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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Thursday, March 16, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: "THE BULL" (STAR-SPANGLED WAR STORIES #141, 1968)

I'm no expert on war-stories. In my formative years I rarely sampled read the genre in comics, and have only sampled a few classics, like ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT and its sequel. However, while any genre has the potential to acquire the complexity of myth, I would tend to say that the odds are a little more in the favor of aviation-related war stories. The very idea of human beings propelling themselves into the skies to do battle suggests the aerial adventures of Greek Daedalus and his ill-fated son Icarus, and so far I've cited two mythcomics in this series that relate to pilot-characters, here and here. (I've cited a second Blackhawk story as well, but it doesn't stress their status as flyboys.)

DC Comics' ENEMY ACE has long been a fan-favorite of the Silver Age, probably more for the excellent Joe Kubert art than for Robert Kanigher's writing. Some evidence would suggest that Kanigher was the dominant partner in the collaboration, since Kanigher was editor on the feature when it began in OUR ARMY AT WAR, even though Kubert edited all or most of their collaborations in the feature's longest run in STAR SPANGLED WAR STORIES. The feature started out as a co-feature in the first title and got a run as a solo title in DC's SHOWCASE title, but presumably did not sell well enough to earn its own title: instead taking over STAR-SPANGLED.

Kanigher had a tendency to treat his comics-work in a careless manner, as I've shown in reviews like this one on his METAL MEN and this one on his WONDER WOMAN.  And a lot of his war-genre comics are no better: one day I'll have to decide which is the most atrocious of his HAUNTED TANK stories. Yet neither his carelessness nor his antic humor shows up in ENEMY ACE. I tend to think he may considered the milieu worthy of a sort of "high seriousness," or what might pass for as much in commercial Silver Age comic books. The majority of Kanigher's stories about Hans Von Hammer-- a German flying ace scoring a record number of "kills" during World War One, when fighter-planes seemed not much less risky than the wings of Icarus-- are not complex enough to produce mythcomics, but almost all are at least "near myths." The one exception is the story entitled "The Bull."



It's entirely appropriate that the cover of SSWS #141 should feature an impending duel between the hero-- Hans Von Hammer, "Rittmeister" of his own fighter-squadron-- and the story's titular villain, a ruthless pilot under his command. The pistol-duel is, as much the aerial dogfights of WWI, drenched in the romance of honorable combat. Indeed, this is the main reason that the cover of SHOWCASE #57 boasts that "only DC dares reveal the ENEMY side of the war:" because the Germans of World War One could be viewed through the lens of romance, in sharp contrast to those of World War Two.
This is the first time in the series that Von Hammer-- nicknamed "the Hammer of Hell" for his many men he's sent to a fiery death-- takes arms against one of his people, but the struggle has nothing to do with politics, and everything to do with individual honor.

The lines are clearly drawn from the first. Von Hammer returns from a mission to his squadron, and is told that one of his men has "murdered" a fellow member of the Jagdstaffel. To be sure, it's a sin of omission more than commission:




The flyer known only as "the Bull" is so busy attacking a particular enemy-plane-- Kanigher cleverly relates the repeated attacks to the chargings of a mad bull-- that he fails to come to the aid of another flyer from his own side. Note that the story is related by Ernst, the brother of the slain man, and Ernst is drawn to be the exact physical opposite of the hulking Bull: a weak-chinned shrimp.

Being an old-school officer who does things for himself, Von Hammer seeks out the Bull, who's busy celebrating his kill in a tavern and knocking around smaller men. The drunken flyer attacks Von Hammer, who blithely warns him not to do so ("I do not wish to see you court-martialed for striking a superior officer.") Von Hammer easily outmaneuvers the Bull's wild swings and finally demonstrates his superior fighting-ability by lifting the bigger man and hurling him against the wall ("I felt like the giant Atlas holding up the sky," he thinks). Kanigher overdoes his share of bull-references, ranging from Von Hammer feeling like a "matador" as he dodges his opponent, to comparing the man to "a bull in a china shop." (It's not hard to imagine the writer penning similar asides in some Batman story.) Kanigher does better as the sequence concludes. Von Hammer drives back to camp with his unconscious burden in his car, punning on the English word "ringmaster" as he thinks, "I am the Rittmeister of a flying circus-- complete with wild animals."

Even after the lout's egregious attack, Von Hammer declines to punish the Bull, except to ground him for one week, and to lecture him: "Even in war, we are still men-- NOT ANIMALS!" Yet the Bull will not accept the verdict, and challenges the Rittmeister to the duel seen on the cover.

Von Hammer meets the Bull for their duel-- at dawn, naturally-- and Von Hammer, who has just finished a night-patrol, leaves his Fokker plane running as the prize of the contest: to be claimed by whoever survives. But Ernst demands the right to challenge the Bull on behalf of the dead flyer, Ernst's brother. Ernst is slain and Von Hammer is consumed by ungentlemanly rage, so that he attacks the Bull with his fists. Without consciously meaning to do so, the Enemy Ace knocks his animal-like foe straight into the whirling propeller of the Fokker. "My ship-- executed the Bull," he thinks, and Kanigher misses the opportunity to make some allusion to the fate of real bulls at the hands of the butcher. Yet that might have been over-thinking the matter, in comparison to the terse simplicity of the story's final lines:

"The guilty one had paid the penalty-- but in reality-- weren't we all guilty?"

Note: this particular story is, like most ENEMY ACE stories, naturalistic in phenomenality. However, some stories in the original series enter the realm of the uncanny, as when Von Hammer meets a quasi-costumed pilot called the Hangman, and when he encounters a mysterious black wolf in the forest, one that may or may not be real, but at any rate mirrors Von Hammer's own talent for dealing death.

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