Thursday, March 31, 2011

Dive Bombers, Fighter Planes and Pretty Girls

I mentioned in a previous post that we're living in a veritable Golden Age for classic comic book reprints. And we are indeed, as made obvious by the recent publication of Buz Sawyer, volume 1: The War in the Pacific.

Buz was a creation of Roy Crane, who had recently left his long-running Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy strip to start something new.

Wash Tubbs had been a brilliant effort. The first true adventure strip, it had been filled with a pretty much perfect combination of action and humor. Crane's storytelling skills combined with a slightly cartoony art style to create a visually unique and very entertaining world. Storylines often included full-scale battles and fights to the death, but Crane's layouts always made it seem like good clean fun.

With Buz Sawyer, he went a more realistic route. Buz was in the Navy, flying a dive bomber (at first a Dauntless--later a Helldiver). His radioman/rear gunner was Roscoe Sweeney--a loyal friend as well as crew mate. Together, the pair would have one hair-raising adventure after another.

The change in characters and shift in tone didn't effect Crane at all as an artist. If anything, he got better. He drops Buz and Roscoe into trouble right from the strips premiere in late 1943, giving us an exciting dog fight that runs for a week or so.

Crane keeps the action going non-stop. Soon after the above dogfight, our heroes are shot down and forced to ditch in the ocean.

Eventually, they end up on a Japanese-held island, forcing them to play a dangerous game of hide-and-seek with the enemy.

Of course, they soon run across a pretty girl. Buz ran across pretty girls in the most unlikely situations.

The art is just fun to look at, carrying the story smoothly from one day to the next. Crane, with a couple of decades of experience behind him on Wash Tubbs, expertly mixed together character, plot and visuals.

One interesting thing to note--in addition to meeting girls in the unlikeliest places, Buz also had a tendency to get shot down a lot. This, of course, was the most logical route to get Buz and Roscoe into more personal adventures. In a later storyline, they run low on gas while flying close air support for ground troops, forcing them to land on an airstrip still partially controlled by the Japanese. Later in the war, after Buz has been transferred to torpedo planes, he and Roscoe are forced to ditch in the ocean again after taking anti-aircraft hits. They're picked up by a Japanese submarine, giving them the interesting problem of how to escape from a submerged vessel.

Each of these stories were great. In fact, the quality stays high on Buz Sawyer throughout the war years. It's interesting that Crane choose to make Buz a dive bomber/torpedo bomber pilot rather than go the more glamorous fighter pilot route. But then, these planes had two- or three-man crews, so this gave Buz a built-in sidekick for his ground-based adventures..

Not that being a fighter pilot would have made for boring storytelling. Over on Terry and the Pirates, writer/artist Milt Caniff had tossed his title character into the war and trained him to fly a P-51. Young Terry was a little late in enlisting (slowed down after being wounded while escaping from the Philippines, then spending time helping break up a Japanese spy ring), so when Buz joined the war, Terry was still finishing up his flight cadet training in Asia.

But Terry would get a chance to fly a few combat missions as well before long, though he'd never lose his tendency to run across spies while on the ground. And, like Buz, he'd also tend to run across drop-dead gorgeous dames on a regular basis.

Buz and Terry become one of those cases where you wish there had been a team-up at one point. But even though they never met, their war-time adventures represent their respective creators at the pinnacle of their skill as artsits and storytellers.

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