The first time I heard about the British comic Battle was in the letter column for Garth Ennis's Preacher. Ennis used to sing the praises of Battle and was constantly on the lookout for any readers that could help him complete his collection. So it was fitting that the first Battle comic I read — Johnny Red: Red Devil Rising — had a lengthy introduction by Ennis.
Ennis' introduction is full of bombast and hype. He goes on and on about the excitement of Johnny Red, about the edge-of-your-seat pacing, about capturing the madness and thrill of war from writers and artists who had actually been there. About the worthlessness of heroes in a firefight where the only way for you to live through the guns blazing is for one of your best friends to take the bullet meant for you. He said Johnny Red managed to blend the reality and mythmaking of war into a perfect cocktail of blood mixed with vodka.
I'll be damned if he wasn't right.
I don't know that I've ever read a comic as exciting as Johnny Red. I've read good comics, interesting comics, thought-provoking comics, funny comics, scary comics — but for pure adrenaline-filled heart pounding, hurling-along-at-500-miles-per-hour action Johnny Red can't be beat.
A British flyer serving in a Russian squadron during WWII, the name Johnny Red has a dry double-meaning. Johnny Redburn had been dishonorably discharged for striking an officer (later upgraded to killing an officer) and left the British forces disgraced. But he didn't want to give up his war with the Nazis, and joined the Russian Falcon squadron so he could keep fighting the good fight.
Johnny Red was originally serialized, told in short four-page spreads packed together in with other war stories in issues of Battle. Tom Tully and Joe Colquhoun had to vie for your attention in a crowded war mag, and didn't have any space to waste. They had to make ever panel, every line, count. And count in a big way. Each installment started off full-throttle and didn't slack the pace a millisecond. The story reads like machine gun fire — rat-a-tat-tat-tat. Each panel is a bullet aimed right between the readers eyes.
Artist Joe Colquhoun had an amazing ability to turn a flat page into a war zone. Even his panels seem to be fighting each other, with sharp edges cutting across territory, alive with tension. His sense of perspective was phenomenal, as he drew dogfights with multiple planes coming at each other from miles away at breakneck speeds. And man could that guy draw explosions. The comic is in black-and-white, so Colquhoun couldn't rely on a colorist to give his work extra oomph. It had had to come from his own pen, and it does. Black smoke flows out of the pages in thick ink lines, and some of the most realistic war scenes I have ever seen in a comic book.
The only real pitfall to Johnny Red: Red Devil Rising is that anything non-stop gets tiring. The series was meant to be read four pages a week, and while bundling them together is cool, the story gets repetitive. Writer Tom Tully is constantly dragging Johnny into another impromptu sky battle, and you wonder when Johnny has time to sleep, or eat, or do anything else.
And Ennis' claims of realism aside, Tully has to stretch thinner and thinner to keep Johnny Red flying into peril. Some of the situations are point-blank ridiculous. Could you imagine a pilot strafing his commanding officer because he was pissed at him, then getting let go with a few grumbles? In real life, Johnny Red would have been court-martialed and executed for treason many times over.
But what the hell, it's an action comic, right? The realism is where it where it matters — in the sky battles — not in the fine lines of the story.
Zack Davisson is a freelance writer and life-long comics fan. He owned a comic shop in Seattle during the '90s, during which time he had the glorious (and unpaid) gig as pop-culture expert for NPR. He has lived in three countries, has degrees in Fine Art and Japanese Studies, and has been a contributing writer to magazines like Japanzine and Kansai Time-Out. He currently lives in Seattle, WA with his wife Miyuki. You can catch more of Zack’s reviews on his blog Japan Reviewed or read his translations of Japanese ghost stories on Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.