guns, relying purely on his skill to keep him alive. Eventually the other pilot recognizes this, ceases his attack, and the two part ways.

What I like about him: First off, "Hammer of Hell" is a great nickname. Second, his only friend in the world is a lone wolf that lives in the forest near the airfield, who accompanies him sometimes on walks through the woods. This wolf once killed a bear single-handedly right in front of von Hammer. Which was probably a good thing, seeing a von Hammer had one arm in a sling from a wound he sustained in a dogfight. He still completed his mission, naturally, just as the wolf won its fight alone, despite being wounded early on. Kanigher wasn't exactly being subtle. Third, he's a pilot, and I'm an aviation fan (even if the idea of flying, or more accurately, landing a plane terrifies me.)

The thing about Enemy Ace is he's very good at what he does, some of it by skill and determination, and some of it by luck. He doesn't take any particular joy in what he does, it is merely the task given him, and he feels bound to do it to the best of his ability. Other people read things into this. To nearly everyone else, the Hammer of Hell is a 'merciless killing machine', or an Angel of Death. They regard his calmly efficient manner as a sign of something inhuman about him, a complete lack of concern for the lives lost as he carries out his work.

But that's not really the case. One refrain von Hammer issues frequently is the sky is the only true victor, and it wins out over everyone eventually. This could be seen as more indifference, but it's important to remember that at the time, DC would often end their stories with a little caption box in the corner that stated, "MAKE WAR NO MORE". Viewed through that, it could be that Hans is meant to recognize a futility in all this killing and fighting. The two sides fight for "control" of the air, but the sky will be there long after von Hammer, as well as all the men he's flown with or against, are long in the grave. Nobody is really winning anything, and taking that approach, there's no reason to show elation or fear. The Enemy Ace will fly to the best of his considerable ability, pit his skill against whoever rises to challenge him. Maybe he'll survive, maybe he won't. If he survives, he'll respect his opponent's honor and courage (the men von Hammer faces seem to be uniformally as brave and honorable as he).

There's a certain pragmatism to that I enjoy. Not the general lack of concern over death, but the resolution to carry out his job with a minimum amount of fuss and theatrics. Hans von Hammer doesn't care a whit for all the trophies he's awarded for his kills, why would he be? He's merely carrying out his duty, as ordered. I think he likes flying, taken by itself, can appreciate the grandeur of it. The fighting, the killing, no. Those are just the price of it, the things he has to do because his honor dictates he serve. So he goes out, does the job, gets it over with, and goes home. Maybe takes a moment to appreciate the view on the way to the aerodrome.

Can't discuss Enemy Ace without discussing Joe Kubert. He draws von Hammer rail-thin, and frequently with arms folded across his chest, or in close to his body. There's a distance between him and everyone else, and he's very closed off to the rest of the world. And Kubert's outstanding at drawing an aerial battle. He can draw back for these beautiful shots that emphasize how small the planes and their pilots are against the sky, or these pages that shift between the acrobatics the planes are put through and zooming in on the pilots to show the tension and reactions as the advantage shifts between them. He has all these great techniques. Just doing an image search on-line there are pages where he has 3 slanted panels in the upper left corner of the page, and 3 more in the bottom right. In between is a long narrow panel of the two planes dogfighting. The panels in the top show von Hammer getting ready to strike, and the ones at the bottom show the attack. Sometimes Kubert uses basically a full-page splash to provide a nice visual with a couple of small round panels in the corners that give a little extra information.


SallyP said...

Man, this is great great stuff.

CalvinPitt said...

Thank you. It's turning out to be fun, even if it's a little hard to get my reasons into some coherent form.