How do we know who the bad guys are in movies, television, or other forms of media? Just look for the most stereotyped characters and you’ve probably found them. America has a long history of using negative stereotypes to portray their enemies, whether it is real newscast or fiction comic book. Even before World War II began, Adolf Hitler was popularly represented here in the United States as a raving lunatic and common Germans as murdering maniacs. Superman, in an issue of Action Comics, actually supported the government’s imprisonment of Japanese-Americans in internment camps “for their own protection,” when in reality the government and Superman feared a Pearl Harbor-like sneak attack from this innocent group. However, a change came in 1965 when the comic Our Army at War #151 featured its first story of “Enemy Ace.”
This series was the first U.S. comic book using the enemy’s point of view to look at war. After appearing in several issues of war comic anthologies, Enemy Ace became its own series. The stories revolved around Germany’s best fighter pilot of World War I, Rittmeister Hans Von Hammer, a.k.a. “The Hammer of Hell.” Unlike most depictions of Germans in comic books of that time, Von Hammer was portrayed as a noble and honorable man who fights because he loves his country. In fact, he is disgusted by the more bloodthirsty soldiers and disdains their lack of ethics and respect for their adversaries. The shift in point of view from Allies to Axis has a tremendous effect on the American reader. Rather than hate Von Hammer, we grow sympathetic toward him despite the fact that he kills the “good guys.” As the stories unfold, readers realize that enemy soldiers are not inherently evil. Indeed, all soldiers, regardless of whose side they are on, share the same struggles and hardships they face death at the will of crooked politicians and misguided governments. Or worse: out of patriotism.
After a long absence, DC has revived Von Hammer in Enemy Ace: War in Heaven, written by Garth Ennis of Preacher and The Punisher fame. The new story takes place in 1942 just after Russia joins the fight against Germany. Hans Von Hammer is now 46 years old and has resigned himself to live alone in the mountains. He has no desire to go to war, especially for the Nazis, but he empathizes with the young German soldiers who are dying at the hands of the Russian fighter pilots. For their sake and, sadly, because he’s never been good at anything else Von Hammer climbs back into the cockpit.
Garth Ennis has the difficult task of writing what, in essence, is a sequel. He has to relate the story to both new readers and old Enemy Ace fans. Mission accomplished. He does so by maintaining all the elements that made Von Hammer a fascinating character thirty-five years ago. An admirable enemy is still an unusual character; today’s pop-culture media still makes the mistake stereotyping enemies. Just look to movies such as Rambo and even Mel Gibson’s recent hit The Patriot to see depictions of cruel, sadistic enemies. Von Hammer is still a German who kills Americans and America’s allies. Yet, readers can admire Von Hammer for his courage and remarkable abilities. Therein lies the wonderful paradox of Enemy Ace.
Obviously, the biggest change in Enemy Ace: War in Heaven is the time period. By advancing the story from WWI to WWII, Ennis is able to introduce the Nazis, which changes the relationship between Von Hammer, his country, and the reader considerably. The Nazi regime is such a malevolent force, if not the malevolent force, to American mainstream audiences. Therefore, Von Hammer himself must be an enemy of the Nazis so that the reader can continue to look at him as a hero. His acts of displeasure and disobedience to the Nazis include not allowing a swastika to be painted on his plane and saluting traditionally rather than saying “Heil Hitler.” Of course these acts do not go over well with Joachim Engels, the Nazi officer whose job Von Hammer took when he rejoined the Luftewaffe. The real face of the enemy is seen in Engels. He is a man drawn to the ideas of the Nazism and is willing to utilize his party connections in order to discredit Von Hammer for his own career advancement. Because Engels is a normal man he is the deadliest type of enemy a faceless one who is able to intermix with the rest of society at will.
From the outset, DC offers the reader a couple of clues as to the direction that the story may take. The subtitle “War in Heaven” suggests that Von Hammer may revolt against the Nazis just as Lucifer revolted against God. In fact, several interesting comparisons emerge from this counter-intuitive analogy: The supreme, all-powerful, good God is equated to the evil Nazis who believed themselves to be a supreme and all-powerful race. An evil Lucifer is then compared to a good Von Hammer. The switching of the good and evil forces goes to prove that enemies and allies may not be who they would traditionally appear to be. The phrase “Allies Beware” appears on promotional posters for Enemy Ace: War in Heaven. DC chose their words cleverly because the allies can be two very different groups Great Britain, Russia, and the U.S. or, alternatively, Von Hammer’s allies including, to his dismay, the Nazis. Just who exactly should be afraid of Von Hammer and just exactly who is the enemy?
Just who exactly knows?
(This review was written using an uncorrected and incomplete proof that may be subject to editorial changes before publication.)