I'm not reviewing all ten years of Johnny Red's weekly adventures in Battle Picture Weekly, but just these four Titan collections:
- Falcon's First Flight (vol.1) = 128 pages
- Red Devil Rising (vol.2) = 96 pages
- Angels Over Stalingrad (vol.3) = 104 pages
- The Flying Gun (vol.4) = 160 pages
A boy from Liverpool (Johnny Redburn) gets kicked out of the RAF and ends up flying with a Russian fighter squadron. I hadn't been expecting much, but it's really good.
It's practically a lesson in how to write war stories. (Yes, it's a simple narrative for young readers, told in 3-4 page episodes, but the characters and their ultra-violent struggles are still gripping.) It's not really about the enemy (the Nazis), but about the allies and colleagues (who can be just as bad). Johnny's an extremely rough piece of work, the kind of anti-hero who doesn't really care whether or not he gets shot and whose mistakes in the air get a couple of comrades killed. If you're fighting alongside him, he'll go through hell to support you. Anyone else is quite likely to hate him. He certainly has a knack for making enemies in the NKVD, who are fond of firing squads and are comfortable with 100% casualty rates.
"The Falcons have given their lives for the greater glory of Mother Russia. They should have been overrun by the Germans by now. I shall pay a visit to these Falcons. If some of them are still alive, it can only mean that they have betrayed their duty!"
Johnny fits in just as badly in England. He's only comfortable with people like himself, bear-like Russians who throw themselves at the enemy and would probably shoot their own superiors for him. Johnny's other friends will include Nina Petrova (a female pilot in the Angels of Death) and Erich von Jurgen (a German with a sense of honour). Johnny and Erich will save each other's lives, but also try to kill each other. Potentially in the same episode.
There's an impressive level of historical accuracy. Tom Tully doesn't mind bending things for the sake of an exciting story, e.g. changing his mind on Johnny's origin. Did he merely punch a senior officer or accidentally kill him? Even so, though, this is the work of people who know their subject inside-out. The artists are meticulous on hardware, uniforms, etc. Anything weird or surprising is probably real, e.g. the catapult-launched planes, the Russian female fighter pilots, the Flying Gun (which was exactly as portrayed), etc.
Above all, it doesn't flinch from the carnage and the horror. Johnny fights at both Leningrad and Stalingrad. Yeah. Bloody hell.
There's not much difference between Colquhoun and Cooper. Their styles aren't identical, but the handover's seamless and they're both strong artists. Neither is better than the other. My only regret is that there are a small handful of episodes where the art's sheer density detracts from a poignant conclusion. Those would have been stronger had they taken a pause for breath, even if it were just another panel or two to let the reader absorb the grief. Yes, it's a weekly adventure strip with brutally short page counts, but I think a little more could still have been done.
...well, sort of. On reflection, that'll be partly due to the strips being collected. On publication, being released as individual episodes would have compensated for that. Besides, it's noteworthy that the strip was ending any episodes like that at all, instead of relying on the usual weekly cliffhangers. That's a bit like the character of Nina Petrova, who might not look remarkable today but was highly unusual in a 1970s boys' strip as a hard-as-nails heroine, as likely to rescue Johnny as be rescued.
The main difference between the two artists, actually, is that vol.4 has lots of two-page colour spreads and 3.5-page episodes. You can tell no one was considering graphic novels in those days. Also, Cooper's Angels of Death are more comic-book glamorous than Colquhoun's.
This doesn't feel like a children's strip. There's light and dark in the most unexpected places, often in the same character at once. There's an attempted suicide by hanging. Johnny acquires eye problems that sometimes render him near-blind... and hides the fact, even going up in the air in that state. He'll smash up an officer's dinner party because he's in a bad mood and start punching them. (These people could have him shot.)
Garth Ennis read Battle as a child, adores Johnny Red, writes loving introductions to all these volumes and wrote an eight-part Johnny Red mini-series in 2015-16. That's next on my to-read list.