31 January, 2017

War, Genre, and the Reds

Johnny Red: The Hurricane
Garth Ennis, Keith Burns, with Jason Wordic and Rob Steen.

Forgive me if I’m being redundant or a bit obvious, but nobody does war stories like Garth Ennis does war stories. Which is is also to say that nobody else actually write these stories (well, almost nobody. . . ).

Johnny Red falls firmly within Garth Ennis' wheelhouse as a writer. It's the story of an RAF pilot stuck behind Soviet lines and pushed into a near no-win situation against the approaching German army. As such, it involves RAF banter, Stalingrad, bad commies, good comrades, the Nazis, and at least one decent Jerry. In short: It's a Garth Ennis war comic. (Also, it might fall within Keith Burns' wheelhouse, I'm not entirely sure. It sure looks like it does, though). What impresses me is that Ennis can still tell different stories and different kinds of stories using the same setting, the same tropes, and the same basic tools. 

I’ve talked about this before with Fury (and probably some other Garth Ennis comics somewhere. . . And Star Wars, come to think of it. . .), but when it comes to World War II stories there are a few distinct sub-genres* Though, that is distinctly different from sub-genres.

The ones that pop most readily to mind are navy movies, resistance movies (Carve Her Name With Pride, Army of Shadows, Army of Crime), POW movies (The Great Escape, Stalg 17, Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence), tank movies (Kelly’s Heroes, Fury, Sahara), and then, naturally, the plane movie (Battle of Britain, 12 O’Clock High, Memphis Belle).** I talked about this in my first piece on Rogue One.

What is impressive about Ennis and his arististic collaborators (this time, it’s Keith Burns, who, unlike a lot of modern artists, really nails the grit and ugliness of the war) is that not only is he using certain settings and tropes over and over again, but that even within these sub-genres, Ennis is telling different kinds of stories.

My favorite of these is Enemy Ace. Enemy Ace takes its cue from one of DC's many ancient and under used properties from War Stories (which includes the Haunted Tank, The Losers, and Sgt. Rock). It tells the story of a classic Prussian officer (and WWI ace) who is forced out of retirement by the Nazis to fight a war that he doesn't like and can't win. If you can hunt down a copy of this book on the cheap, I would highly recommend it. It also makes an interesting companion piece to Johnny Red.

It's also interesting to note that, while Ennis has never been short on enmity for the Nazis or the German armed forces in general, both Enemy Ace and Johnny Red demonstrate that he's capable of portraying the enemy with some semblance of nuance (even if it involves Ennis hitting the same basic tropes that he almost always hits). 

Actually, scratch that, hunt down all of Ennis’ war books. Between Keith Burns, Carlos Ezquerra, David Gibbons, Goran Parlov, and about a dozen other of the best cartoonists in the business, you’re in for a treat. Or an existential horror show. I mean, it’s a winner either way.

What was I saying about Johnny Red? Oh yeah. It’s good. Burns nails the art and Ennis does what Ennis does (write war stories about capable men and women that don't put up with any bullshit). Johnny Red is part adventure story, part fighter pilot story, part Red orchestra, and, most interestingly, a paean to the men and machines that beat back the tide of fascism. It's a classic Ennis story and, along with Burns, proves why he's the best war writer in the business.

Not much more to say than that. I mean, other than to remind you that Ennis is a goddamn treasure and it kills me that he isn’t allowed to just make these stories at his own pace, at his own time, whenever he wants instead of this depressing, piecemeal situation. He does good work. His artists do good work. They’re making stories that matter more than most comics matter. He should be rewarded for that. Everyone should be.

*This is true of any genre. There is no such thing as a static genre. These things move with time, with setting, with creators. With Film Noir you move from the classic hardboiled period in the late 30’s through the early 40’s, then, in the 50’s, after noir lost its allure in Americsa the French, newly liberated discovered these films and made their own noirs (which is wear the term comes from. Leave it to the French).

**I realize that I’m talking about movies not comics. Sorry. That’s just where my mind goes with these things. Also, to talk about the WWII comic over the past 20 years is to talk of Garth Ennis and his collaborators.

James Kislingbury is a writer, an artist, and a podcaster. If you like this well enough, then check out his Patreon or just do whatever. 

20 January, 2017

Current Mood:

For some reason this scene is becoming more and more topical as time goes on.

16 January, 2017

Thoughts on Rogue One Part 1 (of Whatever)

(For the next few weeks, I'm going to be pumping out articles on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Originally this was going to be one, big essay, dropped all at once, but as time went on, it became unwieldy. This is what happens when you don't have an editor. Or deadlines. Anyways, here is a portion of my thoughts. It's also one of the more important points that needs to be made about Rogue One, as well. Not that anybody asked me. . . )

Resistance, the Empire, and the DNA of Star Wars

The core of the Original Trilogy of Star Wars is based around the Second World War. As many other influences creep in (Flash Gordon, Akira Kurosawa, Sergio Leone, and Joseph Campbell, to name but a few), the iconography is clear. The language is clear. Star Wars is not just a war story, it's a World War II story.

Rogue One carries on that basic concept. It also, more importantly, moves it forward in several specific ways. Namely, Rogue One is based around a very specific kind of WWII movie. This is done deliberately and understanding where Rogue One comes from is to better understand what it's trying to say. At the very least, it can give you a better appreciation for the kinds of WWII movies that don't involve John Wayne hucking grenades at the Japanese (though, those are a lot of fun, too).

As David Edelstein mentions in his review at Vulture:

Instead, it rehashes the plots of about a thousand World War II and/or Western films in which a brave squadron — a Magnificent Seven, a Dirty Dozen, a Force Five — prepares to sacrifice itself in the name of a greater cause.

From the Imperial uniforms to the use of the word "stormtroopers" to ripping off shots wholesale from The Dam Busters and Triumph of the Will, the Big One is embedded in the DNA of Star Wars. What I find interesting about Rogue One is that it continues the legacy of Star Wars beings about WWII, but it also shifts that theme forwards in two ways.

One is the specific kind of WWII movie that Rogue One is drawing from. The second is that Rogue One is still about war, but it's moved forward into a different war (which is a point that I'll get into in a future entry. . . hopefully). Rogue One is a resistance movie. Even though it's science fiction, even though it belongs to a mythological saga, and even though it was created to pad out Disney's cash reserves, it belongs in the same pantheon as Army of Shadows and Carve Her Name With Pride* (though, admittedly, somewhere towards the back).

A New Hope draws from much louder and more bombastic World War II movies and events. It is as much The Battle of Briton as it is A Hero of a Thousand Faces. It even stars Alex Guinness who would probably be best known for his role in Bridge Over the River Kwai if it wasn't for George Lucas (to Guinness' chagrin).** It's a film that's much more rooted in more fun, more comforting war movies. That is in stark contrast to the kind of film that Rogue One is. By the nature of the genre that Gareth Edwards and his crack team of writers and producers chose, Rogue One has to be a different kind of film, even if it does share a common lineage.

Instead of pilots or soldiers, Rogue One is about resistance agents. Just as you could switch out most of Gold Squadron with anyone from 12 O'Clock High, you could pretty much swap out anyone in the eponymous Rogue One with anyone from Army of Shadows (except for the robot and Saw Gerrera, who is a character that I'll get to in the future, as well. . . ).

So, let's take a look at what makes a WWII movie into a resistance movie, and then let's see how Rogue One compares. Come on. Don't be shy. It'll be fun.

The protagonists aren't professionals.

First and foremost, resistance movies aren't about citizen soldiers. They're about people with their backs to the wall. It's about people that are either out to survive or people that are forced into a fight (which parallels films about collaborators, which is a whole other article).

That's exactly what Jyn Erso is. She doesn't have a choice. While the rest of her team kind of does, none of them are in a position to do the right thing. They have to do it or they'll die. Or somebody else will die. A lot of somebody elses. . . Even Rick in Casablanca fits this mold. None of these people want to be here. The drama comes from the fact that, unlike the American GI in WWII, there is no rear to fall back to. They have to be here, because:

The film takes place in occupied territory.

The enemy's ascendancy is a fait accompli. There's no stopping the invasion. It already happened. This is true of movies about Denmark, France, and Czechoslovakia (you could also get into Eastern Europe, but at that point, you're talking about partisans, which is slightly different. . . I'm getting off topic again. Sorry).

In A New Hope, as much as it takes place within the Empire, the main battle is on Rebel territory (Yavin IV, which appears in Rogue One, along with the B-roll of A New Hope). It also takes place on the frontier, which has Imperial soldiers, but you never get the sense that Tatooine is owned by the Empire. This never happens in Rogue One. They're under the Empire's flag from minute one. The Empire dominates every scene. Which leads to the fact that:

The deck is stacked.

Of course the deck is always stacked. Dramatically it has to be. It also has to be as a matter of course. The bad guys hold all of the cards. They can kidnap your dad, blow up a planet, put you to work in a slave labor camp. They're the Empire, fuck you. We have Darth Vader and a Dracula (we used to have two, but anyways. . . ). What do you have? That's right. Nothing. Fuck you.

The resistance (in this case the Rebel Alliance, not to be confused with the Resistance of The Force Awakens) doesn't have their shit together enough to put up an actual fight. As a result they have to chip around the edges. They have to recruit fighters. Assassinate important Imperial personnel. And when they do fight-- if they do fight-- it's an all-or-nothing proposition. This is true of both the command structure of the Rebels, as well as the individuals that have to go and do the actual dying and fighting.

And, speaking of fighting and dying:

People are going to die.

This isn't always true (I already mentioned Casablanca). But, it's usually true. Resistance members die. It's what they do. You can't build a cause without martyrs and you can't have martyrs without bloodshed.***

There is a lack of romance to a lot of these films. This is perhaps because many of these stories are based on real events. Carve Her Name With Pride is the most obvious example that I can think of. It's the real-life story of Violette Szabo, a British widow that was married to a French soldier. After her husband was killed in combat, she was recruited by the Special Operations Executive to help, as Churchill put it "Set Europe ablaze." She was caught in occupied France and summarily executed by the Germans. Not exactly blockbuster material.

The same goes for other resistance heroes (and secret agents) like Noor Inayat Khan (who doesn't have a movie. Guess why that might be).

In Rogue One-- spoilers-- everybody dies. That's because of who they are. They aren't Star Wars heroes. They're resistance members. You can't beat city hall. And you sure as shit can't beat the Death Star. But that's hardly the point. Which, leads me to the last qualification:

Sorry, but the good guys don't win.

Rogue One is firmly planted in the tradition of Army of Shadows, Uprising, and Carve Her Name With Pride. It takes its influence from those that fought the good fight and lost. In these movies, our heroes don’t end up killing Hitler (usually). They die and not just the veteran on his last tour or the machine-gun loader with a heart of gold or the guy with a girl back home. The heroes will die. All of them. Hard.

Again, this reflects reality (or, at least, the reality of film). For a lot of the resistance, victory wasn't something that they got to see. While equating Star fuckin' Wars with the real-life sacrifices of the men and women of various resistance organizations is glib, it does at least show that the writers behind Rogue One know what they're doing. Violette Szabo was killed. Noor Inayat Khan was killed. So were many others that don't have books or movies based on them.

These people died in the hope that others would outlive them and see their wishes fulfilled. They took risks and died so that somebody else could finish the fight. Rogue One isn't about victory. It's about hope. If there is an untapped vein of WWII sentiment it is that even in the darkest night, at some point dawn will arrive.

Another quote from Winston Churchill, that speaks to the end of Rogue One (and the beginning of Star Wars):

"This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end, but perhaps it is the end of the beginning."

There is only glory in death. In myth. They don't build legends around people that stick around long enough to disappoint you. The real heroes are dead. In that way Rogue One ties in with Joseph Campbell even more than the Original Trilogy. It's a film that is not only about the legends that Campbell talked about. It's a film that is about the myths that we've built up around WWII. . . It might even be a film that's based around the myths that we've built up around George Lucas.

So, go watch some of these old movies (and some of the new ones) and let me know what you think. Or just skip over me and go watch Rogue One with a slightly new appreciation of the movie. Or, you know, the biggest war ever fought for human liberty.

There's another quote I saw today. It doesn't quite fit into all of this. Maybe it's the wrong place for it, but I couldn't pass it up. Because it has to do with how fiction can give us a key into wider experiences. We'll never fight in WWII, but maybe watching movies-- even fantasy films like Star Wars-- can help us understand what that's like. Even a little. That's important. That, arguably, is what art is about.

So, here it is, from President Barack Hussein Obama:

"I found myself better able to imagine what was going on in the lives of people throughout my presidency because of, not just a specific novel, but the act of reading fiction."


*Fun fact: Carve Her Name With Pride is one of Michael Caine's first screen roles. He plays a POW. He has no lines.

**I'm not sure what the cinematic parallels are for The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi, but I'm sure I won't have to dig for long to find something. Funnily enough, the first movie I can think of that compares to the events in Empire is Dunkirk, which isn't even out yet. Huh. Then again, we also have Atonement, which features the Dunkirk Evacuation and that of course starred-- that's right-- Queen Amadala's stunt double. IT'S EVERYWHERE YOU JUST HAVE TO LOOK FOR IT!

***Strangely enough, this made me think of the Zealots. Resistance movies are almost always WWII movies. This is a result of the fact that rarely in the past two-thousand years have white people (or white-adjacent, like the Jews) ever been in the position of being an underdog except in the case of WWII.

They were a resistance to an evil empire. And the more I think about it, the more badass I think the Zealots were. . . Not that anyone should get carried away about that sort of a thing.

Also, there's a lot of crossover between movies about resistance and movies about spies. There are also a whole of differences that goes beyond what I want to talk about here. The one main difference that I'll make-- and this might not matter with Rogue One-- is that movies about resistance are almost all

Where as spy movies can take place during any era (and just about any era can involve spies), you don't often

Speaking of related sub-genres, I mentioned movies about collaborators and movies about partisans. Again, there's a lot of similarities and saying that one isn't the other is what the Dutch would call "ant fucking." It's almost too granular of a point, even for me. Even right now. But, since we're here, I think it's important to say why these films are different (if not how). This is simply because WWII, as being one of the most dramatic events in all of world history, is a rich and complex series of world events. To lump movies about the French resistance with movies about French collaborators and to then lump it in with Danish royalists and lump them in with Belorussian partisans is to run roughshod over the actual real-world events that these people went through. As important (or self-important) as films can be, they're often our view into a world that we don't understand. So, even though most people aren't ever going to see Lacombe, Lucien or Come and See, if they do, they can see them knowing that there's a lot more to world history and the human experience than The Guns of the Navarone (which, incidentally, is boring as shit).

Hold on, I’m looking something up. . .

Yup, some asshole used the phrase “Rogue One puts the WARS in Star Wars.” Fuck that guy. And fuck his editor. The weaklings.

James Kislingbury is a writer, a podcaster, and a collector of very specific arms and armor from 1941-1945. If you like this and want to support things like this, take a stroll on over to his Patreon. It supports his podcast and, in turn, supports him. Think about it, why don't you?

04 January, 2017

Naturally, Germany

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before

It was last spring and I getting hammered in a basement bar in Germany. The place was located underneath a hostel named after a Gunter Grass story I had never heard of, much less ever read. I was sitting next to this Australian guy, because I was in a foreign country and of course I was. Of course all of it. I wasn’t ever going to spend a night, alone in Germany not trying to figure out whether or not their beer was better than ours (it is).

And of course Gunter Grass and of course it’s an Australian because it’s always an Australian. I have this sneaking suspicion that if I finally ever got over there, south of the equator, I’d find the entire country emptied out except for a bunch of Aborigines desperate for you not to remind the world that Australia is there and empty. They’ve had a bad run of that before.

And of course we get to talking about politics, me and this Australian (can’t remember his name for the life of me. Feel kind of bad about that, especially nowadays). Despite every reason to come at me (we’re drunk and on his home turf, a bar), he doesn’t. We talk like human beings and we have a good time and get to know each other and understand each other in a way that only two drunk strangers in the middle of nowhere can ever get to know each other. And he brings up Trump. Or I bring up Trump. Because you can’t not bring up Trump. He’s this thing. The Great Orange Juggernaut.
I start talking to him about the whys and hows of it. Not apologia, just yeah, this is us. Not all of us, but us. We’re family. Families can be fucked up and fight and hate each other, but we’re all of a single bloodline for better or for worse. One nation. E plurbus. All that Latin stuff. Don't ask me what any of it is in German.

And I tell him, if we get Trump, we deserve it. Not out of sadism or snideness or because I don’t understand what him or his cabal (then only hypotheticals, boogeymen of the lowest order) want to do to my fellow Americans, but because if we get him, it’s because America is too idealistic to see this shit coming or to stop it. Because of course somebody will see the light of day and do the right thing. Because we’re Americas. Except that, of course, we’re Americans. Fucking up stuff is what we do. Not seeing things coming is what we do. We're the nation that gave Jackass three movies.

So, yeah, of course we got Trump. Of course of course. The American experience is built on the belief that we should get better than we deserve. Whether its your great grandpa escaped the Cossacks or your grandma coming north for work or my own dumb family looking to get into mining or for some place with enough space to pop out ten kids at a go. We’re dreamers. We believe that all of the Indian killing and slaving and civil wars and basic depredations that we inflict on each other aren’t our character, rather that they’re somehow exceptions. And maybe they are (but probably not).

So, of course Trump. Because that’s the world we built. I don’t know if this bullshit has come home to roost, but it’s gotta go somewhere. It's what happens when you don't plan for the future. When you don't see these things coming. When you've heard this story before, but you refuse to remember how it ends. Maybe. I don’t know.

Thinking on this, I started thinking on something else that’s been going through my head this past year or so and I hate it almost as much as I hate the fact that the next time I’m blotto in a subterranean biergarten I’m going to have to either apologize and beg for forgiveness. It’s a quote from True Detective Season 2 and I hate that it makes more sense to me than anything Latin that I’ve heard in the past five years.

“I strong suspect we get the world we deserve.”

That bullshit cowpoke was right. We get the world we deserve. We always do. Even if we don’t see it. And maybe that’s the most disappointing thing in this whole goddamn mess.

Except it isn’t.

And it wasn’t. I woke up late with only a bit of a hangover. Just enough to want to sleep in a bit longer. After that I got a breakfast of hardboiled egg and Redwall-esque lunch meats and got a street car down to the Reichstag. I had myself a balmy walking tour. Saw the Rhine. Saw the Holocaust Memorial. Saw the wall. And I was walking along, the feeling of deja vu suddenly hit me like a brick. It was like I had walked over somebody's grave. As it turns out, it was Hitler's. Because of course it was. Ugly apartment building. Crowded with tourists. And the Fuhrerbunker. Because of I accidentally walk into one of the most evil places in the world (which, as I recall, had a tennis court across the street).

Then I moved on. I met up with the friends that I was looking for. I got a coffee. I saw Checkpoint Charlie and I moved on with my life and walked all the way back to Mitte to my hostel and proceded to start drinking again. Because, fuck it, I was on vacation.

Sorry. You’ve probably heard that one before.