5 Series: Battlefields

July 21st, 2010 Posted by david brothers

The best war stories are ones that focus on the people involved in the war, even if it is to the exclusion of any attention paid to the war itself. I think that was my problem with Joe Kubert’s Dong Xoai–it had characters, but they were practically blank slates. Dong Xoai was tilted too far onto the side of simply telling the story as it happened and it lacked heart. Garth Ennis has made the specific kind of war stories I like his stock in trade, from his work at Vertigo with War Stories to his ongoing series of miniseries Battlefields at Dynamite.

Battlefields has a very simple, but fresh, gimmick. Each arc is three issues long and focuses on one front and one group of characters, with one person in that group usually serving as a focal point. This format, sixty-six pages and out, is an effective one, allowing Ennis to drop you into a life and pull you out of it over the course of three issues. You get just enough to be interested, and then the story’s over and you’re on to the next one. The pace keeps you interested, kind of like how a huge part of Amazing Spider-Man appeal right now is sheer momentum.

The variety isn’t what drew me to Battlefields (that was just the thought of Ennis doing more war stories), but it was kept me there. In the first series, you hip-hopped from Russia to Asia to Europe. The stories dealt with subjects like how to deal with war, healing from mental wounds, how people become hardened in the face of violence, or just how sometimes people were completely outclassed but still managed to make do. It shed light on actual stories by being based at least slightly on true stories, in the case of Night Witches, or simply took its cues from history and spun off into something else entirely.

The series varies in tone as well as content, of course. There’s a kind of black humor floating over Tankies, with a Corporal who talks funny and a crew who aren’t afraid to talk about it behind his back. You’ll chuckle at least a little bit at what they get up to. Night Witches is oppressive, taking place on one of the hardest fronts of the war and throwing innocents directly at the German army. There are jokes in there, but they’re the jokes of the doomed and damned. Nothing is pretty. Dear Billy is a melancholy love story. The war and action take a backseat to a woman and the man she’s fallen in love with. Happy Valley feels like a goofy getting-to-know you tale, where the curmudgeonly old vets have to welcome an eager and talented newcomer into the fold. The stories are always serious and treated with respect, of course, but there’s variety in how they’re told.

By and large, Battlefields is simple to a fault. The characters are invariably human, flawed in believable ways, struck by fear at inopportune times, and thrown into the thresher of World War II. No one comes out of the series the same way they entered it, and sometimes that means that people have to die. You aren’t reading about heroes or supermen. Not even close. These are, at best, decent people dealt a bad hand. There’s no flourish, no moment when someone jumps into the fray with two guns ablaze. There really aren’t even any of those motivational speeches that always seem to pop up in WWII tales.

The art is varied, too. Russ Braun, Peter Snejbjerg, PJ Holden, and Carlos Ezquerra don’t look all that much alike as far as style goes, but they’re all talented artists. Braun and Ezquerra bring an ugly grit to the proceedings, rendering tanks and the Russian front as being appropriately sandpapery. Snejbjerg is great at drawing human beings, so a conversation-heavy volume like Dear Billy is the perfect book for him. Holden gets to draw dogfights, something notoriously tough to do in comics, but performs well.

The crew of artists is a boon to Battlefields. This is, in essence, anthology comic, a series of short stories being published under one banner. Each story, in addition to being set in diverse locales, has a unique visual style. The art complements the story, so that sad stories have sad art and brutal ones look the part. It makes sense, Each story is set apart from its brethren visually and tonally.

So, boiled down–simple stories about normal people during a war delivered in satisfying chunks.

Good comics.

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The Cipher 06/23/10

June 23rd, 2010 Posted by david brothers

Battlefields #7: Motherland, Part 1 of 3. Written by Garth Ennis, drawn by Russ Braun, colored by Tony AviƱa, lettered by Simon Bowland. Cover art by Garry Leach. Read the preview.

Can we pretend that airplanes in the night sky are like shooting stars?
I could really use a wish right now…

Hey, women in comics! People talk about that! Or at least women in superhero comics, which I guess is a little different. This, though, is what we should all be talking about. It’s great. Garth Ennis has taken his War Stories to Dynamite and has managed to keep the quality more or less as high as it was at Vertigo. In Battlefields, each story is three issues long and skips around in the European and Pacific theaters. I reviewed Dear Billy last September.

The third of this current cycle of Battlefields is “Motherland.” It’s the return of the main character from my favorite story from the last book. Anna Borisnova Kharkova is a member of the Night Witches, a group of all-female Soviet bombers in World War II. Read up on them, they’re pretty interesting. In the first book, Anna was a little wet behind the ears. By the time this one comes around, she’s been hardened by battle and seems pretty unhappy with her lot in life. She’s stuck in a situation where she is going to be just one of many soldiers being used for cannon fodder against the Germans. The base she’s operating out of is building up to the Battle of Kursk, for better or for worse. Honestly, judging by the odds, it’s just gonna be for worse.

This is a good one. I’ve read it already and it may end up being my favorite of the latest cycle once again. There’s a couple things that feel a little pat (the plucky girl particularly), but seeing Anna all mean… it works. I’m hooked. Bravo. If you want to get familiar, cop the Battlefields HC. Three stories, nine issues, twenty bones. The individual trades will cost you like ten a piece, so might as well double your dollars for three times the tales.

Also on my list for this week: Amazing Spider-Man #635 (Joe Kelly/Michael Lark), Heralds #4 (Kathryn Immonen/Tonci Zonjic/James Harren/Emma Rios), Joe the Barbarian #6 (Grant Morrison/Sean Murphy), King City #9 (Brandon Graham), and Thunderbolts #145 (Jeff Parker/Kev Walker).

Well. That’s a pretty good looking batch of comics there. I wish that Heralds was all Zonjic, but Harren was okay last time and Emma Rios is pretty talented. And really, when my biggest complaint for the week is “I wish one good artist had done this instead of a few good ones,” hey. That’s a good week.

Big news this week: DC’s joined up with comiXology to push hard on digital comics. Comics Alliance has all the news you need right here, and will have updates throughout the day, including an op-ed from yours truly and an interview with Jim Lee. Here’s the main details.

Digital comics! Time to put up or shut up. How long until I can buy a comic digitally and then grab the trade when that comes out? Someone make that happen. We can do business.

What’re you buying this week? Are you going to take the digital leap on your iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch? I tried to check it out last night when it went live, but apparently my poor widdle first-gen iPod Touch isn’t ready for the app. It crashes whenever I try to download. I’ll try again later, since I know several people who have had no trouble at all.

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Dear Billy, Is This All I Get?

June 23rd, 2009 Posted by david brothers

Due to reviewing the Lone Wolf & Cub books once a week, I’ve spent a lot of time over the past couple of months thinking about justice and revenge. The reasoning behind revenge, the stresses it puts on someone, the sacrifices necessary to pursue revenge, and even, occasionally, my own personal feelings about it. It’s a little draining, to be honest, but fascinating at the same time.

Garth Ennis and Peter Snejberg’s Battlefields: Dear Billy, published by Dynamite Entertainment, takes the idea of justice and revenge head-on, but not exactly in the way I expected. Most creators, when writing a story about revenge, tends to take the obvious route. Something horrible happens, usually in graphic detail, someone makes a promise, and then a whole lot of people die. You’ve seen it with Ultimate Hawkeye, whose entire family was murdered. Ogami Itto is stacking the bodies up like cordwood. Daredevil’s gone on multiple revenge quests. Omar from The Wire spent the bulk of the fifth season of the show killing men who wronged him.

Ennis and Snejberg present an entirely different scenario. During World War II, on the way to Java, Carrie Sutton, and several other British women, were captured, raped, machineguned, and left for the dead by Japanese soldiers. Carrie was the only survivor.

After her convalescence, Carrie is discharged and becomes a nurse for the British in the Eastern Theater. She meets a man, the Billy of the title, and they fall in love. Their romance allows both of them to escape from the war, both mentally and physically, as they were both brutalized by the Japanese. Billy had been caught after landing his plane, and was bayonetted, though Carrie pretends not to know that. She keeps Billy in the dark about her past, as well. Billy likes the idea of portraying the war as no big deal to his little lady, and she enjoys indulging him in that fantasy. However, it isn’t enough. When a Japanese prisoner of war is brought into Carrie’s hospital, she smothers him with a pillow.

Carrie and Billy’s relationship disintegrates when he says the wrong thing to her. After a night out drinking with friends, they get into an argument about what’s going to happen after the war. Carrie asks, “If the Japs are to be groomed as allies, what the hell are we supposed to do about them?” Billy replies, “Now we learn to love them, Carrie.” And Carrie cannot take that, and so their relationship, and the book, ends.

Carrie went through a harrowing experience and had no outlet for those emotions. There was no way she could actually have justice or closure for her suffering. There would be no trial, no execution, no recompense. So, she killed men. It didn’t make her feel better, but it did do something to make her feel less bad, if only for a moment. The thought of learning to love the people that had traumatized her was too much.

I think the fundamental question at the heart of this book is “What is forgivable?” Being raped and near-murdered left a hole in her heart, and it was an injury that she never truly recovered from, despite finding solace in Billy’s arms. The only thing she wants out of the Japanese, the only thing that makes sense to her, is revenge. After they’ve surrendered, she feels that the British and American should twist the knife and “make them pay.”

Obviously, Carrie murdering the defenseless men is a crime. It’s an act of evil. At the same time, I feel like I understand where she’s coming from. After being hurt, the only thing you want, the only thing you dream of, is hurting someone back. That’s where messy break-ups, painful divorces, alienations, and falling outs come from. It’s the “get-back.”

So while reading, I condemned Carrie with the rational side of my brain and empathized with the other side. It forced me to look at myself and try to figure out how I would react if put into a situation where revenge was easy. And I found that I don’t have an answer. Carrie’s actions are inexcusable, but she was hit very hard by the war. Where Billy could be content with victory, she could not. No act could ever salve her wounds. I’m not saying it’s right, but I understand.

Ennis throws the idea of suffering in silence, British valor, and stiff upper lips directly under the bus. Carrie never gets to discuss her ordeal with anyone, choosing instead to keep it in herself, and it festers and rots inside her. Billy can talk about his injuries with other military men and gain some semblance of comfort, because that’s what men get to do. This may be the key difference between Carrie and Billy’s approach to the war. Carrie is forced to keep it inside, while Billy gets at least a moment to air it out.

Dear Billy is one of my favorite Ennis works, in part because of the ambiguity it spawned in my thoughts. There are no easy answers to be found here. No comforting condemnation of any act. Ennis leaves it up to the reader to decide the morality of Carrie’s actions, and how that applies to us as human beings. This is definitely one of the most melancholy things that he’s written.

Battlefields: Dear Billy is part of a three part cycle. Night Witches and The Tankies round out the trilogy, which will be collected into a Battlefields hardcover later this year for thirty bucks. I’m not sure why Amazon lists Dear Billy as not released, as my own copy and Dynamite’s site suggests otherwise. It’s cheap, just thirteen bucks, and worth your time.

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