06th Nov2015

‘Johnny Red #1’ Review (Titan Comics)

by Dean Fuller

Written by Garth Ennis | Art by Keith Burns | Published by Titan Comics | Format: Paperback, 32pp


Those comic book readers of a certain vintage , cough cough, probably remember well the mid-late 1970’s when sometimes the only comics you could find to keep you going until the next imported batch of Marvel and DC Comics arrived were the British war comics found then on a shelf in every newsagents. Although war comics were never my favourite, I did find them interesting, and the fact they were weekly was an added bonus. They were, it must be said, pretty simplistic; the British were heroic, the Nazis were swine, and each story pretty much played out that way.

The original Johnny Red strip actually appeared in perhaps the best of those comics, Battle, and Johnny himself had something of the Sgt Rock, or Sgt Nick Fury about him. An anti-hero, he was beset on all sides. His own side, the British, didn’t want him (he was dishonorably discharged for striking and accidentally killing an officer), the Russians were deeply suspicious of him (he joined a Russian ‘dirty dozen’ type fighter squadron The Falcons whom the Russian leadership disliked), and the Germans on the Eastern Front wanted him shot down on sight.

This, I suspect, was what drew Garth Ennis to write this. Ennis is a rarity these days, a mainstream comics writer who actually dislikes costumed heroes; he has written plenty for Marvel and DC, but does his best work writing books like Preacher, and characters such as Punisher and Hitman, morally conflicted anti-heroes. The war books have always fascinated him, I recall from previous interviews, and he has previously written war characters such as The Phantom Eagle at DC. Still, a mighty challenge indeed. Make a war book, and war character, both relevant and accessible to a modern audience, while satisfying the older fans by tying up the never resolved, but fondly remembered, original strip.

Truth be told, I never doubted Ennis could pull it off for a second. He uses the perfect technique of reintroducing Johnny’s story by using both a modern setting and recalling the past. A wealthy war memorabilia enthusiast in the present has found a wrecked Hurricane airplane that is being researched for him, and the trail leads back to Russia and a Sgt Rodmitz, who tells him that the plane was used by the Russian squadron The Falcons, but actually piloted by a British man, Johhny Redburn. Bingo! Old fans smile as a warm nostalgic glow descends on them, new fans have got up to speed very quickly. Top notch writing by Ennis, and intriguing enough that you will be coming back for that next issue.

As good as Ennis’s scripting is, it is matched by the artwork of Keith Burns, which is perfectly suited to the style of the narrative Ennis is telling, and is reminiscent of the style of the original war books, with a dash of classic Joe Kubert in his war book pomp. The war scenes by Burns are fantastically rendered, as he holds nothing back showing the real face of war and combat, yet his figure and facial work are equally as good. The level of technical detail, especially on the planes, is pretty impressive too it must be said and adds authenticity to the action.

For me, one of the more impressive Issue 1’s I have seen in the last few years. There is absolutely no fat to be cut here, Ennis and Burns have created a lean, exciting, and smart issue, both visually interesting and textually impressive. If they can keep up this standard, this may be one of the books of the year.

****½  4.5/5

Johnny Red #1 is out now from Titan Comics


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