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.