Garth Ennis Writes To "Dear Billy"

"The Night Witches" may still be tearing up the skies over Russia with the just-released second issue of Garth Ennis' triptych of Battlefields World War II comics for Dynamite Entertainment, but the aerial cat-and-dogfights of the writer's first outing promise to barrel roll into a completely different theater, campaign and general story feel by the time the second series, the Peter Snejbjerg-illustrated "Battlefields: Dear Billy," hits in February. CBR News spoke with Ennis to learn more about the project

Focusing on the relationship between a young, shot-down British pilot named Billy and the in-over-her-head British nurse meant to care for him, "Dear Billy" promises to avoid the schmaltzy, romanticized cliches that Hollywood would exploit with such a setup for a much more hard-edged look at how the English gentry react to the horror of war.

"Billy's been a combat pilot since the start of the war and was posted out east in the build-up to war during the fall of '41. Carrie took up nursing to see a bit of the world, and ended up in Singapore," Ennis told CBR. "It's her status as a young, middle class Englishwoman that prevents her, perhaps, from getting - or even seeking - the help that she needs to overcome her ordeal; as we'll see in the story, there were certain aspects of life that 1940s polite society was not equipped to deal with."

Early word on the Battlefields project saw Ennis referring to "Dear Billy" as his strangest story in the cycle, and while the specifics of the plot that turn the story from heroic to horrific remain close to the writer's vest, for the moment, Ennis did reveal that Carrie's unwitting encounters with Japanese troops in the eastern-most theater's of the war and her response to such that will turn the story on its head.

"Being a nurse does her no good whatsoever, really, beyond giving her something to keep her occupied and - temporarily - take her mind off what she's suffered," the writer explained. "It's her inability to hit back at the enemy that leaves her floundering, and perhaps leads her down the rather extreme path that she takes. Billy returns to duty at the controls of a fighter-bomber, with which he can bomb and strafe the enemy to his heart's content (and even get paid for it, as he himself points out). Carrie has no such outlet for revenge."

Women seeking revenge appears to be a theme taking shape throughout Battlefields, with this new story turning the coin on the feminine reaction to the war unveiled in "The Night Witches," although Ennis called his choice to look at two tales focusing on the often overlooked women of the war a coincidence. "Although, I suppose both stories came out of my aforementioned interest in lesser-known aspects of the war, and that - unfairly, I think - applies to the experience of many women in wartime," he added. 'Where Carrie is given no chance to strike back, Anna Kharkova and her fellow Night Witches get to hit the invaders of their country as hard as they like - an obvious contrast between the social mores of the British Empire, and Russian Communist ideology."

All of these ideas work their way into Ennis' stories, although many of the small and subtle details the WWII buff keeps on hand like a computer provide only background material for the story at hand. "I tend to go where the stories take me, although it's true to say that the lesser known fronts, campaigns, battles, figures and even hardware do tend to attract me. Something interesting about highlighting what might otherwise be forgotten, I think," Ennis said.

"The CBI, or China-Burma-India theatre, took in a massive area of Asia. The Japanese had been in China since 1931, when they invaded Manchuria, and after Pearl Harbor the Americans found themselves facing the Japanese there as allies of Chiang Kai Shek's Nationalist Chinese," Ennis explained. "Both India and Burma were part of the British Empire in 1941, and Japanese troops pursued the retreating Empire forces through Burma until they were almost at the border with India- at which point, fortunately, the Japanese advance exhausted itself.

"Before they invaded Burma, however, the Japanese knocked off a number of other Imperial outposts in that part of the world- Sumatra, Java (where Billy runs afoul of them), Borneo, Malaya and Singapore. During the retreat from the latter there was a good deal of confused activity, with refugees trying to reach sanctuary in all manner of small craft, and that's the point in the story when the invaders get their hands on Carrie."

With such an ominous turn of events in store for his latest heroine, Ennis tapped an artist for the series with a much darker, shadowy style in the form of Peter Snejbjerg ("Books of Magic," "Starman"), and the writer projected enthusiasm for the results. "He's nailed it perfectly, beginning with the pic I just mentioned and continuing from there in fine style," Ennis said. "There's a real intelligence and subtlety to his storytelling, most notably in his characters' faces, that comes as a godsend when you do the kind of stuff I do."

Of course, where things end for Carrie and dear Billy remains anyone's guess until this February, but as with most of Ennis' tales, the impact rarely strikes readers until they know the rest of the story. Ennis attacks his war tales in the same way. "I'm never quite sure where stories like this (or '303' or 'The Punisher: Valley Forge, Valley Forge,' two more odd little tales) come from; they begin with lines or images that seem unrelated to anything else, and I go from there. In this instance, the starting point was the image on page one of #1, which has been haunting me for some time."

"Battlefields: Dear Billy" #1 goes on sale in February from Dynamite Entertainment.

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