Story: Garth Ennis
Art: Russ Braun
Colors: Tony Aviña
Letters: Simon Bowland
What They Say:
As the German Army smashes deep into the Soviet Union and the defenders of the Motherland retreat in disarray, a new squadron arrives at a Russian forward airbase. Like all night bomber units, they will risk fiery death flying obsolete biplanes against the invader—but unlike the rest, these pilots and navigators are women. In the lethal skies above the Eastern Front, they will become a legend—known to friend and foe alike as the Night Witches.
With casualties mounting and the conflict devouring more and more of her comrades, Lieutenant Anna Kharkova quickly grows from a naïve teenager to a hardened combat veteran. The Nazi foe is bad enough, but the terrifying power of her country’s secret police makes death in battle almost preferable. Badly wounded and exiled from her own people, Anna begins an odyssey that will take her from the killing fields of World War II to the horrific Soviet punishment camps—and at the top of the world, high above the freezing Artic Ocean, this Night Witch finds she has one last card to play.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers):
In his postscript, Garth Ennis writes that the impetus for writing this story came in a roundabout way from a statement made by the historian John Keegan. In A History of Warfare, Keegan wrote, “Warfare is…the one human activity from which women, with most insignificant exceptions, have always and everywhere stood apart” and that women “never, in any military sense, fight men.”
This statement is, of course, bullshit. Surprising bullshit given Keegan’s reputation as a historian, but bullshit nonetheless. As Ennis writes, “[H]ow, I wondered, could he not have heard of the Night Witches?”
It’s a good question, one I asked myself when I discovered them a few years ago. It’s a truism that history is written by the victors, but a more accurate turn of phrase might be that history is written by those in power. The Night Witches were a group of brave, young women who put their lives on the line every night fighting for their country. They flew outdated biplanes and performed nighttime bombings of German targets on the Eastern Front. Because their planes were so old, they made too much noise for a stealth attack, so they cut their engines before reaching their targets, glided in, dropped their bombs, turned the engines back on, and got the hell out of there. Whether or not they created substantial physical damage is debatable, but the psychological damage of their attacks was not. The Germans took to calling them Nacht Hexen, or “Night Witches,” and it was a title they wore with pride.
They were lauded as heroes during the war, but once that was over, they were told to return to their lives. Those in power specifically told them to not to talk about their service, to let others talk about it for them. It was an effective means of silencing them and keeping alive misogynistic concepts that laid at the heart of their government and culture.
That’s no excuse for Keegan not knowing, but it does explain why the Night Witches are not well known to the world at large, and that’s a shame, because their exploits and heroism should be remembered. While this trade won’t reverse that erasure on its own, it serves as a step in the right direction of honoring these women.
The protagonist of the trade is Anna Kharkova. Her service begins as Germany betrays its former partner and invades Russia. She is one of the first recruits in an all-women squad of bomber pilots and navigators, and instead of being praised for their heroism and patriotism, they are looked at as little more than wastes of time—a circus act of desperation on the part of the Motherland.
Through her bravery and dedication to her country, Anna changes some of the minds of the powers that be, but not enough. While she scores major and minor victories on the battlefield, she faces constant ridicule and scorn from her male comrades at home. She must claw and fight for every inch of respect she deserves, and in the end, it gets her a bed in a gulag.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The Night Witches is broken into three chapters. The first, “The Night Witches,” covers Anna’s entry into the Russian Air Force and does a lot of groundwork to establish the culture, socio-economic situation, and wartime situation for both Russia and Germany. The story is divided between Anna and her copilots and a German battalion making their way farther and farther East. It shows the birth of the legend of the Nacht Hexen and it follows Anna’s journey from naïve young woman to hardened pilot.
The second chapter, “Motherland,” shows us the results of Anna’s hardening, and the cost the war has taken on her and her country. Anna obviously suffers from PTSD. She prefers to go it alone and not count on anybody else. She speaks to her dead friend and navigator, and she chafes at any responsibility that takes her out of the cockpit. It ends with her being shot down and taken to a German prison camp and being labeled a traitor by her country because she survived.
The final chapter, “The Fall and Rise of Anna Kharkova,” takes the story out of World War II and into the Korean War. Although Anna undoubtedly burned many bridges in her career, the main source of her misery came from witnessing the cowardice of an up-and-coming officer who soon joined the Secret Police. This man couldn’t live with the knowledge of someone—a woman, no less—having power over him, and made it his job to make her life a living hell. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but I will say that it’s beautiful, tragic, perhaps even a bit fatalistic. In other words, it’s very Russian.
Anna Kharkova and her supporting cast didn’t exist. They were creations by Ennis, an amalgam of different women and men who fought and bled and sometimes died for their country. Although fictional, they bring light to this long-shadowed part of Russian history, and that alone does the real Night Witches an honor.
The story takes some surprising turns. Each chapter was more self-contained than I expected. They were like snapshots of these moments in Anna’s life used as a way of illustrating Russian history at various phases, going from the promise of Leninism and Marxism to the gray concrete reality of Communism under Stalin and beyond. It’s not a happy story by any means, but it is fascinating.
That said, the narrative never quite came together for me. That might be because these are three separate, but related, stories folded into one trade, but regardless, the transition between the three chapters is rather jarring, and the first chapter doesn’t necessarily fit the other two, mainly because the parts from the German squad’s point of view felt out of place. I think Ennis wanted to show the more nuanced aspects of war and soldiers—that the Germans weren’t all bad and that the Russians weren’t all good. That’s a solid goal, but it takes away from the main story—that of Anna and the Night Witches—and it contributes to a sort of narrative imbalance that the rest of the trade never quite recovers from. Which is not to say that the storytelling is bad here, it’s just rougher than what I expected.
The art, on the other hand, is smooth. Russ Braun reminds me of another long-time Ennis collaborator, Steve Dillon. They both tend to stray more towards realism in their style (what Scott McCloud would call “reality” as opposed to “meaning”) and they tend to draw very similar faces, at least for the men. They’re often long, square or rectangularish, and a little ugly. That’s not a value judgement, just a description.
Like Dillon, I do feel like there’s some spark of life missing from the pencils and inks. A certain lack of depth and meaning that makes the work look a little flat. Don’t get me wrong, Braun is great at facial expressions, body language, and drawing people, vehicles, and setting accurately, but it’s almost too technical and clinical for my taste.
The Night Witches is a somewhat lopsided story, but it’s fascinating and engaging, nevertheless. Through the fictional Anna Kharkova, this creative team have brought to life an amazing part of history that should not be forgotten. This comic serves as a good introduction to the Night Witches and this portion of the Second World War that often gets glossed over in American history and fiction, and hopefully it will spur people to go further and learn about these brave pilots who defy sexism and erasure even today.
Dr. J gives this a…
Age Rating: N/A
Released By: Dead Reckoning
Release Date: March 13th, 2019