The story deals with one Karl Kaufmann, an idealistic young pilot in WWI. He dreams of being a lone fighter pilot, not encumbered by a squadron and battle orders. He imagines that he'll be a noble "knight of the sky" facing his enemies with honor and dignity. He has his plane painted to resemble an eagle and he wears a non-regulation flight suit.
His dreams of solo glory are quickly dashed when he's exposed to the raw horror of aerial combat. Kaufmann also gets a look at what's going on on the ground when he and a fellow pilot are shot down in no-man's land. The war takes it's toll on these men, grinding them down, chewing them up and spitting them out. At the end, Kaufmann is a survivor and in charge of his own flight squadron. The man who wanted to fly alone is now a leader of eager, naive young pilots whom he must disabuse of any glorious fantasies about warfare.
The series is definitely for adults. There's sexual content, coarse language and several extremely graphic scenes of violence. But the story is historically accurate and well written and Chaykin's artwork is superb. I give this one a thumbs up and recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fiction and graphic storytelling.
The title of the series plays on two previous Marvel comic-book series. WAR IS HELL ran for fifteen issues beginning in 1973 while The Phantom Eagle made his debut in MARVEL SUPER-HEROES #16 in September, 1968. Written and illustrated by Herb Trimpe (who had a long run drawing THE INCREDIBLE HULK), the one-shot story told the exploits of the Phantom Eagle, a solo pilot who flew a customized plane and wore a distinctive flight suit. It was exactly the kind of romanticized, pulp hero material that Ennis and Chaykin deconstruct so brilliantly in their series.
I remember buying that first appearance of the Phantom Eagle (I've still got it!) and enjoying it immensely. I was a big fan of war comics from any era and I liked Trimpe's art (still do). But the Eagle only flew that one and only time back in '68. We had to wait forty-one years for another appearance but the wait was worth it.