Garth Ennis on Battlefields: Night Witches

Garth Ennis on Battlefields

In October, Garth Ennis re-enters familiar territory.

That month, Garth Ennis’ Battlefields kicks off from Dynamite Entertainment with Night Witches #1. Fans of Ennis’ War Stories at Vertigo will recognize what the writer is doing – traveling back to lesser-known, or out and out forgotten conflicts and soldiers of the World War II era, and telling their stories.

Case in point - Night Witches, which features Russian female bomber pilots who would go on night bombing runs in planes which were near obsolete. Given the death that was always at their wingtip due to the condition of their aircraft – not to mention the fate that would await them if they were ever captured, Ennis takes these plain women of Russia, and shows them for the heroes they are.

Following Night Witches (illustrated by Russ Braun), Ennis will present The Tankies and Dear Billy (three issues each) to round out this volume of Battlefields. We spoke with Ennis about the series, and his fascination with World War II history.

Newsarama: Garth, Battlefields appears to be a continuation of the type of stories that you were exploring in your Vertigo War Stories a while back. What was the reasoning to get back to them? As Nick Barrucci said , you suggested this pretty quickly when he asked if there was anything else you wanted to do at Dynamite...

Garth Ennis: War stories are pretty much my favorite genre, and I've had these three ready to go for some time. In terms of theme and tone they are indeed a continuation of the War Story series I did at Vertigo.

NRAMA: We spoke about the story selection of War Stories at Vertigo a few years back, but let's touch upon that do you find the settings & characters for your stories? You've said before that you're a pretty voracious reader of WWII history...are we seeing, for the most part, your discoveries in Battlefields, and previously in War Stories?

GE: Yeah, that's about it. The more I read the more occurs to me. It can be a particular setting, like The Tankies, or characters, like The Night Witches, or sometimes it'll be just a single incident that sets me off - as in Dear Billy.

NRAMA: That said, what turns a historical account of a lesser-known setting/battle/group of soldiers, etc from an academic curiosity into fertile ground for a story? Using the Night Witches as an example, what made them and their experiences fertile ground for a story arc in Battlefields?

GE: Sometimes you want to do stories about the ordinary, run of the mill soldier and his experiences - the Tankies, for instance, features a crew of fairly unexceptional tank men struggling to survive the brutal fighting in Normandy post D-Day. Not a tale of elite special forces, just the regular soldier doing his thing- because what happens to the regular soldier in his tank or foxhole can be just as fascinating as the exploits of commandos and paratroopers.

In the case of the Night Witches, however, I was drawn to the exceptional nature of the characters involved. Young women in their late teens or early twenties, piloting obsolete biplanes on night-bombing missions against a vastly superior force, that's interesting enough- but when you consider the bullshit they had to put up with from their male counterparts, and even worse, the potentially ghastly consequences of capture that they faced, the story becomes downright fascinating.

NRAMA: Where did you first find the accounts of the Night Witches? How much information is available about them?

GE: I first ran across the notion of Soviet women combat pilots in a strip I read as a kid, "Johnny Red", which appeared in a British weekly called Battle. It was probably my favorite story when I was young; I also first encountered the concept of camships and Hurricats there, which eventually led to me writing Archangel in the second series of Vertigo war books. I had a similarly astonished reaction, too- "They didn't let girls fly planes, did they?" But as I discovered when I did a little further reading, yes, they most certainly did. So there you go, comics are good for something.

I think there's a fair amount of information on the Night Witches available, in print and online, but it still seems to be pretty much specialist knowledge. No one I've spoken to is aware that the Russians employed women in combat roles- not just the Night Witches, but as bomber and fighter pilots, tank crew, medics, line infantry, snipers etc.

NRAMA: When does this arc take place during their active period?

GE: The story follows the first women to see service through their initial six months of combat, in the latter half of 1942. The characters are fictional, but their experiences are roughly based on those of their real-life counterparts.

NRAMA: Through your War Stories and now in Battlefields, what are you looking to leave readers with? If I recall correctly, part of this all was/is to just tell good war stories, but at the same time...your stories show these regular men and women with a great level of courage and nobility, all the while keeping them very real...

GE: I can't deny that I write these stories largely because of my own fascination with the war genre, and hopefully some of my enjoyment will come through for the reader. I certainly feel like Battlefields represents my A-game right now, the very best that I'm capable of. But beyond that, I'm hoping to keep alive some stories that might otherwise fade from the world that might disappear along with the men and women who lived them. If nothing else, stories like The Tankies and The Night Witches are a chance to acknowledge the courage of some pretty exceptional people.

NRAMA: You’ve been mentioning them, so let’s get into them a little - what battles/soldiers are coming up in the other two arcs of Battlefields?

GE: Dear Billy is set in the far east, beginning with the Japanese invasion of British-held Singapore in 1942 and finishing with their defeat in 1942. The story follows Carrie Sutton, a young English nurse who survives Japanese captivity by the skin of her teeth, and goes about seeking revenge in perhaps the worst way possible. The Tankies follows an inexperienced tank crew through one day's savage warfare in the Normandy bocage country, as the allies struggle to break out of the beach head they established on D-Day.

NRAMA: With your war stories, you've stuck mostly to the European theater (albeit with stories in North Africa and the North Atlantic and Russia)...have you considered more stories set in the Pacific front?

GE: You bet. I want to keep on doing these stories indefinitely, and I'd like to get to the Pacific sooner or later. The U.S. Marines in the island campaigns, maybe, or B-29 crew over Japan, or perhaps something involving the Kamikazes. The list is pretty endless.

NRAMA: Likewise, you've remained in the WWII era, generally speaking. While you've explored Vietnam somewhat in Punisher: Born, can you see yourself moving your focus to Korea, Vietnam, the covert wars of South America, or even the Desert Storm(s)?

GE: I did a story about the Spanish Civil War in the second Vertigo series, Condors, with Carlos Ezquerra. Certainly all the conflicts you mention are of interest, particularly Korea, which I think is something of a forgotten war. If it continues, Battlefields will probably focus on WW2 for the most part- but I imagine I'll get to the others in time.

NRAMA: Finally - drop a few names and pull back the curtain a little bit - for those who're interested in the same view of WWII as you are, who do you recommend hunting through the History section in the library for?

GE: I like Richard Overy, Anthony Beevor, John Keegan and Richard Holmes, but my favorite is probably Max Hastings, who achieves an objectivity that I've always been greatly impressed by. There's another guy called Stephen Bungay, who wrote an excellent history of the Battle Of Britain called The Most Dangerous Enemy. I think guys like Stephen Ambrose and Rick Atkinson are good, in that their books are filled with all kinds of useful anecdotes and first-hand accounts, but they're rather lacking in objectivity (to be fair, Atkinson's a lot better than Ambrose in that department).

I hate to say this, but the view of many American historians seems to revolve around the notion that the USA did the lion's share of the fighting in WW2, and saved the day almost single-handedly. The British historian will say, "Hold on a minute, old chap, I think you'll find there's a bit more to it than that". The Russian historian, presumably, will roll his eyes and leave the room


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