Garth Ennis & Keith Burns | JOHNNY RED

PrintE-mail Written by Ed Fortune

Garth Ennis is a Northern Irish-born American comic book writer best known for his Preacher series. Keith Burns is an illustrator whose work includes Captain America and The Boys. STARBURST caught up with Keith and Garth to find out more about their latest project, a version of classic war comic hero Johnny Red.

STARBURST: Of all the characters from Battle, why Johnny Red?

Garth Ennis: Unfinished business might be a good way of putting it. Johnny was my favourite character for a good couple of years, and the grip his and the Falcons' adventures had on my imagination has resonated right up to the present day. But in a way the strip was a victim of its own success - always popular in Battle, it lasted a bit longer than it should have, and a long decline in the mid '80s led to a pretty feeble conclusion. I always thought it deserved a better ending than it got.

Why do we still romanticise World War II fighter pilots?

Garth: I don't, but for anyone who does I imagine it's partly the specific notion of RAF Fighter Command saving Britain in the summer of 1940 (true), and the vaguer notion of the fighter pilot as some kind of modern-day knight (myth). Having read a good deal on the subject and explored the reality of aerial combat, I'd have to say I find the facts a lot more intriguing and inspiring than any myth.

Keith Burns: Obviously they are all human and have flaws like the rest of us, but the image that never fails to have me in awe is a scramble - men sprinting towards their aircraft knowing that there's a very good chance that they are sprinting towards their death. And still they sprint.

Are you tempted to take Johnny out of World War II and tell other stories with him?

Garth:  Not at all. He was fighting on the Russian front when I first encountered him, and that's where he belongs.

What is the enduring appeal of the likes of Commando and war comics in general?

Garth:  I'm guessing part nostalgia, part fascination with the subject. Several generations of British kids read Commando and its ilk, and those little A5 comics still hold a certain appeal. Others may be more like myself; the comics they read as kids sparked an interest in military history, and now they want fiction that deals with the subject.

Keith:  The draw to the older publications for me is that many of the writers and artists that worked on them would have served in WWII and have had personal knowledge and experiences, sadly these first hand accounts are dwindling these days. Add to that the gorgeous black and white art, gripping (if lavish) stories and truly stunning vibrant covers and it has all I want in a comic.

Is it due for a revival?

Garth: My war comics do well enough to survive. Beyond that, we'll have to see.

How important is accuracy in the art?

Garth: For me, vital, which is why it's such a pleasure to work with someone like Keith Burns, who needs almost no reference material at all - like me, he's got all this stuff in his head anyway. Inaccuracy will take me right out of a story. I'm a great believer in David Simon's notion that you do this stuff for the people who know the subject.

Keith: I think it's important to be as accurate as you can be when it comes to WWII stories - it's history, not fiction and there's access to that history through people (though dwindling), books, the internet and scale models (which I build and use a lot). There are few excuses for not getting it as close as you can to correct. I'm a full member of the Guild of Aviation Artists so enjoy putting the effort into getting the details right. That and I know that I can't slip much past Garth in that department.

Garth: Your work often veers into the territory of the gross-out and toilet humour. Should we expect to see this in Johnny Red?

Garth: I'll let the reader be the judge.

What’s next, project-wise?

Garth: My War Story series with Avatar is ongoing - next up we have American escort pilots over the Pacific, then British gunboats against E-boats in the English Channel. Beyond that, Spitfires over the Med and Mosquitoes on shipping strikes along the Norwegian coast, the latter featuring an old war story character from the Vertigo run. A couple of horror books that I can't go into detail on right now, also from Avatar. A second series of Red Team from Dynamite. Dreaming Eagles, my take on the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, from new company Aftershock. And looking further ahead, more Crossed and a couple more projects from DC and Marvel.

What comic character that you haven’t yet worked on would you love to tackle next?

Garth: Just about done them all. Hawk the Slayer, if anyone can dig that up.

Keith:  More WWII aviation comics. Outside of comics, I have a solo exhibition at the RAF Club in London at the start of 2016.

Truth or Beauty?

Garth:  I'll have mine medium rare.

Keith:  There's ugliness and beauty in truth, so truth.

Johnny Red is out now in all good comic book stores.

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