Red not dead
One of the most popular characters from classic British war comics is back! Stephen Jewell talks to writer Garth Ennis
Auspiciously debuting in Battle #100 in 1977, Johnny Red was one of the weekly war comic’s most popular stories during its 13-year existence. Consigned to the Russian Front, crack RAF fighter ace Johnny Redburn is set to soar through the skies again in a new Titan Comics miniseries written by Garth Ennis and drawn by Keith Burns. Having previously explored the impact of the Second World War in creatorowned series like Battlefields and War Stories, the Preacher scribe is relishing the opportunity to revive one of his childhood favourites.
“At its best,” Ennis told us with evident enthusiasm, “Johnny Red stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Darkie’s Mob and HMS Nightshade, and is really only eclipsed by Charley’s
War. I like Johnny’s scruffy demeanour, his get-the-job-done attitude and his enjoyment of life as a fighter pilot.”
Johnny Red was originally written by Tom Tully, but Ennis hasn’t attempted to replicate the 2000 AD veteran’s distinctive prose style. “I’m never going to be able to write that frantic dialogue of his,” claims Ennis. “That said, I think I’ve been true to the characters and setting, and I’ve done a good deal of research into the period, as Tully clearly did too.”
Ennis describes supporting character Nina Petrova, the so-called “Angel of Death”, as one of the first truly strong female characters in British comics and a forerunner of Judges Anderson and
I’ve been true to the characters and the setting
Hershey. “Long before they appeared, there was Nina, thumping Johnny for mouthing off in the very first episode,” laughs Ennis. He has set the story during the darkest period of the battle for Stalingrad: “The Russians are on the ropes and Falcon Squadron are escorting Nina’s Angels of Death on extremely hazardous daylight supply missions over the city. Then the squadron gets two new Commissars, with a mysterious plan that demands our heroes’ involvement. It may not work well for them, as someone has panicked and done something very dangerous indeed.”
Keith Burns, a full member of the Guild of Aviation Artists, admits that it was initially “a terrifying prospect” to follow original Johnny Red artists Joe Colquhoun and John Cooper, both of whom have now passed away.
“What I take from Joe Colquhoun’s work is worn-out pilots, accurate aircraft, movement and drama – it really has everything,” he says. “I take the same from John Cooper, and although his aircraft were never as accurate, his style was much more expressive, with great character and composition. My aircraft lean more towards realism and capturing their movement, but I try to keep the figures more towards the comics end.”
Above: Like many British comics characters of his time, Johnny Red had a twist or two: after being thrown out of the RAF, he flew with the Russians, and he had a splinter in his skull that caused blurred vision at critical moments. It remains to be seen how much of this Ennis will run with!