Written by Garth Ennis | Art by Keith Burns | Published by Titan Comics | Format: Paperback, 32pp
It is perhaps a measure of the overall quality of the comic book market of the last several years that I keep waiting for this series to disappoint me at some point. Issue 1 was great, but issue 2 is sure to be a let-down isn’t it? Actually, no it wasn’t, it was as good as the first. So then, the difficult issue 3 must be the one to disappoint… I’m pleased to say I am indeed just a cynical old fanboy looking for an excuse to moan, as the third issue of this series continues the great work so far by Garth Ennis and Keith Burns. They seem to combine the nostalgia of 70′s war comics, with a dash of 80′s anti-hero, and a fine dusting of more recent themes of quirkiness, violence, and reassessments of the past. It’s a heady cocktail indeed.
Following on from the big revelation at the end of the last issue, Johnny Red has been relieved of the command of his beloved misfit squadron The Falcons as they prepare to undertake a secretive mission for the Kremlin. Although you expect the usual dog fights and violence in a war book Ennis never lets that distract him from excellent characterisation, making these people living, breathing personalities. A good portion of the book consists of Johnny’s squad fighting to reinstate him (unsuccessfully) and then talking amongst themselves over their loyalties. War, we are reminded, is not just about the fighting. It’s about loyalties being tested, friendships stretched, decisions made that can save lives or end them. I found myself musing over one or two themes long after I had put the book down, which is as big a compliment as a writer can receive.
Ennis lets the all-female Night Witches and their ramshackle squadron of ‘drunks and children’ take the fighting spotlight this time round. They do their best, but most are lost in the tough aerial battles going on, brilliantly visualised by artist Keith Burns. He infuses his aerial combat panels with a real sense of tension, of panic, of above all realism, making the reader feel those emotions as the characters experience them. The fact they are women, or drunks, or teens is irrelevant we are being told, they are soldiers who are just as expendable as anyone else. Explosions light up the sky, wreckage falls to the ground, damaged planes desperately try to stay aloft, all amazingly brought to life. Keith Burns will struggle to do better work in the future.
Although Ennis is clearly inspired by the war comics of his youth, he does not emulate their often unthinkingly patriotic bias. Ennis makes the point war is not black and white, there are many shades of grey involved; war is not about pawns being moved about on a chart, but living, breathing people being sent out every day to fight or die. These are themes that could easily be trivialised by a less skilled writer of a comic book, but not here. They are portrayed well, respectfully, while still delivering an entertaining, joy to read comic book.
I would go so far to say Johnny Red is perhaps the best non-superhero comic out there right now. If you are not reading it you should be.
Johnny Red #3 is out now from Titan Comics