Review by Frank Plowright
Garth Ennis enjoyed the gung-ho wartime heroism in the weekly British comics of his childhood, and as an adult he’s proved the sole high profile comics writer interested in producing more sophisticated stories with a wartime setting. Under assorted different titles they’ve proved consistently well researched, thought-provoking, and character focussed without ever forgetting to entertain. It applies to all three stories here, each of them very different from the others, all set during World War II.
‘Dear Billy’ is the strongest of them, opening with an atrocity and continuing via the experiences of survivor Carrie Sutton. She’s a British nurse, and the narrative captions take the form of a letter she’s writing, explaining her life since her survival. There’s romantic interest in the form of dashing pilot Billy Wegdewood, who’s also survived a traumatic incident in which many died, and after a while the captions featuring snippets of letters begin to induce a sense of dread. It becomes apparent that the stiff upper lip isn’t a universal solution, as Ennis investigates the effects of survivor’s guilt and repressed emotion. It’s all wonderfully drawn by Peter Snejbjerg, whose subtlety in depicting the characters induces sympathy and regret as we move toward a powerful ending.
‘Night Witches’ introduces Anna Kharkova, one of a dozen female pilots assigned to a Soviet base when the Nazis are invading Russia. The commanding officer makes no bones about what he thinks of women pilots, and they’re expected to undertake night bombing raids in World War I era biplanes. We simultaneously follow the German troops on the ground. Russ Braun’s illustrations are far more explicit than those found in traditional war comics, and his battle scenes, frequently over spreads, are both spectacular and terrifying. Beyond the wartime activities two themes are well explored throughout, that of friendship, which develops between Anna and Zoya Zelenko, and the poor attitude to women among soliders. There’s no glossing over this, and it’s extrapolated in ugly aggressive terms and in use of rape as a weapon, although in a factual non-exploitative manner.
‘The Tankies’ is a more traditional war story. With the swearing excised it could have featured in the British war weeklies of the 1970s. A relatively novice tank crew taking part in the 1944 Normandy offensive is placed under the charge of a rough and ready Geordie who’s seen it all, having had every tank going blown out from under him. Corporal Stiles’ phonetically spelled dialogue wouldn’t be out of place in Viz Comic, so goodness knows what readers outside the UK made of it, particularly when its used to run through the technical capabilities of assorted tanks. Beyond that there’s a sardonic tone as Ennis contrasts the officers, serving men and Germans. Although the mood is lighter than the previous stories, there are still some ghastly occurrences, and in common with the other artists, Carlos Ezquerra doesn’t shy from showing them.
When this content was serialised as comics it was as three issue self-contained stories, collected as very slim graphic novels before being further compiled here. Throughout Battlefields Ennis revisited characters, and each of the following Complete volumes updates on Anna Kharkova’s progress and that of the Tankies, and these hardcover collections may have been better gathering the entire stories of particular characters rather than rigidly following publication order. Of course, tone is also a factor, and the chosen approach prioritises variety. As in his War Stories collections, Ennis supplies plentiful notes, references and anecdotes for those interested.