Once upon a time not too long ago, Garth Ennis wrote a series of war comics for Vertigo under the banner “War Stories.” A couple of trades have appeared, reprinting those stories, and they are worth checking out because, in his “War Stories” mode, Ennis and his artistic collaborators focused on one small perspective to tell very human stories about something as inconceivably massive as warfare. His “War Stories” installments were often brutal, ironic, somewhat reverential, and emotionally powerful, dealing with intense drama in unlikely situations of heroism.
It seems this new “Battlefields” banner from Dynamite is pretty much the same thing. And that’s fine with me, because I like Ennis in his “War Stories” mode, and I’m always happy to see what perspective he adopts next.
In “The Night Witches,” he tells the story of an all-female Russian air force squadron and their battle against German forces. The Night Witches themselves — so named by the Germans — are the focus of the story, but the only narrative captions in issue #2 are given to a reluctant German soldier who is tormented by his own leaders. Ennis does a lot of things well in this series, and one of the most prominent is his emphasis on characterization. This is a high-concept piece of historical fiction (women flying fighter planes in WWII!) but he doesn’t oversimplify the situation or glorify anyone on either side. He shows the conflict within the ranks — both Russian and German — and allows both sides to show their troubling humanity. And yet, Ennis doesn’t flinch from showing the savagery of war, either, and though the theme isn’t as simple as “war is hell,” there’s an underlying acceptance that such a statement is true, and this is all a manifestation of that.
Perhaps the most powerful scene in issue #2 involves the rape and murder of one of the female pilots. The contrast between her brutalized body in a darkened cellar and the nobility of her comrades flying on their missions is a shocking indictment of war in particular and the human race in general. It’s not a pretty sight, and it’s not just a cheap way to startle the reader. The rape evokes a deep sadness and a horrifying awareness of the price these pilots are being asked to pay. Ennis uses the potential exploitative scene to its full thematic effect.
Russ Braun, another Vertigo alum, provides the art on “The Night Witches,” and his work here resembles a cleaned-up Darick Robertson. It’s not quite as gritty as Robertson’s, but his faces look similar, and his storytelling flows as smoothly. And, most importantly, there’s a physical weight to his characters. These aren’t superheroic figures dancing through the skies. They are individuals who carry the weight of their countries on their shoulders, and you can feel the burden in the way they stand.
“The Night Witches” is only three issues long, so I don’t expect any radical plot reversals or shifts in quality in part three. It’s not the kind of story that hinges on plot points anyway. It’s about characters trapped in situations beyond their control, and it’s about what they do to rise above their surroundings or die trying.
“The Night Witches” is a high-quality war comic, and, without a doubt, I’m looking forward to other “Battlefields” installments from Garth Ennis and company.