This December, Garth Ennis returns to his “Battlefields” brand at Dynamite with Battlefields: Happy Valley. The first of a cycle of three three-issue minis features art by Paul Jason Holden and covers by Garry Leach. It relates the tale of the Australian member of a British bomber crew in January 1942. We caught up with the writer of Preacher and The Boys for more.
Newsarama: You've had an association with war stories for several years now. When you first began working on them in earnest, was it a conscious effort on your part to try to reintroduce that kind of story into the comics market?
Garth Ennis: It was more a conscious effort to write the stories I'd always wanted to, which happened to be war stories.
Nrama: What about World War II holds particular fascination for you?
Ennis: It's the event that defined that last century, and some of the territorial settlements (or otherwise) continue to influence this one. Thousands upon thousands of incredible stories came out of the conflict. Finally, it happens to be the war that my own interest in military history centres around, from the way the battles were fought to the aesthetics of the hardware.
Nrama: In the first set of Battlefields, you had a more feminist action piece, a star-crossed romance, and a slightly more comedic edge in a violent tale of tankies. While all were Battlefields, they were very different. So, tighly interlocked with the previous question, what about the era of the Second World War lends itself so readily to different genres?
Ennis: As I say, the narratives that emerged from the war are almost infinite in number, and the canvas you have to draw on is simply massive. For six long years, just about everything imaginable was happening.
Nrama: Can you give us a brief description of what we can expect from the stories this time?
Ennis: The first is called Happy Valley, which involves an Australian bomber crew involved in the British bombing campaign against Germany's heavily-defended Ruhr Valley. The second is The Firefly And His Majesty, the sequel to series one's The Tankies, in which Sergeant Stiles finally gets a better tank- unfortunately, so do the Germans. The last one is Motherland, sequel to The Night Witches, wherein pilot Anna Kharkova gets posted to single-seat fighters in time for the battle of Kursk- one of the biggest and most terrible slaughtering matches of the entire war.
Nrama: Tell us about your artistic collaborators this time around, and explain why they match each tale in particular.
Ennis: Happy Valley is drawn by PJ Holden, a very talented artist from my native Belfast. Very dynamic, great storytelling, perfect sense of character- which, for a story involving six white guys all wearing helmets and oxygen masks in a gloomy bomber aircraft, is vital. Carlos Ezquerra will be returning to draw The Firefly And His Majesty- coming out of the British/European tradition (and in fact having done a lot to actually establish that tradition), Carlos is a master of the storytelling and character techniques that guys like PJ draw on. Finally, Russ Braun comes back for Motherland- he brings the same strengths as Carlos and PJ, but from an American perspective. It's testament to his skill that a squadron of characters all wearing the same gear and flying the same aircraft come across so individually.
Nrama: What about the three-issue format works well for Battlefields? Could you forsee a story where you break the three-issue mold?
Ennis: For the moment I'm happy to stick with bite-size chunks, which I think work well for these stories (although it should be noted that further sequels to some of the stories are always a possibility). Sometime soon, though, I'm going to get started on my Battle Of Britain epic- that'll be the most important story I ever do, and it's going to need a bit more room to breathe.
Nrama: Similarly, will you be sticking with World War II as a staging ground, or have you given thought to exploring other conflicts?
Ennis: For the moment, certainly this series, it'll be WWII. Looking ahead, though, I'm thinking about the war in Korea and even the Cold War, and I do have an idea for a story set during the battles on the Golan Heights, during the Israeli-Arab Yom Kippur war of 1973.
Nrama: I think that you try to represent all of the human sides of a battle in equal measure, but you're also well-known for gallows humor. How do you determine the proper balance in a project like a Battlefields series?
Ennis: Largely by instinct. I can do it, I just can't explain it.
Nrama: Let's say a dedicated Ennis fan found their fancy struck by Battlefields. What accounts, historical or fictional, influenced your writing? I know that you're a fan of Kelly's Heroes . . .
Ennis: Happy Valley comes out of my admiration for the men of Royal Air Force Bomber Command, who did a dreadful job in horrific conditions, and who history has not always been kind to. The best account I've read of the bomber crews' war is Bomber Command, by Max Hastings- a superb historian, impressively objective. My interest in tank warfare, particularly in the latter half of the war, informs The Tankies and its sequel- there are a number of good technical studies, like John Buckley's book British Armour In The Normandy Campaign, but for the nitty-gritty (and sheer horror) it's hard to beat personal accounts like Flame Thrower, by Andrew Wilson. Finally, The Night Witches and Motherland were both inspired by characters in Johnny Red, a comic strip I read as a kid- in which I was startled to discover that girls had been in combat at all (I was 8). A Dance With Death by Anne Noggle provides some excellent accounts of Soviet women pilots on the eastern front. Those are just a few examples, of course, there are many more.
Nrama: While each story is obviously different, is there an overriding message that you hope the audience takes away from Battlefields?
Ennis: That's for each reader to decide for themselves. There's no point in writing the stories and then saying- by the way, what this means, in case you didn't get it, is... (etc.)