War Stories

⭐⭐⭐ based on 2 reviews.

Written by Garth Ennis.

tl;dr: Fictional stories from real wars, told with a kind of brutal honesty, but without any clear motivating point (for the most part). And maybe that's okay.


Graphic Novels

Volume One

Spoilers Ahead: My reviews are not spoiler-free. You have been warned.

The first volume of Ennis' War Stories encompasses four tales, deliberately spread across the fighting taking place in World War II, both geographically and militaristically (to possibly coin a phrase). The overall collection has no clear, consistent message or vision; these are just bleak snapshots of realistic-but-imagined moments in some of humanity's darkest hours. Characters are roughed out exactly as much as the story needs them to be, but little more than a Sunday paper short. Instead, the point here ought to be more the overall story, but often that seems to be lacking a little as well. What I will say is that the first tale is definitely the least interesting of the bunch, so do at least push through that if you want to give it a fair cop.

  • Johann's Tiger: a German tank flees from the Russian front to try and surrender to the more amenable American forces, only to get caught out and killed – well, all except for the captain, who feels such disgust at his own actions in the war that he had been trying to get himself killed to save his troop. The artwork doesn't pair well, and I found the action sequences often impossible to decode. Perhaps if you're really into tanks you'd be able to tell them apart, but I had no idea who was firing on who in most of the panels. This isn't helped by the frequent use of German words and slang, which made the dialogue equally as hard to read at times. Layer on top a largely forgettable set of characters and it's a weird one to open the collection with.
  • D-Day Dodgers: a much stronger story, focusing on an oft-overlooked aspect of the British involvement in the war – the Italian Campaign. It specifically highlights the possibly apocryphal (possibly covered up) charge levied against the troops that fought along the Italian front by Lady Astor in Parliament, who supposedly called them "D-Day dodgers", completely ignoring the hundreds of thousands of dead Brits and Allied forces that gave their lives in an incredibly bitter, hard-fought campaign. Narratively, there are some more interesting characters, and some better dialogue, including a rather excellent Captain getting drunk and taking potshots at the crucifix in the ruined local church. The tale ends abruptly with an idiotic advance ordered from above; an effort to get the papers back on board after the honourable twit's comments, that ultimately sees the whole regiment killed in action. It is, at least, a more interesting spotlight to shine, and a stronger message of the inanities, excesses, and evils of war. I think it's my favourite of the bunch.
  • Screaming Eagles: four American paratroopers, having fought through Central Europe and well into Germany following the D-Day landings, find themselves saddled with the job of locating good lodgings for a visiting Major, only to discover a German country estate bursting with pilfered riches, fine wines, and various comely lasses from a nearby village. Their two-day binge is ultimately cut short when the rest of the army turns up early, but this story is mainly a bit of comedic relief, with some oddly graphic and leud scenes scattered throughout. Better than the first, but barely.
  • Nightingale: by far the best writing on offer throughout, the final story captures the tale of a British battleship, first on a largely failed convoy-protection run through the Arctic Sea to Russia, and then on one final charge off the coast of Malta. The narrative is nicely woven, and the art style is the best suited to the subject matter of the lot, with a heavy, atmospheric line style and largely monochromatic colouring. I still prefer D-Day Dodgers, just because it was the most interesting to me personally, but I think this is hands-down the best short story and the best graphic novel of the lot. Poignant, well-paced, and beautifully rendered.

Volume Two

Spoilers Ahead: My reviews are not spoiler-free. You have been warned.

Another volume, another four tales of war. I feel like there was less bombast and shock'n'awe on this second outing; the stories felt subtler and more personal. I wonder if Ennis was given more creative control, or more leeway to focus on aspects of this brutal period of history that have a direct pull or interest. Whatever the reason, the result is a collection that feels more interesting and also somehow more dull, so there are pros and cons to it all. As with the first volume, the most interesting information is reserved (unfortunately) for the appendices, where Ennis' write-up offers some background context and direct, historical details that help a lot. I slightly feel like the stories should be prefaced with this additional detail, but oh well.

  • J For Jenny: The story with the most personal interest for me, given my family's history with Lancaster Bombers, but it wasn't the most riveting tale. Ennis explains later that the point here was to shine a light on the unanswerable question of whether the morally dubious bombing runs undertaken by the British Lancaster squadrons should be celebrated or condemned. The loss of civilian life is appalling, but the impact on the war effort may have been pivotal; of course, that's very hard to know for sure. The framing of a crew with one co-pilot who believes that their tactics are immoral war crimes, and a captain who is clearly out for revenge, gives scope to explore this nuance, but I think it's largely lost in the disjointed pacing and fractured dialogue.
  • The Reivers: Whilst I enjoyed learning about the somewhat madcap invention of the SAS and thought the actual narrative here was quite fun, I take strong exception to both the characterisation and history of the Border Reivers. Ennis claims that the portrayal is based in fact, but I'd say only very loosely so. These were far from guerilla fighters and outlaws; the Reivers were Lairds in their own right, living by their own rules and codes of honour. They were closer to the buccaneers and pirates of later centuries than the bloodthirsty gangs portrayed. So I'm a bit biased, but I found this one pretty lacklustre.
  • Condors: By contrast, Condors was interestingly told, even if it is a bit slow. That can't really be helped when the narrative is "four men are stuck in a bomb crater whilst separated from their respective armies", so this is very dialogue heavy. It's not nuanced, either, but again this is an issue of the medium. They only have so many pages and panels, and we have to understand four people from four totally different cultures, countries, and ideologies, all philosophising about this oft-forgotten conflict (the Spanish Civil War; I hadn't realised that it ended only five months before the invasion of Poland, nor that Germany was so heavily involved backing Franco's fascist takeover). The result is blunt but interesting; probably the most interesting and thought-provoking story in this volume.
  • Archangel: I liked this tale a lot, even if the protagonist is painfully annoyingly written. I had very little idea about the Camships – these frankly wild inventions that allowed retrofitted merchant vessels to catapult single aircraft into a flight position to defend convoys, with no ability for the pilots to ever land again – and hearing about both their successes and trials was fascinating. Of all of the tales, this one feels the most tense, the most personal, and the most intriguing. But I'm not sure why our main man had to be quite such an A-grade drip 😂 Still, probably the best offering in this outing.

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