by The Masked Bookwyrm

Miscellaneous (non-Superhero) - "E" (Page 1)

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cover by Epting El Cazador 2007 (SC TPB) 142 pages

Written by Chuck Dixon. Illustrated by Steve Epting.
Colours: Frank D'Amata, Jason Keith. Letters: unbilled.

Reprinting: El Cazador #1-6 (2003-2004 by CrossGen Comics)

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Hyperion Paperbacks

CrossGen Comics was a company that exploded on the scene with some lavishly produced series, sidestepping the super hero-centric style of Marvel and DC with more sci-fi and fantasy based series. But the company stretched too far and too fast and eventually collapsed. One of its last titles, caught in the company's collapse, was El Cazador, which eschewed the fantasy and SF for straight, old fashioned historical adventure about pirates on the high seas (a genre rarely explored in comics...despite the running idea in The Watchmen of an alternate reality where pirate comics were the dominant genre).

Despite leaving its story arc incomplete, the six issues were subsequently collected in a TPB by Hyperion Paperbacks -- an imprint of Disney Enterprises (and given Disney's success with the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, one wonders if they were hoping for a similar success).

The story involves a young Spanish maiden whose ship is captured by pirates, and her brother and mother kidnapped by the king pirate, Blackjack Tom. But the woman manages to reclaim her vessel, establishing herself as the captain -- now dubbed Lady Sin by her pirate crew -- and she sets out to track down Blackjack Tom and rescue her kin.

Chuck Dixon is a well regarded writer for his unpretentious action-adventure tales. I've read stuff by Dixon, and often reasonably enjoyed it...even as it rarely makes much impression. As such this is a work where the writing is okay...but bolstered immeasurably by the art, with Steve Epting delivering lush, richly detailed, historically researched panels which evoke a bit of John Buscema's later style -- but eminently more detailed. Yet as good as the art is, this is one time where I suspect the real star is the colourists, as Frank D'Amata and Jason Keith deliver gorgeously rendered pages where the texture and detail, I think, is supplied as much in the hues as Epting's line work. The colours are a little too dark a lot of the time, where even scenes on the high seas under a cloudless sky are a bit sombre.

Still, it's truly gorgeous to look at.

And Dixon certainly has a decent feel for pacing, and the dialogue flows from the characters' tongues well enough.

But overall, there's a certain...blandness.

The back cover quotes a review saying "forget those peg-leg, walk-the-plank melodramas", that Dixon and company are going for "gritty truth". But the comic really does seem like Dixon and company are just trotting out all the cinematic cliches (fire ships, chases through shallow water, a last minute rescue where a noose is severed with a shot -- could 17th Century guns even shoot with enough accuracy to hit a rope?). Oh, there's certainly care given to the proper terminology and I'm sure it's reasonably well researched (though I think Epting, like his Hollywood counterparts, errs on the side of the aesthetic when depicting the pirate ships...'cause I'm pretty sure I read that pirate ships were less majestic vessels).

Obviously, the cliches are part of the fun. But what Dixon fails to do is put any new spin on them. A lot of the action scenes seem lacking in clever strategy...or even logic (I wasn't sure how the blind navigator was supposed to be able to negotiate the shallow water better than a sighted man).

And the characters don't really pick up the slack. Dixon writes in a cinematic way, without thought balloons, so all you see is all you get. Lady Sin's ability to go from a noblewoman to a Pirate Queen isn't given much explanation, nor why the crew is so willing to follow her -- or why we should care about her. Even her driving motivation -- to rescue her mother and brother -- seems more like an abstraction, than an emotional quest. Nor is Dixon interested in exploring any moral dilemmas. I'm reminded of the old Star Trek episode where Captain Kirk must masquerade as his evil self in another dimension...and the inherent drama in the episode was how Kirk could maintain his basic decency while pretending to be a tyrant. But here, there's no sense that Lady Sin sees any contradictions in the life she has suddenly assumed. The supporting cast is defined just enough to keep them from fading into the woodwork...but not so much that they really stand out as personalities.

Dixon does slightly better with Redhand Harry, a privateer Lady Sin crosses swords with, who at least is given hints of a mysterious past (and one suspects Dixon had more interest in him than his nominal leading lady). But even Harry isn't really that compelling.

In a movie, a charismatic actor can make a part come alive -- but in a comic, the writer has to work harder to create a character.

In these six issues there are escapes and sailing about, and atmospheric ship-to-ship battles that are breathtakingly portrayed (as barques loom out of the fog). Despite being cancelled in mid-series, there are self-contained episodes (Lady Sin thwarting a mutiny). As such, even though it ends in mid-arc, with nothing resolved, it doesn't really end on a cliff hanger, per se, making it not wholly unsatisfying read as an unfinished saga.

But there's a feeling Dixon and company were keen for the milieu of a pirate comic...but had less of a sense of what to do with it, or how to break past the generic cliches.

Still, for all that -- it is a reasonably fun read, benefitting from the breathtaking visuals and the atypicallness of the genre (for a comic) which alone makes it fun to have on the shelf. But as an on going, indefinite series, one rather suspects that even if CrossGen hadn't folded abruptly...El Cazador might well have run aground on its own.

Cover price: $__ CDN./$12.99 USA

The Enemy Ace Archives, vol. 1 2001 (HC TPB) 220 pages

coverWritten by Robert Kanigher. Illustrated by Joe Kubert.
Colours/letters: various.

Reprinting: Our Army at War #151, 153, 155, Showcase #57-58, Star Spangled War #138-142 (1965-1969) - in the case of issues with multiple stories, only The Enemy Ace stories are reprinted here.

Additional notes: intro by Joe Kubert; covers.

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1 (some stories more)

Published by DC Comics

Perhaps the most unusual thing about the Enemy Ace series -- particularly given these issues are from the "simpler" 1960s -- was that it's kind of a "mood" series. That is: its strength and effectiveness lies as much in the haunting atmosphere as anything.

The concept was a kind of unusual conceit. War comics were familiar staples of the comic racks (if not as ubiquitous as super heroes), generally focusing on WW II American GIs like Sgt. Rock and Sgt. Fury (and perhaps reflective of a general 1960s nostalgia for WW II that also resulted in a number of TV series). Casting around for something different, writer Robert Kanigher went back to an even earlier conflict -- WW I -- and lifted his sights up out of the battlefields by focusing on the world of air aces and aerial dogfights. And even more unusually, he chose as his hero an enemy combatant: a fictional German aviator named Hans Von Hammer -- the Hammer of Hell (obviously inspired, at least superficially, by the Red Baron).

Part of the idea was to explore the ambiguity of war by telling the story from the other side -- a counterpoint to all the German villains appearing in most war comics. Some reports even suggesting it was a personal exercise for Kanigher (and artist Joe Kubert) who were both Jews and so not exactly accustomed to sympathizing with German soldiers (though Von Hammer represented a pre-Nazi Germany). Of course the fact that the story was set during the first world war, which the United States only entered toward the end, meant that Von Hammer rarely, if ever, faced off against American pilots. American readers might flirt with the moral ambiguity of sympathizing with a German hero shooting down British, French, even Canadian, opponents -- but they might have balked at seeing him shoot down Americans.

And then to top it all off, the series was deliberately -- as I mentioned at the top -- a mood piece.

Von Hammer is a stoic, introspective loner who is regarded sceptically even by his own men as an almost inhumanly efficient killing machine. Or, alternately, he's slavishly adored by sycophants. With no one who can truly understand him, the only friend he finds is an enigmatic wolf with whom he wanders the woods around his air base between missions -- only the lone wolf, Von Hammer thinks, can truly appreciate his situation. The issues themselves often come across as parables, or fables, more than straight war/adventure stories -- which, admittedly, was true of a lot of Kanigher's Sgt. Rock stories too. Only moreso here.

A lot of the plots are pretty simple -- and pretty repetitious. It opens with Von Hammer engaged in some aerial conflict where he might encounter an enemy pilot, their duel resulting in a stalemate. Then an interlude on the ground, or a sojourn with the wolf. Then back into the air for a climactic dog fight -- usually the two foes saluting each other even as Von Hammer sends his opponent to his death. All the while Von Hammer ruminates on war, and honour, the futility of it all, romantically de-romanticizing conflict (thinking how the sky is the killer of them all!)

All of it hauntingly rendered by Joe Kubert. Joe Kubert is, of course, a comics legend (heck -- he founded his own art school!). His sketchy, scratchy style is far removed from the hard lines and hyper-detail of many modern comics, yet it's evocative in ways so many other artists aren't. Evocative of place. Eocative of mood. His evocation of war and battlefields manages to be both beautiful and gritty all at once (aided, of course, by the colourists' subdued hues). His Von Hammer is a lean, aquiline aristocrat. Yet despite the simplicity of lines, there are subtle details (like a paling of his face around the eyes, conveying the effect of constantly wearing goggles). And Kubert's depictions of aerial combat are hard to beat -- or even rival. His composition can alternate between dramatic and kinetic as planes swoop down on each other (some panels can almost induce vertigo) even as in other panels it's all presented in straight forward long shots -- but rarely is it confusing or unclear what's occurring. While the landscape below forms a distant and elusive reality for these knights of the air.

Which, of course, is at the heart of the series -- the romanticized view we have of WW I air aces. Though the reality was anything but, I think writers tend to look back on the WW I air battles as the last gasp of man-to-man conflict. 20th Century jousting knights upon airborne steeds. On the battlefields below it was all mud and chaos, anonymous armies shooting at foes they can't even see clearly. But in the skies individual fighters fought individual foes, recognizing each other by the markings on their planes -- even getting close enough to see each other's faces.

And that's the thing about Enemy Ace. It is a kind of, well, war pornography. On the surface it is meant to be the antithesis of a gung ho war adventure, being instead of melancholic series of grim faced warriors who rarely cheer even their own victories, cognizant of the cruelty and inhumanity of war. But even that is, let's face it, seeking to romanticize war, to see nobility and heroism in it even as it professes to debunk myths of nobility. As I mentioned earlier: this very de-romanticization is, itself, a form of romanticization.

But that isn't really a criticism -- because I do like the Enemy Ace stories. I like allowing myself to be drawn into the mood, the haunting ambience, the otherworldliness of it all. I'm just self-aware enough to realize that, in its own way, it's cathartic escapism, letting you lose yourself in this distant time.

If there's a weakness with the stories it is the repetition -- one story not especially different from the next. I was reading this book off and on over a few weeks and actually found myself forgetting my place and re-reading an issue. Sometimes only realizing I had read it before simply because an image, or a panel, would be familiar. The plots themselves can kind of blur into each other.

As the issues collected here progress, there is some attempt to recognize that and move beyond it. Toward the end there are a few interconnected stories (involving a recurring French nemesis, The Hangman). Or an eye toward continuity with an issue that ends with Von Hammer arriving at a funeral -- unrelated to the issues' plot -- that then is dealt with in the next issue. Although sometimes Kanigher's attempt to breakaway from the usual proves unsatisfying, like an issue involving a bully among his own men, most of the story taking place on the ground -- but it's a rather simplistic tale.

Obviously, these are 1960s comics -- and Kanigher was never the subtlest when it came to dialogue or motivation, or the cleverest when it came to plotting. But between his fable-like (and fatalistic) scripts and Kuber's elegant, haunting visuals, Enemy Ace is one of those old series that is still regarded highly. And all these years later, it's easy to see why.

Indeed, it's a mark of Kanigher and Kubert's talent and vision that though the character has occasionally been revived by other creators for occasional specials and one shots, it's usually to unsatisfying effect.

Cover price: $ __ USA

Enemy Ace: War Idyll 1990 (HC & SC GN) 128 pages

cover by George PrattWritten and painted by George Pratt.
Letters: Willie Schubert. Editor: Andrew Helfer.

Commentaries by Joe Kubert, George Pratt; sketches.

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by DC Comics

Enemy Ace: War Idyll is a fully painted graphic novel that resurrects one of DC Comics' more unusual -- and critically acclaimed -- heroes from its war comics (from back when it published titles in that genre). Baron Hans von Hammer, a German (therefore: enemy) World War I air ace. Never as successful as, say, Sgt. Rock, Enemy Ace, as originally written by Robert Kanigher, was a brooding, philosophical character, making him a logical choice for this "serious" graphic novel (moreso than, say, the Creature Commandos).

Printed on heavy paper, giving the book a weighty, important feel, with the story itself comprising some 95 pages, War Idyll begins in 1969, with the elderly von Hammer in a West German nursing home being visited by aa American journalist doing stories on old soldiers. The journalist is a Vietnam veteran, haunted by the war, and seeks some perspective on his experiences through learning of von Hammer's. Through flashbacks, von Hammer relates some of his war time experiences, as does the journalist in one chapter.

War Idyll is a moderately interesting, atmospheric story...but not too much more. It got me thinking a little of the whole nature of comics vs. other narrative mediums, of how comics still struggle for mainstream respectability. I'm the first to argue comics shouldn't slavishly seek to mimic other mediums (such as the common trend of eschewing thought balloons and text captions to more seem like a movie). Comics should take pride in being their own animal. With that being said, I couldn't help thinking that if writer/artist George Pratt had proposed this same story as a movie or novel, it wouldn't have been made/published. Even as a short story it seems a tad wanting.

It's well named, since one of the definitions of the word idyll is a poem, and, story wise, that's more what this resembles. There's very little in the way of an actual plot, per se. Von Hammer's reminiscences relate a time when he, an air ace usually above the fray, crashes in no man's land and wanders through the true horrors of war. That's not much of a story, exactly, not in the sense of scenes building on each other, or that questions are presented that need answering, or that we're heading toward anything. Even the relationship between the ageing von Hammer and the journalist never quite evolves into a character drama.

All of those criticisms might seem a tad...crass. After all, what Pratt is trying to do is a brooding reflection on the horrors of war, a serious and worthy treatise to be sure. But that's the same thing you would expect from a movie or novel on the same topic, and yet you would still expect it to be told in the context either of a story, or as a richer character exploration. Or, at least, through more unusual scenes, with Ace's journey perhaps becoming a Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now odyssey (not that I regard Apocalypse Now particularly highly -- an over-inflated music video masquerading as a "serious" movie).

Pratt falls into the conceit demonstrated by other creative types (in all mediums) of seeming to think he's the first person in the world to tackle a subject. Most of what he depicts is pretty standard -- there were few sequences that made me go "Oh my God, I never realized it was like that." Ironically, the scene in the tunnel in Vietnam came close to that, to evoking a sense of nightmarish claustrophobia and terror. That's ironic because Vietnam has been so thoroughly mined by American storytellers, the familiarity of the milieu makes that sequence, overall, less interesting than the W.W. I scenes.

Of course, is all that fair? Perhaps one can assume that a comic -- even an adult-aimed graphic novel -- will touch a different audience, an audience who has previously shied away from gritty war movies. As well, the first world war has, maybe, been less depicted in recent years by Hollywood, so scenes of trench warfare and gas attacks will take on a shocking newness for many readers (being Canadian as I am, and Canada having participated in that war more fully than did the United States, maybe I'm more familiar with it, through school and even movies, than might be this book's main, American audience).

Pratt's dialogue is surprisingly strong, with scenes between von Hammer and the journalist convincing. I use the word surprising because my understanding is that Pratt is first and foremost an artist.

The painted art is both powerful and well as problematic. Pratt (a painter with work in galleries) paints in, basically, an Impressionistic style. Often it's atmospheric, with a sequence of von Hammer wandering through snowy woods broodingly effective, or even the scenes of von Hammer and the journalist have a haunting ambience. But his style gets so impressionistic, it actually starts to become Expressionistic at times, with panels where I couldn't quite make out what I was supposed to be looking at. I wondered if that was on purpose, the art creating its own subtext by getting more chaotic and confusing as we get more into the thick of conflict...but I don't think so. There isn't enough of a change for me to believe that.

On one hand, through the art, Pratt can accomplish something a movie can't. He can diverge from reality just enough to (perhaps) create a more penetrating reality than a more literal motion picture can (or even a novel). There are striking scenes and images in the book that no movie, no matter the budget, could duplicate. On the other hand, Pratt can also lose the edge, the horror of his setting through the art. Showing a mass grave doesn't necessarily shock as well as it might, when the corpses don't entirely resemble corpses. Far from crystallizing the horrors of war, he can actually soften them.

Of course, even as a philosophical/socio-political essay, War Idyll doesn't have much to say beyond the usual: that War is Hell. Pratt stops short of actually denouncing war, or suggesting alternatives, nor does he delve at all into any of the motives for the wars. Granted, I didn't expect him to and I'm not really criticizing him for the lack of a bigger (and controversial) stance.

And for fans of Enemy Ace, and the whole sub-genre of aviation stories, the fact that much of the story takes place on the ground will be disappointing. But then, Pratt's intention isn't to tell a frivolous adventure.

This is certainly a decent enough read, a brooding look at one of humanity's greatest follies. But it seems undeveloped, needing a stronger plot or character stuff to provide a foundation for the ruminations. In a sense, it reminds me of the later Uncle Sam -- also a fully painted, "ambitious" comics story that believed its worthiness overrode much need for it to meet conventional narrative expectations.

Cover price: $18.95 CDN. / $14.95 USA

Enemy Ace: War in Heaven 2003 (SC TPB) 128 pages

coverWritten by Garth Ennis, with Robert Kanigher. Illustrated by Chris Weston, Christian Alamy, Russ Heath, with Joe Kubert.
Colours: Matt Hollingsworth. Letters: Bill Oakley.

Reprinting: Enemy Ace: War in Heaven #1-2, Star Spangled War Comics #139 (2001, 1968)

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Recommended for Mature Readers

Published by DC Comics

Enemy Ace was an usual property. Created in the 1960s by Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert, it was set during WW I (while most war comics were set during WW II), focused on a German air ace (hence the "enemy"), and above all was often treated as a brooding, existential exercise. It was perhaps such a singular creation it has only been revived sporadically -- and usually with disappointing results.

Which brings us to this TPB of a two issue, prestige format mini-series, War in Heaven (plus a vintage Kanigher/Kubert story).

It's written by Garth Ennis who seems to have two creative facets: a bad boy provocateur with foul-mouthed series like Hellblazer and Preacher, but also the more earnest Ennis who seems to want to inherit Kanigher's mantel as a war comics scribe, Ennis writing a lot of war comics (often gritty and foul-mouthed, but not simply frivolous gung ho adventures). So, in a way, it might seem a logical fit to unleash him on Kanigher's Enemy Ace.

But instead of Ennis trying to write for the Enemy Ace, he seems to simply adapt the character to his pre-existing style and interests.

The story is up-dated from WW I to WW II, with a middle-aged Hans Von Hammer living in relative seclusion but recruited by Peter, an old air force buddy, to head up a German squadron. On one hand, moving the story to the next war might be seen as an interesting variation, a chance to explore the character later in life. And maybe Ennis felt there was no more water to draw from the well of WW I.

But it means the character looses the milieu that distinguished him from other war-era series -- all so Ennis could place him in a more commonplace era.

And while the original comics were defined by their sombre introspection, Ennis' story (in keeping with modern styles) dispenses entirely with text captions or thought balloons, essentially robbing the story, and the character, of his signature brooding. (Funnily enough, an earlier Enemy Ace graphic novel, War Idyll, skewed too far the opposite -- it was ALL introspection lacking any plot).

The result is Hans Von Hammer doesn't entirely come across as Hans Von Hammer. And this applies to the visuals.

It isn't that the art isn't good, it is. Though it's odd that the two issues are drawn by two different artists (though Russ Heath is a long time war comics artist, and had drawn some vintage Enemy Ace stories). It's straight forward and realistic -- and deliberately undynamic and unstylish. But it lacks the palpable nood of Joe Kubert's scratchy style. And Von Hammer isn't instantly identifiable as himself. This is particularly true in the second issue where Heath draws him and his air force pal sufficiently similar I sometimes had trouble telling them apart.

Because this is a modern comic, it's gritty and R-rated, with some gory violence and some coarse language. Ennis also writes the German characters using very British colloquialisms. I understand doing that in British stories (you write the "foreign" characters in such a way as to erase their foreignness, so we better identify with them). But in an American comic, aimed primarily at American readers, surely the Germans should speak in American English.

But even ignoring how much, or little, this evokes the original comics, it's problematic even just on its own.

It's 100 pages and yet frankly can feel like it has less plot than the old Enemy Ace single-issue stories.

Ennis clearly takes his war-comics-scribe gig seriously -- and one suspects that means he feels coming up with a "plot" would trivialize it. So the story just meanders about, cutting between scenes of the aerial combat with scenes of the characters on the ground, talking about the war. There are really only three characters in the whole story -- Von Hammer, his friend, Peter, and a snivelling Nazi loyalist named Engels. None of whom develop much over the story. Engels is just there to provide conflict with Von Hammer (who is contemptuous of Nazi ideology) but to no real impact. There's no particular mission they have to complete, no specific adversary they have to beard (a difference between WW I and WW II aerial combat is the former could have more of a sense of individual opponents duelling each other in the air). There's nothing unusual in the story or what occurs.

By shifting the story from WW I to WW II Ennis turns a story about a guy simply fighting for the opposite side into a guy fighting for Nazis -- a regime so monstrous its legacy scarred the 20th Century. Which raises questions about whether defending your country-- right or wrong -- applies to a Nazi regime.

Ennis establishes Von Hammer as anti-Nazi right from the get go. But it feels like an easy out. A way for Ennis to ignore the question (rather than making it a source of Von Hammer's brooding). And it doesn't allow much character development (maybe Von Hammer could've been ambivalent about the Nazis, only growing to despise them over the course of the story). Then toward the end Von Hammer has an eye opening experience in a concentration camp (depicted off the page) leading him to boldly state he will no longer support the regime. Except then he seems to get talked out of it almost immediately. So the one stab at character growth, and a plot twist, is quickly stamped out by Ennis.

In Ennis' view, I guess, the highest morality is simply doing your duty.

And maybe that's the problem with Ennis' approach to war stories (here and elsewhere) -- his interest in the topic can almost border and fetishtic, and his devotion to and admiration for the troops (on whichever side) seems to override any larger issues. So a comic like this isn't really about a plot, or an adventure, as if that would be too crass (even as, clearly, the aerial combat scenes are meant to be cool and exciting). Yet it's not really about character, or character growth.

It is about combat, and about showing what life was like, with failing machines and limited rations. Yet gritty stories about life during war are not uncommon -- hence why you should wrap them around a proper story and characterization.

This TPB also reprints an old Kanigher/Kubert comic. I'm guessing it was chosen simply because it filled in a bit of Von Hammer's background and introduced an adversary who would recur in a few more old stories -- a French aviator called The Hangman. And it's nice to include a "classic" tale for readers to contrast with the newer interpretation.

Cover price: $__ USA


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