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Trading Up: Johnny Red: Red Devil Rising

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Johnny Red is a cracking page-turner of a strip that never shies away from the horrors of the war it is depicting.

The second volume reprinting the 1970s-1980s fighter pilot strip from the pages of classic British weekly comic Battle, Johnny Red: Red Devil Rising continues to chronicle the unlikely exploits of Johnny Redburn, the exiled British serviceman who found himself serving with the ragtag men of the Falcon Squadron on the Russian Front during World War II. Written by Brit comics veteran Tom Tully, and illustrated by the incomparable Joe Colquhoun, Johnny Red is arguably second only to the seminal Charley’s War as one of Battle’s most fondly-remembered features.

In the previous volume Falcon’s First Flight, reviewed here at Broken Frontier last year, Liverpool lad Johnny had been drummed out of the RAF for striking an officer and had subsequently joined the Navy. On his way to the Russian port of Murmansk, Johnny’s ship was attacked by German planes in the Barents Sea forcing our hero to “borrow” a Hurricane plane from its deck to escape the sinking vessel. Finding himself on the Russian mainland he encountered, and ended up joining up with, the bedraggled pilots of the Falcon Squadron; memorably described by Garth Ennis in his foreword to this volume as a group of “flying tramps”.

Picking up from that first collection we encounter a Johnny Red who is no longer quite the same man of the early parts of volume 1. He’s still idealistic and principled but there’s also something grizzled and world-weary about him. When we left Falcon Squadron in Falcon’s First Flight they were heavily involved in the Siege of Leningrad, making food runs and defending that city from the German offensive. That storyline builds to a brutal climax here, claiming the lives of more of the cast, and with Tully and Colquhoun depicting the grim brutality of the conflict that makes few concessions to false notions of nobility in the aerial arena of the war.

There is a slight feeling of repetition to some of the story arcs here, which tend to focus one after the other on Johnny’s fractious relationships with outsiders to the squadron. One concerns Johnny’s feud with kill-crazy Russian pilot Leo Shulga who is determined to eliminate Johnny in the air. Next up he has to deal with new squadron leader Lt. Nikolai Zagorny, a decorated hero whose nerve has gone and whose presence amongst the men is endangering them all on missions.

         

A selection of some of the original Battle covers from the late 1970s from issues featuring the strips in this collection

And, finally, three British Spitfire pilots are attached to Falcon Squadron including Flt. Lt. Frank Coppel, the brother of the officer Johnny “killed” in the very first episode of the series. This final antagonist, of course, is a little difficult for the readership to take seriously in light of the fact that Johnny’s killing of the elder Coppel never actually happened in that story: he merely struck him. And you all thought retcons were a relatively modern phenomenon too…

Still, whatever dramatic licence Tully brings to the story, and Garth Ennis’s introduction to the book points out all the glaring historical inaccuracies in all their glory, it’s undeniable that Johnny Red is a cracking page-turner of a strip that never shies away from the horrors of the war it is depicting. Admittedly it’s no Charley’s War, and Tully lacks that knack of making the rather interchangeable pilots of Falcon Squadron as human, sympathetic and well-drawn as Pat Mills would make even the most fleeting supporting player in his First World War strip. However, the class elements of both stories make for a very tangible link between the two.

Joe Colquhoun’s art is, as ever, simply astonishing in its complexity, research and realism. It juxtaposes the horror and ruthlessness of the Russian Front with the humanity and comradeship of the men of Falcon Squadron in a perfect balance of camaraderie and carnage. Some of the reproduced strips don’t have quite the same clarity as others – an understandable by-product one assumes of scanning extant physical copies of Battle rather than working from the original art – but, on the whole, given the archive nature of what Titan are working with here, they’ve done an excellent and quite admirable job in bringing this classic serial to a whole new potential audience.

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

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