Johnny Red: Falcons’ First Flight

The most recent installment in Titan’s series of hardcover reprints of late '70s British war comics, Johnny Red breaks the mold that the last seven years' worth of Charley’s War reprints have been building; unlike that series, Falcons' First Flight isn’t concerned with educations in class warfare or war-is-hell parables. Pure excitement is the primary concern, and while artist Joe Colquhoun’s taste for accurately referenced machinery keeps Johnny Red sternly connected to visual realism, writer Tom Tully never met a cliché he was unwilling to pluck. (Does Johnny refer to himself in third-person on occasion? Of course he does! Does our hero cry upon receipt of the Order of Lenin? Even Stalin had less manly tears.)

Of course, the format shouldn’t go without mention—these stories were originally serialized in three-page weekly onslaughts over the course of five years, and any desire on the part of Tully to change things up a bit would’ve been sorely tested by the limitations inherent to that kind of turn-it-in schedule. Without the sort of political agenda that motivated Charley’s War (to say nothing of the range of stories that could be told in that title, seeing as its main character continually traversed most of World War I’s European terrain), Tully’s options at the beginning of these stories are relatively limited. See, Johnny’s a young British pilot, dishonorably discharged for striking an officer before he could even go to war (in the early pages of the series, the officer survives the ensuing fall, but by the middle of this volume, the back-story is changed to depict him as having died, thus making Johnny an accidental murderer with no legal hope of ever flying for the RAF). Due to some circumstances best described on the book’s hysterical back clover blurb, Johnny ends up stealing a high end British fighter plane (a Hurricane) and joining the surviving members of the Falcons, a down-on-their-luck squadron of Russian fighter pilots. He can’t go home, but at this point in the story, defection is still out of the question. There’s only one real option: non-stop fighting. (Or, as Garth Ennis puts it in his justly hyperbolic introduction, “total war”.)

Johnny’s basic situation is a great narrative idea, no matter how illogical it might sound, and seeing the character go from idealized mascot to sideways leader of the Falcons contains no small measure of excitement. On the visual front, there’s plenty of examples demonstrating why Colquhoun’s death would later shutter Charley’s War, with his depictions of air combat here a constant delivery of the dense, hyper-detailed carnage that made all of his war comics so popular and engaging. That isn’t to say that everything about them is particularly easy to read—like the Charley’s War reprints, there’s a good ten pages of poorly scanned material—but for the general war comic fan, the effort to keep up is undoubtedly going to be part of the enjoyment. (Ultimately, the density of each panel comes as a direct result of Colquhoun’s consuming interest in accurate depiction, which apparently overrode concern over whether this made it difficult for the lay reader to immediately distinguish certain types of historic warplanes from one another.)

Johnny Red isn’t an acquired taste, but it is a predetermined one—people are either down for this kind of stuff, or they aren’t. While not devoid of the sentiment that can disease the war films it most resembles, it is more firmly grounded in that sentiment’s home: patriotic, full-of-shit hearts, gutter drunk on idealized brotherhood and the religion of dumb luck. Johnny’s adventures are ones where every motive (both the readers and the characters) is laid out in full display. There’s nothing to get in the way of guns, glory, and the freedom of the one man war. Its pleasures are, to some extent, juvenile (comic’s standby synonym for the word “intoxicating”), but that’s to be expected, if not welcomed. Johnny doesn’t want to teach you about morality, and like the dopey Labrador his Russkie comrades often resemble, it’s laughable to think he even could. It’ll be up to the individual in which column to chalk up this absence of morality; be it a shrugged out win, or a stormed off loss.


3 Responses to Johnny Red: Falcons’ First Flight

  1. bkmunn says:

    Wait, there was a UK version of Blackhawk in the 1970s? This looks "interesting" …

  2. Iestyn says:

    I read this as a kid in battle action force comic – what happened to these war comics was that they ended up merging with a UK version of GI Joe called Action Force – that was my initial reason for buying the comic.

    I remember reading one episode where a german pilot is captured and tied to a stake and being killed by having water thrown over him that froze (it being Russia it’s obviously freezing cold).

    That’s stayed with me my whole life. The stories definitely ( by the time I was reading them maybe ’84/5) had a massive cynicism and bitter heart by that point.

    So have they done the Rat Pack – that’s the question. My mate and I loved that so much we used it to write a play for an English class!!

  3. Moose Harris says:

    It’s somewhat glib of Tucker Stone to say “there’s a good ten pages of poorly scanned material”. British comics were printed using cheap ink on the lowest quality paper possible, rendering the finished product uniformly dire.

    I spent weeks scanning Johnny Red, clearing up massive patches of ink loss and bleeding from comics that are over 35 years old, effectively putting heavily yellowed toilet paper into an A3 scanner and then trying to sort out the mess.

    So, Tucker, don’t say it’s the scanning that’s poor, because it’s the source material that’s not up to scratch.

    I managed to track down some of Joe Colquhoun’s original art to do the final 3 Charley’s War books. The difference in quality is night and day.

    I’ll take your comments as an insult to my ability to do a task I perform as a fan of British comics of the ’70s. I don’t work for Titan, I’m not a professional, I just care about these old strips being preserved and made available once again. The work in the early Charley’s War books was done by professionals from an art department who couldn’t care less about quality, I would hope the difference from volume 7 onwards shows that someone who gives a damn has put in the hours.

    JR2: Red Devil Rising is out in a few weeks. It took me months of hard work, and yet the quality of some pages isn’t great because there’s little more I could do with it, but at least I did the best I could, unlike the professional scanners who just need any old page to show to collect their fee.

    So, not “poorly scanned” Tucker, just like your review isn’t poorly written, although it is inaccurate.

    Iestyn, Rat Pack volume 1 is out later this year.

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