Written by Garth Ennis | Art by Keith Burns | Published by Titan Comics | Format: Paperback, 32pp
Last issue was the big game changer in the book when we moved beyond the guys on the floor, that is the exploits of Johnny and Falcon Squadron, and into the politics of what has been going on. As great pilots, soldiers and fighters as they are, the Falcons and Johnny have been simply pawns in a political chess game between the Soviet Union and Germany, between Stalin and Hitler. As NKVD officer Safonov revealed last issue, Russia had agreed to surrender secretly to Hitler, but in person only, which is why the Falcons had been sent behind enemy lines on their secret mission. Also unknown to them, their planes had been booby trapped with bombs to allow Russia to disavow everything if Stalin changed his mind.
This all plays into the nature of war, war comics, and war heroes, the theme of being expendable. I think what draws Garth Ennis to war comics and away from superheroes is this theme, that these people operate in a world where not only are their enemies trying to kill them, but sometimes so are their own side. Characters like Johnny Red define the word ‘hero’, as they struggle to maintain the purity of their motives (even though they sometimes have to stray over the line to do so) while facing adversaries on all sides. There is also that grey shade of ambiguity. Should war not be looked at in the larger picture, so that it is justifiable to sacrifice some pawns, even noble ones, to gain an ultimate victory. Shouldn’t it be acceptable to sacrifice a few to save many more? Ennis plays with all these themes and questions, but in a way that asks you to make the choice.
Last issue of course the proverbial hit the fan, and Johnny and the Falcons fought a rearguard action, using delaying tactics on the approaching German soldiers to buy enough time to get a plane in the air. The Falcons manage to escape in the nick of time, flying Hitler’s plane back towards Russian territory, while Johnny takes Safonov in a truck to race back to his hidden plane. Ennis writes some great dialogue between the two in the truck, as Johnny’s emotion goes up against Safonov’s sense of duty. Johnny, still holding that ‘smoking gun’ document with both Stalin’s and Hitler’s signatures on it, threatens to release it publicly and take Safonov to the RAF as a prisoner. What will buy his silence is Safonov promising to leave the Falcons out of any reports, as Johnny knows full well that screw-ups of this magnitude usually result in everyone involved disappearing. Ennis writes both characters so well you question who is possibly the most naive, Johnny with his sense of idealism or Safonov with his trust in authority.
As strong as the first half of this issue is with its plot progression and dialogue, the second half sees Ennis happy to write out some extended flight scenes and air combat, giving artist Keith Burns a chance to flex those great ‘planes in flight’ artistic muscles, as well as some strafing, explosions, and things blowing up. A writer’s thank you to the artist if you will. Keith Burns has done a fantastic job on this book, echoing the feel of those 70′ and 80′s war comics perfectly, but bringing a more modern feel of sophistication to proceedings, better structure to the way the story flows, and upping the grim and gritty quota when required. You’ll struggle to find a more perfect team better suited to their material than Ennis and Burns.
I feel rather guilty saying this issue is just business as usual, but that’s because the standard has been so high we would only really notice if the quality dropped, and that it never has. Fantastic stuff.
Johnny Red #7 is out now from Titan Comics