Written by Garth Ennis | Art by Keith Burns | Published by Titan Comics | Format: Paperback, 32pp
Johnny Red has been a lot of things since Issue 1 came out. A loving homage to those old war comics, told with modern eyes, probably the best non-superhero title out there right now, and genuinely surprising top quality writing and art. Not that I thought Garth Ennis wouldn’t turn in a decent story, but he has excelled himself, and Keith Burns was clearly born to draw this book. Although the action has been well done, (we sort of expected that anyway didn’t we?) it has been the character work that have shone through, giving these characters life beyond being pilots and soldiers, in possession of living, breathing distinctive personalities. Not easy in a relatively small page count, as any writer will tell you.
Funnily enough, Ennis wastes a lot of his page count this issue, leading me to believe he is saving all the big stuff for next issue. Johnny Red #4 very much like a bridging issue, with 8 pages gone and the only thing to show for it a dream/ nightmare sequence, fantastically illustrated of course by Burns, and then a discussion between Johnny and Nina over the way the Witches were sacrificed last issue. All necessary for plot purposes of course, just felt slightly drawn out in contrast to the pace and speed of the previous three issues. That being said, Ennis still engages by writing great dialogue, reminding you that Johnny and Nina, great pilots and brave fighters as they are, are still damaged individuals themselves struggling to keep their sanity, and their companionship may be the only thing keeping them from doing something stupid.
It’s a good thing Ennis excels at dialogue as this issue has a lot of it. Johnny talking with Nina, Johnny talking to the NKVD political officer, and Johnny and Nina discussing their off the books mission to get to the Falcons (Johnny’s squadron from whom he has been removed) with Rodimitz, then the three of them actually taking off to start that mission. The exchange between Johnny and the political officer is especially fascinating, both men trying to subtly better the other with verbal jousting aplenty. The cynical Johnny comes out on top of course. By the end of the issue not a lot has happened in practical terms, but we have a greater insight into how Johnny, Nina and Rodimitz view their roles in this war; winning the war is important, but loyalty to your comrades even more so. To Moscow the Falcons are just pieces on a board, to be moved around and lost if necessary. To Johnny and Nina, they are friends being used and possibly sacrificed for some unknown reason.
To call an issue ‘a set-up’ issue is usually done in a negative way, a waste of pages even. Not so here. A lot of dialogue, but none of it wasted. No great two page spreads of aerial dogfights, but some nice character visuals, Burns given a chance to show he can draw the quiet stuff as well as all the explosions and wreckage. The very last pages also provide something of a reward, as Ennis teases the action that is to come next issue, reminding us there will be a reward for our patience. Certainly not as mesmerizing as previous issues, not as exciting even, but a technically well crafted issue that will deliver down the line.
If we know Garth Ennis as well as we think we do, that’ll be a payoff worth sticking around for.
Johnny Red #4 is out now from Titan Comics