Parallels Between Fiction and Reality
by David R. Black
Steve Savage, Balloon Buster, and his real-life counterpart Frank Luke
What? You tell me you've never heard of Steve Savage?
You mean you don't know anything about the feared American ace of World War I? Don't worry, you'll know plenty by the time we're done!
Steve Savage is notably one of only a handful of DC war characters to have very different pre-Crisis and post-Crisis (actually post-Zero Hour) histories. And interestingly, Savage's two histories have been the work of only two writers - Robert Kanigher (pre-Crisis) and James Robinson (post-Crisis). Asides from a few panels in Crisis on Infinite Earths which Marv Wolfman wrote, Kanigher and Robinson have been the only scribes of Steve Savage.
Like most of the DC war characters, Steve Savage was created by writer/editor Robert Kanigher. Debuting in All-American Men of War #113, Savage was the opposite number of Hans von Hammer (a.k.a. "Enemy Ace"), Kanigher's fictitious German ace.
Just as von Hammer's character was based upon a real life aviator - Manfred von Richthofen ("The Red Baron") - so it seems was Steve Savage. The parallels between Savage and real-life World War I American aviator Frank Luke, Jr. are too obvious to ignore.
Both men - I'll refer to Savage as being alive, even though he's a fictitious character - were born in the American West. Phoenix, Arizona was Luke's birthplace, and Eagle Rock, Arizona was Savage's birthplace. (Sources conflict regarding Savage's birthplace. Who's Who lists it as Mustang Valley, Wyoming, but other sources, such as Unknown Soldier #262, say Eagle Rock. When in doubt, I'm inclined to go with an actual story over Who's Who.)
Named after their fathers, both men wore the "Junior" tag with pride. At his dying father's bedside, Savage swore to "make the old man proud by makin' the name Savage a name to be remembered."
Both men, however, came from different backgrounds. Luke's parents immigrated to America from Germany and had nine children. Luke's father worked as Phoenix's tax assessor, and later, as a member of the Arizona State Tax Commission. The Luke family, rather prominent in the world of politics, could afford to have a few servants working for them.
Asides from the fact that he was poor, not much is known about Savage's father. Pictured in flashbacks in a few stories, the senior Savage taught his son the finer points of gunplay, telling young Steve that "a gun is merely an extension of the man who wields it." After saving for many years, the senior Savage presented Steve with two silver plated six shooters, weapons which Steve wore with pride during the war.
Savage's childhood, in which he was repeatedly picked on by the Peevy brothers and called "poor white trash" (Unknown Soldier #262), fortified his resolve to make something of his life. He swore to rise above the labels others pinned upon him.
Savage and Luke brought Old West customs and tradition to the World War I era. Luke's sense of balance, learned while riding horses - as noted in Frederick Libby's Horses Don't Fly: A Memoir of World War I - served him well in the cockpit. When attacked from the rear, pilots of the WWI era oftentimes had to stand up to return fire using guns mounted in the rear of their plane!
Savage, having grown up in rough and tumble Eagle Point, brought his marksman's skills to the battlefield. A superb shot with a Colt .45 revolver, Savage's skills with weaponry extended to the twin Vickers machine guns mounted on his Spad.
And lest you think that Luke was as flamboyant as Savage, let it be known that Luke never wore a cowboy hat or spurs into battle. When written by Kanigher, Savage sure did, and I suppose literary license somehow kept his hat from falling off in mid-flight. The spurs, however, are another matter. In early World War I, before the USA entered the fray, some British aviators did wear spurs as part of their uniforms!
Savage, as noted in Who's Who, enlisted in the Army Air Corps "at the onset of the War". The USA didn't get involved in World War I until April 6, 1917, and so it's a safe bet that he enlisted sometime close to that date.
Likewise, Luke enlisted in September of 1917. He learned to fly at the University of Texas' School of Military Aeronautics and at Rockwell Field in San Diego. Commissioned a Second Lieutenant in January 1918, Luke completed training in June of 1918 and was assigned to duty with the 27th Squadron in Cazeaux, France.
Where Savage learned to fly has never been explained, but in comics, that's understandable. What is known, however, is that Savage held the same rank as Luke - Second Lieutenant. And just like Luke, Savage flew with the 27th Squadron. (The sub-title for Savage's adventure in Unknown Soldier #262 is "Shootout at the 27th Squadron.")
Both men soon carved reputations for themselves as brave, fearless - and reckless - aviators. Aggressive in the air and possessing nerves of steel, both men's preferred target of choice were German observation balloons. Balloons may sound like an easy target - sitting ducks for agile planes to mow down - but they were anything but.
Observation balloons, with armed crew members and planes assigned to protect them, were some of the toughest targets in the war. Luke, being cocksure and bold, and Savage, his character patterned after Luke, sought out the balloons for the challenge they represented.
Both men were rogues and loners by nature. Disobeying the conventions of the day, they preferred to fly solo, not as part of a larger squadron of planes. This and other infractions earned them the ire of their commanding officers, but there was no denying the results they achieved.
Luke was soon nicknamed "The Arizona Balloon Buster" for his efforts, and not surprisingly, the name Balloon Buster headlined Savage's adventures.
When creating Savage and his supporting cast, Kanigher also made use of the love-hate relationship Luke had with his superiors. Lt. Col. Harold Hartney, commanding officer of the 27th Squadron, condoned many of Luke's risky maneuvers, and when discipline was warranted, Hartney was rather lenient. Luke, however, had a tendency of going AWOL, and he was arrested twice for it (once in training, and once while in France). Luke's other superiors dealt with his transgressions much more harshly.
Likewise, Kanigher patterned his fictional General Talbot after Lt. Col Hartney. As with the Luke-Hartney relationship, General Talbot applauded Savage's unorthodox style and defended him against his critics. Talbot saved Savage from threats of court martials and always demanded that he be kept in combat.
Although not patterned after any real person in particular, the fictional Major Michaels continued to try to punish Savage for his transgressions, much like Luke's other superiors. Evidently, Kanigher patterned even the minutia of Steve Savage's mythos after Luke's military career.
Other aspects of Savage were pure fiction, not related to Luke in any way. For instance, Savage's two meetings with Enemy Ace - you can't call them duels because little happened and they tended to be inconclusive and anticlimactic (See Unknown Soldier #262-264 and Star Spangled War Stories #181-183 for the details) - came purely from imagination. Luke most likely never encountered von Richthofen during the war, let alone duel him mano a mano.
Even more unlikely, Savage and von Hammer once teamed up to help a blind French boy get to a doctor capable of restoring his sight. Fiction may be based on real life, but it's definitely larger than life.
Steve Savage's success in the sky was greater than Luke's, again, because shooting down lots of balloons makes for entertaining stories. Luke had 18 confirmed kills, and he was the second leading US ace of World War I (Captain Eddie Rickenbacker - who makes a cameo appearance on page 3 of Unknown Soldier #262 - had the most, with 26 confirmed kills). Steve Savage, in a 36 year comic book career, probably has dozens upon dozens of kills. Heck, he averages about five per story!
And one final similarity exists between the two men; Their final fates remained unknown until World War I ended.
Steve Savage's fate, at least pre-Crisis, was like that of so many other Kanigher written war heroes - it was not known whether or not he survived the war. Personally, I've always liked not knowing because it adds more suspense to future stories.
Luke's fate, while not known on November 11, 1918 (the day the war ended), was learned of a short while after. After destroying three enemy balloons on September 29, 1918, Luke was chased by eight Fokker planes towards enemy ground artillery. He never returned to his aerodome, and his commanding officers weren't sure what happened to him.
US soldiers found Luke's grave after the armistice ended the war, and based on observations of witnesses, Luke was awarded the Medal of Honor for his last heroic actions. His Medal of Honor citation reads thusly: "Severely wounded, Lt. Luke flew at low altitude near the town of Murvaux, opened fire upon enemy troops, killing six and wounding as many more. Forced to make a landing and surrounded by the enemy on all sides, he drew his pistol and defended himself gallantly until he fell dead from a wound in the chest."
Who knows, perhaps the pre-Crisis Steve Savage perished just as heroically. We'll never know for sure.
Post-Crisis, James Robinson incorporated Steve Savage into the Starman/Jack Knight mythos. Although a very minor player in the Starman story, Savage's history was severely rewritten to fit the "heroic lineage" theme of Starman. And in doing so writer James Robinson, usually noted for his reverence to times past and writers before him, tore away the many parallels between Luke and Savage that Robert Kanigher had so painstakingly created.
Instead of Savage being from Arizona, the son of a poor father, Robison establishes that Savage was from Opal City, the son of Brian "Scalphunter" Savage. Brian Savage, the sheriff of the fictional town, definitely had wild west roots (having been raised by Native Americans), but the edginess of Steve's pre-crisis upbringing was sorely lacking.
Having Brian as a father gives Steve another interesting parallel to Frank Luke, namely, both their fathers were public officials, employees of the government. In doing so, however, many more parallels are torn asunder.
Savage no longer has the "Junior" appellation, he was no longer from Arizona, his father never taught him how to ride a horse or how to shoot a gun, etc, etc. Many of the aspects of Savage's fictional life which paralleled Luke's real life were gone.
Robinson's folly probably wasn't deliberate, and instead, it was most likely made inadvertently. Robinson shows great respect for Steve Savage, and his "I Am A Gun" story in Legends of the Dark Knight Annual #7 is one of the better Balloon Buster stories.
It should be noted however, that some parallels, such as Savage's love-hate relationship with his commanding officers, were kept intact. Steve's personality remains the same, and with his dying words, Brian Savage says of Steve, "I got a boy. A son....Wild like his daddy."
In "I Am A Gun," Robinson establishes a post-war history for Savage. Unlike his counterpart Luke, Savage is revealed to have survived World War I. After he returns home from the war, Savage is heralded as a "local boy [who] made good."
Opal City residents try to persuade him to run for sheriff, like his father, but Savage refuses. All he wants to do is fly, and after purchasing a parcel of land in neighboring Turk County, Savage built an aerodome. Naming it Rochelle Field after his slain French fiancée, Savage opened an aerial circus, and he and other flyers barnstormed the country, performing amazing stunts.
Savage, along with contemporaries like Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, broke numerous aviation records during the 1920's and 30's. His legend grew larger.
And Savage's final fate post-Crisis? Making up for eliminating some parallels between Luke and Savage, James Robinson deftly adds two more.
First, Savage's fate remains unknown, much like Luke's was for a short time. In the late 1930's a fever epidemic, accompanied by a huge cloud cover, swept into Opal City The epidemic refused to break, and citizens started a rumor that a dragon lurked within the clouds and that its breath was causing the fever.
Savage, allegedly having seen the dragon, took off to fight it. His canary yellow Spad flew into the clouds and he was never seen again. He never returned to his aerodome. But, the cloud vanished as mysteriously as it came, as did the fever.
Did Savage sacrifice himself to save Opal City? Or did he simply crash in a remote area where no one could find the wreckage? Nothing was certain except the fact that his legend and myth continued to grow over the years.
The second Savage-Luke parallel Robinson adds involves the renaming of Rochelle Field. In the 1950's, when interest in Savage's life peaked with magazine articles and the publication of his biography (titled "I Am A Gun" and written by the fictitious Harold Jennings), Rochelle Field was renamed Savage Field in his honor. Similarly, both in time frame and in deed, the Army renamed it's Phoenix base Luke Air Force Base in 1949. (The town of Phoenix had also previously honored Frank Luke with a memorial statue near the Arizona capitol building).
Fictional and Real Life Heroes
Over the course of writing this, I've been pleasantly surprised by the history and heroism woven into the character of Steve Savage. I've also been fascinated by the real life exploits of Frank Luke. Comics are often considered "American mythology," and in this case, it's easy to understand why. The adventures of Steve Savage have kept the story of Frank Luke alive, sharing it with an unsuspecting audience who might not have ever known about it.
All American Men of War #112, "The Balloon Buster," written by Robert Kanigher, illustrated by Russ Heath, Nov. 1965. (Reprinted in Unknown Soldier #160)
All American Men of War #113, "The Ace of Sudden Death," written by Kanigher, illustrated by Heath, Jan. 1966. (Reprinted in Unknown Soldier #162)
All American Men of War #114, "The Ace Who Died Twice," written by Kanigher, illustrated by Heath, Mar. 1966. (Reprinted in Unknown Soldier #163)
All American Men of War #116, "Circle of Death," written by Kanigher, illustrated by Heath, July 1966.
Star Spangled War Stories #181-183, "Hell's Angels," 3 part story written by Kanigher, illustrated by Frank Thorne, July 1974 - Nov. 1974.
Unknown Soldier #262-264, "Killers of the Sky" 3 part story written by Kanigher, illustrated by Dan Spiegle, April-June, 1982
Who's Who #2, (short biography), written by Marv Wolfman, illustrated by Joe Kubert, April 1985
Crisis on Infinite Earths #9, (seen in 4 panels on page 9), written by Wolfman, illustrated by George Perez, December 1985.
History of the DCU #1 (seen on one page), written by Wolfman, illustrated by Perez, 1986.
Legends of the Dark Knight Annual #7, "I Am A Gun," written by James Robinson, illustrated by Russ Heath and Steve Yeowell, 1997.
Starman: Secret Files #1, (only mentioned, not seen), written by Robinson, illustrated by various artists, April 1998.
Starman #74, (only mentioned, not seen), written by Robinson, illustrated by Heath, Feb 2001.
Frank Luke: The September Rampage, by Robert and William Haiber, Devel Press, 1999
History of the 27th Pursuit Squadron, by C. Conover, available on-line at http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Acropolis/7133/summary1.html
Horses Don't Fly: A Memoir of World War I, by Frederick Libby, Arcade Publishing, New York, 2000.
Medal of Honor: Volume 1, Aviators of World War I, by Alan E. Durkota
"World War I Ace's Winning Streak Ended in a Face to Face Shootout," by Bethanne Kelly Patrick, Military.com columnist, available on-line at http://www.military.com/Content/MoreContent/1,12044,ML_luke_bkp,00.html
David R. Black is Fanzing.com's magazine editor and chief archivist. A big fan of "The Warlord," he has a cat named Shakira and is looking for a girlfriend named Tara....
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