The $3.99 price tag is steep, I’ll admit, especially with no additional pages and only a cardstock cover to warrant the hike. Unlike “Secret Invasion,” which has the same price point and the same page count, “War is Hell: The First Flight of the Phantom Eagle” is not some huge even that readers will buy no matter what, but perhaps Marvel is thinking, “those who want a Garth Ennis/Howard Chaykin WWI comic will buy it. Those that don’t, won’t. So we might as well go with the higher price.” And whether or not that was the thought behind the price or not, that line of thinking is probably true. Since there’s no established fanbase for the Phantom Eagle character — or, if there is, then I certainly haven’t heard about it — then it all comes down to creator and genre. If people want a war comic by these two creators, they’ll already have picked it up. Or maybe not. Perhaps we have some fence-sitters in the crowd. Or, more likely, some trade-waiters. And to them, I would say: “War is Hell: First Flight of the Phantom Eagle” is worth buying. Certainly.
It’s not the best thing Ennis or Chaykin have ever done, and it’s reminiscent of their other work to a degree, but it’s an interesting origin story of a character who, in the mainstream Marvel Universe, was a kind of pre-Golden Age superhero. I’ve never read a single one of the Phantom Eagle’s previous appearances, but Ennis and Chaykin apparently kept the core of the origin story, while stripping away any superhero pretensions. The basic tale — and the part they keep, as fully revealed in this issue, is that Karl Kaufmann faked parts of his identity to join the allied flying aces while protecting the safety of his German parents. In the superhero version, Kaufmann (spelled without the extra “n,” I believe) adopts the name “The Phantom Eagle” and dons a stylish costume with a bird motif. In the MAX version here, Kaufmann bumbles his way through successful missions and only reveals his intentions in this final issue, as he ashamedly reveals to a dying compatriot, “if anyone asked. . . newspapers or whoever. . . I was going to call myself ‘The Phantom Eagle.'” Then he buries his face in his hands at the absurdity of his plans.
Ennis and Chaykin aren’t interested in presenting a glorified version of war. Kaufmann’s optimism and his near-incompetence have gotten him through situations that have doomed his fellow flyboys. The comic has been a pile-up of bureaucratic nonsense, individual tomfoolery, luck, and sudden death. War, in this comic, is brutal. Death is random. Life is absurd. When the British infantry charges into a machine gun nest, the men sacrifice themselves for nothing. No advantage is gained. All that happens is a pile of bloody bodies.
The comic is titled “War is Hell,” so it’s no surprise that it shows the less-than-glamorous side of combat. But what makes it good, what makes it worth reading, is Ennis’ ability to find the human situations within the absurdity, and his ability to make Kaufmann, the would-be Phantom Eagle, into a flawed but fascinating character. And then there’s Chaykin, drawing biplanes and bloodshed and deeply conflicted square-jawed heroes. Who better to draw such characters against the backdrop of war?
For a war comic, there’s not much fighting in this story. The violence that occurs is swift and lethal. Instead of battle, this comic emphasizes the moments before and the moments after. Those are the moments where the characters really struggle with right and wrong. And those are the moments worth reading about.