Johnny Red #1,
Garth Ennis, Keith Burns,
Johnny Red was a character in Battle, a British weekly war comic of the nineteen seventies and eighties, well known and loved for many years, the story was written by Tom Tully and drawn by both Joe Colquhoun (of Charley’s War fame) and John Cooper.
Hailing from Liverpool, this working class boy, Johnny Redburn, a nineteen year old, is fortunate to be learning to become a pilot in the RAF. He is then involved in a chaotic moment and accused of striking an officer, who subsequently dies.
A serious offence as one can imagine, and so dishonourably discharged, readers soon saw Redburn on board a steamer bound for the North of Russia as part of an Arctic convoy, the only work he could find that would continue his personal war against the Germans. This ship was fitted with a catapult launched Hurricane known as a Hurricat.
Luck turns again for Redburn, and during an air attack by the Germans he ends up in the cockpit of the plane, and takes off to fight. After successfully defeating the enemy, he heads for the soil of Russia, avoiding further investigation and of course, the inevitable dip in the sea, that could be fatal (a Hurricat was a one-use plane, launched by catapult from a regular ship, but with no landing deck like a carrier, no way to return – it had to be ditched).
As he flies for dry land, escaping his past, he comes across The Falcons, a hardened Russian Squadron, who have become meat for the Eastern Front grinder, effectively written off by their commanders.
Johnny soon shows his true leadership, proving to them his mettle. He is more than just a fine flyer though, and his fighting spirit and willingness to take on the Nazis, never accepting defeat, is motivational to the squadron, who take him in as one of their own.
It’s a great story. And indeed, it is an integral part of this continuation.
It was a great story, but it never was really finished properly. So I was terribly excited to hear that Garth Ennis wanted to bring the story to a modern readership, and even more so to hear that he intends and hopes to give Johnny Red an ending in a possible second series. I wondered how exactly he would manage such a task, while hard core fans like myself, who are happy to own either original comics or the collected editions would want to get straight back at it, I pondered how he would also effectively capture new readers.
No worries there, Ennis is such a consummate writer, and shows his skills by using a beautiful literary technique, setting the story in the here and now. A modern millionaire wishing to have a wrecked Hurricane restored is presented with a fascinating situation. The wreckage of P7089 a Mark 1 has been recovered from Eastern Germany and it’s records show that it’s last action was with a convoy sailing on the way to Russia, yet it had it’s engine upgraded, is covered in patches, as the restorer explains, ‘even it’s bullet holes, have bullet holes, quite frankley it looks like someone tried to fly this Hurricane through hell’ and ended up where the Russians got to in 1945. And so a quandary, a puzzle is presented and so as old readers smile, new readers are given the most accessible jumping on point.
This millionaire character of Tony Iverson is likeable, he has an interest and fascination for the Hurricane and so he has no problem in having it’s history researched, and this leads him to Russia, where he meets veteran Sergeant Rodmitz, who is happy to share his untold story and starts to talk about The Falcons, including the astonishing revelation that the pilot of the Hurricane was Johnny Red, a former British airman.
It is lovely, smooth, easy, and captures the reader straight away..
The aerial artwork and action is incredibly good; Burns’ attention to detail, and his skill at giving the aircraft a sense of movement and most importantly action, is fabulous. I have to admit, Burns must have gone to some lengths, his character work, feels stylistically like it is from the pages of Battle. Perhaps it is his pen work, fine lines that posses a purposeful edge and a look that is distinctive, yet makes me feel like it is from the old Battle comics. The facial expressions and faithful representation of well-loved and known characters is likewise skilfully drawn here.
The portray of the aircraft is spot on, each type of aircraft is so accurate, and this gives the story a credence and integrity that can at times be lost with inaccuracy that breaks the readers full immersion into a tale.
Here one is taken away, occasionally, I have had a curator in a museum tell me about their favourite items, or a person who operated a machine talk about what is on display, and this is what it feels like, with Ennis and Burns are fulfilling this role, succinctly and gently yet expertly bringing the reader into the world of Johnny Red which then in its speed, brutality and reality of war rips across the pages. It is a truly enjoyable read and a magnificent job.
Garth Ennis and Keith Burns talked to James about reviving Johnny Red recently, you can read the interview here on the blog