Growing up, like many of you, I’m sure you wondered just how “true” some of the “true stories” told in comics actually were. Sometimes, it seems, truth is far, far stranger than fiction… and sometimes, far from as “funny” as presented…
Take, for example, “Facts on Wings“, a one-page strip drawn by Mort Meskin from Jet Fighters #7, published in the United States by Standard Comics in 1953. Drawn to my attention by comics fan Ernesto de Guevara after the art sold on Heritage Auctions for a knockdown £360, like others, I couldn’t help but wonder if the story of a female pilot riding a Germán V1 was perhaps plucked from fiction – but it isn’t.
The German who tested the V1s was Hanna Reitsch, and her story is actually more incredible than that panel suggests. A German aviatrix and test pilot awarded the Iron Cross in 1941, during the Nazi era, she and Melitta von Stauffenberg flight tested many of the regime’s new aircraft, including the rocket-propelled Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet in 1942.
Her original idea, known as “Operation Suicide”, presented to Adolf Hitler in February 1944, “would require men who were ready to sacrifice themselves in the conviction that only by this means could their country be saved.”
Although Hitler “did not consider the war situation sufficiently serious to warrant them… and… this was not the right psychological moment”, he gave his approval. The project was assigned to General Günther Korten, and about about 70 volunteers enrolled in the Suicide Group as pilots for the human glider-bomb. Later, they adapted the V-1 into three models, a two-seater, and a single-seater with and without the mechanisms to land. The plan was never implemented operationally, “the decisive moment had been missed.”
“Golden Age comics artist Morton “Mort” Meskin (30th May 1916 – 29th March 1995) was a legend in the US comics industry, praised by the likes of Steve Ditko, whose work, initially for National Comics, included superheroes, adventure and more. He also worked alongside Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in their studio, on a variety of titles such as Boys’ Ranch and Prize Comics – and is considered a progressive member of the Jack Kirby and Eisner-Iger circles of comics innovators.
He continued to work in the industry until well into the late-1950s and 1960s Silver Age, and was one of six inductees into the Will Eisner Hall of Fame in 2013.
Meskin’s splendidly cinematic composition for this art combines with an array of flight vignettes worthy of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! The description for the page on the Heritage Auctions web site notes Meskin had drawn the page as early as 1947, but it languished until 1952-53, when this issue of Jet Fighters went into production.
Placed as a back-of-the-book filler piece, this “Facts on Wings” ran alongside such stories as “Spook Squadron”, drawn by Ross Andru, and another story, “Robot Raiders”, reveals America’s early work on robot-controlled planes used in the Korean War. Plus, there a terrific short “Seeley’s Saucer”, drawn by the brilliant Alex Toth.
Hanna Reitsch, who died in 1979, and who never apparently regretted her support for National Socialism, reputedly set more than 40 flight altitude records and women’s endurance records in gliding and unpowered flight, before and after World War Two. Her life story is remarkable and her life has been the subject of more than one film, despite her undoubted sympathies for Hitler and the Nazis, played on screen for example by Barbara Ruetting in the 1965 film Operation Crossbow and Diane Cilento in the 1973 film Hitler: The Last Ten Days.
In the 1960s, she was sponsored by the West German foreign office as a technical adviser in Ghana and elsewhere, and founded the first black African national gliding school, working closely with the government and the armed forces there, working for Kwame Nkrumah.
With thanks to Ernesto de Guevara for sending me down this particular “rabbit hole”
An addendum courtesy air ace Jeremy Briggs regarding the technical accuracy and stories featured on the Mort Meskin page:
Panel 1 – Rubbish!
Panel 2 – The Fieseler Fi 103R (the manned V-1) had an enclosed cockpit and doesn’t look anything like that
Panel 3 – Accurate, that is how Wright Flyer 1 worked in 1903
Panel 4 – The image does not show a spin and the first recovery was in 1912, but before that it would have been a major case of crashes
Panel 5 – The Jet A and Jet A-1 fuels that modern jet airliners use is kerosene based but is not “common kerosene”