First Impressions Blog
Welcome to "First Impressions". My name's Regie Rigby, and so far as Destination Venus is concerned, I'm Customer #1. This is not because I'm special, but because I was the first person through the door on the day it opened. (And that was because I got the opening time wrong. But don't tell them that...) For twelve years I wrote an occasionally popular, occasionally weekly column for a well known comics website entitled "FoolBritannia".
Now the powers that be at the finest Comics Shop in the North of England have graciously allowed me this little corner of their domain. I'm here to tell you about the comics you're not reading, but should, the comics you are reading, but probably should, and to agree with you about the comics that everybody's reading that are actually, genuinely fabulous. I'd tell you more, but I'm actually kinda boring, and if this gets to be a regular thing, I'm sure we'll get to know each other in time...
"What is it Good For?"
Now, this first thing has only the most tenuous likes to comics, but it's impossibly geeky and magnificently cool, so take a moment to appreciate both versions of Spock advertising an Audi. Go on, do it now, I'll still be here when you get back...
There. That was fun, wasn't it? You can thank me later.
Now, down to business.
War comics. Good, old fashioned tales of action and daring do. When I was a kid in the late seventies and early eighties I didn't read comics - for reasons I may or may not go into at a future date - but if I had war comics would have formed a large part of my comics reading. They were everywhere! Dedicated war titles like Commando, Battle and Victor could be found in every newsagent, and strips about war also featured heavily in comics with a broader remit - think of The A.B.C. Warriors and Rogue Trooper in 2000AD, for example. In America the comics culture has always been different, an since the sixties much much more dominated by the ubiquitous Superhero genre. But even there, in the seventies and eighties there were war comics - G.I. Joe, Sgt Rock, Enemy Ace to name but three.
I like war comics. At their best they are truly great - indeed Charley's War, a strip from the early eighties, is regarded by many as the greatest British comic strip of all time - perhaps because the backdrop of war allows for such a wide range of storytelling opportunities. There are the obvious full on battle action stories, but also the worries of the folks back home, the relationships between the men and women at the front, the considerations of the rights and wrongs - the morality of war.
Then of course there are the myriad of settings and scenarios. Swanky, safe, behind the lines command posts, the cold, unforgiving oxygenless environment experienced by the pilots and crews of the airforces. The cramped, diesel smelling tanks, the muddy hellholes of the trenches, snowfields, deserts, jungles, so many backdrops readymade for the writer to populate with characters.
Which makes me wonder why you don't see war comics so much anymore.
OK, so you can find reprints of the old Commando and Charley's War strips - and the massive collected Commando anthologies are things of beauty to boot - but however good those stories are they're all twenty or thirty years old! Where's the new stuff?
Well, funny you should ask...
You see, although there's not a lot of new war comics out there, the ones there are are pretty darned good, and lead me once again to thank whichever hypothetical supreme being you choose for the genius of Garth Ennis. There are times when I think he might very well have been born to write war comics - the genre is ideally suited his talent for snappy dialogue and dark humour, and he clearly loves it.
I first came across his war comics a few years ago when he revamped the classic character Wing Commander Robert "Battler" Britton, RAF. It seems obvious that Ennis grew up reading those issues of Victor and Battle that I didn't read in the eighties - the flavour of those comics comes through, but with a more grown up, less gung-ho sentiment. There's far less of the "Take that, Fritz!" and more contemplation of the futility of war. I'd like to see Ennis return to Battler Britton, if only because it's such a cool name for an RAF pilot, but he's segued into another series now, the completion of the latest installment of which started me thinking about war comics in the first place.
Battlefields has been described as a "Metaseries", but that sounds like pretentious faux-literary theory nonsense to me, so I prefer to think of it as a banner under which a series of mini-series have been published. Each mini-series concentrates on a different theatre of war, and a different set of characters - and again, not the stereotypes you might expect.
Night Witches, the first of these stories that I read, tells the story of the eponymous group of female Soviet pilots in the Second World War. As their country engages in a desperate total war with a seemingly invincible enemy the Soviet Air Force is running out of men and so women get the opportunity to fly and fight alongside their male comrades.
This is no joyous tale of Soviet Socialist Equality though. The women suffer from the sexism of their male peers, and the patronising contempt of their superiors - not to mention the fact that Stalin's regime was not particularly morally superior to the Nazis they were at war with. Against this backdrop we meet Anna Kharkova, a determined young woman who just wants to fly and to defend her Motherland. Kharkova, and her young friend, known to all as Mouse are fabulous characters - so fabulous that Ennis has followed their story in two further mini-series, Motherland and the recently concluded The Fall and Rise of Anna Kharkova, in which we follow the two determined aviators through the Second World War, and into the Cold War that followed.
The era is meticulously researched, characters are well drawn and most importantly, the stories are utterly engrossing. I suppose I was drawn to Kharkova as a character because she's a pilot and I love planes - but if you're more of a ground loving bent, well, there are tales of nursing against the backdrop of the Japanese invasion of Singapore, the trials and tribulations of the Tank Crews, and - just to get back into the skies again, flying operations against German Industry for RAF Bomber command in the days before the mighty Lancaster entered service.
See what I mean about the scope of war comics?
The bad news of course, is that all of these mini-series have now ended. You missed 'em!
The good news is that, with the exception of The Fall and Rise of Anna Kharkova, which to be fair only finished in the last week or so, each and every one of the Battlefields mini-series is available in Trade Paperback. As you might have gathered, my favourites are the ones featuring the women of the Soviet Airforce - although Happy Valley, about an Australian pilot flying bombers for the RAF also has a particular place in my heart - but they are all brilliant.
Try them. You won't be sorry.