Written by Garth Ennis | Art by Keith Burns | Published by Titan Comics | Format: Paperback, 32pp
I thought the first issue of this series was one of the best issue 1′s of the year in any category, never mind that it was one of the best non-superhero comics in some time. Garth Ennis was given the freedom to both indulge his love for war comics, and to revive at best a niche character in Johnny Red, at worst an obscure character none of us had heard of. The original Johnny Red strip had appeared in British war comic Battle, Johnny being a classic anti-hero; his own country, Great Britain had him court-martialled, the Germans had a bounty on his head, and although he flew in a Russian squadron The Falcons the Russian leadership distrusted him. Ennis must have rubbed his hands together at the plentiful material available from that setup.
Ennis went a slightly different way though, giving us a then and now narrative, that cleverly drew in nostalgia buffs but also opened a door to the newer reader who might not normally pick up a war book. In this issue we learn more about Johnny, his humble upbringing and early career, all narrated by someone telling the story in the present but who was there in the past at the time. We learn how Johnny took a rag tag bunch of Russian pilots and turned them into an elite unit, one hated by the Russian military leadership but one too good to interfere with.
Ennis also throws in a little more development in the world of the Eastern Front of the 1940′s, bit more depth to supporting characters and introducing typical Ennis staples such as the Nightwitches, an all-woman unit flying old bi-planes. Ennis has such a great handle on his characters the dialogue flowed naturally, really drawing you in and making you feel the camaraderie of these characters, the affection they feel for each other, hidden behind crass jokes and general male bluster. The majority of this issue is taken up by some world-building, but it never feels like filler, it feels as though it is adding essential depth for the reader. The real plot development of note only really comes at the end when, as usual, the authorities come to give The Falcons a really tough mission, but drop the bombshell that only Russian nationals can fly this time. We’ll see the repercussions of that next issue.
With the second issue Ennis takes his foot slightly off the gas, as it were, but still skillfully draws us further into Johnny’s world. Johnny and his cast feel more real, their world more defined. The art, by Keith Burns, continues to be outstanding. Both a perfect homage to the style of art of those classic war comics, and an update with a new lick of paint applied. His depictions of aerial dog fights and battles are especially well-rendered, and I like his mixing up of panel sizes, giving us some mightily impressive large panels and page spreads. Epic art for an epic book you could say.
Although for my money this is a great book regardless of its genre, very well written and drawn, I suppose the only proviso I would give is that it wouldn’t appeal to those who really dislike war comics. Although Johnny is a classic anti-hero, a classic heroic motif through many genres, the background of his fight is always directly relevant, the war on the Eastern Front almost a character in its own right. If on the fence though, give it a shot. Variety in the comics field is always welcome, and Titan Comics are in the forefront of trying to introduce new genres and different approaches, and should be applauded for doing so.
Johnny Red deserves as much publicity as it can get, a great book.
Johnny Red #2 is out now from Titan Comics