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Johnny Red: Red Devil Rising: Volume 2 Review

9 min read

Somewhere between hero and villain lies man, and Johnny Redburn maybe an perfect example of how man can swing between the two in his capricious nature.

What They Say:
Continuing the adventures of Johnny Redburn, discharged from the RAF for striking an officer. Taking to the skies in a stolen Hurricane, he meets the Falcon Squadron of the 5th Soviet Air Brigade, and begins his fight against Germany from the other side of the Iron Curtain!

The classic series by Tom Tully (Roy of the Rovers) and Joe Colquhoun (Charley’s War) includes a feature by comics legend Garth Ennis (The Boys, Preacher, War Stories).

The Review:
Johnny “Red” Redburn has grown to adapt to his new life as a member of the Falcons- a somewhat rough and tumble collection of superb fighter pilots defending their mother Russia from the Nazi offensive. Fortunately for Johnny the situation on the front is desperate enough and his skills impressive enough that he is going to be able to continue to fight off the advance of Germany, even if he isn’t going to be able to do it for his home country thanks to having been drummed out of the service in England (originally the crime was striking a superior officer though it has already morphed to accidental manslaughter by this second collection).

Unfortunately while Johnny has made his way into the squadron and been accepted by the majority of its members his having joined didn’t happen without having made some enemies of more than just one of his potential new team members. Unfortunately for Johnny, he and the glory seeking Russian Colonel Yaraslov who commands the Falcons are barely able to tolerate each other at best, though Johnny manages to deduce that the only thing keeping him from being turned into the secret police is that Yaraslov must have something to hide and as such can’t afford the attention turning Johnny in would bring. But that doesn’t mean the commander isn’t above using some more devious means to try to get the advantage if the opportunity presents itself and due to this may come less from his time in the skies and lead heading for him but from the haunting possibilities that the ghosts from his past finally catch him in their deadly embrace or a secreted knife hidden in the arms of an erstwhile ally that is just waiting for the perfect moment.

If his past crime and his present tension were all Johnny had to fear it would be plenty enough, but all of these events occur during the backdrop of the Second World War and Germany’s attempted push into Russia. This setting brings waves of German troops and the death they bring with them which the Falcon’s will attempt to stop in defense of their home country (in the case of the majority of the Falcon’s pilots) as well as the men who fly beside them or those who would die on the ground fighting off the invaders if the Falcons cannot hold the air above them.

Along the way death will be the most common companion for these men as it both stalks them and flies the trail of flack they unleash upon their foes, seemingly capricious as to which side’s combatant’s souls its scythe will mercilessly reap. Fighting this war will not be the untouchable and beyond reproach caricatures of virtue or vice that are often seen in war stories but merely the same type of men one might meet in everyday life- those who love and live life to the fullest while standing by their friends in need but who are also often weak, vengeful and barely hanging on to their principles at times- and then the tales stick such normal men into the most un-normal of situations and watches as they can be both the best examples of what men can strive for and the worst, sometimes almost simultaneously. Left in these men’s wake will be only a trail of lead and death with only luck and the strength of their squad mates to decide which side of existence they will reside in after their encounters. At times the material will dispense with trying to delineate may be right or wrong and it rather showcases that the greatest morality for many soldiers in war is found in protecting the guy fighting next to them so that they can all live to return to take up arms next to each other on battlefield the next day.

Coming into a new series (at least to me, it certainly isn’t from a chronology standpoint) is always a moment that presents quite a range of possibilities ranging from wondering if the series will be something exciting or if it is going to be one that is so settled into the period in which it was written that time and tide have passed it by. When doing a bit of research I found that it seems that the tile looks to have been one that have escaped some modern attention in general as a fair search on some popular information sites and search engines turned up precious little information about the series on the whole. Given my experience with some of the titles that Titan Books has been republishing I agreed to review the book with a reserved optimism, but in retrospect I need not have bothered with the reservations as the book met anything I could have expected in advance- and then some.

From the opening introduction by award winning (and well known in comic circles) author/artist Garth Ennis I found myself drawn into the captivating tales of Johnny Red and the squadron known as the Falcons that he flew with during the Second World War after being drummed out of England’s R.A.F. From the introduction Mr. Ennis sets up events and the main character in such a way that even those picking up this second collection aren’t going to feel like they were left behind by missing the first volume, though the recaps at the top of each chapter work as well if one wants to save the foreword until after finishing the rest of the material in order to form their own view of the series first. After setting the stage with the intro, the feature opens and the main event unfurls in all its black and white splendor and peril as action and the realities of war aren’t ever terribly far separated in this series.

As pointed out in the intro the series meshes both a more realistic take on combat at the time but it also revels in some of the conventions that have been part of tales of aerial warfare since authors first tried to bring some of the thrills and dangers inherent with taking to the skies in small vehicles and hunting men not that different than themselves in fights where the smallest mistake means the end of all they hope for and may one day achieve. To this end the author largely eschews the dogfights that populate the genre as he tries to capture the tactics of hiding above the enemy and coming out of his blind spots to secure victory, though on the other end of the spectrum the staple fiction of pilots engaging in banter over microphones is preserved as well. Also in this mix are moments where it looks like the performance of the various aircraft have been studied for accurate representation of combat use while at other times the impossible shots or bomb drops that lead to an exciting payoff from a story perspective are also used to help play up the narrative being woven.

In many ways this mix of extremes from reality and fantasy play out in the main character and the disparate emotions he sometimes has as well as the actions that are created from this mix of combat and psyche. At times Johnny Red will risk life and limb to protect his fellow squadron members from all harm, be it external or internal, while at other times his own physical health or mental state of mind may be the greatest harm they face as his selfishness places the squadron in some rather perilous situations on occasion. It is in playing between these extremes of the main characters well as those around him who are often seemingly as complex in their motivations that the author weaves his incredible tale which, when paired with an outstanding artist who can capture some exquisite images and make it look both breathtaking and easy, that the title transforms itself into something that fans of aviation fiction would find themselves remiss in passing over without giving a look.

Release Notes:
Produced by Titan Books the release is particularly stunning as it is presented in a rather oversized manner which really allows for the illustrations to fully show off the lines and depth of the images which were created for this work. The art itself is stunning and though the large format doesn’t present as many panels as they could using this size, it looks like the decision was made to recreate the panels faithfully which really helps bring in the impact both of the machines and other background items but it also really works well in giving a large field that really helps show off the expressions of the characters.

The release is bound relatively well into a more traditional type of book binding/cover which doesn’t use any images of its own and only has the title, author, illustrator and publishing company on its spine to give an indication of what lies within its bright blood red colored binding. To alleviate this, the release has a dust jacket/slip cover which features the only color image of the title character found on this release as he is seen smiling inside a large circular panel on the upper left of the cover. Bellow that is the series title in bright red against a black and gray starburst (with this volumes subtitle in a pale yellow above and the writer and illustrator listed bellow in the same color) while an image of various planes, including Johnny Red’s Hurricane fighter buzzing tree tops, present with some additional fighters in the background at the bottom of the cover. The back cover meanwhile uses the black and gray starburst as another circular paneled ( though this time in black and gray) headshot of Johnny in his fighter is placed above the series copy which is written in the same pale yellow with a quote from Garth Ennis present in white at the bottom.

What really stands apart with this release beyond its oversized nature though is the quality of the paper used for the pages. I have been reading comics and graphic novels for better than two decades and this is some of the best presentation I have ever seen as the pages are an incredible glossy white which really shows off the artwork and it is a type of paper which I can’t recall coming across very often- if at all- in the past. The paper really helps to create a vibrant background which helps the inked images really stand out and the restoration of these images is largely and incredibly spectacular as the printing process looked to have been generous in its use of ink to fully let images stand out.

Unfortunately on occasion the printing press used seems to betray the material slightly as sometimes the dialogue lettering has the ability to get much softer in the middle of sentences like not enough ink was applied consistently to the press and on a few occasions some of the brilliant artwork looks like it was over inked and some of the subtleties get lost in a minor blur. Over all these flaws are minor in nature and seem a bit picky most of the time but when so much care is taken in a presentation some minor flaws stand out more than in more pedestrian work but they still shouldn’t stop anyone from buying this spectacular release.

In Summary:
Johnny Red: Red Devil Rising is a spectacular second volume in a series that brings some very well researched mechanics together with some powerful- if completely fictional- narrative devices and wraps them all around a main protagonist who is both incredibly gifted in terms of his skills in the skies but who tends to be a bit unlucky- or maybe to quick tempered and undisciplined are more apt descriptions- on the ground and then it drops this man and his machine into the biggest war with an aerial component that has yet existed. With such a background to play in, the men of Falcon company will fight- and sometimes die- as they attempt to hold off an army bent on conquest of their homeland though at times this conflict may take a back seat to the drama that plays out from the quirks of the men in the squadron, particularly the ones that swarm from the series protagonist.

Content Grade: A-
Art Grade: A
Packaging Grade: B+