Every weekend this summer, we’ll be bringing you a new instalment of a 12-part series of reviews of meaningful comics found in the collections of our writers. “Long Box” refers to the lengthy, white cardboard boxes most comics find themselves stored within – bagged, alphabetized and numerically ordered.
These reviews, then, are the tales of those collections: illuminating characters, artists, writers – even eras – in addition to the personalities of the very owners of those fine collections.
Enemy Ace: War Idyll
Writer and Artist: George Pratt
DC Comics has had a long history of publishing books related to war. Perhaps the most famous of their titles is Sgt. Rock, the stories of the craggy World War II veteran and his fellow soldiers of Easy Company. The Losers, too, was based during the Second World War, as were titles such as G.I. Combat and Our Army at War, all comics published in the 1950’s through to the 1970’s.
One of the most interesting and enduring characters to come out at that time was Hons von Hammer, the Enemy Ace – a German fighter pilot from the First World War.
Created by two comic book legends, writer Robert Kanigher and artist Joe Kubert, and based on the real life Red Baron, von Hammer first appeared in 1965 within the pages of Our Army at War. Refreshingly, here was a main character that would go on to star in a self-titled monthly book – that fought for the other side. He was written as a skilled pilot, but conflicted by both his temperament and his role within the war. Perhaps it was this inner conflict and not the conflict of the war itself that endeared the character to readers for decades. Here, then, was a vastly different perspective than what American comic book readers had been accustomed to for so long – that the enemy was a human being with both frailties and a sense of duty.
In 1989, DC Comics published Enemy Ace: War Idyll by George Pratt, an acclaimed fine artist. Pratt had been working on the story, mainly as a series of sketches, drawings, monotypes and paintings for a number of years previous, finally mustering the courage to approach DC editorial with his visual accomplishments and his storyline. DC was impressed by the work, which was also strongly supported by Joe Kubert, one of the original creators of the character. Painting in comics was still in its infancy and the idea of the “graphic novel” was still a fairly new one. To use the term in the marketing of a title meant that the title itself was to be held at a higher standard of literature and of art. Kubert, the legendary illustrator, would go on to write the introduction to the book, stating that Pratt was unquestionably “in the vanguard of creative people in our profession who are pointing the way for all of us.”
Enemy Ace: War Idyll crosses generations as it tells the story of a troubled Vietnam veteran soldier turned journalist, who seeks out von Hammer in order to better understand war, his role in it, and his current life, under the guise of writing an article for a newspaper or magazine. It’s 1969 and von Hammer lives in an old age home, with only his memories to keep him company. Through retellings of various war-related stories and flashback sequences, the two men of different ages discover that they share much in common, both in their aspirations and in their horrors.
Like the Enemy Ace comics of old, the ending of War Idyll is not necessarily a happy one but it does provide, for the two characters, a sense of understanding – not so much with war – but with each other. That sharing is, perhaps, the only comfort besides death that these characters have.
George Pratt’s art within Enemy Ace; War Idyll is truly remarkable and stands out as a major draw into in the book. Monotypes make up the various chapter headings that evoke the grandeur and horrors of war. The fact that they have an almost washed out quality to them makes the images even more potent, eliciting the telling of remembrance through smoke, sweat, blood and mustard gas. The interior work is painted with watercolors and oils and provides an escapist reality that is driven home with punctuations of war time violence. Dog fights in the air during World War I are juxtaposed next to tunnel rat encounters with the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. The startling images will last with the reader for a long, long time.
Enemy Ace: War Idyll was nominated for both the Eisner Award and Harvey Award in America and has been published in nine languages, winning best foreign language graphic novel awards in both France and England. At one point in time, the book was even required reading at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Pratt would go on to showcase his various fine art painting and drawings based on the Enemy Ace: War Idyll work in various galleries in America and around the world.
In the afterward section of the graphic novel which showcases many of his prepatory sketches and drawings, Pratt lists a number of quotations from various individuals related to war during the twentieth century. These are reflections of the writer-artist’s own perspective on war and his philosophy in creating the Enemy Ace; War Idyll graphic novel.
The final two page spread in the book shows an ink sketch of a World War I soldier, rifle slung over soldier, walking away from the viewer while the opposite page displays a harrowing monotype of a screaming, emaciated man, covered in shadow. The quote next to the images, attributed to Adolf Hitler, states: “But that’s what the young men are there for.”