Created by Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert in 1965, it was inspired by tales of Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron. The character first appeared in Our Army at War #151 (February, 1965). The feature was groundbreaking in its portrayal of an "enemy" soldier as the sympathetic protagonist of a war comic. The stories typically drew a contrast between Von Hammer, a gentleman and "knight of the sky", and the horrors of a war that increasingly had no place for such chivalry.
Viewed as a cold-blooded and heartless killer even by his own men, Von Hammer often revealed his human side, brooding to himself or to a Black Forest wolf he often encountered on private walks, and regarded as a kindred spirit.
The focus of the stories is his aerial battles and internal brooding. The non-flight scenes tended to a precise formula in the middle of the story, usually including: a panel of Hammer walking away from his plane, as his fellow pilots mutter about the "killing machine"; a panel of Hammer brooding in his quarters, as his orderly natters in admiration; a few panels in which he visits his only friend, the wolf, in the Black Forest. Then he'd return to his plane and another aerial battle.
Later stories sometimes broke with formula by introducing colorful "costumed" Allied aces as adversaries, including The One-Eyed Cat, The Hangman (his only recurring opponent), The Harpy, The Skull Men and St. George, a British ace who actually wore a suit of armor in flight.
Von Hammer lost his lead feature slot in Star-Spangled War Stories in the early 1970s, eventually being replaced by Unknown Soldier, though occasionally reappearing throughout the decade. When the feature was briefly revived in the 1980s as a backup, it had something of a James Bond flavor, with adventures involving spies, Femmes Fatales, impersonators, etc.
Von Hammer's legacy was featured in the Batman story, "Ghost of the Killer Skies"note . When sabotage and murder occur on the set of a movie (produced by Bruce Wayne) about Von Hammer's career, Batman investigates. Von Hammer himself does not appear... or does he?.
In later years, Von Hammer would occasionally turn up here and there, including at least one Time Travel adventure in which he met the Justice League of America. Other stories showed that Von Hammer survived the war. In the pulp-flavored 1920s-set Guns of the Dragon miniseries, von Hammer teamed up with an odd assortment of DC characters to fight the immortal Vandal Savage. In Garth Ennis' 2001 Enemy Ace: War In Heaven, we see von Hammer in an even more morally conflicted state, as he serves in the Luftwaffe during World War II. And the 1989 graphic novel Enemy Ace: War Idyll shows von Hammer dying in 1969, after a final interview with an American Vietnam veteran.
Enemy Ace provides examples of the following tropes:
- Ace Pilot: Von Hammer, of course, and many of his Allied adversaries.
- The Aesthetics of Technology: Von Hammer noted this in War In Heaven.
- Anti-Villain: Von Hammer, and a few others.
- Arch-Enemy: The Hangman
- Artifact Title: This was how a lot of readers in the 1960s perceived the comics Von Hammer appeared in, such as Our Army at War and Star-Spangled War Stories, considering that Von Hammer was neither part of "our" army nor an American.
- Blue Blood: Prussian nobleman von Hammer.
- Byronic Hero: Von Hammer fits the archetype rather closely as a charismatic nobleman who hates war, but is very good at it, his ideals often at odds with those of his country (true when fighting for Imperial Germany in World War I, and even more so in War in Heaven, where he's fighting for Nazi Germany). And he's always extremely broody.
- Canine Companion: Von Hammer believes the lone black wolf who accompanies him in the woods is the only one who truly understands him.
- Completely Different Title: For the first Spanish translation, done by Toutain in the '80s: obviously thinking that the protagonist wasn't transparent enough as a Red Baron Expy, they actually titled the album El Barón Rojo◊. Note that the character's name was not changed from "von Hammer" to "von Richtofen"; just the title.
- Create Your Own Villain: Subverted. It is unclear how much of a role that Von Hammer played in disfiguring Count Andre Sevigne (the Hangman)'s face. In their first fight, Hammer blows up a balloon base that apparently kills the Hangman. The resulting explosion was so great that the Hangman could not have escaped without being burned. Denise, Andre's sister, also directly says on one cover that Von Hammer was responsible. However, she also says that his disfigurement forced him to wear the hood over his face and this led to the Hangman name and gimmick, but he was already wearing the hood and using the name and gimmick before the explosion. So was it the result of an undocumented battle between Von Hammer and Andre? Or was it an unrelated incident involving some other enemy pilot?
- Defector from Decadence: Von Hammer becomes this at the end of War in Heaven. When he discovers the truth about the death camps, he immediately leads his men in surrendering to the Allies, although he does destroy the prototype jets first. See My Country, Right or Wrong below for more details. (And of course, who else would von Hammer surrender to? None other than Sgt. Rock).
- Enemy Mine: He teams up with Batman in his appearance on Batman: The Brave and the Bold due to the fact that the aliens (assisting his own side) are using a dishonorable weapon and shouldn't be there.
- Expy: Von Hammer, of Manfred von Richthofen.
- General Ripper: Most of Von Hammer's superior officers.
- Good Scars, Evil Scars: Von Hammer and the Hangman.
- The Gunfighter Wannabe: The pilot of the rocket-propelled Super Prototype (see below) somehow thought murdering fellow officer von Hammer with live ammo in a supposed field test war game was a fine way to make a name for himself as Germany's top ace. It worked out about as well for him as you'd expect.
- Hero Antagonist: While von Hammer is a sympathetic character, most Western readers would also regard his British, French, and American adversaries as "the good guys."
- I Am Not Shazam: He is often erroneously called "Enemy Ace" by other characters during time-travelling guest appearances. His actual In-Universe moniker was "The Hammer of Hell". Downplayed in that he is an enemy ace to the Allies.
- Insult to Rocks: This exchange from War in Heaven:
- It Has Been an Honor: Enemy pilots will frequently salute Von Hammer as they fall to their deaths.
- Knight In Sour Armor: Von Hammer
- Large Ham: St. George
- Littlest Cancer Patient: Von Hammer does his best not to disappoint young fans, especially those less financially fortunate or dying.
- Ludicrous Gibs: When Von Hammer shoots down a Russian bomber above Leningrad in book one of War in Heaven a crew member climbs out, and rather than parachuting down, decides to disable Von Hamme' plane by jumping into the propeller, which results in blood, guts, severed limbs, and head flying every which way.
- Make It Look Like an Accident: In "Enemy Ace: War in Heaven- Book 2," shortly after being shot down, and parachuting into the Dachau concentration camp, Von Hammer gives a speech to the men in the airfield telling them to stop fighting and to stop supporting the Nazi regime. When Engels, an ardent Nazi, points a gun at him and is about to shoot after Von Hammer calls Hitler a "piece of excrement," Von Hammer's wingman kills Engels with a burst of the quadruple 30mm cannons of an Me-262 fighter jet, while "testing" the firing mechanism that he thought wasn't loaded.
- My Country, Right or Wrong: Von Hammer lives by this precept as a loyal soldier of Germany, no matter how much his superiors or his government disgusts him, when he serves in the German Air Force in World War II. However, the instant he discovers the Holocaust's death camps in the closing days of the war, he abandons this trope and leads a mutiny. But even after that, he's not a total rebel. His last official act before surrendering is to destroy his unit's advanced Me 262 jet aircraft, preventing them from falling into Allied hands.Von Hammer: (salutes) Oberst Hans von Hammer, Jagverband Ninety-Nine.
Sgt. Rock: Rock. Easy Co. You boys ready to come on in?
Von Hammer: (drops match, setting fire to his last jets) I am surrendering the officers and enlisted men of my unit into your custody, Sergeant. But that is all.
Sgt. Rock: Still fightin', Colonel?
Von Hammer: No. My war is over, Sergeant. I am no longer your enemy.
- Nice Hat: Von Hammer wears distinctive headgear in flight, particularly his "horned" goggles. (In early appearances, they're normal goggles, but this changed quickly.)
- No-Dialogue Episode: One of the greatest Ace tales, "Silent Night", was published in a Christmas Special in 1988. It has no dialogue, sound effects, or captions.
- Officer and a Gentleman: Von Hammer, but when he discovers his government's supreme atrocity in World War II, he's had more than enough.
- Phrase-Catcher: Behind his back, when they don't think he can hear, everyone at the airbase calls him a "killing machine". He hears them perfectly well, and it weighs on him heavily.
- The Queen's Latin: Garth Ennis wrote the German characters in War in Heaven with British accents and dialects that roughly correspond to their social class.
- Red Baron: "The Hammer of Hell" might be an even more badass nickname than "The Red Baron".
- Retcon: In an issue of Swamp Thing released in The '90s, he was revealed to be a cousin of Swamp Thing's Arch-Enemy, Anton Arcane.
- Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Von Hammer's reaction to losing his puppy.
- Subtext: Hammer often muses about how "The killing skies have no friends," or "The killing skies take no prisoners." Usually, "the killing skies" is code for Hammer himself.
- Super Prototype: Von Hammer flies against a rocket-propelled Spad. He recognizes it as the future of aviation, but his short-sighted superiors lack his foresight.
- Title Drop: A damned good one in War In Heaven.What is it that we do, exactly? Every day, the Americans and ourselves, we climb as high and as far as our machines will take us. To the very limits of human achievement. To the gates of heaven itself. And we try to kill each other. We stain the sky, Peter. We fight a war in heaven.
- Too Dumb to Live: St. George, a costumed British ace who thinks he's the reincarnation of St. George, and wears medieval armor even in his plane.
- Took A Level In Bad Ass: Denise, the Hangman's sister, who becomes an aviatrix called The Harpy overnight.
- Translation Convention: War in Heaven uses an unusual variant. Not only is all the German characters' dialogue written in English, but it's also translated into specific dialects that a person of the same rank and social class might have in England.
- Villain Protagonist: Arguably, though more of an Anti-Villain Protagonist.
- War Is Hell: Even in the air.
- Worthy Opponent: The feature's premise is basically "Worthy Opponent as protagonist." Also what Von Hammer considers every enemy he fights, with few exceptions.
- Zerg Rush: After being shot down over Leningrad, Von Hammer makes his way to friendly lines, a panzer crewman shoots a child with a grenade, dozens of Red Army soldiers swarm the tank.