As a writer, Garth Ennis has earned a sterling reputation for taking his characters and stories into some less-than-sterling areas. And whether his focus falls on real history with the continuing string of World War II tales carried under Dynamite's "Battlefields" banner or in the highly unrealistic world of super violence that is "The Boys," the writer's stories work to carry a human heart at the center of their more inhumanly violent acts. Ennis spoke with CBR News about both comics and how he plans to make character key for what comes next.
With "Battlefields," the recent second volume hit the stands in a bit of a different manner than the book's "opening salvo" of three miniseries last year. This time around, the book is being billed as a nine-issue mini with its three-part arcs separated by title alone, though readers shouldn't take the format tweak as any change to Ennis' mission statement of telling overlooked tales from the conflict's front lines. "The scope hasn't changed in terms of potential; I've just chosen to concentrate on characters I enjoy and want to see more of. But 'Battlefields' can still conceivably cover situations from any war from any era," Ennis explained.
Coming in the weeks ahead will be the completion of "The Firefly and His Majesty" – the second story featuring Ennis' Sergeant Stiles character, drawn by Carlos Ezquerra. "Part one saw Stiles gaining a little intel from a ravaged American armored unit, but the rest of the story is a straight cat-and-mouse duel between two tanks and their crews," the writer said. "I do enjoy writing Brits and Yanks interacting, especially at a time in history when they weren't as familiar with each other as they are now, culturally speaking – there's a lot of fun to be had with the notion of 'two nations divided by a common language.'
"It's worth noting that tanks aren't like people; most models of armored vehicle will undergo various upgrades throughout their lifespan, gaining better guns, armor and engines. In the case of the Firefly, it's interesting that a combination of American tank and British gun resulted in the best tank fielded (in numbers) by the western Allies during the war. Likewise the P-51 fighter, an American aircraft with a British engine, turned out to be something of a war-winner."
And just like the combined tanks help heighten the cultural underpinnings at work in the story, the late in the war setting of "Firefly" helped Ennis delve further into the mind of a favorite character from volume one. "It's really a question of wanting to concentrate on the characters. In this instance, I liked Stiles too much to let him go after just one story. And it's interesting to see how he behaves when he's got a tank that can actually compete with the German ones, that'll give him a measure of revenge after having countless awful British and American tanks shot from under him. It's fair to say, I think, that he may have gotten a little obsessed."
Next up for the series is "Motherland" – another sequel, starting in June's issue #7 and focusing on the character of Anna Kharkova, one of the female Russian combat pilots from "The Night Witches" who Ennis referred to as "another character that was too good to let go. I enjoy Anna's essential goodness; the innocent girl that began 'The Night Witches' is a long time gone, but she can't help but be a decent kid, no matter how hard she tries to cut herself off from her emotions. There was also an opportunity to examine another aspect of Soviet women in WWII aviation, namely the assignment of female pilots to single-seat fighter units.
"At the time, the Soviets were happy to embrace the feminist principles of Marxist-Leninism and employ women in combat roles, simply because they were desperately short of personnel at a time of extreme national crisis," he continued. "The men who served with these women were naturally reluctant at first, being products of their culture and era, but most were eventually won over by their new comrades' bravery and dedication.
"Almost as soon as the war ended, however, all the principles went out the window and the women were sent back to resume their traditional roles in society. They were even advised not to discuss their wartime service, the Soviet authorities being reluctant to acknowledge their contribution. Nothing unique about that, of course, when you're talking about the experience of women in warfare.
"As for Anna, she's a young woman facing death on almost a daily basis, so her immediate concerns have less to do with the implications for her gender and more to do with living in the moment. She's the only female pilot in her unit, so in a sense, she becomes one of the boys. And, in fact, starts taking an interest in one of the boys in particular."
Far from a mere tale of sexual politics, the "Motherland" story arc takes place within the extremely violent Battle of Kursk, which drew hundreds of thousands of casualties on the Eastern front in both ground and air battles between Russia and Germany in the summer of 1943. While the conflict may be lesser known to many American readers, Ennis explained that for war history hounds like himself, uncovering the specifics of the fight is fairly easy today. "There's actually a ton of material available on the war on the Eastern Front, and more appearing all the time. The collapse of the Soviet system also saw an end to the state obsession with secrecy, so historians have been plundering the Russian archives for nearly twenty years now. So Kursk, like many other of the great Nazi-Soviet battles, is relatively easy to research."
And when that research is wrapped, the notes go to artist Russ Braun, who returns for a second tour of duty with "Battlefields." "All I do with Russ is provide him with reference on the various aircraft, then step back and let him get on with it. One of his great skills lies in making the hardware suitably dynamic; you can draw an aircraft or tank in perfect detail, but unless you give it a proper sense of movement it's just going to sit there on the page, lifeless."
Meanwhile, in the land of pure fantasy and fictional insanity, "The Boys" continues apace with its "The Innocents" arc focusing on the "actually decent" super team, Superduper. Unlike the rest of the supers throughout the series, these futuristic teens have displayed an honest predilection for helping those in need, which makes them a perfect target to get ground up in the machine that is Vought American. "I felt it was time to look at superheroes in The Boys' world from a traditional point of view – meaning good-hearted people who decide they want to help, put on costumes and start having adventures, as in 99% of superhero comics out there," the writer said. "So I thought – what would happen to people like that in the real world? Well, they'd all be locked up in lunatic asylums. But supposing they weren't, how would they be handled by a company like VA? You'll see how things turn out for them in a couple of issues."
In general, "The Boys" presents a world in which the supers are almost a wholly corrupt culture, but the idea that some honest to goodness "good guys" live in that culture, from Superduper to ongoing starlet Annie, shouldn't be taken as a lightening of heart in the book. "If you're hoping for redemption for superheroes, you may be reading the wrong comic," joked Ennis, adding that the future stories will focus on a growing conflict within the Boys team between Butcher and Mother's Milk. "You'll see how that pans out over the next few issues. The conflict between the two really revolves around Hughie, and will ultimately take him down a dark path of his own - a plotline that leads into the Hughie miniseries this summer, 'Highland Laddie.'"
As for where "The Boys" proper will go through the rest of 2010, Ennis wrapped by revealing, "The current storyline ties up in [June's] #43. The next issue after that sees the beginning of 'Believe,' which involves a huge supe-themed religious festival in New York- essentially an evangelist event for fans of both God and superheroes. That'll form the backdrop for some potentially cataclysmic scheming by the Homelander, as well as certain grim developments for Hughie. His own miniseries will spin directly out of these events, while in the regular book we'll end the year with a look at The Boys the first time around – when Hughie was still unheard of, and Colonel Greg Mallory ran the show."