Ensley F. Guffey On… War Comics

Cover of Battle Action 198. Joe Colquhoun, art.
Cover of Battle Action 198. Joe Colquhoun, art.

Each week, one of Biff Bam Pop’s illustrious writers will delve into one of their favorite things.  Perhaps it’s a movie or album they’ve carried with them for years.  Maybe it’s something new that moved them and they think might move you too.  Each week, a new subject, a new voice writing on… something they love.

This week we once again have the pleasure of having Ensley F. Guffey share his love of War Comics, but this time on a more specific period and set of characters – Johnny Red and the Falcon Squadron. 

As I think the last Ensley F. Guffey On… War Comics showed, my love of the genre began early, and Sgt. Rock and the rest of DC’s war line are some of the very first comics I read and obsessed over. To this day I maintain that DC was the preeminent publisher of war comics in the US, and that very few comics have matched, much less surpassed DC’s work, particularly in the period 1960 – 1975.

But the US isn’t the only comic-producing country, is it?

From the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s (from age 13 to 23), I was in full blown comic collecting mode, and Walt Simonson’s Thor combined with the gift of a chunk of Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s X-Men run had led me gleefully into the deeps of Marvel’s superhero universe. I still picked up the occasional new issue of Sgt. Rock (by then reduced to an issue every two months or so) or a back issue I might run across, but mostly my heart was wearing spandex and a cape at that point (or at least big yellow boots and a hammer). I read my back issues of DC’s war line, new issues of Marvel’s The ‘Nam, and generally romped gleefully in the Marvel Universe. I also began to haunt comic book stores, which were really proliferating at the time.

This was the glorious age when lots of people with truly impressive collections figured they could actually make a living with comics, because the collector’s market was booming, and the days of eBay, Midtown Comics, DCBS, were barely even theoretical. Mile High Comics still got its business from two-page ads in new comics, and The Comics Journal was an actual hardcopy magazine. Yes, the world was all sepia tones and car phones back then, Frank Miller was a GOD, and Neil Gaiman was that guy doing some really interesting things over at Vertigo with some ancient DC character called Sandman. Above all, comic shops were everywhere, and the idea of graphic novels was still just beginning to bloom, so that meant long boxes upon long boxes of back issues, and Silver Age floppies were like pennies – almost ubiquitous.

So poking around a comic shop in those days could really yield some interesting stuff, and if you were lucky, you’d run across some really scarce stuff from across the pond, and the demand for that kind of thing wasn’t high yet, so sometimes you could pick up 2000 A.D. cheap and see what Judge Dredd was dealing with in Mega-City One. Sometimes you could even find a copy of Battle Picture Weekly (or whatever it happened to be called that particular week), and that was how, having picked up a fairly decent copy of Battle’ on a lark, I was introduced to Johnny Red and the men of Falcon Squadron, part of the World War II Soviet Air Force.

Johnny Redburn was a failed RAF pilot (drummed out of the service for hitting a superior officer – who righteously deserved it, of course), who steals a catapult-launched Hawker Hurricane fighter while working as a cook on a North Sea convoy, shoots down and drives off some attacking German bombers, and limps to a safe landing in the Soviet Union. There he joins, and eventually becomes the leader of, Falcon Squadron, with whom he will fight with for the rest of the war. Improbable? Yes. Wonderful? ‘Struth yes! I was lucky enough that my first introduction to this comic was a reprint of an issue written by Tom Tully (who scripted almost the entire series) and the jaw-droppingly talented artist Joe Colquhoun, perhaps best known today for his legendary run on another Battle classic, Charley’s War.

The first installment of Johnny Red; Tom Tully script, Joe Colquhoun, art. From Battle Picture Weekly and Valiant No. 100, January 1977.
The first installment of Johnny Red; Tom Tully script, Joe Colquhoun, art. From Battle Picture Weekly and Valiant No. 100, January 1977.

Look, I’m an American. I was born and raised on comics that were printed in color and had at least twenty some pages, so for a black and white strip that took up maybe three pages per issue of a magazine sized anthology comic to grab me, it had to be something special. And Johnny Red is. Here is the Russian front laid bare in all its horror. The suffering of the Russian people, the gruesome realities of death in war were all here in painstakingly realized, almost photo-realistic fashion. It turns out that British comics of the late 1970s and 1980s weren’t nearly as hamstrung by censoring bodies as their American cousins were by the Comics Code Authority. Johnny and his comrades were ragged, dirty, unshaven, subject to madness, blood-lust, and debilitating PTSD. Beset upon by Nazis, the NKVD, commissars, and Russian weather, Falcon Squadron endured. Along the way they made friends and allies, including Captain Nina Petrova and her Death Angels, modeled after the famously deadly Soviet Night Witches, historical female pilots who would raid German lines at night in low flying, slow biplanes. Climbing high before cutting their engines and beginning their runs these women repeatedly took the enemy completely by surprise before disappearing into the night again. Few Nazis slept soundly in areas where the Night Witches flew.

Tully and Colquhoun, the latter followed by the almost equally brilliant John Cooper and Carlos Pino took Johnny Red and the Falcons through the entire war, from the beginnings of the Siege of Leningrad in 1941 to the fall of Berlin in 1945, and along the way gave reader some of the most incredible aerial combat scenes ever produced, and some of the most gruesome depictions of the horrors of warfare ever rendered. I particularly remember a panel during the Leningrad period, where a crash landed Johnny is rescued and taken to the city via the famous Ice Road across Lake Ladoga, passing along the ways the ice shrouded forms of a stretcher-bearer killed and frozen in the act of loading a wounded comrade onto a wagon, like some silently-howling ghoul of the ice. The detail of these strips is astonishing, as is the layout. Remember that Colquhoun had maybe three pages in each installment, so he threw the traditional nine panel arrangement out of the window in favor of a much more fluid, almost puzzle-like arrangement where panels slid over and into one another, and the negative spaces of the gutters became part and parcel of other panels. This was really boundary pushing at the time, particularly in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and Colquhoun did it every freakin’ week.

One of the panels that has always haunted me. Joe Colquhoun, art; Tom Tully, script. From Johnny Red: Falcon's First Flight,
One of the panels that has always haunted me. Joe Colquhoun, art; Tom Tully, script. From Johnny Red: Falcon’s First Flight,

Best of all, Johnny Red was about the Russian Front. There is no escaping the fact that this was the main front in the war against Germany, and that it was the Soviets who did by far the largest part of the fighting and dying against the fascists. The Western Allies never came close to facing the same number of divisions as the Soviets, and while we supplied the Soviets with everything from winter boots to trucks to tanks, they were the ones locked in a war to the knife, and that to the hilt for five long, bloody years. Yet it’s as theater of operations that you rarely hear about even today, after we had a decade of access to previously sealed Soviet archives, much less in the 1970s and 1980s when the Cold War still burned hot, and the “War in Afghanistan” referred to the Soviets fighting the CIA-supported mujahedeen. Certainly you didn’t read about the Russian Front in American war comics, but here it was, larger than life and almost as terrible, backed by meticulous research, and presented with loving detail. Tully’s scripts were full of often exciting but unrealistic action, but also uncomfortable realism in the differences between the front and the rear, between people fighting for their homes and others fighting for power. Tully’s Soviets were all too often caught between the guns of the Nazis and those of their own people, but they carried on, as did many millions of actual men, women, and children during what was both the Soviet Union’s darkest time and brightest moment: the Great Patriotic War.

New Doc 11_2
The Siege of Leningrad in Johnny Red. Tom Tully, script; Joe Colquhoun, art. From Johnny Red: Falcon’s First Flight.

Johnny Red was thus one of the finest, and most interesting war comics I had ever read – still is as a matter of fact – but back in the day, you couldn’t get the damn stuff over here, or, if you could, I never figured out how or had the money or will to follow through, so Johnny Red remained a rare treat, and I hardly ever managed to get several consecutive issues so I could read a complete story arc. The same went for those other Battle books like Darkie’s Mob, The Rat Pack, and Charley’s War. Until recently. Over the past few years, Titan Books has been collecting and releasing some of the greatest runs from Battle, including Tully and Colquhoun’s run on Johnny Red, in really beautiful hardback editions. In part this is thanks to the fame of Garth Ennis, who has written introductions for all three volumes of Johnny Red, for Darkie’s Mob, and for a book called Garth Ennis’s Battle Classics, collecting the stories HMS Nightingale and The General Dies at Dawn. Ennis was a faithful Battle reader as a kid, and remains a devoted fan of the war comics genre as a whole. Using his name to help reprint these British classics means Mr. Ennis is giving back to the industry, his inspirations, and hungry fans alike in a very real, very meaningful way. I just about did a backflip when I realized that I could finally read a big chunk of Johnny Red from beginning to end, and basically shouted for Amazon to “shut up and take my money!!!” Still, Colquhoun’s run encompassed 100 issues of a comic that ran weekly from 1977 – 1987, all but the last three issues of which were scripted by Tully. There are a huge number of strips that have yet to be collected and published, and I only hope Titian or someone else will eventually get around to it.

Until then, my copies of Falcon’s First Flight, Red Devil Rising, and Angels Over Stalingrad hold pride of place on my shelves – except when they’re being reread. There is nothing quite like Johnny Red, after all, and there is always something new to discover in a corner of Colquhoun’s art, or a sardonic twist of Tully’s script. if you have never read Johnny Red, I urge you to go now and do so, but be warned, once you’ve been introduced to the Falcons, it’s hard to fly with anyone else.

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