Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Showcase Presents: Enemy Ace

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Showcase Presents: Enemy Ace (DC, 2007).

I read this book a couple of years ago and remember being quite taken with it, but a reread over the last three weeks was considerably more difficult. It's a collection of as many adventures of Enemy Ace that DC could cram between the covers of one of their nice Showcase Presents volumes: 500-odd pages, mostly illustrated by Joe Kubert, with additional contributions by Howard Chaykin, Russ Heath, Frank Thorne and others.

Visually, therefore, this is one hell of a good book. Kubert occasionally had a habit of letting anatomy get away from him, but the man could layout incredibly well, and he just drew the hell out of these biplanes in the air. It's very imaginative work, with his "camera" at constantly surprising places capturing the airplanes twisting and turning, the ground at wild and unexpected angles behind the dogfighting participants. There were many pages where I just blanked out the words and looked at how clever the pages were.

Letting my eyes glaze over the words was no great challenge. The career of a stoic, honor-obsessed German pilot called Hans von Hammer was certainly an interesting premise for a 1960s DC Comic, but writer Robert Kanigher was absolutely lost in how to turn this into a continuing adventure serial. Enemy Ace was never a hit title of its own; a few new installments appeared every few years in the pages of DC's many and varied anthology war comics. They are very repetitive, even for a Robert Kanigher comic. His standard "three-beat" plots are punctuated by the same character moments again and again. When you start figuring ahead - and it won't take you long - that his airplane's propeller will sound like it's saying "KILLER - KILLER" when he lands and next his orderly will be a toady and next he'll go hunting in the forest and meet up with that wolf that kind of befriends him, it's time to look at the pretty pictures of airplanes and quit reading.

Around the time that Batman was on ABC and hugely influencing the way DC made all its comics, the Enemy Ace installments in Star-Spangled War got slightly ridiculous, and these are compelling more from an archaeological standpoint than anything else. Von Hammer picks up a rogue's gallery and an arch-enemy in the form of a French pilot called The Hangman, and a completely bugnuts British pilot who must be seen to be believed. This guy had become psychotically obsessed with the story of St. George and the Dragon as a young boy, and now this fruitbat goes into aerial combat dressed in full plate mail armor. That is one incredibly dumb comic book.

As Enemy Ace made additional appearances into the 1970s and 1980s, other artists got a crack at him. Shorter episodes helped, but Chaykin's really interesting artwork and thick, blotchy inking breathed more life into the feature than any new plots. Enemy Ace was really a title that is not well-served by the all-inclusive Showcase collection. There's certainly material to like here, but the good stuff is buried under the weight of the monotonous Kanigher plotting. Reading it again made me feel that readers might be better served with a thinner, 200-page "best of" collection than this big book. Recommended with reservations.

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