A creation of the post-Maus/Watchmen/Dark Knight Returns Comics Aren’t Just For Kids Any More period, 1990 original hardcover Enemy Ace: War Idyll (DC Comics) is a very much a product of its time.
Certainly it’s noteworthy when looking at the recent history of its publisher, as the fully-painted book would have begun being created in the late eighties, and it would have seen release in the pre-Vertigo imprint days, making one of a handful of bridge books between DC’s more mature and sophisticated comics set in the publisher’s shared superhero universe and the coming suite of mature audience genre comics.
It’s also noteworthy for it’s ambition. George Pratt both wrote and painted the entire 128-page story (Willie Schubert lettered it), the subject of which was about as broad as one could get (war) and the plot of which was two soldiers from two vastly different wars meeting and sharing their experiences with one another. Each chapter—it is broken into chapters—begins with a quote about World War I from a combatant and/or writer.
It was rather strange reading this is in 2010 and trying to imagine what it would have been like reading it in 1990, as its publication and my reading of it weren’t merely separated by 20 years, but also by a still-building graphic novel boom. Painted comics, original graphic novels with quotes and chapters and sketch galleries, mature takes on characters created to entertain juveniles…all of this is now old hat, but in 1990 it would have been a much more special book.
I feel inclined to be quite generous with it then, to try to assess it in its proper context. Because the story is quite certainly rather ham-handed, wooden-mallet-to-the-knuckles-obvious or, put another way, no different from any of the many original Enemy Ace stories of the mid-sixties. (The main difference between War Idyll and the Our Army at War back-ups is that it is set in more modern times, with the World War I portions told in flashback).
In fact, the original Enemy Ace stories were perhaps a great deal more subtle, as Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert always spoke about war in general, commenting rather pointedly on the wars that followed WWI, without ever leaving that setting; they were repetitive pot-boilers, but they did count on the readers to make connections between the characters and events experience of their comic book version of WWI and WWII, The Korean War, the Cold War and, eventually, Vietnam.
But then, perhaps Pratt’s decision to make the connection between Vietnam and WWI literal is a clever intentional bit of metacommentary; his story is set during the Vietnam war, and has the Enemy Ace being interviewed, and comparing his experiences with those of a Vietnam vet.
It’s 1969, and a young man named Edward Mannock visits a frail old man lying on his deathbed in a dark room in the Isle of Fohr in West Germany. The former claims to be a reporter, but is actually just trying to get close to the legendary soldier to hear his thoughts on war, in order to help him deal with the horrors he witnessed during his time fighting in Vietnam. The latter is, of course, Baron Hans Von Hammer, The Hammer of Hell—a German flying ace who was an unbeatable, honorable, Byronic killing machine. A sort of super-Red Baron.
Over the course of a few meetings, the two men talk of their wars and war in general, with Von Hammer talking in great detail about a time he was shot down over No Man’s Land, and experienced the horrors of the war in the mud, face-to-face with his enemies, rather than from his more comfortable position soaring above the fray, jousting with the skilled pilots of the other side.
As much as I tried to imagine reading this in 1990 instead of 2010, I also tried to imagine reading it as if it were my first Enemy Ace story, and wondering whether or not it would make as much sense. Pratt ticks off all of the elements that Kanigher, Kubert and others used like refrains in the old stories, and some of these must stand out as rather curious. Particularly Von Hammer’s friendship with a giant wolf, the only living thing that he feels really gets him, whom he hangs out with in the woods with all night. That’s a detail that’s seemingly here because it was in the comics, but doesn’t have much to do with anything in the book itself.
If I found myself reading and assessing Pratt’s story on a curve, his artwork doesn’t need any such favors. Admittedly it was rather jarring to see Von Hammer drawn by someone who wasn’t Kubert, as the veteran artist’s linework and the grim, world-weary eyes he gives so many of his characters were such a large part of what drew me to the character and how I came to understand it.
Pratt’s work, being painted—I’m no good at identifying materials, but the painting looked a bit like water color; actually, it looks more substantial and far darker than most water color work I’ve seen, but it bled like water color—naturally looks nothing like Kubert’s, or like the work of anyone else whose done Enemy Ace before or since.
It sure is something, though. As perfect a line as Kubert can draw, his air battles could never look as gorgeous as this, because one can’t drawn a perfectly blue sky with pencil and ink and old school comics coloring the way one can paint a blue sky, and the battle scenes here are quite remarkable, the pristine blue sky contrasting with the gun-baring death machines smashing into one another in it a striking contrast.
The opening scene, a silent one presented as a dream or memory of Von Hammer’s, is the most prominent example of this clash, but Pratt finds plenty of textures in the battle scenes that follow, some in the snow, some on the black and brown ground full of corpses, rubble, barb wire and, in one scene, poison gas. The muzzle flashes of the guns have a kind of potent beauty about them too, as streaks of bright white rip up the darker colors of the panel around them.
War Idyll can be eye-rollingly cheesy at times, particular the final scene, which nearly caused my eyes to roll clean out of their sockets, but then I suppose there’s some cheese inherent in the character and premise at the very conceptual level—a Vietnam Era-created perfect warrior who espouses the virtues of peace while entertaining readers with exciting war stories.
Oh well. When I wasn’t rolling my eyes at some scene, they were generally agog at Pratt’s artwork, and I appreciate any book that can give my eyes such a strenuous workout.