Writer Garth Ennis is known for black humor and irreverence, traits that were much in evidence in his landmark Preacher series, and color much of his other work as well. But there is another side on display in the two four-issue miniseries of war stories he did for Vertigo. Each issue was a standalone story (most set in WWII) with a rotating group of illustrators. It is clear from the outset that Ennis has nothing but respect for these soldiers. The carefully researched historical backgrounds makes the stories feel like biography, even though they are fictional. While there is indeed black humor, it’s soldier’s humor borne of hard experience. His storytelling here is full of heart, and completely devoid of irony.
The first issue, “Johann’s Tiger,” is about a German tank commander on the Russian front near the end of WWII. It’s kind of an odd choice of setting for the first story, but it’s an absolutely riveting character study of the commander and his crew. In 56 pages we get to know him very well, and care about him, despite his own self-loathing. Terrific illustration job by penciller Chris Weston and inker Gary Erskine.
The second War Story tale was “D-Day Dodgers,” about the war on the Italian front. The title comes from a phrase attributed to Lady Astor, accusing the Allied soldiers in Italy of choosing easy duty over the dangers of the D-Day invasion. Of course there was nothing easy about it, as we see through the eyes of the Irish Antrim Rifles regiment. Ennis & artist John Higgins show us a bit of normal regimental life first, which introduces us to the characters and lets us know them before the big battle that closes the book.
The third War Story one-shot is “Screaming Eagles,” illustrated by Dave Gibbons. It’s late in the European war, and the protagonists are a seasoned squad of Airborne soldiers who are sent to investigate a nearby mansion as a possible command center. They are led by Sergeant Brewer, a man who has seen enough of war. They find a palatial estate full of purloined art and fine wine, and neighborhood women who are delighted that they are not Russians. They decide to take some well-deserved R & R, and drunken high-jinks ensue. The story reminds me of the film Castle Keep, a favorite of mine.
The final tale in the first series of War Stories was “Nightingale” (illustrated by David Lloyd), which tells the story of a British destroyer accompanying merchant ships. When their convoy is ordered to disperse, the loss among the merchant fleet is devastating. Nightingale is saddled with a reputation for failure, which sinks the crew morale. Then they are given an opportunity for redemption. The ending is telegraphed right from the first page (“The sun was shining brightly on the day that I died,” the narrator tells us). But the impact is in the telling.
In many ways these stories are not “typical” Vertigo: they have no fantasy elements, for example. But they are truly written for “Mature Readers.” They deal with a serious topic in a serious way, and are among the best comics that Vertigo has published.