There are lots of war hero buffs out there who know their First and Second World Wars like the back of their hand, and many who now know a lot about another terrible war: Vietnam. Enough time has passed to better understand these conflicts, to read about them and discuss them. This graphic novel is a great opportunity to do so with your kids; it’s certainly something I would like to share with mine when they get a bit older.
Good comics don’t fade away: they stay with you through time; you keep them in your library and refer to them occasionally. Some, like Sandman, are something to read again and again. This graphic novel is one of them: first published by DC in 1990, it was the début of a famous illustrator who did both the text and the beautiful images within: George Pratt.
Two war veterans, one from The First World War, and another from Vietnam, find themselves inside a German sanitarium, talking about their experiences on the field. At first, the Vietnam veteran plays the role of a journalist, but this is an excuse to share his feelings with someone who maybe has witnessed as much death and grief as himself. The old veteran is really Rittmeister Hans Von Hammer, a DC character who fought in the famous airplane battles during the war on his Fokker D-1. First created in 1965 by Bob Kaniguer and Joe Kubert, Enemy Ace appeared in Our Army at War #151 and was loosely inspired by the real-life Red Baron, the highest flying ace in the First World War.
Unlike him, Von Hammer is not killed during the war and has become an old man. As the so-called journalist, Edward Mannock, interrogates him, Von Hammer relives some of his air battles; including a memorable opportunity when his plane is taken down and he miraculously survives.This gives Mannock an excuse to share a haunting memory of his own: inside the C? Chi tunnels in Vietnam, his mission was to act as a tunnel rat: a person who seeks out the enemies underground. However, in one of these raids, he is the only one to come back out alive.
The guilt of surviving is central to the story, and is something in common for all war veterans. Why do some survive, and others die? What could I have done to save my partners? War scenarios have a lot of death in them, and all of them are terribly unfair.
This graphic novel was nominated for both an Eisner and a Harvey Award for bringing up these issues with beautiful and yet honest language: to be a hero, you must kill, and also, survive. Both your partners and your enemies die for reasons that seem meaningless once the conflict is over. What remains are your memories, the photographs of the dead, and the guilt of having lived where others did not.
The novel has very surreal illustrations, and quotes from a very interesting book: Voices from the Great War by Peter Vansittart. The underlying story can be summed up by one of these quotes, by Stefan Zweig: “As never before, thousands and hundreds of thousands felt what they should have felt in peace time: that they belonged together.”
Featured image by George Pratt, Photo courtesy DC Comics.