Johnny Red : Falcons First Flight (Vol 1) and Johnny Red – Red Devil Rising (Vol. 2) By Tom Tully and Joe Colquhoun
Every week for many years, my weekly comic was Battle.
I had read and been read digest war comics ‘Commando’ and ‘Battle Picture Library’ and would enjoy Victor and Warlord, but Battle, with its five ongoing stories, images of weaponry and tales of adventure and excitement was the comic for me.
If anything is to go by, the popularity of these stories is self evident with the programme of reprints that Titan Books has embarked upon. Pat Mills Charley’s War, was my favourite story, Titan are now up to the ninth volume of this essential and seminal work about the First World War, and have been reprinting them steadily for seven years now.
As they look to other story’s and characters, it was inevitable that Johnny Red would be next to be reprinted, and so one of the best stories of the Second World War is brought back into availability.
The story of Johnny Redburn comes about fairly quickly. Hailing from Liverpool, this working class boy, a nineteen year old, is fortunate to be learning to be a pilot in the RAF. He is then involved in an chaotic moment and accused of striking an officer who subsequently dies. A serious offence as one can imagine, and so dishonourably discharged we soon see Redburn on board a steamer bound for the North of Russia as part of an Arctic convoy, the only work he could find that would continue his personal war against the Germans. This ship was fitted with a catapult launched Hurricane known as a Hurricat.
Luck turns again for Redburn, and during an air attack by the Germans he ends up in the cockpit of the plane, and takes off to fight. After successfully defeating the enemy, he heads for the soil of Russia, avoiding further investigation and of course, the inevitable dip in the sea, that could be fatal.
As he flies for land, escaping his past, he comes across The Falcons, a hardened Russian Squadron, who have become meat for the Eastern Front grinder, effectively written off by their commanders.
Johnny soon shows his true leadership, proving to them his metal. He is more than a fine flyer though and his fighting spirit and willingness to take on the Nazi’s never accepting defeat, is motivational to the squadron who take him in as one of their own. While his flying is impressive and in many ways his pass to acceptance his initiative and inventive insight adds the inspiration that the squadron need and they soon follow his skilled leadership.
Johnny finds that the senior officers in Russia are as rotten as some of those he encountered in Britain, indeed much worse, at times making one wonder who is the enemy, the Nazi’s or the zealot Commissars. So Johnny is a continuous fight, against the Nazi’s against his cold hearted superiors some of whom take an immediate and harsh dislike to Johnny and against his past, that haunts him and may destroy him, while his comrades, the Falcons and the Russians that he encounters, come to see him for the great pilot that he is.
It’s a great story.
The aerial action is fantastic, with the artwork of Joe Colquhoun, co creator of the character, just incredible. His attention to detail, historical accuracy and ability to portray movement and action is superb. Drawing a plane is not at all easy, but the combination of technical ability mixed with the wonderfully expressive facial depictions is a demonstration in story telling.
This just makes the horror, the brutality of the harshest front in the second world war more vivid and tangible. There are moments that haunted me as a child, such as Redburn being slowly strangled to death by the bullet belt of a firing machine gun, and now as an adult I can see many scenes creating a realistic feeling of fear.
This is an antiwar story, painting an honest and fair picture of the harshness that is war, that destroys the humanity in people and inflicts loss and defeat so easily and thoughtlessly. Death was always on hand, and characters could easily fall foul to gun and cannon fire, with very little notice.
One of the things that comic readers may find in many ways enjoyable, is that the weekly comic had around three or four pages to get across a section of a story, remind the reader of what was going on, and in many cases end on a cliff hanger, or at least a point that would make the reader want to pick up the story again the following week. To do all this and also get a brilliant war story into it, is an impressive feat by writer Tom Tully and in the first volume there are over 30 instalments, ending at a smart point in the story, allowing one to close the graphic novel with considerable satisfaction, but upon opening the second volume, one was drawn straight away into the story, the setting familiar and the action immediate.
There is no shortage of additional material in these graphic novels, adding another welcome element, not only putting the comic into context in its media as Garth Ennis introduces the comic, a creator who has kept War Stories alive in the media for many years now, but also historically informative as one learns more about the realities of the Hurricats.
Overall, its a fantastic package, putting American war comics of the same era into the Ha’penny place, demonstrating how the British creators were so determined to portray a great story, in a realistic way, allowing for some artistic creativity, providing the perfect anti-hero were able to impart upon youngsters, just how bad war was.