Drawing Ennis' Night Witches - Russ Braun

Talking Battlefields with Russ Braun

Earlier this week, we spoke with Garth Ennis about Battlefields, his upcoming series at Dynamite which will allow him to return to telling war stories set in World War II. First up, Night Witches, a three-part story about female Russian bombers who flew their missions at night in rickety old planes, oftentimes, turning off their engines and gliding to their destination before dropping their deadly payloads.

Joining Ennis on the Night Witches arc is Russ Braun. Not perhaps the most well-known name in comics, Braun has been here, there and everywhere throughout the industry, most recently making a home at Vertigo’s Jack of Fables. We spoke with him about the upcoming story.

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Newsarama: Russ, easiest one ever...you're a relatively new…or rather, not a well-known name to audiences - tell us a little bit about yourself. You've been here and there over the last few years, but what got you into comics, and how long have you been at it?

Russ Braun: I'm not exactly a new name; more an obscure name. Though I've been working in comics off and on for almost 20 years I never stuck with anything long enough or did anything big enough to really become "known". I did a Legends of the Dark Knight story called Batman: Venom and various Vertigo fill-ins in the early 90's, which is when I met Garth. I was away for seven years working for Disney Feature Animation in Orlando, and now I'm back, having more fun drawing comics than ever.

NRAMA: How did you end up on Battlefields?

RB: Garth is one of my best friends. I've been hoping for a chance to work with him on something for a long time, since a project we almost worked on in the mid 90's fell through. I did a couple of jobs for Marvel, then went over to Vertigo where I've been working on Jack of Fables pretty regularly. A break was coming up in the Jack schedule and Garth told me about Battlefields, and it just clicked into place. My only concern was the added pressure of working with my good friend after all this time and not letting him down.

NRAMA: We’ve spoken with Garth about it, but describe the story you'll be drawing a little - who were the Night Witches?

RB: The Night Witches were a squadron of Soviet women bomber pilots. During the German invasion of Russia they flew night missions in biplanes, carrying just a couple of 100kg bombs. The Germans christened them the Night Witches upon discovering these brave and bothersome pilots that were making their lives a misery were a group of young girls. It's an amazing story; really one of those “truth is stranger than fiction” situations.

NRAMA: How much research did the story take (and did Garth request/provide) on your part? Are you now an expert on WWII Russian biplanes?

RB: I've done a ton of research, but I wish I'd had the time to do even more. I like to have a good amount of lead time to immerse myself in a project, especially one like this that's a period piece and so personally important to me, but my schedule didn't allow me a whole lot of leeway. Garth is a virtual encyclopedia of WWII information though. He supplied me with a couple of books and websites to look into, on top of my usual internet reference searches. I found a few more books at the Strand, bought a few classic war movies from Amazon. Even so, getting the planes and gear just right wasn't easy. I sent Garth the breakdown for one page with what was supposed to be a Soviet P-40 Tomahawk prominent in the panel. Garth recognized the plane as a later model and sent me a link to a site with the proper plane. If that gives you any idea how serious we are about getting this right.

NRAMA: That said, the answer to this may be pretty obvious, but what's been the most challenging part of the story so far?

RB: The most challenging part has really just been making everything look authentic without making everything look static. As a kid I was fascinated with all kinds of WWII stuff, painted soldiers, set up battlefields with firecrackers and smoke bombs. But that was a long time ago, and drawing this stuff now I realize just how little I know. Weird little questions keep popping up, like, how thick or coarse was the fabric on a Wermacht tunic? What was the propeller on a PO-2 made of? How does that helmet fasten? What was in those little garbage can containers the Germans carried (I thought it was for grenades, but it was a gas mask container)? And then making sure I haven't missed the forest for the trees by drawing an exact replica of something from 1942 that looks stiff, phony and out of place next to everything else on the page.

NRAMA: What's your process like on approach a page from Garth? Are you well versed enough at this point in regards to what he wants that you can start right up on the boards, or is there research and thumbnails involved beforehand?

RB: I do pretty detailed layouts before I go to boards, so people tell me my thumbnail stage looks more finished than a lot of artist's actual pencils. But it helps me get things set up the way I want them and lets me show Garth exactly what I'm thinking about a page, more than a stick figure scribble would. I send Garth each page at the layout stage for his notes and thoughts. His scripts are succinct, with the right amount of description to get across what he wants without totally handcuffing the artist.

Doesn't hurt that I've read and enjoyed his stuff for years, too.

NRAMA: In regards to the storyline, what's coming easiest for you?

RB: The easiest part so far, relatively, has been drawing the Germans. I did a good bit of research on the uniforms and gear, then kind of threw it all out the window and started drawing Kurt and company without any reference. It's back to, "OK, it's 100% accurate, but that guy looks like a statue"; trying to find that balance between accuracy and dynamism and most importantly just telling the story.

NRAMA: How much contact do you have with Garth on this throughout?

RB: As I've said, I send Garth everything via e-mail as it gets done. I've told him I want this to be as close to what he has pictured as I can possibly go. So I'll e-mail any questions I have and he'll get back to me with very concise, assured answers. The guy knows his stuff. We also get together once a week with some other friends for a pint. Or two.

NRAMA: What's coming up next for you after the flying Russian women?

RB: Next for me? After three issues of Night Witches? I'd like about a week of sleep. But I'm set to jump back to Vertigo on Jack of Fables for another arc, and then whatever comes my way.


WizardWorld Philly '08: The Garth Ennis Panel

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