Monday, February 15, 2010

Review: "Battlefields"

So with of my favourite night of TV being all repeats because the Winter Olympics are on, I figured I'd sit down and do a quick graphic novel review this evening. Don't get me wrong, I'm enjoying the Olympics quite a bit, however I think I might have reached a saturation point and need to take a step back.

So what's this evening's graphic novel? I'm going with "Battlefields", written by Garth Ennis and illustrated by Russ Braun, Peter Snejbjerg and Carlos Ezquerra.

Why this one? Well, out of the lovely stack of books I just got, I recognize most of them would be of little interest to a non-graphic novel reader. The Iron Man book is fun, but if you haven't been following the series, well, you wouldn't know what was going on. And I like the idea of talking about some books that perhaps would interest people who ordinarily not pick up a graphic novel.

And I think "Battlefields" would be the type of book that would appeal to some non-traditional readers. It's a hardcover book that features three stories, all set in World War II.

There was a time when WWII stories were bigger than super hero comics. There were dozens of series following the adventures of GIs during the war. And this was even years after WWII was over, there were still a demand for those comics. However, over the years, those books faded away. I'm sure there are plenty of reasons why and I'm not going to get into it now. Let's just say when Ennis writes these stories, he pretty much has the market to himself.

And Ennis has been fascinated by WWII stories. He's done others before this collection with DC Comics and he's done some pretty solid ones. This is a new publisher, but the quality of stories remains pretty high. Ennis has a real habit of digging out a good story and putting a very human feel on it. And unlike the old war comics, he doesn't glorify the war. He shows the horror, the tragedy, the black, black humour that comes with it.

So, the three stories are "The Night Witches." Dear Billy," and "Tankies."

"The Night Witches" is based on a real group of Russian women during the war who were bomber pilots. Women were pretty heavily during the defence of Russia by Germany. They were considered equals, after all. Just less equal than others. So while they were pilots and were expected to lead bombing raids against German positions, they were given much older aircraft. The German's could hear them coming because the planes were so loud, even at night.

So that meant coming up with a new strategy...cutting their engines miles out from the target and gliding in, dropping their bombs in the dark, then turning back on the engine and gunning it before the flack could kill them. If it sounds insane, it's only because you're not Russian.

So Ennis tells the story of a couple of these women pilots and what they have to go through to defend Russia. He also tells the story of a German solider trying to invade Russia and knowing its doomed and having to do terrible things, even though he's basically a good man.

It's as much a history lesson as it is a fascinating story. I never knew of the Night Witches before, so just the history is fascinating to me. But Ennis also tells a good human story as well. But there are times the history, because it is so fascinating, gets in the way of the characters.

The next story is "Dear Billy", which is the story of a nurse who survives Japan capturing Singapore, but not before it essentially destroys her. She lives physically, but mentally is damaged beyond repair by what happens to her. She eventually becomes a nurse in India, meets a British pilot, falls in love, but can't move on.

There is some history in this one, obviously. Japan did conquer Singapore and women were treated horrifically by the Japanese, with rape and murder being the usual consequences. However, this is more than just recounting horror. It really is beautifully written and, given the subject matter, that's no easy feat. You know things are not going to end well, but you still hold out hope. It's probably my favourite of the three, even though it is so sad.

Finally, there is "Tankies." This is a much more straightforward story. Not at all complex or anything. It follows a tank crew which is trying to catch up with its unit. Granted, the unit it's trying to catch up with was blown to hell by vastly superior German tanks and there is every chance the same thing could happen to them. This is as much a brief history of tank warfare in the weeks after D-Day with some interesting characters thrown in as anything else.

The other two stories had a much greater human element in them, which made them more interesting. This one is interesting and has some fun moments, but it's certainly not up to the level of the other two.

Oh, and at the end of the book Ennis gives some of the history and research he did when putting the stories together that's also certainly worth a read.

Garth Ennis really is one of my favourite authors. If I had to pick my favourite authors actively writing comics today (Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman write, but very infrequently), he's probably my second favourite behind Warren Ellis. He has an ability to veer from deeply touching, to moral outrage to completely over the top mentally insane. I like that. I like a guy who can write something that can make me laugh and then two pages later can give me pause. This is a guy who made The Punisher interesting, for God's sake. And that's a pretty simple character. This isn't top of his game stuff, but it's still better than most writers out there are capable of.

I haven't written much about the artists, but then again, I'm the kind of guy who focuses more on writing than art. I like Braun and Ezquerra's art on the first and third stories. They certainly do the job. They're probably a touch closer to realism than Snejbjerg, who has a slightly softer, almost romantic feel to it. Then again, Snejbjerg's softer fell makes the horror when it hits all the more disturbing.

Obviously this book still isn't for everyone. World War II graphic novels might not be everyone's idea of a light read. But I really liked this book. It's probably my favourite of the bunch I just picked up. If you see it, pick it up and give it a look. I think you'll be surprised by it.

Last Five
1. Flaming pie (live) - Paul McCartney
2. Lily of the west - Mark Knopfler and the Chieftains*
3. Gloryland - Blue Vipers of Brooklyn
4. Everybody knows - The Dukhs
5. Your long journey - Robert Plant and Allison Krauss


Anonymous said...

off topic but what are your thoughts on "Human Target"? I think it is pretty entertaining.

towniebastard said...

I'm missing it more than I'm managing to catch it, but I like the show. It has a solid cast, although a strange one, as there are no women. How many network shows have no regular female characters in their cast?

Still, it has promise, assuming Fox doesn't kill it.