Friday, 30 September 2011

On "Johnny Red" By Tom Tully & Joe Colquhoun: "Let Him Fight His War In His Own Way" (Part 1 of 2)

In which the blogger attempts to discover why a boy's weekly war strip from the Seventies should remain such a compelling if somewhat implausible read, and focuses firstly upon the scripts for 'Johnny Red' by writer Tom Tully;

       
1.

1975 was already far too late for me where Johnny Red was concerned. My superhero-centric tastes had been long-since fixed, my prejudices repeatedly confirmed by a decade and more's exposure to British weekly comics which featured the most stupefyingly dull, dull, dull war strips. Because of that, my far younger self seems to have missed a relatively brief and untypically radical counter-revolution in the boy's four-times-a-month, fight-them-on-the-beaches comicbook, which appears to have peaked with the arrival of Battle Picture Weekly at the mid-point of the decade. I can only hope that the evidence of this year's Titan Books collection of the Johnny Red stories from 1977 isn't in any way representative of Battle's typical content. Because if writer Tom Tully and artist Joe Colquhoun's work on their tale of "19 year-old Johnny 'Red' Redburn'" and his exploits in wartime Soviet Russia is characteristic of that in the rest of the comic, then my antipathy towards the war stories of the day prevented me from enjoying some very fine if rather breathlessly hectic storytelling indeed.
          
 2.

I'm not the right person to be reading Johnny Red for the first time. It's a strip that was written for a far younger audience than I'll ever be able to qualify for again, and, as Garth Ennis notes in his forward to Falcon's First Flight;

"... there are aspects of the story that stretch credibility beyond the breaking point, no great surprise in a boys' adventure story of the time. "

To Mr Ennis, its the fact that Johnny's Hurricane fighter appears to be able to survive the most "unspeakable punishment" and still return "to the skies again and again" which serves as the "most obvious example of this". Yet given that I'm the kind of reader who's fascinated by the men and women who flew in the War, and who's yet almost entirely ignorant about the technology which they relied upon, the fact of Johnny's implausibly "indestructible Hurricane .... (which) would have been a scrapper from the start", as Mr Ellis so pithily puts it, would have always escaped me. While Mr Ellis was aware even as a boy that "no aircraft could survive such treatment", I've recently managed to read my way through several months of Johnny Red episodes without ever thinking that his fighter should've been scrap and spare parts from the third or fourth week of his adventures onwards.

           

Instead, it's the fantastical take on the Soviet Russia of Johnny's self-chosen exile which constantly threatens to undermine the strip's plausibility. For all that it's a daringly bleak and considerably bloody portrayal of Stalin's state during the early days of the U.S.S.R.'s enforced entry into World War Two, it's still a far too free and open society in some of its key details for it to feel convincing. The point at which Johnny's ongoing conflict with the People's Commisar Major Kraskin and his N.K.V.D. firing squads began was the moment at which the story started to feel conspicuously implausible. Nobody in the Soviet Russia of the time who was as isolated from political influence as Johnny is shown to be could possibly have repeatedly defied, let alone punched out, the likes of Kraskin and survived. In a totalitarian state such as that of the USSR in the months following the Nazi Blitzkrieg, the fact of Johnny's British citizenship wouldn't have saved him from the power of the likes of Kraskin for a second. After all, no-one associated with the British authorities is even aware in the strip that Johnny Redburn is still alive, let alone fighting on the Eastern Front. Consequently, his disappearance, whether associated with an impossible-to-challenge cover-story or not, would've been the easiest of matters for Kraskin and his fellows to achieve. It's certainly highly doubtful whether a report of the fate of a young man who'd already been cashiered from the R.A.F., and then seen disappearing with a stolen Hurricane across the Barents Sea, would've caused the Foreign Office to raise an eyebrow's worth of concern at a time when the alliance with Stalin was of such vital importance to Churchill's Britain.

       

But Johnny Red undoubtedly is, for all of its many farfetched plot confections, an absolutely compelling adventure strip. In a time when so many comics are struggling to find an audience even amongst those predisposed to want to buy and enjoy them, the skill by which Mr Tully and Mr Colquhoun's work captivates the reader and compels the turning of each successive page is well worth paying attention to. That this should be so despite a long list of problems which might strike today's reader when first encountering the story marks out how ultimately fine a comic serial Johnny Red is. For it's not just a distaste for boy's war stories, and the very conventions of the Brit weeklies which carried them, which might threaten to destroy the pleasure that's to be found in Falcon's First Flight. And it's not only the disturbing sense of historical irreality which so often intrudes on these tales which might make a more cynical neophyte think twice before continuing. As Pat Mills has said, amidst a host of otherwise positive comments about the strip, there's also something "a little patronising" about the premise that the Soviets needed an Englishman to teach them how to fight the Nazis. In addition, these stories are also woefully thin on characterisation, while character development is almost unheard of, and Johnny Red's three and four page chapters are often by the very nature of their original context repetitive in content and formulaic in structure. There is, after all, a limit to how many spectacular and quite obviously impossible aerial dust-ups and last-ditch survivals a reader can experience before ennui sets in.

    
And yet despite all of these factors, Johnny Red was constructed in such a ferociously smart and exhilarating fashion that even a doubtful reader such as myself might finds themselves being hauled through one short chapter after another by, amongst other things, the sheer brilliance of the story's structure. For example, Mr Tully's scripts are so taunt and incident packed that each row of panels, and there were often three or four lines of frames to a side, ends with a cliffhanger. That means that just about every side opens on an often life-threatening enigma, progresses through a series of tautly-framed crises, before ending on a major snare of a page-turner. In comparison to so many of the comics of 2011, which are still regularly being written to make sense in the context not of the monthly but the trade, Messers Tully and Colquhoun were effectively writing according the demands of the daily newspaper strip, creating a distinct and dramatically satisfying reading experience for each single row that appeared on their pages. There, each previous situation is recapped, the action progresses, an element of it is often closed, and then the next episode, or usually row, is beguiling set-up; it's an exacting and demanding discipline to follow, but in the context of a weekly strip aimed originally at an audience of early-adolescent boys, it's a fantastically appropriate and attention-focusing technique to put to use.

In places, it ought to be said, as in the scan reproduced directly above this will show, Messrs Tully and Colquhoun's took the opportunity to present a page marked by a far less crowded design, but that's hardly typical of the mass of Johnny Red tales presented in Falcon's First Flight.

          
Something of this incredibly concentrated and wonderfully unindulgent approach to storytelling can be noted in the page directly above, where each of the four rows of panels opens on an enigma and ends on a snare. This is surely the absolutely opposite approach to the deconstruction of the modern era comic. The top line, for instance, opens the page with the spectacular follow-up to the previous side's cliffhanger, as Johnny Red cunningly bombs the frozen lake upon which his German opponents stand. (See scan below.) That's immediately followed by the line-closing shot of Red's victims dramatically disappearing into the freezing water. It's a scene which might have taken up several pages in one of today's books, but by the next row, Mr Tully has Johnny flying off to the next incident while the gruesome, E.C.-esque sight of the doomed soldier's hands clawing at the ice to save themselves closes their walk-on part in the story.

         
By the next panel, Johnny has returned to the temporary landing strip used by his new squadron and we're presented with another enigma: who of Red's comrades has died in the preceding bout of dog-fighting? Cleverly, the nature of that question carries a far less intense air with that than the massacre in the line of frames before it did, which gives the reader something of a breathing space even within this incredibly fervent storytelling structure. But by the beginning of the next line, Johnny is being thrown into a new exacting dilemma, as his Soviet colleagues inform him that some of their fellows are about to be executed, and so the next incident of the tale begins, designed to straddle this page and next to ensure that the reader's unable to become distracted between one panel and another, between this page and the one that's just ahead of it.


In short, Johnny Red is a strip which purposefully, and often quite brilliantly, insists that the reader keeps looking out for whatever might happen next. Despite its ever-more unconvincing if thoroughly imaginative fight scenes, and even given the dream-like lack of substance where its cruel-but-not-cruel-enough fairyland of an U.S.S.R. is concerned, these rows of panels simply must be raced through and these pages simply must be turned. Even when absolutely satisfied, if not actually sated, by Johnny Red as a story, I still found Messers Tully and Colquhoun's methods elbowing me onwards to read more. In fact, such is their skill at hooking and directing the reader's attention that I suspect the two of them could've produced a strip about the joys of wallpaper hanging or lightbulb collecting and I'd've be unable to stop myself compulsively reading through them too.

      
But, of course, all the command of structure in the world can't of itself explain the lasting appeal of Johnny Red, and I hope that I've not seemed to imply that that's the only reason for the strip's success. To suggest anything of the sort would be a quite obviously ridiculous business, for all the knowledge in the world of how to organise a page in order to maximize its effect can't guarantee that the story which follows is of any worth at all. And as is self-evident from their work, Mr Tully and Mr Colquhoun were wonderful storytellers as well as storytelling technicians. In the second and closing part of this piece, I fully intend to raise my genuine Red Army winter hat to three other key aspects of Johnny Red's success which some of today's more seemingly casual and apparently easily-distracted creators might learn a very great deal from.

To be concluded.

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6 comments:

  1. the artwork on those books is so good. A lot of todays artists would be hard pressed to copy this kind of tight storytelling. Not to mention the technical drawings.

    I don´t have many newspaper strips. One Garth, which I didn´t like much, and some Jeff Hawke, which I adore. For all the good to very good space strips from Star Wars to Guardians of the Galaxy, those b/w comics are so consistently atmospheric. Sometimes I think that the current generation of artists which is influenced by our modern CGI movies have lost something in terms of imagination. Guys like Colqohun or Jordan had to actively imagine what they had to draw, they had to invent the look they brought to the paper. Contemporary artists have grown up with the stuff they see on tv.

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  2. Hello Andy:- Mr Colquhoun's artwork is indeed a thing of wonder. To produce that amount of fine work, and to do so week in and week out, is something well worth the admiring. Although his pages are obviously from a quite different tradition to today's "mainstream" comics, there's so much to learn and adapt from it. I've so enjoyed looking at his work in a different context to the splendid Charley's War.

    I know as little of newspaper strips as I do of comics. I am, I fear, a perpetual amateur. But I always enjoy reading biographies of artists from the Golden and Silver Age, for most of them seem to have been understandably desperate to move up to the strip market, and they often seemed to have invested a great deal of work into their samples. I've no doubt that they learned a huge amount from their love of that form and their efforts to master it.

    A better discipline to emulate, I would suspect, than TV.

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  3. I was blown away by this book when I got the chance to read it recently, largely because I'd only really read the last few years of its run, with stodgy art by John Cooper and stories that spun their wheels furiously without getting anywhere.

    It is a bit dumb and clumsy, but nobody draws war damage and debris like Joe Colquhoun, and his aerial acrobatics are powerful. There is also a lot more momentum in the story in those early days, with a lot of important stuff for the character happening in a very short span of time.

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  4. Hello Bob:- Unlike you, I'm starting from scratch here, so even the basic concepts of Johnny Red are something of a pleasurable surprise to me. I read an interview with Pat Mills recently which stated a, shall we say, pronounced lack of respect for the strip's last few breaths. It must've been fun to have discovered the early episodes having only known the end-game of Johnny Red.

    I agree with that issue of momentum you mention. It's quite thrilling when experienced in a time characterised by deconstruction.

    Change in an artform can be a very good thing, I know. But not all change is good ...

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  5. Hello Colin,

    Speaking of Pat Mills, and of Joe Colquhoun, have you considered writing about Charley's War?

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  6. Hello Brian:- I've been thinking quite alot rcently about doing so. There are some books which are so intimidatingly good that it's hard to think of a way of approaching them, but I do think that it's time to sit down and just really enjoy re-reading Charley's War and writing about it.

    So, yes. Now I've typed it out, I'm wondering why I've been hesitating :)

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