Without sitting down with a highlighter and a list of Garth Ennis’ complete works, I can’t say for certain whether or not everything he’s written is, in one sense or another, a war comic, but it certainly seems like the majority of them are.
His Demon run was full of soldiers and included several references to and parodies of DC’s old war comics. Almost all of the characters in his Hitman series were ex-soldiers and their military exploits would get flashback-ed to at one point or another. His Authority stories began with a member of the British military named Kev, who spun out and away from The Authority proper. The Punisher? A superhero-esque character defined by his time as a soldier, who continues to wage a one-man insurgency against the occupying forces of crime. Preacher? The genre may be more Western than military, but what is it but the story of the oldest war of all? And on and on.
Because of their lack of angels, demons, superheroes and/or outrageously colorful black comedy characters, Ennis’ most straightforward war stories can sometimes seem a tad…well, vanilla, I guess. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the eight War Story one-shots Ennis did for Vertigo at the beginning of the decade were his best work , but I think they offer one of the best examples of Ennis’ skills as a writer, skills that can often be distracted from by all those angels, demons, superheroes and/or outrageously colorful black comedy characters. To the point where he’s probably too often considered as “the guy who makes fun of superheroes” or “the guy who tells really funny stories with gore or gay panic as the punch line.”
His proper noun War Story war stories, dealing mostly with the two world wars, covered ground that DC and many other comics companies had covered the hell out of in times past, usually in short, 12-page stories couched in anthologies.
Additionally, the themes were often very similar, and very familiar–war is awful and dehumanizing, there’s rarely true good and pure evil aligned on opposite sides of any battlefield, the people doing the fighting are brave and noble and often screwed over by those in power.
And the characters? Well, they tend to be pretty similar from story to story, perhaps in large part because you can only get so deep in the space allotted.
Given that uphill climb, Ennis knocked each and every one of those books right out of the park. He’s a good enough writer that he can work in pretty much any genre and retain his own consistent voice and point of view, and he’s a good enough writer that he’s been able to pretty much keep war comics existent all by himself.
True, DC and Marvel still give miniseries here and there to their various war hero-esque characters like Nick Fury, Sgt. Rock, Enemy Ace, The Unkonwn Soldier and so on (and Ennis has written most of these characters himself at various points), but name brand-less, logo-free protagonists in down-to-earth war comics? How many of those are even around anymore?
All of this is just an extremely long and circuitous route to discussing Ennis’ latest war story, this one published not by DC’s Vertigo imprint, but by Dynamite Entertainment, the much younger publisher that took in Ennis and Darick Robertson’s The Boys when another of DC’s imprints cut it loose.
Like those eight Vertigo one-shots, Battlefields Volume 1: The Night Witches is a true (albeit not an adaptation of beat for beat true series of events) story set during one of the world wars, with some interpersonal drama (ranging to melodrama, as the urgency of wartime tends to speed and heat up emotions of any kind) thrown in. Ennis ‘usual themes are explored, as he re-tackles the Eastern front of World War II, as Nazi Germany marches into an increasingly desperate Russia.
The title refers to female Russian pilots who would run night bombing missions on the German lines in old biplanes; something that, given the noise the planes made, was pretty much a suicide mission.
There are a pair of viewpoint characters presented. The first is a good good German, a soldier in an Easy Company-esque company marching into Russia. He’s presented as a rather noble character, although everyone seems noble compared to his commanding officer, a huge, evil brute of a Nazi who constantly talks about how the Ivans are subhuman beasts.
The other is Anna Kharkova, a petite Russian pilot among the Night Witches. Their side of the story begins a little like a war time A League of Their Own, but when she and her friend innovate a way to conduct night bombings without being cut down in the process, she earns the respect of her commanding officer and, eventually, his heart.
Ennis jumps back and forth between these two soldiers in the two opposing armies, until their stories intersect in a very bad way, and we get Example #45 that war is hell.
It’s as well written as any of Ennis’ war-time passion plays, and, again, while it’s not the best work of his career—while the specifics are different, there’s nothing here Ennis hasn’t said or done before—it’s an immensely satisfying piece of genre work.
Ennis’ partner on the piece is artist Russ Braun, whose prior credits include Vertigo’s Jack of Fables and Marvel/Max’s Hellstorm. I’m not terribly familiar with his work, but this is the strongest of it I’ve seen. His character designs are varied and human, and each player has his or her own look. He handles action and character interaction equally well, and seems to have a particular talent for drawing emotion through a character’s eyes.
Dynamite has already launched their next Battlefields miniseries, Dear Billy, this one pairing Ennis with artist Peter Snejbjerg, which is good news. Ennis may have already pointed out that war is, you know, hell scores of times before, in scores of different ways with a dozen different artists, but it’s a message that bears repeating over and over. Particularly if it can continue to be done so eloquently.