In “Battlefields: The Night Witches,” Garth Ennis presented the brutal story of an all-female squadron of Russian pilots in World War II. In “Battlefields: Dear Billy,” Ennis presents the brutal story of a female victim of a Japanese assault during World War II. Apparently, the “Battlefields” concept is all about spotlighting the underreported female perspective on the war, which is an almost unique approach to the genre. When you think War Comic, you tend to think about men gunning down other men, and if women appear at all, it’s usually as idealized figures — in photographs as soldiers write home to their girlfriends, as exotic love interests from foreign lands, or as tragic victims who inspire the good guys to be even “gooder.”
Ennis, as he tends to do, turns those cliches upside down in “Battlefields,” giving us female characters who are strong, conflicted, tormented, and, well, as fully-developed as their male counterparts — or even moreso.
“Dear Billy” #1 opens with a firing squad and a line of refugees, as the Japanese soldiers gun down the women they’ve just raped. One of the women survives to become the protagonist of this series. She’s Carrie Sutton victim-turned-nurse, and the “Dear Billy” of the title is Billy Wedgewood, a pilot who she met as he recovered from injuries.
But this isn’t Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms,” and the couple doesn’t fall in love and run off to Switzerland together. Ennis focuses on a different aspect of their relationship, as both Sutton and Wedgewood carry emotional wounds far deeper than anything they can express to each other. They’ve each been violated, physically, by their enemies. They are broken characters, but they maintain a sense of decorum around others, and they don’t flaunt their weaknesses. They do the best they can and keep moving forward through a world filled with pain and suffering. The stiff upper lip and all that.
At the end of the issue, Carrie Sutton is faced with a chance for revenge — as misplaced as it may be — as a Japanese soldier ends up under her care. And on the final pages of this issue, the story really begins.
Peter Snejbjerg provides the art, and his simple, elegant style is quite a contrast with the rough and expressive work by Russ Braun in the previous “Battlefields” volume. Snejbjerg’s clean line matches the sterile tone of “Dear Billy” as the restraint of the characters seems to keep them bottled in and ready to erupt. It’s a good look for the series, and as Snejbjerg proved in his work with Peter Tomasi on DC’s “Light Brigade,” he can certainly draw the heck out of a war comic. (Although, presumably this one will have much less of a supernatural element — no warring tribes of angels here, just humans trying to survive.)
This is a well-crafted first issue (even though I have one minor complaint: I found the “handwriting” font to be distractingly difficult to read), and I’m curious to see how Ennis handles Sutton’s dilemma.