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.