Garth Ennis takes to the skies with one of comic books' most decorated veterans with a new Johnny Red series from Titan Comics. Illustrated by Keith Burns, this is the return of the classic British serial of the 1970s and 1980s by Tom Tully and Joe Colquhoun in an all-new, original story.
Johnny "Red" Reburn is an ace British fighter pilot during the World War II that gets kicked out of his home country's service, but in a desperate attempt to stay in the war he enlists with Russia to fight the Nazis. Joining, and then eventually leading, the fighter squadron known as the Falcons, Johnny Red isn't any kind of Tom Cruise Top Gun -- nor would he want to be.
With the series debuting November 4, Newsarama talked to Ennis about reviving the Battle serial, learning more about his take on Redburn, as well as his deep fascination with war and his own thoughts on military service.
Newsarama: This is the latest in a long line of wartime comic books for you. What was your first memories of knowing about war on a large scale?
Garth Ennis: I suppose that would have been around age seven or eight, gradually coming to understand- initially through movies and comic books- that at various points throughout history there had been catastrophic events that put people at each other's throats, and that vast battles had resulted (not that I would have put it in those terms at the time).
Nrama: And what about reading stories set in modern or near-modern wars. What were they, and why do you think they fascinated you?
Ennis: These are the events that define our times, the reverberations of which we live with constantly. Early in the twentieth century diplomacy fails and a European crisis results in fifteen million deaths. Twenty years later the issues thrown up by that conflict are still largely unresolved, and a second go-round kills four times that number. This more or less splits the planet between the superpowers, whose third world adventures add to the death toll and create a good deal of simmering resentment. Early this century, that comes to a head. And so on.
Nrama: Did you ever consider signing up for military service yourself? If not, why?
Ennis: Not after the age of thirteen or fourteen. Fear of getting my head blown off, and an innate resistance to doing as I'm told put paid to any such ambitions. That doesn't mean I'm some kind of rebel, far from it, but military efficiency requires that each member of a unit does exactly what he's told when he's told it, and that's just not me.
Nrama: You're currently working on a new Johnny Red for Titan. This concept holds a lot of fond memories for British fans who read Battle Picture Weekly, but why did it stick in your mind so?
Ennis: It was my favorite strip in Battle from the get-go (about mid 1978) because of the aircraft, the Russian Front setting, Tom Tully's characterization and pacing, and- especially- Joe Colquhoun's fantastic artwork. Johnny Redburn and the men of Falcon Squadron were a group you could really care about and stick with- which I did, for the next four or five years. Even when other strips in Battle and2000AD superseded it in my affections, I was still an avid reader. The strip suffered a long decline from '83 to the end, but Johnny and his Hurricane stuck in my memory- largely because I'd enjoyed the story so much, and I felt it had faded away rather than being given a decent ending. Unfinished business, might be one way of putting it.
Nrama: I remember Tom Tully and Joe Colquhoun being exceedingly detailed in terms of history, especially for a "kids" comic book. Are you attempting to carry through on that immense detail they brought to the character?
Ennis: Very much so. It was reading the work of Tom Tully, John Wagner and Pat Mills in Battle that taught me the value of research in historical fiction- later, when I read the stories and memoirs that had inspired their work, I saw how one could weave fact and fiction together to produce a compelling narrative. The original impetus for the creation of Johnny Red was to get a "Russian" strip into Battle, to highlight the enormous sacrifices of the Russian people in the destruction of the Nazi state. Western audiences were largely ignorant of this at the time (and remain so today)- no one else was in any hurry to tell my generation about it in the '70s, I had to read about it in Johnny Red.
Nrama: How would you describe Johnny Red as a man?
Ennis: Johnny is twenty years old when our story starts, but he's already seen enough combat and associated horror for a dozen lifetimes. He's tough, smart and resourceful, with an anti-authoritarian streak and total devotion to his comrades that comes from being raised in working class Liverpool. He can be hot-headed, but also quite wily- he's an excellent tactician who takes a certain grim enjoyment in watching his schemes come to fruition. Above all, he's a superb fighter pilot- he lives for aerial combat, as all the great aces did.
Nrama: And what about his servicemen in the Falcons -- why would they follow a foreigner like Redburn?
Ennis: By the time the story starts Johnny's been with the Falcons for a over a year, and they've saved each other's lives so many times over and pulled each other out of so many scrapes that nationality means nothing to any of them (in this context). It's interesting to note that in the original strip it wasn't until the second year that Johnny became leader of the squadron; they went through some terrible battles and lost two previous commanders before they more or less shoved our hero into the job. I seem to recall Yakob did so literally.
Nrama: And what is Johnny and the Falcons up against in this story arc you have planned?
Ennis: Late in 1942, when things are at their worst for the Russians during the German attack on Stalingrad, the Falcons are escorting Captain Nina Petrova's all-female Angels of Death squadron on highly dangerous supply runs over the war-torn city. Then two NKVD (secret police) commissars arrive with orders for a new operation, one that Johnny Redburn- not being Russian- will be excluded from. Johnny and Nina do a bit of detective work and fine out that someone very senior has pretty much panicked, and initiated a plan that could prove disastrous for the Russian war effort- not to mention downright lethal for Falcon squadron.