During the 1960s, as I was getting into serious comic book reading and collecting, my interests were mostly centered on following the super hero offerings from Marvel and DC. This period had a diverse mix of other genres such as romance, mystery/fantasy, funny animal, and war comics. While I enjoyed contemporary TV programs like Combat and the Gallant Men, war comics didn't attract me. The "War Comic for those who hate war comics," Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, was too much like a Marvel super hero book, only with tommy guns. Sgt. Rock tended to be too predictable and the Haunted Tank was too implausible.
But in 1965 a new war strip appeared, produced by DC, that was truly intriguing. This strip dealt with a World War I German Fokker triplane fighter pilot named Hans Von Hammer. Enemy Ace was something original. This was a war strip done from the viewpoint of the enemy. Von Hammer, roughly patterned after the real life Red Baron, was a noble Prussian aristocrat. The creator and writer, Robert Kanigher, eschewed politics and centered on one man caught up in the horror of war. Von Hammer is racked by guilt and conflicted by a sense of duty. Von Hammer is described by his squad members as a merciless killing machine. He is a loner whom women find both attractive and repellent. His only "true friend" is a large wolf that he meets with on periodic hunting trips in the forest. Kanigher is careful to show that the Enemy Ace, while very formidable and the best at what he does, is not invincible or invulnerable. He engages in frequent aerial duels, is sometimes shot down, and is seriously wounded several times. Von Hammer also shows his inherent sense of nobility and fair play by letting his French or English foes go when they run out of ammunition rather than mercilessly shooting them out of the sky.
Kanigher developed a roster of notable opponents for the Enemy Ace including the Hangman, the Bull, St. George, and the Balloon Buster (who had his own DC war strip).
The volume also includes an excellent Neal Adams illustrated Batman tale from a 1970 Detective Comics featuring a bogus Enemy Ace.
Joe Kubert does some of the best art of his career on Enemy Ace. The blending of his early influences such as the classic draftsmanship of Hal Foster (1930s Tarzan) and the gold standard story-telling dynamics of Milton Caniff combined with his sense of grim and foreboding made Kubert's work a comic book tour de force. Kubert's atmospheric yet gritty art endowed with heavy spotting of blacks, evocative yet crystal-clear layouts, fitted perfectly Kanigher's sense of fatalism. Enemy Ace was one of Kubert's signature strips. His work on Rittmeister Von Hammer was a tough act to follow. This volume also contains work by other artists. None of them successfully capture the dark mood created by Kubert. Russ Heath comes closest but while he imitates Kubert's line quality his panel/page layouts are much less innovative. John Severin's very stable and clear story-telling works well but lacks the energy of Kubert's work. Howard Chaykin's over- inked strips are crude, showing that he was still developing as an artist. Several years later he would get it together on First Comics' American Flagg.
As good as the Kanigher and Kubert Enemy Ace stories are, the strip eventually became repetitive. Plot elements that were fresh and interesting in the first few stories were repeated again and again and again. The Enemy Ace being described by his comrades as a "human killing machine," Von Hammer's sense of fatalism, his conflict of conscience, his nobility toward his foes, his amazing survivals from near fatal dangers, the "killer sky" being the only winner, his talks with his wolf friend, and his depressive moods cropped up in most of the stories. In some ways Kanigher wrote himself into a corner with Rittmeister Von Hammer. While these elements in the beginning made the Enemy Ace fresh and provocative, it also cast the character into a cycle of predictable redundancy. For Von Hammer to have a happy ending or "get the girl" or come to terms with his sense of fatalism would have ended the strip. Or would it have? Kanigher seemed unable to move the story line (or character development) beyond these elements. His Enemy Ace eventually became a johnny-one-note.
All of that notwithstanding, the Kanigher/Kubert Enemy Ace stories are some of the best adventure comic book stories to come out of the 1960s. This volume is highly recommended for the Kanigher/Kubert work alone. The rest is a nice bonus.