Interviews: return of an old warrior – Ennis & Burns talk Johnny Red
The good guys at Titan books facilitated an interview for James with, well let’s be brutally honest, one of his very favourite writers, and an artist he doesn’t stop talking about: Garth Ennis and Keith Burns. Their new take on a classic British war comic character, Johnny Red, is out this week; luckily for us they made time to chat with James about bringing back the fighting flyer:
James: Your work in the field of military comics is unparalleled in the twenty-first century, and it’s clear there is still a demand for it. You yourself seem to personify your readership; what draws you to military comics?
Garth: The war comics I read as a kid, which led me to my interest in military history, my appreciation for a lot of the hardware, and a fascination for things that happen out on the edge of human experience.
It strikes me that there’s really no other medium in which I could tell these stories the way I can in comics. Film and TV would require an enormous budget which would almost certainly not be forthcoming, and which would mean maybe one project every two or three years, if I was lucky. Prose fiction – essentially the same problem with time if you’re talking novels. Short stories might work, but there you lose some of the immediacy that comes with imagery, and describing all the stuff that I usually get an artist to draw would eat up more time.
But with comics I have none of these problems. In just one year of my War Stories series for Avatar I’ve been able to write about US bomber crews over Germany, Israeli tankers on the Golan Heights in 1973, German refugees trying to stay one step ahead of the Russians at the end of World War Two, and Irish soldiers joining the British army to fight the Nazis. Coming up we’ve got American fighter pilots flying bomber escort on the nightmarish Tokyo run across the Pacific, and Royal Navy gunboats against E-Boats in the English Channel, circa 1942. Can you imagine how far I’d get trying to scare up a movie budget for any one of those?
James: Your stories inherently hold an anti-war message, reflecting the true nature and loss that is war. How do you balance that reality and brutality of war, while telling a story that is filled with action?
Garth: One pretty much feeds the other. The action is the reality, just as much as the brutality and loss. Example: my all time favourite war movie is A Bridge Too Far, because it works equally well as an anti-war movie. You have a cast of thousands, every movie star of the era coming in and doing five minutes, grand plans and high strategy, epic widescreen drama capturing the many facets of a vast war machine going into action, memorable characters and riveting set-pieces, unforgettable bravery… and it’s all for nothing. The grand plan fails, the bravery is wasted along with thousands of lives, the war machine sputters out and grinds to a halt without achieving its objective.
James: In Johnny Red we encountered good Soviet soldiers and bad NKVD officers. Given your understanding of history and research, is this a realistic representation, or why do readers need such polarised characters?
Garth: In 1942, in Russia’s darkest hour, Johnny Red and Falcon Squadron are escorting Captain Nina Petrova’s all-female Angels of Death on highly dangerous supply runs over the benighted city of Stalingrad. Two NKVD (secret police) commissars arrive with orders for a new operation, one that Johnny Redburn will be excluded from. Johnny and Nina discover out that someone very senior has essentially panicked, and initiated a plan that could prove disastrous for Mother Russia – not to mention downright lethal for the Falcons.
James: With Johnny Red, what story did you want to tell?
Garth: What I’d like to do is bring the character back for a modern audience, and with this and a possible second series, give him a proper ending. It’s important to me that the legacy of Tom Tully, Joe Colquhoun and John Cooper be preserved and celebrated, both with my series and the collections of the original strip.
James: Are there any other Battle characters, or characters from any other War comic that you would like to continue a fresh story with?
Garth: Not really. There are plenty I love, like HMS Nightshade, Darkie’s Mob, and The General Dies At Dawn, but their stories ended perfectly – there isn’t that same sense of unfinished business that I get with Johnny Red, which really did slide downhill in its last few years to a pretty ignominious conclusion (although two of those other series get very brief mentions in my Johnny Red story). I’m also fond of The Sarge, Death Squad, Fighting Mann, Cooley’s Gun, Crazy Keller, some of the later Rat Pack and Hellman stuff- but again, there’s no real need when their stories ended very nicely and I can create new characters of my own if I want to cover similar subject matter.
Other war comics – I did a Battler Britton story about ten years ago, I wouldn’t mind another crack at that. Also probably be a good laugh doing a Commando – “from now they’d save their anger for the enemy – and it’d be the Germans who had to be on the look-out!” etc etc.
I have heard there are tentative plans afoot to bring back a couple of characters from Action, with some very interesting creative teams. Kind of things I’d want to read rather than write.
James: Can you tell us what War books and comics, you have read and enjoyed recently?
Garth: Comics – it’s almost all old stuff, reprints or originals of Battle, Commando (which I do genuinely love, by the way), War Picture Library etc. I’m delighted to see all of Charley’s War in print right now, or the best of it, at any rate – I hope we can do something similar for Johnny Red. As for more recent stuff, I did enjoy Sam Glanzman’s A Sailor’s Story (reviewed here – Ed), and IDW are putting out a very good Vietnam War miniseries called Tet.
Prose fiction – very thin on the ground, especially in terms of WW2. The blood and guts paperbacks of the ’70s still hold a certain fond appeal, stuff by Gunther Lutz, David Williams, Robert Jackson etc. I find myself scouring Abebooks for novels I hear about written by actual veterans – two good ones are The Sands of Valour, by Geoffrey Wagner, and the superb Warriors For The Working Day by Peter Elstob. I should also mention Derek Robinson, who I think is the finest writer of combat fiction in any medium – imagine Joseph Heller by way of Evelyn Waugh. He almost got the Booker for Goshawk Squadron in 1971 – good place to start- and Piece Of Cake is his all-time masterpiece.
Military history- I just read Max Hastings’ The Secret War, which is a useful corrective to stuff like The Imitation Game. Really I enjoy a steady stream of histories and memoirs, many of them out of print – Abebooks again. Two of the latter I’d highlight would be Quartered Safe Out Here, by George MacDonald Fraser (he of Flashman fame) and Wing Leader, by Johnnie Johnson.
James: Are there any War Comics in other languages that you have seen, that you would love to see translated?
Garth: Few that come to mind. I’ve seen some books with absolutely gorgeous artwork that seem to involve a fair degree of fantasy – one I looked at a couple of years back, which actually had been translated, involved a German pilot in an affair with his Russian woman opponent, who I think actually was one of the Night Witches. I know all fiction requires a certain degree of suspension of disbelief and we all draw the line at different stages, but these are people who’d have been trying to tear each other’s throats out with their teeth.
Guy could certainly draw aeroplanes, mind you.
(alternative first issue cover for Johnny Red by the great Carlos Ezquerra)
James: Were you yourself a Battle Fan, if so, what drew you to the comic, what stories did you enjoy and how did it make you feel when this project came up?
Keith: I wasn’t a big reader as a kid, was usually drawing or playing Star Wars. I had older friends that would have the odd copy of Battle or Commando and I was interested in the art but never read one back then. I did have one copy of Commando about the Ark Royal that I used to copy the hardware from but I never read it!
I started reading comics in my teens: 2000AD, Megazine, Toxic, Crisis then my interest was drawn towards WW2. Over the last decade or so I’ve devoured every WW2 reprint going (Art of War covers, Air Ace, Battle Picture Library, etc) so I only really got to know Johnny Red properly through the reprints and the Falcon Squadron website. When the project came up I nearly exploded, I was terrified at the prospect of following Joe Colquhoun and John Cooper but not enough to pass on the opportunity, it is a genuine dream job.
(“one more time” by and (c) Keith Burns)
James: Your artwork is incredibly accurate and detailed, and our readers may not be aware of your accolades beyond comics, can you tell us about your artwork outside the medium?
Keith: I paint and draw aircraft a fair amount. I was delighted to be made a Full Member of the Guild of Aviation Artists this year, and won a couple of awards at the exhibition in the Mall Gallery. I have a solo exhibition in the New Year that I’m chipping away at. I’ve also exhibited at the Royal Society of Marine Artists too and attend air shows selling art. Working in comics has helped immensely with life-drawing, composition and story-telling. What I’m really hoping for in an opportunity to spend a month or so on a painting.
James: Are you working on any other projects?
Keith: Johnny Red is pretty labour intensive with all the research and hardware, add to that the exhibition and there’s not much time for any other work.
(the unmistakable outline of the Spitfire in “Scramble” by and (c) Keith Burns; you can browse more of Keith’s paintings and his comics work on his site here)
James: Which other artists do you appreciate both in comics and on the military art area?
Keith: There’s a big list but at the top would be Cam Kennedy and Eduardo Risso for interiors, Pino Dell’Orco and Graham Coton for covers. Outside of comics, Michael Turner and Norman Wilkinson. I’m nowhere near any of them but there always has to be something to chase.
James: What research did you do? Were there any revelations you discovered as you worked on the comic?
Keith: Museums, air shows, books, the internet, anything I can get at. Audio books are very handy as I can listen to them and work at the same time. Garth always manages to request some aircraft I haven’t even heard of, usually Russian, so it’s been fascinating getting to study the Red Air Force. I’m always shocked by the savagery and scale of what went on the Eastern Front.
FPI would like to send many thanks to both Keith and Garth for their time and Cara at Titan books for helping make this happen. The new Johnny Red #1 should be on racks today.