A Tribute to the of

Did you ever see a character in a comic book and do a double take? One of those, “Huh?” moments, perhaps? I had that happen a while back when I think I spotted a house ad for the fearsome World War I flyer known as The Balloon Buster! The what? Well, let’s see what our introductory story about Lt. Steve Savage (okay, that’s a name that’s more like it) is all about.

Savage makes his first bow in All American Men of War #112 (Nov/Dec 1965) with an on-sale date of September 23, 1965. The creative team is tops with a cover and interiors by the splendid Russ Heath and written and edited by Robert Kanigher. I’ve wondered from time to time if DC Comics would have even had much of a series of war books without the talented, prolific and somewhat nuts Bob Kanigher. The story is called simply, “Lt. Steve Savage—The Balloon Buster!

The dramatic splash page shows a bi-plane firing its complement of machine guns and being pursued by an enemy craft. Two men are on the lower-tiered wings and there’s an inset of a close-up of the pilot, speaking through gritted teeth: “Nick—Larry—I won’t let yuh die! I’ll bring yuh both back! I got yuh into this spot! I’ll shoot our way out! I’m th’ gun!

Turning the page, it’s flashback time to a youngster living near Mustang River, Wyomin’ where his Pa is teaching him how to handle a six-gun. Pa Savage’s counsel is simple and to the point: “When yuh shoot—forget you’ve got eyes—arms—legs! Forget about yore heart beatin’—yore lungs breathin’! Yore not a human anymore! Yore the gun!” He then tosses five dimes into the air, “One for each bullet in yore gun!” Huh? Now I’m no gunsmith, but I can think of only one revolver that holds only 5 rounds and that’s because the shells are just too big for the cylinder. Russ’ exquisitely rendered pistol sure looks like a six-shooter, too. Bob, did you screw up?

Anyway, repeating the mantra that he’s “th’ gun” Stevie hits all of the small coins and his father tells him to use his gift for good. Later, as the old man is on his deathbed, he regretfully tells his son that all he has to leave him is his name, Steve Savage, and it’s up to him to make it mean something. The boy vows to make the whole world take notice, but being a poor, uneducated orphan in Wyoming isn’t the most opportune place to make that vow come to fruition.

One day the young man is sweeping the porch of the General Store when the locals begin to jeer at the fact that he’s supposedly good with a gun and that his father was loco. One of the cowpokes tosses a gun to Steve to see if he’s got any ability. Young Savage recalls his father’s counsel and much like General Jeb Stuart in the pages of The Haunted Tank, a ghost manifestation of the senior Savage seems to appear to Steve. Rather than give in to their goading, however, Savage instead drops the revolver and expresses himself with his fists.

Savage is escorted out of town and advised not to return, so he rides his horse aimlessly until the “Big Shootin’ War” began. Now he’s freshly out of flight school and being given a test flight in a Spad by his superior officer. He still feels he has something to prove and takes off for a mock aerial battle with the Major. He doesn’t do well and once on the ground, his fellow fliers laugh at him, which only steels his resolve. He tells the Major that once he’s in a real battle, he’ll prove himself.

Just then, another Spad in bad shape makes a rough landing. The pilot shouts out that “The Jerry balloons over Verdun got Gibson and Brown! Fokker Jagdstaffel flying high cover! Hundreds of guns firing from the ground! It was a raging inferno! The sky was afire!” Then the burning craft explodes, taking the pilot with it. The Major tells his men, “It’s suicide to attack those balloons! They’re too heavily guarded! You just saw what happened when my orders were disobeyed! I’ll repeat them! Don’t attack the balloons!” Steve Savage, however, has other ideas, the foremost being to make his name known. That closes out Part I.

Part II opens with the reluctant Major dispatching Steve Savage on an aerial patrol along with Nick Baker and Larry Green. The young pilot is told to stick close to the others, ensuring the rookie’s safe return. The restless Lieutenant isn’t interested in being a formation flier, however, and when he spots the balloons over Verdun, he guns the aircraft straight for them.

Quickly getting a feel for conditions, Steve Savage spots Fokkers in the air and groundfire beneath the balloons. Using the balloons themselves for cover from the enemy aircraft, he keeps the Spad below the balloons while avoiding anti-aircraft artillery from the ground until he’s able to take his bi-plane into a punishing loop over a balloon and then fires his machine guns into it. The balloon explodes into flames and Savage continues to repeat to himself, “I’m th’ gun!” Then he notes that the Fokkers are in pursuit, but he is intent on his self-appointed mission to destroy all three balloons and succeeds, but then notices that his wingmen have both been shot down. Overwhelmed with guilt, Lt. Savage quickly lands to rescue his fellow pilots.

With the smoke of the fallen Spads providing cover from the Fokkers, Steve is able to scoop up both Nick and Larry and lashes them to the wings of his craft. He makes a fast and low takeoff, but an enemy craft is coming straight for his Spad. Opening up his machine guns, Steve is at it again, “I’m th’ gun! I’m th’ gun! I’m th’ gun!” He successfully takes down one Fokker and manages to elude the others in a cloud bank before successfully reaching the airfield.

Rather than a hero’s welcome, however, the enraged Major jumps Savage, telling him that he’ll be court-martialed for disobeyed orders and having led his fellow pilots to their deaths. Apparently neither Nick or Larry survived the flight. Before things get completely out of hand, however, a car arrives with the General aboard. He wants to know who piloted the Spad and that observers reported that he’s a balloon buster. “After blowing up three balloons in a row—he destroyed two Fokkers while rescuing his fallen comrades! He made five kills in a single day! He’s an Ace! I’m putting him in for a DFC!” The flustered Major introduces Lt. Savage, and then explains that he'd actually disobeyed orders. The General retorts, “Any pilot who can rack up such a score has my permission to disobey orders anytime, Major! Lt. Savage is just the kind of fighting man we need on this front! Savage, eh? Everyone on both sides of the lines will know that name before the day is over!

After the senior officer departs, the Major is still unhappy with Lt. Steve Savage, telling him that while he’ll still be part of the squadron, he must now live with the deaths of his fellow fliers on his conscience.

The final panel shows the newly minted balloon buster taking to the skies again, vowing to somehow make it up to his fallen comrades in arms. Kanigher then poses a question to the readers: “Thus ends the first flight of a loner—the likes of which war has never seen before! Should Lt. Savage have been court-martialed as the Major originally intended? Or decorated as the General wishes? What do you think?

Well, the letter column, “Readers—Sound off!” seemed to be pretty laudatory of Lt. Savage in subsequent issues, though I never did find anyone actually weighing in on whether he should be praised or punished for his balloon busting ways.

In the end, it didn’t matter much. The Balloon Buster enjoyed cover and lead feature status for issues #113 (where he abruptly began sporting a cowboy hat, probably in a nod to his Western roots) and #114, briefly giving way to Johnny Cloud for #115, then back in the pilot’s seat for #116. Issue #117 brought Johnny Cloud back again, but that was the final issue of All-American Men of War, so by my count we got to see “The World War I Ace Who Broke all the Rules” a total of four times. Lt. Savage, we hardly knew ye.

Still and all, with Russ Heath’s typically lustrous and accurate artwork, particularly on the aircraft (though Joe Kubert jumped in on issue #114 for the interior story), Balloon Buster was a visual feast and it was kind of a nice twist making what could have easily been a hero of a western story into a fighter pilot instead. Not bad, RK. The war titles were never my first choice as a kid, but I’ve certainly learned to appreciate their place in the Silver Age and I’ll give this one a rating of 8 on the 10-point scale for originality and because I’m a huge Russ Heath fan.

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As always, we’ll be back in about two weeks with the latest review from our beloved Silver Age of DC Comics.

See you then and…

Long live the Silver Age!

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