Marvel Slugfest: War is Hell: The Phantom Eagle #1

A comic review article by: Keith Dallas , Matthew J. Brady, Paul Brian McCoy, Jason Sacks
Matthew J. Brady 4 Bullets

I certainly love me some Garth Ennis war comics. He's notorious for creative violence and gore, and inserting some unexpected nastiness into a battle can make for some striking imagery that illustrates war's horrors. But while Ennis is notorious for the violence and humor, he's also really good at characterization, building sympathetic, realistic characters and believable interpersonal conflicts to play out in front of the larger battles. Plus, being from Ireland, he does a great job at writing characters of British descent, highlighting their quirks of language and personality. So given a chance to tell a story set during the air battles of World War I, Ennis should knock it out of the park.

On the other hand, I've never been too impressed with artist Howard Chaykin (to be fair, I've never read his most famous works, like American Flagg!). Perhaps due to his prolific work schedule of late (he's also currently illustrating Punisher War Journal), his art often seems kind of rushed and messy, using a lot of the same awkward facial expressions and odd, artificial-looking backgrounds. But I'm happy to say that he does some really good work here. The messiness actually works in his favor, especially in chaotic scenes of planes tumbling all over the sky; he also pulls off a nice "dirty" look to pilots who have been cruising through the sky in open-air cockpits. And he doesn't stick solely to his standard square-jawed, open-mouthed characters here; that look is limited to the American characters, while the British guys seem more distinctive, sporting alternately bushy and pencil-thin mustaches, or featuring that particularly "English" facial structure. Ennis's writing definitely seems to have energized him, to an extent that I haven't seen in his other recent work.

And Ennis really delivers here, setting up a good character-based war story. The plot concerns an American pilot named Karl Kaufmann, who is excited to join the war now that the United States has entered the fight. We first see him cruising through the air in his garishly-painted plane (the British men say it's done up "like a French tart"), filled to the brim with the glory of flight, belting out "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," oblivious to anything else going on around him. But by the end of the issue, he is realizing what he has gotten himself into after having only barely glimpsed the nastiness that can happen on the battlefield. I'm sure we'll learn more about him and his motivation in the future, but this issue gives us a good introduction to him and his situation.

It's really wonderfully done, with some nice character moments, some incredible plane-based imagery, and some unexpected moments that really hit you in the gut. I can't wait to see what Ennis and Chaykin have to show us in future issues, and what horrors of war will be inflicted on their characters next. Whatever the case, I definitely know better than to get too attached to anybody.

Paul Brian McCoy: 4 Bullets

I can't imagine this title lasting long. Which isn't a knock on the quality of the book, but on the marketplace as a whole. From what I understand, the hopes are for a continuing series of mini-series under the title War is Hell, written by Ennis with different illustrators for each story. This first series focuses on an obscure character from the Marvel archives, The Phantom Eagle. However, in true Ennis form, we aren't looking at an experienced hero right out of the gate. This is the First Flight of the Phantom Eagle so we are introduced to the character as a beginner.

Lieutenant Karl Kaufmann has forged his papers, bought himself a plane, and headed off to join an American squadron under British command in the Spring of 1917. Why he's done this, we don't know yet. Ennis does a workmanlike job establishing the setting, introducing the characters, and laying the groundwork for the story to come. Of course, technically, that's the least we should expect from a first issue, really, so even if the artwork were crap, this would be good enough to get three bullets from me. However, the art is so far from crap, it's easily a four bullet comic.

In the interests of full disclosure I should mention that Ennis is one of my favorite writers, Chaykin is one of my favorite artists/writers, and I think World War One is criminally underutilized as source material in all mediums. The world as we know it today, intellectually, philosophically, morally, and politically, all sprang from the blood of a generation of young men lost during those early years of the Twentieth Century. I know World War Two is more iconic to many people, but WWI has just as many things to teach us, and just as many things we shouldn't forget.

The devil is in the details, they say, and Ennis takes the first page to clearly and powerfully establish just what being a fighter pilot in 1917 meant: "Pilots flew in open cockpits, lacking radios and breathing apparatus. At twenty thousand feet the cold alone could kill them. So could oxygen starvation. Airframes were built of wood and canvas, held taut with wire, repaired with glue. Engines failed and guns misfired. Top speed - all being well - was in the region of a hundred miles an hour. No parachutes were carried, senior commanders fearing aircraft would be abandoned prematurely... Most died before they even saw the enemy, let alone got a chance to fire their guns."

These words are laid out over what can only be described as simply gorgeous artwork of an aerial dogfight in action. Hopefully there are preview pages down below, because you really need to see this. Chaykin has his detractors, and I'll admit that there's a real lack of variety when it comes to the faces of his main characters, and he's still using the same page layouts that he originated back when he was writing and illustrating American Flagg (one of the best comics of the 1980s in particular, and of all time, in general). But over the last few years, he's begun utilizing extensive research (which he probably always had) and 3D modeling software (which is pretty new, I'm sure) to create some of the most striking and realistic pages of art I've ever seen. This combat scene is a great example of this. It's dramatic, it's realistic, and it's gorgeous. It's actually even better in black and white, as Brian Reber's color art sometimes overwhelms the inks (especially on later pages where the color palette is extremely limited - which isn't his fault, thanks to the setting of the story, but is still annoying).

Ennis gives us a plot that is fairly standard at this point, as Karl hasn't experienced combat until now, and is, to be quite frank, something of a boob. He's lucky to be alive after not realizing he was about to come under attack in the opening pages, and even after landing is oblivious about what happened right behind him in the air, thanks to how loud it is in the open cockpit of his plane. His excitement and naivete when it comes to actual combat is nicely exposed on later pages, and while the events that conclude this issue might seem a little cliche, they drive home the reality of life as a World War One fighter pilot.

This wasn't generally daring adventure. It was usually dirty and one-sided. If the character can come to terms with the fact that to survive and to win, he's going to have to abandon ideals about "fair fights" and learn to kill the enemy as quickly and with as much surprise as can be mustered, then this could really develop into a fantastic, if disturbing, character study. Given the talents of the creators involved, I expect nothing less.

Jason Sacks: 3 Bullets

War is Hell, right? Especially for a WWI fighter pilot stuck inside of a sputtering fighter plane, without a parachute or seatbelt, flying at 100 miles an hour over enemy territory. His plane is made of wood and canvas, the perfect materials to catch fire, and even when the plane flew without problems, the pilot was too cold to even think, and too high up in the atmosphere to avoid oxygen deprivation. What's more hellish than dodging machine gun bullets in a rickety plane when you can barely breathe and are freezing?

War is Hell for a fighter squadron up near the front during the heat of the war in 1917. The British Sopwith pup planes are no match for the German Spads, and the Germans are slowly winning the air war. There needs to be a new measure of hope, and it arrives in the form of a garishly-dressed American flyer with great dreams and even greater courage.

That seems to be the premise of Garth Ennis and Howard Chaykin's new series, but unfortunately the two men do not deliver work in this comic that lives up to its promise or their reputations.

Part of the problem I had with this book is that my expectations for Ennis and Chaykin are quite a bit higher than what they deliver here. Ennis delivered several outstanding War Stories comics about five years ago for Vertigo, hellish tales of men at war who were living lives of rather loud desperation. Chaykin, meanwhile, has delivered a slew of roguish characters over the years, including his roguish take on Blackhawk in the late ‘80s.

But here the men's work seems rather toothless in comparison with their previous work. Our protagonist, Karl Kaufmann, has a roguish smile and a classic Chaykinesque swagger, but there's nothing in his personality for readers to grab onto. Kaufmann is a rogue, arriving at the front line with forged orders and a wish to kill Germans, but we never get any insight into the man, never get a feel at all for what motivated him to take the actions that he did. These character-building moments may come in future chapters, but in this issue he seems like a rather nasty and arrogant jerk, with a grin permanently plastered on his face, Joker-like, until he begins to see the real Hell of war in the last several pages. I never felt a reason to like Kaufmann, especially after he inadvertently kills the alcoholic Captain Clark with his propeller. Clark was a drunk, but accidentally killing the man and then walking away from him seems awfully cold-blooded for any character we're supposed to like.

Ennis’s story is also surprisingly toothless. In the most egregious scene, he tells rather than shows readers about the slaughter of Kaufmann's squadron, an event that's sure to have a deep effect on Kaufmann. Readers see Kaufmann kill one German pilot as the squadron goes on a mission, but we never see what happened to the rest of the British planes. There's no down-shot of shot-down planes on fire on the ground, nor horrific sights of pilots jumping out of planes. Instead we get a close-up of Kaufmann's eye as he realizes the horror. I'm sure that Chaykin intended that moment to feel subtle, but instead it left me confused about what happened and how Kaufmann figured it out.

The most interesting and hellish part of the book is the opening few pages. The two-page spread at the beginning of this issue is exactly what I had hoped this book would have, showing as it does the chaos and horrors of aerial battles in which men were literally fighting without a net. But after that initial burst of hellish action, the comic settles into an unfortunate kind of dull rhythm.

War is hell, but that hell isn't too much in evidence in this issue. Ennis and Chaykin may ramp up the hellishness of the story in the next few chapters, but so far war may be nasty or brutal, but in this comic it sure ain't hell.

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