For the uninitiated, Johnny Red was a character created for Battle comic a mere six months after this partuclar writer was born (in 1977), which, as it turns out, is a long time ago. Johnny was a rogue WWII RAF pilot who had managed to find himself stranded in the USSR. Adopted by a squadron of die hard fighter pilots known as the Falcons, Johnny became a hero, a role model and also a scourge of the Soviet thought police. For Battle comic in the 1970s, this was actually pretty nuanced and revolutionary stuff.
This new series is not quite a retcon but, putting a lot of energy into backstory, it allows for a full introduction to Johnny for newcomers and a jumping off point for never before told storylines.
From the outset, it’s clear that both the artist and writer (and all the speaking characters) really, really, really love planes. If you’re the kind of person who can only take them or leave them, or who can’t appreciate the romance of an aeroplane’s backstory, you may want to skip ahead a few pages. Or even to the next book in the series. However, we actually really loved the slow peeling away of layers, the ‘are we about to have a reveal of Johnny Red yet?’ sensation driving the turning of pages.
Once we do get to the war scenes though, the detail and realism leads to some epic spreads of action and grimy background detail. The attention to detail on the planes is admirable and, occasionally, breathtaking. You are given a genuine sense of movement and excitement, as well as of the flimsiness of the flying machines as Nazis and Soviets spit lead and tracer rounds at each other.
The character art feels very appropriately ‘70s/’80s and wouldn’t have looked out of place in one of our (apparently vintage) Battle comics. It’s only a shame that the final reveal panel of our hero has him looking like an over-ripe aubergine that has just been punched.
As for the dialogue, the characters feel much more real than we remember them back in the day. And you hear actual swears. Obviously we always thought Johnny was the kind of man who would say “bollocks”, but to see it in black and white was a shock.
We approached reading this Johnny Red reboot out of a sense of misty-eyed nostalgia, not expecting much. What we received was a slow, adult pacing which drew us into a story that felt very much how we remember the grit and excitement of Johnny Red (even if our memories are misted by youth). We can only hope the quality is sustained.
JOHNNY RED #1 / WRITER: GARTH ENNIS / ARTIST: KEITH PAGE / PUBSLISHER: TITAN COMICS / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW