Titan Comics recently resurrected classic Battle hero Johnny Red for an eight-part series, handing the reins over to the accomplished creative partnership of Garth Ennis and Keith Burns.
The series sees legendary British fighter pilot, Johnny “Red” Redburn, returning as commander of the Falcons, an elite Russian fighter squadron who find themselves battling the Nazis in the skies over Stalingrad.
We recently reviewed the first issue in the series, with John giving it a glowing five-star rating and calling it “pure, unadulterated nostalgia”, but that wasn’t enough for us – we wanted to know more! Thankfully, we were fortunate enough to be able to sit down and have a chat with both of the creators about the series, its history, and what readers can expect to see as it moves forwards.
Big Comic Page: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. So, what first attracted you to Johnny Red when you read it in Battle?
Garth Ennis: Joe Colquhoun’s beautiful art and Tom Tully’s intense, gritty storytelling and spot-on characterisation. The first episode I read kicked off the Falcons’ involvement in the battle for Stalingrad, which looked like being pretty nail-biting stuff, and there were some lovely pics of Johnny’s Hurricane in its RAF roundels leading the red-starred Yaks and Lavochkins of Falcon Squadron. I was intrigued and then almost instantly hooked.
Keith Burns: I didn’t read Battle first time round as I wasn’t interested in reading at that age, busy drawing and playing Star Wars. I came to it through the reprints and the Falcon Squadron website and by this time was a big fan of the art and stories from that period of British publishing. On first seeing Johnny Red I was immediately struck by the art and sucked in by the characters and historical accuracy.
BCP: Tom Tully and Joe Colquhoun created an amazingly rich and historically accurate world for Johnny Red, is that something you intend to adhere to?
GE: Absolutely. It was reading Johnny Red that opened my eyes to the Russian contribution to victory in World War Two, an almost unimaginable sacrifice that the western allies’ contribution was very much subordinate to.
KB: Garth knows his history so I don’t need to worry about that side of it, for my part I’m a full member of the Guild of Aviation Artists so I delight in trying to get the hardware as accurate as possible. I can’t replicate someone else’s art but I try to replicate the spirit of the original which had lots of action, movement, drama, interesting page layouts etc. I sit staring at it all day so couldn’t you how I’ve done, but I’d happily draw WW2 aviation stories all day long.
BCP: For those who are new to Johnny, what can you tell them about just who he is?
GE: Johnny Redburn is a working class lad from the back streets of Liverpool, England, who gets kicked out of the RAF for punching an officer during training. Unable to fight for Britain, he makes his way to the USSR and ends up flying with and ultimately leading Falcon Squadron of the Soviet Air Force, a fighter-bomber unit involved in the dreadful battles for Leningrad and later Stalingrad.
BCP: What is it about him that makes the Falcons follow him as a leader, despite not being one of their own?
GE: By the time the story starts Johnny and the Falcons have been flying together for over a year, and they’ve saved each others’ lives so many times that nationality means nothing next to their being comrades. It was Johnny who gave them the initial kick in the arse that prevented the squadron’s destruction, although it’s worth noting that he didn’t become their leader until well into the strip’s second year- they’d lost a couple of commanders by that point, and were asked to sort out their own boss. Johnny was the unanimous choice.
BCP: The story ran for a good few years, but seemed to run out of steam towards the end. Would you agree with that and if so, do you think there’s some unfinished business to take care of?
GE: Completely. The strip starts getting just a little ropey towards the end of 1980, has its ups and downs for the next couple of years, and then begins a long, grim decline in mid ’83 that lasts ’til the very end. With this series and a possible second one, I’d like to give Johnny the ending I always thought he deserved.
Part of the problem is that Johnny Red was a victim of its own success. Stories that lasted more than a couple of years were the exception rather than the rule in those days- John Wagner has said he didn’t expect to be writing Judge Dredd for more than a year when he started, never mind two, five, twenty or forty. I’m sure Tom Tully didn’t think he’d have to write Johnny Red for ten, which is why the latter half of the strip sees a good deal of recycled material and wrong turns (eg. Johnny’s return to the UK in ’83, as a kind of RAF troubleshooter).
BCP: You’re clearly a big fan of war stories, what’s the appeal?
GE: The backdrop of WW2, the pivotal moment in modern human history. The design of the hardware- aircraft, tanks and so on. But mostly the incredible stories and personal experiences I read about in my research, the accounts of life on what I’ve previously called the very knife-edge of human existence. To my mind, these dwarf any fantasy story completely.
BCP: Are there any other Battle stories that you’d like to get your hands on?
GE: No, although a couple get brief mentions in Johnny Red- read carefully or you’ll miss them. I’ve heard a couple of characters from Action mentioned as being slated for revival, along with some pretty interesting creative teams.
BCP: What’s in store for Johnny in this new series and will we be seeing him again?
GE: In late 1942, with the battle for Stalingrad still going the Germans’ way, Johnny and the Falcons are escorting Captain Nina Petrova’s all-female Angels of Death squadron on some very hairy supply runs over the city. Then two NKVD Commissars appear with a new mission for Falcon squadron, one that their British leader is ordered to stay out of. Johnny and Nina do a bit of digging around and find that someone very senior has panicked, and initiated a plan that could prove devastating for Mother Russia- not to mention downright lethal for the Falcons.
I have an idea for a second series. We’ll have to see how this one does.
BCP: Thanks again for your time.
The second issue of Johnny Red should be on sale from Titan Comics shortly, but in the meantime, you can feast your eyes on the trailer for the series below.
Interview by: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy