Garth Ennis, Keith Page and Jason Wordie
Reviewed by Seth
Confession time. I’m biased. I first read Johnny Red in a short (but beautifully drawn) strip in Battle Annual 1980. I’m a ‘plane nut, and the combination of World War II aircraft with the unusual setting (stories set on the Russian front are few and far between) I was hooked. I began collecting Battle, by then hitched to the much derided Action Force, in 1983. By this time Johnny was drawn by John Cooper and Johnny was flying from the UK, he later returns to Russia, but I digress.
Let’s begin at the beginning and stop gibbering incoherently about how excited I am to see Squadron Leader Redburn return.
Created by Tom Tully (later responsible for most of the early future sport stories in the ‘Prog) and the genius Joe Colquhoun (co creator of Charley’s War), Johnny Red tells the story of a fiery working class lad from Liverpool, who after falling from grace finds himself on a freighter on the way to Russia. After defending the convoy from German attack in his Hawker Hurricane, Johnny can either ditch into freezing ocean waters or try his luck and head for Russia. Choosing to take his chances in the USSR, he finds a home with a Soviet fighter squadron, the Falcons, rallies them and becomes their leader.
Ennis sets this story firmly in Johnny’s first spell in Russia and the golden age of the strip. The Falcons have been appointed to a new command with a mission surrounded in secrecy. However, Johnny himself is not wanted – Russians only. He is sidelined, but knows something is amiss. He sets out to investigate and reveals a conspiracy that goes to the highest echelon of Russian command.
You don’t need to read the credits to know who wrote this. It would be more subtle if it was etched in flourescent signage on the moon,visible from earth. All the Ennis motifs and devices are present : honour, bonhomie, comradeship, sticking it to the man, the incompetent and corrupt, along with some of his favourite devices, the old soldier regaling tales of past heroism.
Ennis manages to bring in most of the significant characters from the early days and writes with clear love for the strip. Ennis has been self-critical of his work on Judge Dredd (occasionally unfairly) and he obviously has the same affection for Johnny R as he does Joe D’. Perhaps maturity and a limited run has allowed him to focus, he’s having a ball here.
Keith Page is new to me, but evokes the styles of great British artists such as Eric Bradbury and Jim Watson. Gritty and earthy, his aircraft are so well rendered you can almost smell the avgas. His covers are stunning, like a modern day Graham Coton (a cover artist for “War Picture Libray” whom Ennis references in the back up material) after a few heavy nights out on the town.
Ennis and Page rival Pat Mills for research and referencing, but using artistic licence where necessary. Love isn’t the right word, but Ennis is passionate on the subject matter but stops short at glorifying the horror of war. If you’ve read any of his other war comics, you know what to expect.
Who cares whether it fits into the continuity of the run in “Battle”? This is fantastic stuff and ‘plane porn paradise. But yeah… I’m biased.