Ennis & His Editor - Talking Battlefields and War Comics
Preview: Battlefields: Night Witches #1
Hi there (again)… Dynamite Associate Editor Joe Rybandt back again, keeping his promises and presenting the second part of my talk with writer Garth Ennis. What are we going on about this time?
Garth Ennis’ Battlefields: Night Witches #1 (OF 3) Preview here
Dynamite Entertainment is proud to be the new home for the next series of Garth Ennis' "war" books, all under the “Battlfields" header!
Late summer, 1942. As the German army smashes deep into Soviet Russia and the defenders of the Motherland retreat in disarray, a new bomber squadron arrives at a Russian forward airbase. Its crews will fly flimsy wooden biplanes on lethal night missions over German lines, risking fiery death as they fling themselves against the invader- but for these pilots, the consequences of capture will be even worse. For the pilots of the 599th Night Bomber Regiment are women. In the deadly skies of the Eastern front, they will become a legend- known, to friend and foe alike, as the Night Witches.
Featuring two covers, one by John Cassaday and the other by Garry (Dan Dare) Leach!
That’s what! The first issue of our all-new Battlefields series hits store shelves this week, and we spent some time with Ennis talking about not only the first issue, but all three series that make up Battlefields!
Joe Rybandt: You’ve described these stories, that will make up the Battlefields series from Dynamite and previously from DC/Vertigo, as your favorite to write, why is that?
Garth Ennis: I think it's because I get to do them so rarely. When I look back over the past fifteen, twenty years or so that I've been writing I've not gotten as many opportunities to write war comics as I'd have liked, there’s Battlefields, there's the two Vertigo series, there's Enemy Ace and Battler Britton and Phantom Eagle and that's it -- that's a small part, a small percentage of my output over the past twenty years. Yet, when I was growing up, the two comics that I read, the two British comics that I grew up on were Battle on the one hand -- which was a World War II title -- and 2000AD on the other -- 2000AD was science-fiction, of course. That meant that war comics made up essentially 50% of my reading in those days, and from that grew a fascination with military history, with first hand accounts and with military fiction too, mostly to do with the Second World War, and yet I get so few opportunities to indulge that now that I'm writing myself. So when I actually get around to it, it's an opportunity to use just the immense amounts of research and reading that I've done over the years, and to explore all these quite incredible characters and situations that have occurred to me.
JR: Now the Battle series, was that like what we had over in the states in the form of Sgt. Rock or Our Fighting Forces…
GE: Like most British comics it was a weekly anthology, as opposed to a monthly comic featuring one character. You typically got five or six, four or five page stories every week; they were in black and white. There was a strong focus on characterization, quick, simple characterization, very direct storytelling. In some of them, there was a nice streak of dark humor. There was also a good deal of violent material that appeared largely because of a movement in British comics during the mid to late seventies where -- I hesitate to use the term “realism” -- there was more of a concentration on making the stories a little more down to earth, a little more believable. Now, it would be wrong for me to say that Battle itself was some sort of supremely accurate military document. The best stories that appeared in it were certainly well researched, well written, very accurately drawn. The majority of it was, I suppose okay, but there was some quite exceptional material. In comparison with American titles like Sgt. Rock and so on, I'd say there was a more of a down to earth, even down at heel feel to the British stories, the characters were not invulnerable, while the lead character in a particular story might survive simply because he had to, that did not go for the supporting characters. If Rock , for instance had been a British character, if he'd appeared in Battle, Easy Company would have been wiped out ten times over.
JR: Right, yeah and certainly in the stuff that you’re doing now, you don't downplay any of the misery and the horror and the abject despair that sometimes comes across in what any of these real world situations would have been…
GE: I try not to, the fatality factor is, I think, inevitable if you are writing any kind of believable war fiction -- you only have to look at first-hand accounts by say, a young soldier when he joins a squad, or a pilot when he joins a squadron, or a sailor when he joins the crew of a ship and you then follow him through this autobiographical account, and usually at the end he'll make a point of telling you how many of the guys he started out with made it. And it's usually a depressingly small number -- most of them got killed or wounded along the way.
JR: Now, WWII, maybe just because it was so well documented, it's certainly the thing that people think of and go to often in film and historical documentaries and books, and we see resurgence here in the states probably every five to ten years… It was obviously a world changing event, but is there anything in particular that roots you to it, in terms of going to that particular ground? You're not telling Civil War stories, you're telling WWII stuff… you use Vietnam every once in a while in the Punisher when you use Frank as a stand-in there, but for the most part you're rooted in the ‘40s, is there a reason for that?
GE: I think because WWII largely formed a good deal of fiction and even every day political life when I was growing up. The long term results of WWII were still being felt around the world in the ‘70s -- the cold war was not over, the Iron Curtain was still very much in place… that's probably the most obvious and most visible aspect. But it was also visible in a different way, not just in the comics that we read and the movies that we watched but WWII even informed the games that we played in the schoolyard. When I was about, I don't know, six through ten, it seemed everyone knew a little bit about WWII, perhaps they'd had a father, grandfather or uncle who'd served in the forces. Perhaps they themselves even knew of someone, someone they'd met; I can remember for instance walking along the street in the little town I grew up in and my mother or my father pointing someone out to me, like a guy who would be lining up for his fish and chips or something and saying ‘that's so and so, he fought at Arnhem,’ or ‘that guy over there he was on Lancasters.’ That kind of thing, it wouldn't mean anything to anyone today, but at the time it immediately locked you into these books, comics, films you'd seen and you realized that this was real and again you're talking about what, thirty years in the past? It seemed to inform everything somehow, so it was only natural that you'd pick up on a good deal of this stuff. Now I personally believe that there's a moral aspect to WWI that I think makes it easy for people to comfortably seize on it and to use it as an example of fighting for what is right.
JR: A “just” war…
GE: A just war, I suppose you might say there's a desire to inspire… it goes beyond that WWII is seized upon and looked upon by even political leaders today as an inspirational time that should perhaps inspire us to attempt the same thing again, to go out into the world and fight for what's right. That gives it a relevance that cannot be ignored. Particularly when you consider that what they are asking us to fight for may not have the same clear cut moral results as WWII at all.
JR: Yeah and you and I may have discussed this, but it seems like it was a black and white issue back then, but it certainly wasn't… there were still a lot of grays, but it was more black and white than what we are dealing with in today's world.
GE: By far, by far. That's the other interesting aspect to this which is that moral victory that it might have been, it was highly compromised. Never mind some of the things that we had to do to win, there is the fact that the allies, the Western allies, teamed up with Soviet Russia. Some of whose excesses approached that of the Nazi's… in some cases, eclipsed them entirely.
JR: Lesser of two evils at that point, it was all about strategy and not about good deeds at that point….
GE: That's right. It's almost as if in America in particular, they took a break from hating the communists just long enough for them to defeat the Nazi's, then they were able to go right back to hating the communists.
JR: The fascists were worse at that point in time.
GE: That's right.
JR: One other question, concerning generalities, then we'll get into some specifics here. But, you also in this series of work, as well as in your previous series of work, and correct me if I'm wrong, but you also seem to tell stories that are not about American troops… it seems we get a lot of British, but not an American group. Have you done one of these with an American group or is there a reason why . . . ?
GE: There was an American cast in one of the first four I did for Vertigo, it was called Screaming Eagles, it was about the 101st Airborne. You're right though, I have shied away from American characters largely because I feel as if, not that their story's been told, but that at least there is an awareness, particularly in this country of America's contribution in WWII.
JR: Right, I was going to say it's a good thing, as we're such an introspective nation, I think we know our story, well we don't know all of our stories, but we don't know what they went through in Britain, or we don't know what they went through in Africa, and we don't know you know . . . as much as we know our own particular story… well our grandfather's story….
GE: That's right. I think if I was able to write some more war stories -- we talked earlier about how they make up such a small part of my output by necessity, by simply having to face the reality of the market. If I were able to do more, then yes, of course I'd look at American figures in WWII. One story I'm particularly interested in telling, at some stage down the road, is that of a B-17 crew in the raids over Germany… I'd also be interested in looking at Marines in the Pacific, but I do have limited space and a limited number of stories I can tell at any one time, and that does mean I may choose some slightly more obscure aspect of the war for an American audience to look at.
JR: Right, and speaking of that, we can segue into the three stories that make up Battlefields, because they do each have a different perspective. Can you go into a little of the historical context for each of the three series? We'll talk about Night Witches… then Dear Billy and then Tankies…
GE: Oh well, let's see, Night Witches is based on a true story. There was a unit of Russian, Soviet Russian, bomber pilots who flew at night beginning in 1942. They were known at the Night Witches, partly because they had a habit of showing up over the German lines and bombing the hell out of everyone before the Germans even knew they were coming, partly because they were women. And the Soviets were, as far as I know, the only, certainly the only major power, to field women in combat roles in WWII -- I'm not including here groups perhaps in western or southern Europe where you're talking about civilians being thrown into warfare almost against their will; the Soviets did it as a matter of policy. In all kinds of roles actually: tank drivers, machine gunners, medics, line infantry and all kinds of pilots -- there were women fighter squadrons, bomber squadrons and in this instance, night bomber squadrons, and the Night Witches, the story that I'm doing with Russ Braun tells the story of a squadron of rookie female pilots who arrive south of Stalingrad in the summer of 1942 and they're really thrown in at the deep end. At the same time, we meet a squad of German infantry who are just beginning to realize exactly what it means and what an undertaking it is for them to have invaded Russia, and in fact, just how far into the deep end they themselves have been thrown. They are a thousand miles from home, they are very, very deep into enemy territory and once they realize that they're up against women pilots they get the feeling that all of Russia is rising up to fight them. I think the German army itself discovered in WWII, after a string of victories in the west and in the south taking on Russia proved to be another matter entirely.
JR: Of course. Yes, absolutely.
GE: So, that's the Night Witches…. Dear Billy is a very strange story, the art on that one is by Peter Snjeberg; it's about a young British nurse, called Carrie Sutton, who is taken prisoner by the Japanese in the retreat from Singapore, after it fell in the early part of 1942. Carrie has a bad time at the hands of her captors, she manages to survive and after returning to India ,which was still held by the British at that point, she finds herself working as a nurse, and forming a tentative relationship with a young pilot who's passed through her hospital, and that's probably where the story would end, but then fate drops the chance for revenge in Carrie's lap and she takes it in possibly … I suppose you might say it's a rather grim, ill advised way of going about things, but when you see the social mores that someone like Carrie would have to face at that stage in, well not in that stage of the war, but in fact in that stage of British society, British colonial society, you realize, that there really wasn't much other opportunity for her to go about getting her revenge -- she never even really expected that she would get a chance to. I suppose culturally, what you're looking at is the difference between a colonial power, the British Empire, albeit in decline, and the social standards that it set for women, and in comparison to the Night Witches, communist Russia which for all its flaws did ostensibly push the idea of equality, and gave women the chance to fight back against the invaders of their country, just as strongly as the men.
JR: Yeah, it's [Dear Billy] a very touching and very bleak piece… but I think it's one of the best things that you've written, it's very, very good…
GE: Well, thanks. It's one of those stories, where it came from; I'm not sure exactly how it developed. It began, I think with the strange, rather haunting image that Peter Snjeberg captured perfectly that opens the story, and the odd little five-page scene that it leads to, that image in particular has been kind of cooking away in my head for the past eight or nine years. And, again as I say I don't know where this stuff comes from …
GE: It's like a story I did for Avatar called 303, it's like the last Punisher story I did called “Valley Forge, Valley Forge” -- it's strange stuff and I'm never quite sure what it's born of, but when you get that kind of imagery, and those kind of characters, there's a conviction that come with that that the story has to be told….
JR: [Laughs] Have you ever thought that your muse is just f###ed up?
GE: [Laughs] A possibility … and I think others would agree.
JR: And then we have the Tankies, which rounds out the three, tell us about the Tankies…
GE: The Tankies is a story illustrated by Carlos Ezquerra, of the three it's perhaps the straightest war story. It concerns a British tank crew in the often chaotic fighting in the Normandy countryside after D-Day, which was a two to three month cauldron battle involving some of the most vicious action of the war. The Germans, being the Germans, fought like hell -- hey had better equipment, at least in terms of tanks and infantry, and the British, many of whom were inexperienced at that point -- it was a comparatively small number of British soldiers who'd been fighting overseas in Burma, Africa, Sicily and Italy, most of the army had been held back in training for what I think the British Generals knew was going to be the major test, and that was the invasion of Europe . . . and so the British did find themselves, much like the Americans in fact, did find themselves groping their way at first, and that led to some heavy casualties, because the Germans were pretty harsh teachers; but the story concerns one particular crew, one particular British tank crew, cut off from their unit, trying to find out what's going on largely against the background of the battle as it develops. Their number one concern is not running into the much feared German Tiger tank, in which the disparity between German and Allied designs was probably at its most obvious. Tiger was an absolute monster which could barely even be scratched by an Allied tank; most of the Allied tanks could be blown to bits by the Tiger with relative impunity.
JR: You mentioned the three artists, but maybe you could talk… you were very specific in who you wanted for these particular books -- I’ll also say that you’re a soup-to-nuts guy, both on this, and The Boys -- you give these guys the reference they need from your archives, you’re there every step of the way… you chose Russ Braun for Night Witches, what was it about Russ?
GE: Well, one thing is all three are excellent storytellers, that’s not just in terms of how the scenes and the characters develop but they, all three of them, Carlos, Peter and Russ are all keen to use research and to get things right. There’s very little flash to what they do, there’s real substance, and I knew that that would bear fruit when it came to telling these stories. Russ is a good friend of mine, he’s a guy that I’ve known for a long time and he’s actually been in comics for a long time, I guess he’s actually never quite worked on anything major. He’s neither had a long run on a familiar book, or one big project that makes his name -- he’s like one of many foot soldiers stuck in the trenches waiting for his moment, this may be it. I don’t know, but what I do know is that I thoroughly enjoyed working with him. Great storyteller, very down to earth and not afraid of research… and a great sense of character too. which for the two groups in the story -- the women pilots and the German infantry unit -- has been very important because each is made up of a number of distinct individuals that I do want to have their own personalities.
Peter Snjeberg [Dear Billy] again, those same qualities. Peter’s a guy who I’ve worked with many times in the past but always on fill-ins -- The Boys, Hellblazer, Preacher, The Demon even The Midnighter, we’ve just never created something from the ground up before, and this is at last our chance. There is a tremendous intelligence to Peter’s work, a great subtlety that I think comes through in the characters, particularly the faces and as some parts of Dear Billy are, I suppose, you would say quite “talky”… I suppose that’s going to be important. He’s also, however, not shy when it comes to pouring on the fire and brimstone.
JR: No, and his pages are beautiful, I mean his first issue is incredible, great stuff….
GE: It is, and I have high hopes for the second one too. There’s some of the quite violent scenes toward the end of that that I’m sure he is going to handle quite well, indeed.
And finally there’s Carlos Ezquerra [Tankies] who, gosh must be a thirty, thirty-five year veteran of comics now. I’m fond of reminding him that I grew up reading his stuff, he loves that. [laughs] But tremendous attention to detail… great storyteller again and brilliant creator of characters. There is a slightly caricaturist aspect to the way Carlos draws faces that, even if it does make some of the characters a little bit larger than life, it makes them instantly recognizable. You get a nice, basic template of each personality in each face that he draws.
JR: That script was the one that when I read it I could visualize it knowing that he was drawing it. The other two, we were certainly expecting Russ and Peter to do an excellent job, but couldn’t visualize it as much as knowing Carlos’ work.. him having been a veteran and doing similar types of stories. Maybe not specific… but with exactly what you say, the characters.
GE: I think so. It’s tough enough to draw five guys, well five white guys in the same uniform, of roughly the same age and make them separate personalities. It’s even harder when the five of them are stuck in the interior of a gloomy tank. And there are few people I would trust to do that, but Carlos I know will take it completely in his stride.
JR: Just to wrap it up, I know you’re a lover of film, and obviously this is a genre that has been done and done and done… but there’s very few stand outs, things that you can go back to time and time again and say that they’re classics. If you had to choose let’s say, three movies covering the genre, the stories of war, and one book…
GE: I read a lot of fiction. The genre of military fiction, particularly WWII fiction is one that’s almost passed from the earth. You do get the occasional novel coming out. When I was growing up again the seventies and early eighties there were a slew of paperbacks in any book store, the fiction section would have tons of material by, there were writers like Gunther Lutz and Sven Hassel and David Williams and they would be -- they were pulp fiction, but they were tremendously enjoyable too. Nowadays you just don’t get that, uh, so there’s one writer I would mention… a guy called Derek Robinson who’s written some absolutely tremendous books, I have to say if you think my humor’s black .you should try this guy. He wrote books called Goshawk Squadron, Piece of Cake, A Good Clean Fight… mostly deals with the war in the air and a great debunker of myths, but tremendously entertaining, quite violent, very funny, brilliant characters -- so he’s someone I would recommend to any fans of that kind of fiction.
And when it comes to movies I would be hard pressed to get it down to three; I would imagine probably my favorite straight war movie is A Bridge Too Far, which I think is tremendous, a great anti-war film, as well as being a great war film. And beyond that it’s very hard to say Ice Cold in Alex is a bit of a classic. I’m a big fan of the sixties and early seventies war movies where they had a cast of thousands and everyone came in and did five minutes…a John Wayne, followed by Robert Redford, followed by Lee Marvin. Things like: Battle of Britain, Battle of the Bulge, Longest Day and I imagine if I had to nail it down, my favorites, just in terms of the sheer enjoyment, I would differential these two from A Bridge Too Far because I think A Bridge Too Far is a straight war film, these are more, what term? Do you know “guys on a mission film” kind of like Kelly’s Heroes and Where Eagles Dare.
JR: Okay, kind of like a caper flick to some extent too.
GE: In terms of sheer enjoyment I think it’s very, very hard to beat those two.
JR: What about Dirty Dozen? A little overplayed?
GE: You know, I think, I think this one of those American/British things. I was never a fan of The Dirty Dozen. I think Where Eagles Dare is a much better for a "guys on a mission" movie. I seem to recall enjoying the first half of the movie where they are training much more than the second half where they actually go into action.
JR: Yeah, there some stunt casting in that movie and it goes on a little long… I mean it is enjoyable, I mean it’s got lee Marvin so it gets definite points for that and is Ernest Borgnine in that? I think he is… he must have been.
GE: Is he?
JR: Yeah, I think he the he plays like a military attaché he’s not a lead….
GE: He’s not one of the Dozen….
JR: Thanks for the chat Garth…