The Complete Aces High issues 1-5 (EC Archives)


By Irv Werstein, Carl Wessler, Jack Oleck, George Evans, Jack Davis, Bernie Krigstein & various (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN: 978-1-50670-308-4 (HB) eISBN 978-1-50670-727-3

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Compelling Combat Comics Classics… 9/10

No smug commentary today, just appropriate business.
Legendary imprint EC Comics began in 1944 when comicbook pioneer Max Gaines sold the superhero properties of his All-American Comics company to half-sister National/DC.

Gaines only retained Picture Stories from the Bible. His plan was to produce a line of Educational Comics with schools and church groups his major target market. He latterly augmented his core title with Picture Stories from American History, Picture Stories from Science and Picture Stories from World History.

Sadly, the worthy project was already struggling badly when he died in a boating accident in 1947.

His son William was dragged out of college and into the family business and – with much support and encouragement from unsung hero Sol Cohen (who held the company together until the initially unwilling Bill Gaines abandoned his dreams of a career in chemistry) – transformed the ailing enterprise into Entertaining Comics

After some tentative false starts and abortive experiments, Gaines and his multi-talented associate Al Feldstein settled into a bold and impressive publishing strategy, utilising the most gifted illustrators in the field to tell a “New Trend” of stories aimed at an older and more discerning readership.

From 1950-1954 EC was the most innovative and influential publisher in America, dominating the anthologised genres of crime, horror, war and science fiction. Moreover, under the auspices of writer, artist and editor Harvey Kurtzman, the company introduced an entirely new beast: the satirical comicbook…

Kurtzman was hired to supplement the workforce on the horror titles but wasn’t keen on the genre and instead suggested a new action-adventure title. The result was Two-Fisted Tales which began with issue #18 as an anthology of rip-snorting, he-man dramas. However, with America embroiled in a military “police action” in Korea, the title soon became primarily a war comic and was rapidly augmented by a second, Frontline Combat.

Also written and edited by Kurtzman, who assiduously laid-out and meticulously designed every story, it made for great entertainment and a unifying authorial voice but was frequently a cause of friction with his many artists.

In keeping with the spirit of the New Trend, these war stories were not bombastic, jingoistic fantasies for glory-hungry little boys, but rather subtly subversive examinations of the cost of conflict which highlighted the madness, futility and senseless, pointless waste of it all…

When the McCarthy-era anti-comics crusade of the 1950s crushed the industry and gutted EC output by effectively banning horror, crime, gore, political commentary and social justice, Gaines and Feldstein retrenched: releasing experimental titles under the umbrella of a “New Direction”.

Kurtzman’s Mad – which had defined a whole new genre, bequeathing unto America Popular Satire – converted into a monochrome magazine, safely distancing the outrageously brilliant comedic publication from the fall-out caused by the socio-political witch-hunt which eventually killed all EC’s other titles…

Denied a soapbox to address social ills, Gaines’ new books concentrated on intrigue, adventure and drama informed by new modern fascinations: either intellectual or mass entertainment fads.

Impact, Extra!, Piracy and Valor all clearly reflected themes of contemporary film and TV, whilst Psychoanalysis and M.D. targeted mature audiences through the growing genre of medical dramas. Incredible Science Fiction bridged the transition from old range to new line up whilst also tapping into movie trends. Final offering Aces High carried on a tradition of breathtaking war comics, but omitted ethical commentary to concentrate on aviation sagas dedicated to the myth of honourable combat conducted between knights of the skies…

Although still graced with stunningly beautiful artwork and thoughtful writing, the New Direction titles couldn’t find an audience and died within a year.

This volume of Dark Horse’s EC Archives gathers the entire run of Aces High (#1-5, spanning March to December 1955) gathering some of the most gorgeous art of the era – or ever – but with scripts curtailed by the newly instituted Comics Code Authority and Gaines’ own sense of financial survival, that compelling edge of social crusading was lost…

The fraught history of the company is outlined here in an informative Introduction by Grant Geissman after which Howard Chaykin’s Foreword provides keen insights into the times and the gifted creators involved before the stories begin. Sadly, as is often the case, despite diligent efforts by researchers and historians, many of these tales have no writing credit, but c’est la vie, non?

Aces High was very much a star vehicle slanted towards the interests and expertise of aviation aficionado George Evans who leads off the first issue – after editorial ‘Prop Wash’ – with ‘The Way it Was’, scripted by Irv Werstein. With an WWI veteran taking his grandson to an air show, Evans traces the history and development of his war in the air, emphasising the true cost in lives…

Uncredited prose feature ‘The Stork with Talons’ details the career of legendary aviator Charles Nungesser after which masterful Wally Wood delineates the history of Lieutenant Tom Pomeroy: a newly qualified combat pilot who can’t understand why his fellow airmen consider him ‘The Outsider’

Bernie Krigstein was one of the most innovative illustrators in comics – as well as commercial and gallery art – and in ‘The Mascot’ captures the air of hopeful fervour as an American squadron in France realise that the stray mutt they’ve adopted can predict who will not return from missions…

The premiere outing concludes with Carl Wessler & Jack Davis introducing ‘The New C.O.’ whose ideas of conduct are revolting but unarguably effective…

The second sortie opens with ‘Chivalry!’ by Wessler, Evans: crossing No-Man’s Land for a peek at the German view as a Jagdstaffel of decent, patriotic fliers must find a way to deal with new posting Lt. Horst Viegel, whose only consideration is adding to his kill-tally…

RAF legend Albert Ball is eulogised in text page ‘The Ace of Aces’ after which Krigstein limns a tale of ‘Revenge’ wherein a USAC captain hunts down the German flier who strafed Red Cross nurses and cost him his one true love…

Wessler & Wood detail the vagaries of luck afflicting a string of pilots assigned ‘Locker 9’ before prose page ‘Laughing Warrior’ précis’ the life of France’s greatest air ace Georges Guynemer before Jack Davis renders the devious saga of doctrinaire military martinet Major Trout whose quibbling antics in ‘Footnote’ have salutary, lifesaving underpinnings…

Aces High #3 takes wing with Oleck & Evans’ ‘The Rules’ as novice replacement Lt. Edward Dale disdains hour and fair play to become famous and pays the inevitable price, after which ‘Prop Wash’ reprints the letters of the many fans the comic book won whilst Krigstein’s ‘The Spy’ offers a touch of the old EC magic as American pilots cast suspicious eyes on a fellow squadron member who has a German name…

A tragic pilot-training washout reduced to the role of spanner-wielding ‘Greasemonkey’ redeems himself in a superb Wood rendered yarn before prose fiction ‘The Acid Test’ (with a grizzled raddled veteran having to deal with his baby brother joining the squadron) segues into a gleeful, yet dogged battle of wills between an established ace and a cocky replacement pilot over ‘The Case of Champagne’ by Wessler & Davis.

Jack Oleck & Evans lead off #4 as ‘The Green Kids’ sees a daily argument over sending raw recruits into combat changes complexion after angry, embittered Flight Leader Joseph Caswell is promoted to Squadron Commander and must now decide who flies and who doesn’t..

More postal praise in ‘Prop Wash’ leads to a wry examination of superstition in Wessler & Krigstein’s ’The Good Luck Piece’ after which the writer teams with Wood for ‘The Novice and the Ace’ wherein a cunning psychological trick unnerves an entire US squadron… until a callow newcomer takes a chance…

Prose fiction ‘The Last Laugh’ details the last mistake of an escaping German pilot, before Wessler & Davis reveal the tribulations of an American mechanic hungry to fly against the Boche in ‘Home Again’

The short-lived series came to a close with #5, leading with Oleck & Evans’ ’C’est La Guerre!’ as American pilots play dice to decide who goes on a suicide mission after which prose page ‘Airman Unknown’ details how a veteran of the Lafayette Escadrille sought to identify and repatriate the bodies of lost American fliers.

Breaking with tradition, this issue includes episodes from WWII, beginning with the Davis-illumined ‘Iron Man!’ and P-47 pilot Fred Allison who believes he can’t be shot down, after which Wessler & Krigstein take us back to the Great War for ‘Spads Were Trump’.

Here valiant American Lt. Walt Muller conceals a deeply personal reason for avoiding combat against German Ace the Red Eagle…

An incongruous prose review and guide of film and record releases, ‘The Entertainment Box’ leads into a Wood tour de force to end the issue and series. ‘Ordeal’ relates the astounding record of P-40 pilot Lt. Stoner against the Japanese in the Pacific Theatre of War, before exposing the one thing he cannot face…

The covers – by Evans – have all been restored from the masterful colour guides of original colourist Marie Severin, resulting – with modern reproduction techniques – in a sequence of graphic poems of unsurpassed beauty, whilst original house ads and commercial pages from the period tantalise in a way no other ads ever could, completing a nostalgic experience like no other.

The New Direction was a last hurrah for the kind of literate, mature comics Gaines wanted to publish. When they failed, he concentrated on Mad magazine and satire’s gain was comics’ loss. Now you have the chance to vicariously relive those times and trends, I strongly suggest that whether you are an aged EC Fan-Addict or nervous newbie, this is a book no comics aficionado can afford to miss…
© 1955, 2017 William M. Gaines Agent, Inc. All rights reserved. Introduction © 2017 Grant Geissman.

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