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Trading Up: Johnny Red: Angels Over Stalingrad

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From gripping realisations of aerial combat to the hellish conditions on the ground in Stalingrad, this is Joe Colquhoun at the unforgettable top of his game.

Angels Over Stalingrad, the third volume of Titan’s reprint editions of the classic Battle Weekly strip Johnny Red, collects the final batch of episodes illustrated by influential British comics artist Joe Colquhoun. For those unfamiliar with the series it followed the exploits of Liverpool-born Johnny Redburn, an English serviceman thrown out of the RAF for striking and accidentally killing an officer.

After subsequently joining the Navy, his ship was attacked by German fighter planes in the Barents Sea while on its way to the Russian port of Murmansk. In the ensuing chaos Johnny was forced to “borrow” a Hurricane plane from the ship’s deck to escape the sinking craft. Fleeing to the Russian mainland he meets up with the ragtag group of Russian pilots of the Falcon Squadron; a band of bedraggled outcasts that he ends up leading.

In the previous two volumes we have seen Johnny adapting to life on the Russian front as he has dealt with the grim conditions in one of the most horrific theatres of war in the conflict, and encountered corrupt superiors, cowardly comrades and kill-crazy colleagues in the realms of aerial combat. Volume 3 begins with the concluding parts of the story arc from the last collection that saw Flight Lieutenant Frank Coppel, the brother of the officer Johnny Red killed in his “origin story”, attached temporarily to the Falcons and gunning for Johnny’s blood.

After a number of arcs in volume 2 that saw one central antagonist after another being set up as a nemesis for our hero, the Coppel plot thread is the last such storyline for a while. The bulk of the action this time around centres on the battle for Stalingrad – the carnage of which marks it out as one of history’s bloodiest conflicts – and also on the introduction of a new supporting player for Johnny Red’s cast of characters: female flier Captain Nina Petrova.

As Garth Ennis explains, in another incisive foreword to this series of books, Nina Petrova and her fellow woman pilots in “The Angels of Death” represent the Soviet Night Bomber Regiment known by the Germans as “The Night Witches”. While writer Tom Tully takes some liberties historically here – the real life women aviators were never involved in the battle over Stalingrad for example – they do act as a stand-in for a very real group of individuals. And for the time these comics were published in the 1970s, the elevation of a female character to such a position of equality with male characters in a boys weekly picture paper would have been near groundbreaking.

           

When the Stalingrad sequence begins Tully makes the brave decision to ground Johnny on the streets of the city allowing the writer the opportunity to examine that devastating battle from another perspective. It’s powerful and raw storytelling and, while the depiction of the violence involved is never shied away from, it is obviously portrayed with its target audience of younger boys in mind. And it’s that more juvenile readership that some of this volume’s more obvious moments of unlikely melodramatics are pitched at. Johnny’s long-running eye injury resurfaces in a story that sees him taking off on a mission literally flying blind, with only Nina Petrova to act as his guide. Tully just about manages to pull off these sillier predicaments but their fast-paced theatrics ensure they remain eminently readable despite a major suspension of disbelief being needed. 

Joe Colquhoun winds up his run on the artistic duties here and I find myself, as I was in my recent Broken Frontier review of the latest edition of Charley’s War, in awe of his storytelling and astonishingly detailed re-creation of historical events. Colquhoun’s contribution to the history of British comics deserves far more recognition, and he’s on stunning form in this volume. From gripping realisations of aerial combat to the hellish conditions on the ground in Stalingrad this is Colquhoun at the unforgettable top of his game.

Johnny Red: Angels Over Stalingrad is a worthy addition to Titan’s growing library of IPC reprints. We can only hope the publisher continues to exploit the rich back catalogue available to them in this regard because there’s a wealth of classic British comics material there that deserves to be repackaged for a new audience.

Johnny Red: Angels Over Stalingrad is available from Titan Books priced £14.99 in the U.K. and $19.95 in the U.S.

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