In my life I offer up a lot of sarcasm, snark, and maybe even my own brand of snarkasm, but I’d like to think I’m not too jaded. I hold out hope things will be good, even though, with comic book related content, there’s often a creeping suspicion in the back of my mind that it won’t be. Case in point, last year I hoped I’d finally be able get in to Superman, with the release of Man of Steel, but alas, I was again disappointed.
It was with this same sort of hope that I purchased Marvel Super-Heroes #16, the first appearance (and one of only a handful) of the Phantom Eagle, a World War I flying ace. I’ve recently completed a four year epic reading a WWI history book, The First World War by Martin Gilbert, on and off, reading a little bit at night and taking a sabbatical to read the entire Harry Potter series. I’ve always been fascinated by World War I: the last throes of the Old World, the poetry, and of course, flying aces. It was this last bit that inspired the Phantom Eagle, Karl Kaufman, a World War I flying ace. I can keenly remember seeing him in the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe (I think the “dead and inactive” section) as a youngster and being slightly intrigued and amused by his ridiculous outfit. Look at him:
Still, a WWI-era hero, based on the bad-assery of flying aces? The Phantom Eagle held strong odds in being a cool niche hero, an example of what could have been. World War II had teams of superheroes, with the Justice Society, the All Star Squadron, All-Star Winners Squad, the Invaders (retcon), the retconned Justice Society, the Freedom Fighters, the Crusaders, the Crusaders, and a swarm of other America heroes ranging from Captain Flag to both Yank and Doodle. World War I, however, was largely forgotten. I found some more flying ace tales in a reprint of Two Fisted Tales, and there are few other examples, but much like the titles in the history section at a bookstore, World War II outnumbered World War I by at least 4 to 1. Was The Phantom Eagle a forgotten classic, swept under the rug by the grandiose Americana of “the greatest generation”? No. His tale has him defending US soil from a potential German air attack, including a zeppelin by the third page. Karl Kaufman’s extra German name is no red herring, as he fears enlisting for World War I in the US government lest his family, living in Germany, face reprisal, which is an interesting twist on a war hero. Like any good flying ace story, the “good guys” are outgunned and outmanned in the air and have to rely on savvy and gumption to take out the Kaiser’s air force. They triumph, though Phantom Eagle loses his best friend in the closing panels of the story, no doubt propelling Phantom Eagle to take flight for future tales (that never come). Along the way, the art was decent, including a couple of large scale panels of exploding aircraft. Ultimately, Phantom Eagle had little impact because, honestly, I’m not sure there would be a place for him in a lineup of monthly series. Marvel already had a past-era crop of heroes from World War II they ultimately revived in The Invaders series, and Phantom Eagle managed to make an appearance in that series as a member of Freedom’s Five, a ragtag group of heroes that existed as a brief allusion in Invaders #7. I’m not sure there would have been room for another series set in a past war, and as a result Phantom Eagle is ultimately forgettable. His ridiculous outfit was just silly, and he only appeared a handful more times. In 2009 he was revived for War is Hell by Garth Ennis, and I suppose I need to check that out before all’s said and done since I am an amateur World War I/comic book crossnerd. And probably buy Invaders #7.
The Phantom Eagle is mentioned in the upcoming “America Heroes” edition of the What If Podcast (here’s a YouTube early release!)