This April, Garth Ennis takes to the battlefields one more time.
On the heels of his well received "Battlefields: The Night Witches" and "Battlefields: Dear Billy" miniseries for Dynamite Entertainment, the acclaimed writer teams with "Judge Dredd" artist and co-creator Carlos Ezquerra for "Battlefields: The Tankies" which takes Ennis' interest in World War II to one of the conflict's most famous battles -- and beyond. The three-issue mini tells the story of a young and untested British tank crew lost behind enemy lines during the Battle of Normandy, the fight to reclaim France from the Axis powers that kick-started on D-Day.
"D-Day's one thing, with films like 'Saving Private Ryan' and so on giving most people at least a basic understanding of what happened on June 6, 1944, but the Battle of Normandy is quite another," Ennis told CBR. "It's not generally known that two months of very, very hard fighting followed the invasion, with the Allies having to grind down the German forces in horrific attritional battles before they could break out into the open country of northern France. Losses were extremely high, largely due to the claustrophobic hedgerows and woods of the Normandy countryside being totally unsuitable for tanks -Â the terrain favoured the defenders, and the Germans were experts in setting all kinds of ambushes and traps."
"Tankies" finds roaming through that bombed out wasteland a ragtag group of English soldiers manning a heavy artillery tank under the command of Corporal Stiles, who doesn't prove the most popular commanding officer. "Half the time they can't understand him due to his Geordie dialect," Ennis explained. "'Geordie' is slang for an inhabitant of Newcastle, on the North-East coast of England, where the locals do speak with a pretty impenetrable accent. I've always found listening to it quite enjoyable.
"Stiles is actually a pretty good tank commander, with years of bitter experience behind him, but his cynicism and the aforementioned accent mean he might not be the best choice to command a crew of rookies. The fact that Robbo, the gunner, takes Stiles' appointment personally and decides to give him as much shit as possible - that doesn't help matters either."
While previous volumes in the "Battlefields" series stretched a bit further afield from the writer's native UK both in terms of location and cast, "The Tankies" strikes Ennis a little more close to home. Although, that familiarity doesn't make for an easy-going story. "I can't pretend to have anything in common with five working class English tank crewmen from 1944, but one thing I am familiar with is the wide array of territorial rivalries that Britain contains within its borders," Ennis said. "For such a (relatively) small country England, has an incredible array of regional variation - from Scousers to Mancs to Brummies to Geordies, from the Cockney to the Posh Git, from the 'oo- aar' man to the noble sheepshagger. I love them all...or most of them."
Aside from a general sense of unease amongst each other, Stiles and company face more than their fair share of entrenched Germans gunning for their heads -- with little to no support from their unfound allies. "As mentioned, it's the Normandy terrain itself that proves extremely dangerous for the Tankies," Ennis said. "The Bocage country, as it was known, consisted of fields and woods divided by sunken lanes with high hedgerows on either side of them. Now, a humble hedgerow may not sound like much, but consider a tangle of trees, bushes and roots on top of an ancient wall of densely-packed earth and stone, all of it about twelve feet high. If you're driving along the lane and you hit trouble, you're going to want to get off the lane and through the hedge. So, at painfully slow tank speed, you drive up the wall of earth and stone and immediately expose your underside as you come through the vegetation. Whoever's waiting on the other side has all the time in the world to put a shot into your guts.
"Again, the Germans were expert defenders, and were very good at channelling opposing armour into traps in the narrow lanes - and placing anti-tank guns to hit any tanks that tried to escape through the hedgerows."
Luckily for the reality of the stark set up, Carlos Ezquerra served several artistic tours of duty with Ennis' favored subject matter, making the collaboration as strong as any futuristic satire the pair have worked on. Explained Ennis, "American readers may not be familiar with Carlos' previous WW2 material, but back in the late '70s he did a ton of work for the British war comic 'Battle,' creating such classic stories as 'Rat Pack' and 'Major Eazy.' He has plenty of experience in illustrating this kind of material - I provide the occasional bit of reference as necessary, but really he's an old hand.
"For 'The Tankies,' I relied on his usual expert characterisation, storytelling, timing and research -Â all the stuff that he makes look easy through years and years of experience. One aspect of his work that particularly shines through in this story is his ability to breathe life into a lot of the hardware- you can gather all the reference you want, you can spend ages drawing a perfect representation of the tank or aircraft or gun in question, but it takes real skill to make them 'come alive' on the page. To seem like they're part of the action, moving and firing like the real thing, instead of just a scaled-down line drawing."
Ultimately, Garth Ennis' combined love of hardware and history help to make "The Tankies" an honest and accurate ending to his "Battlefields" run. "I know most of the ins and outs of the various different tanks," he said, "as well as a fair bit of their operational history. The Normandy fighting involved some of the most famous tanks of the war, and brought many of their advantages and disadvantages to the fore. Our story features the British Churchill, which had good armour but a crap gun, and was reliable but rather slow; the American Sherman, which had the same crap gun and mediocre armour, but was faster and very reliable - but had an unfortunate habit of bursting into flames as soon as it was hit, immolating the crew before they could escape; and the German Tiger, which was fairly slow and unreliable but had a superb gun and excellent armour. This generally meant that in a head to head engagement, the Allied crews were in big trouble. Spot of David-and-Goliath going on here, and Goliath, alas, would usually win."
"Garth Ennis' Battlefields: The Tankies" #1 goes on sale in April from Dynamite Entertainment.