Garth Ennis has a reputation for being a bit of a risk taker in his comics work. Whether it be tackling the ins and out of religious iconography in controversial fashion in the classic “Preacher” or twisting the tropes of superheroes with perverse glee in current hit “The Boys,” the writer’s style often earns remarks of how his stories push the envelope of content. But over the last year, Ennis and Dynamite Entertainment took a risk of another kind when they challenged the boundaries of the comics marketplace, publishing a trio of World War II stories under the banner of “Battlefields.” While war comics have a long history, their popularity and sales potential have been on the wane for the better part of three decades, seeing fans flock instead to tried and true superheroes and newer trends like zombie comics. It does appear, however, that the “Battlefields” formula worked as Dynamite has set forth plans for more stories, starting with December’s three-issue “Happy Valley” series by Ennis and artist P.J. Holden, featuring covers by Garry Leach.
“I think we were all pretty pleased at the way the first series of Battlefields turned out,” Ennis explained of he and Dynamite’s last round of rough military tales. “Something that might have gotten lost at a larger company – or written off as being unprofitable – was able to survive at Dynamite because of the extra effort made by the publisher and editorial team. They worked hard to find ways to make the second series happen. Example: the three collections of the individual stories that preceded October’s hardcover collection, which helped to bring in enough revenue that series 2 became a possibility.”
To celebrate, Ennis went back to the wellspring of the line’s success for two of the new “Battlefields” series for a quick launch, explaining how “it was a simple matter of writing sequels to the earlier stories. Anna Kharkova from ‘The Night Witches’ and Corporal (now Sergeant) Stiles from ‘The Tankies’ were both strong enough characters that I wanted to write new stories for them. The other one, ‘Happy Valley’ – which will in fact see print first – was more a case of raiding the pile of ideas [for WW2 stories]. I tend to go with whatever’s ready first, and ‘Happy Valley’ was more than ready to go.”
Anyone familiar with Ennis’ work could guess that “Happy Valley” might not, in fact, be a bright, shiny story full of glee. The writer pulled the series’ evocative title from a real area of German industrial land known as the Ruhr – an important and dangerous strategic target for British bombers. The writer said that, while the language of the time certainly packs more of a punch than some of the military lingo used in today’s conflicts, the most telling titles (like “Happy Valley” itself) come from the soliders in the thick of war. “There’s no doubt that they had a bit more class back [in WW2] – it’s hard to go wrong with operational titles like Overlord, Dynamo, Barbarossa or Citadel. That said, while I agree about the appalling degree of bullshit involved in a name like ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom,’ I’m pretty sure that once you get past the politicians and senior ranks, you’ll find that soldiers in the modern era are as irreverent as they ever were – calling Iraq “The Suck” being just one example. But the sheer irony of the most heavily defended target in Germany being referred to as Happy Valley was too good to pass up; the sky’s full of white hot metal and flaming tracer, nightfighters can come howling out of the blackness at any moment to blast your aircraft to bits and reduce you to burning offal, and the British give the place a name that sounds like it comes from a theme park.”
In he and Holden’s new story, Ennis explained that the focus falls upon brigades of British pilots sent out to bomb the Ruhr from London. “Our story is set in February of 1942, when the British are coming to terms with the fact that their bombing campaign hasn’t been as effective as they’d have liked. The aircraft aren’t big enough to carry genuinely effective bomb loads, and navigation and bombing accuracy are not all they might be. New aircraft and better navigation aids are on their way, but for the most part the crews are having to soldier on with older planes and inadequate equipment. The results look pretty impressive during the raids, but the question is whether what’s burning down below is the actual designated target. So we’re at the halfway point, between the Royal Air Force bombing almost at random and killing mostly cattle, as they were in 1940-41, and the devastating explosive and incendiary raids of ’43-45, when they could obliterate a whole city with one week’s continuous attacks.
“Our crew are (mostly) veterans, dedicated enough to do their duty, but cynical enough to realise that their efforts are really a drop in the bucket – so best to finish their tour of operations and go home, before the odds catch up with them,” he said, adding that the entire conflict will be seen through the eyes of a new solider: Australian Ken Harding. “At first glance, Ken appears to be one of those good-hearted, decent,dutiful young men that the war simply ate up in droves. But he’s not a goody two-shoes or a saint, and he has a certain wiliness combined with his natural ability as a pilot that give him a better than average chance of survival. So if his veteran crew can get over their shock and indignance at being assigned a rookie skipper, they may realise that Ken might just get them to the end of their operational tour after all…We follow the Australian crew of one Wellington bomber, codenamed ‘B for Beer,’ on the last three missions of her crew’s operational tour. Of course, while Masher, Blue, Acker, Clive and Joe only have three more jobs to go, new skipper Ken is only beginning his own tour. So each flight means very different things to the different members of the crew.”
As with past installments of “Battlefields,” Ennis’ deep knowledge of the practical history of the war aided the writer in building a social climate perfect for telling stories rarely seen in WW2 treatments on the big screen. This time around, the focus falls on the dual ideas of pilots remaining “local” to London in between missions while many of them are also outsiders from the still tied-to-the-monarchy country of Australia. “I can only imagine that it was a very strange existence indeed. You’re in rural England, away from the worst of the German bombing, so you spend your days with the mostly friendly locals and your nights off in the pub. If you get leave you might go to London, which – although it was still being bombed in ’42 – was a place of a thousand and one illicit delights. You live on your base in reasonable comfort, with soft beds, warm water and at least okay food (though not all units enjoyed this level of luxury). You might go on the occasional test flight, but there’s not much else to do except stooge around the base before you attend the mission briefing. And the next thing you know it’s the middle of the night, you’re four miles high in temperatures of minus 30 and worse, and your canvas-skinned aircraft is crammed to bursting with highly flammable gasoline and thousands of pounds of high explosive. And very pissed off people are shooting at you with everything they’ve got. Then it’s home for bacon and eggs and coffee and bed. Do that thirty times and you’re free to go.
“Australians (and New Zealanders, Canadians, Indians, Rhodesians, South Africans et al) served in all manner of British military units, not to mention alongside them as members of their own country’s armed forces. Ken and his crew are all members of 444 Squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force – in fact, the only Englishmen in the cast are the squadron’s adjutant and chief mechanic, neither of whom see any action. While Australians were fiercely individualistic and their country was obviously independent of British rule, they still formed part of the British Commonwealth and, for the most part, saw themselves as fighting for the Mother Country against her enemies. That said, it wasn’t always plain sailing: we’ll see our heroes dealing with various degrees of local prejudice (which is not to say that many English people didn’t fully appreciate the Aussies’ sacrifice), and also their concerns for their own homeland. It was ’round about this time, after all, that the Japanese began bombing Australia.”
Bringing the dogfights of “Happy Valley” to life will be Holden, a British artist most likely less than familiar to American audiences but long-watched by Ennis. “I’ve been admiring PJ’s work for many years now, at first on Fantagraphics’ ‘Holy Cross’ with my old friend Malachy Coney, and more recently on British sci-fi anthology ‘2000AD.’ I think his stuff is firmly in the British and European tradition, strongly reminiscent of the war comics so many of us read as kids – but with a storytelling dynamism and sense of character that gives him a universal appeal. You can look at any one of the faces he draws and get an instant idea of what that particular guy is about, which is a strength PJ shares with guys like Steve Dillon and Carlos Ezquerra. Finally, he works hard to get the hardware right, which is, frankly, vital on stories like this one.”
As for the next step in the cycle of series, Ennis outlined the “Battlefields” stories that would be hitting stands in the months after his current tale wraps. “The next story after ‘Happy Valley’ is called ‘The Firefly And His Majesty,’ drawn by the mighty Carlos Ezquerra, and it’s the sequel to series one’s ‘The Tankies.’ It’s early 1945 and the recently promoted Sergeant Stiles is now happily in command of a Firefly, a British adaptation of the American Sherman tank with a high-velocity gun – one that can even take out Stiles’ nemesis from last time, the German Tiger. But as the Allied armies advance onto German soil, Hitler’s armies are getting ready to go down fighting, and Stiles soon finds himself locked in a one-on-one duel with the fearsome King Tiger tank. This monster makes the ordinary Tiger look like a house cat, so it’s pretty much back to square one for our hero and his crew..which Stiles takes with his usual good humour and stoicism, of course.
“After that we end series two with ‘Motherland,’ the sequel to ‘The Night Witches’- drawn once again by my good pal Russ Braun. Having lost her best friend and pretty much all her innocence into the bargain, Anna Kharkova has been assigned to a single-seat fighter outfit, where it’s hoped she and her newfound shitty attitude will be less of a problem. The difference this time around is that Anna is the only woman pilot on the squadron, but before she can start proving her mettle all over again, she has to contend with both the NKVD (the Soviet secret police, WW2 forerunners of the KGB) and the Battle of Kursk – the greatest tank battle of the entire war, accompanied by aerial clashes of such magnitude that hundreds of aircraft were lost every day. To make matters worse, the German pilots are still lethal. The Russians generally aren’t.”
“Battlefields: Happy Valley” hits stores in December. In the meantime, readers can catch up with Ennis’ last series of minis in Dynamite’s “The Complete Battlefields,, Volume 1” hardcover, on sale this month.