INTERVIEW: Garth Ennis resurrects war classic ‘Johnny Red’

(Titan Comics)

Emigrating from Scotland to North America, the difference in comics was abundantly clear to me. Even at a young age it was easy for me to notice that British comics had more of a basis in history and real world issues than their American counterparts. Even sports heroes had their place in British comics. My new home was a culture whose comics were dominated by super heroes and spectacular fiction. I missed the World War II stories or tales from ages of the Empire past. Stories like Tom Tully’s and Joe Colquhoun’s Johnny Red, which was about a young working-class Royal Air Force pilot, busted through the ranks for assaulting a superior officer and who wound up on a doomed Murmansk convoy sunk outside Leningrad. Flying to safety aboard a catapult-launched Hawker Hurricane, Johnny Redburn attached himself to a Soviet Air Force squadron called the Falcons and eventually rose to lead them.

Acclaimed comics writer, Garth Ennis (Preacher, Hellblazer, The Boys) has taken up the task to re-ignite this story originally drawn by Joe Colquhoun and written by Tom Tully in the mid 1970’s to the early 1980’s and was featured in Britain’s premiere war comic Battle. Re-tooling it for Titan Books to present to a contemporary and North American audience, Ennis believes that the action-packed adventure story will be a hit.

Pop Mythology was fortunate enough to chat with Ennis about Titan Books’ newest offering and ask hi a few questions.


PM: First off, I want to say thank you for renewing the incredible story of Johnny Red for a new generation of comic readers. As a reader of the original Johnny Red, I’m sold, but why do you think this is a story for the 21st century comic reader?

GE: One of the aspects of Johnny Red that came across to me as a kid was its portrayal of warfare on the Eastern Front – not the mostly civilised (by comparison) battles of British or American against German, but a war of racial and ideological hatred fought to the death, with the twin behemoths of Nazi fascism and Soviet communism struggling to exterminate each other. In the west we have little idea of this part of World War Two, and it’s hard for people to understand that the western allies’ role in the destruction of Hitler’s Reich was quite subordinate to that of the Russians. The original Johnny Red never flinched from these realities, and my story won’t either.

Writer Garth Ennis (photo: pinguino k / Wikimedia Commons)

PM: In your forward in the Titan HC compilation of Johnny Red, you’ve made it quite clear why you like this series. Is this story something only British comic readers will be able to appreciate? Talk about its implications to a North American comic reader.

I think its drama is pretty universal. After all, there’s only one British character in the story.

PM: Could you share a bit of your comic reading background with our readers?

I grew up on 2000AD and then Battle, both of which I read from around age 7 or 8. Also liked the War and Battle Picture Libraries and Commando. Didn’t bother with US comics until later, partly because of spotty distribution in Northern Ireland, partly because I didn’t care for what I did see of them – dodged a bullet there, I might have ended up with exactly the same tastes as the rest of the industry. Started reading American comics in the late 80s, when I followed Alan Moore over to Swamp Thing and Watchmen and so on, and discovered people like Frank Miller and Howard Chaykin. From there I got into Paul Chadwick, Peter Bagge and a few of the Brits who’d moved over to DC- Jamie Delano and Pete Milligan come to mind.

PM: What contemporary comics (artists) are you currently reading?

I follow Alan Moore and Brian Vaughan pretty religiously, and I read John Wagner’s 2000AD work when it’s collected. Beyond that – not much. The industry still largely revolves around superheroes, which hold no appeal for me at all.

PM: Talk a little about the history behind Johnny Red. It’s a little far-fetched – will you address this in your re-telling?

Johnny Red tells the story of a young working class trainee pilot who’s kicked out of the Royal Air Force for thumping an officer, and ends up working as a galley hand on board a merchant ship in a convoy bound for Russia. He ends up flying with and then leading Falcon Squadron of the Soviet air force.

Allowing for the natural hyperbole of boys’ comics in the ’70s, Johnny Red is actually a reasonably realistic strip, in terms of its portrayal of war on the Eastern Front. Where it veers sharply into fantasy is with the character of Johnny himself: his arrival with the Falcons is plausible enough, but a Brit leading a Russian squadron in a (seemingly indestructible) British aircraft just wouldn’t have flown, if you’ll pardon the pun. If he pissed off the Soviet secret police to the extent that he regularly does he’d simply have been shot, as would the squadron if they stood up for him the way they often do. But more likely he’d just have been handed over to the British authorities at the first opportunity.

The old strip found ways around this, or to live with it. So does mine.

(Titan Comics)

PM: What makes your re-telling different from Joe Colquhoun’s and Tom Tully’s story?

With the best will in the world, I’ll never write dialogue like Tom Tully. He was actually pretty good, but he veered into the hysterical just a bit too often for my taste. He got to the stage where every sentence would end in an exclamation mark. That said, the two stories are fairly similar in tone, and I like to think I’ve gotten the characters more or less right.

PM: Talk a little about the working relationship between you and Keith Burns.

My relationship with Keith is pretty much the same as with any other artist I work with successfully. I write and he draws, and we trust each other to get on with it. But beyond that, Keith is very much the artist I’ve been waiting for all these years – he’s as nuts about war comics as I am, and would happily work on nothing else for the rest of his life. I know he knows the material inside out and so there’s little need to provide reference or whatever. He understands the hardware and he knows how to make it come alive on the page. Some artists have to be sort of educated into drawing military stories, which require a different approach in terms of action to regular comics work.

PM: Can you share about how feel about the television developments with Preacher in North America?

Very pleased so far. Watched the pilot again the other night, now with effects, shots and music added. Couldn’t be happier.

From ‘Preacher: Book 2’ (Vertigo)

PM: Preacher will obviously add to your profile with N. American audiences – do you think it will have any bearing on Johnny Red?

Every little helps.

PM: I was born in the UK (Oswestry and then lived in Dunfermline) and vividly remember reading Johnny Red in Battle and other titles like Action, et. al. In your mind, what sets British comics apart from their American counterparts and what will you import into this version of Johnny Red?

If you’re talking about British comics of that era, I think they were tougher, funnier, sharper and more varied in subject matter – several different genres instead of just superheroes across the board. There was no “Marvel Way” approach either, so the art was a lot more interesting – artists could be who they were, rather than shoehorning their talent into some boring house style. Those were the comics I grew up on and so their influence runs through almost all my work. In Johnny Red it’s just more direct than usual.

PM: How will the story start? Any differences or similarities you can tease us with?

In present day England, an American millionaire has bought the remains of a Hawker Hurricane at auction, with a view to restoring the aircraft to flying condition. The revelation that the Hurricane saw action on the Eastern Front takes him to Russia, where researchers have turned up the last survivor of the squadron the aircraft was assigned to. What gradually comes to light is a deep, dark secret that’s lasted some seventy years, going back to the a time when Nazi forces were in the ascendant and Mother Russia teetered on the brink, and some very senior people suddenly panicked.

PM: Any appearances planned in North America to promote this book?

I believe I’m doing a signing at the New York Comic Con: Titan booth, Sunday, 3-4 pm.

Johnny Red is an amazing story of grit and determination – the qualities that British comics strove to inculcate in their delivery. These weren’t just fantasy stories; they were tales that glorified British history as well as honouring the personal histories of millions of allied soldiers who defied exhaustion and suffered privation in the battle against Nazi tyranny. As a child, this was probably the best way that I could interact with this generation and to understand some of their sacrifices.

Sure, it was fiction and sure there was probably no way that a Hawker Hurricane flown by a headstrong could survive the brutal Russian winter with little in terms of stores or replacements. Despite the historical fact that the RAF had sent many Hurricanes to the Soviet Union and that it was plausible there could be replacement parts, there was still just no way that the aircraft could have remained in the air as long as it did throughout Redburn’s time in the USSR.

But I didn’t care.

It was a story that captured my imagination and I remember running to the local confectionary store every week to pick up my rolled-up, newsprint comics that smelled like a combination of Cadbury’s Flakes and Yorkie bars. World War II comics ignited my love of history and though Ennis believes that he may not be able to write dialogue like Tom Tully, he knows he’ll be able to capture the same spirit of that original story and bring it to North American comic store shelves. I, for one, believe he can do it too.

Johnny Red hits comic shops on Nov. 4th. Do yourself a favour and check this book out. If you get a chance to pop by the New York Comic Con this weekend, say hi to Garth at the Titan Books booth and tell him I sent you.

About Captain John K. Kirk

Captain John K. Kirk
John Kirk is an English and History teacher and librarian in Toronto, Canada. In addition to the traditional curriculum, John tries to teach his students to make sense of geek culture. And with the name "J. Kirk," it's hard for him to not inject "Star Trek" into his lessons. Comics, RPGs and the usual fanboy gear make up his classroom resources.

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