A gritty, if at root implausible, war comic from the British comic mag Battle Picture Weekly, Tom (“Roy of the Rovers”) Tully and Joe Colquhoun’s “Johnny Red” tells the tale of a Liverpool lad who winds up flying against the Nazis on the Russian front. Discharged from the RAF for angrily hitting a classist commanding officer, the scrappy Brit quickly hooks up with the Falcon Squadron of the Soviet Air Brigade, a rough-and-tumble crew of Russkies who all amazingly appear to speak English. In the snow and ruins of war-torn Russia, our hero is given the opportunity he was denied in his native land: to fly and fight against the enemy.
Presented in three- and four-page installments, the black-and-white WWII strip goes heavy on the airborne action, light on the characterization. The only thing we really know about our scruffy hero is he has a temper and is a great flyer; his battle mates in the Falcons are largely indistinguishable but for Dimitri Yakob, a burly flyer who quickly becomes Johnny Redburn’s biggest booster. The rest of Johnny’s Russian comrades primarily prove to be proletarian fellow-fighters or authoritarian pricks.
In the first volume of Titan Book’s hardbound reprint series of this classic war comic, Johnny Red: Falcon’s First Flight, the title lead runs afoul of two Russian officers. The first, Major Kraskin, is a brutish type given to having his own soldiers shot for misperceived cowardice; the second, glory-hungry Colonel Yaraslav, proves to himself be chicken-hearted and wary of Johnny discovering an undisclosed secret from his own past. Whether you’re in the RAF or the Russian Air Brigade, it seems, a simple fighting man can’t get a break from the brass.
It’s the battle scenes that, I suspect, kept this British boy’s strip a viable property for ten good years. Artist Colquhoun had a knack for emotively rendering both air and ground fights — and for believably depicting the harsh winter setting where Johnny Red fights his war. Both our hero and his fellow Air Brigadiers are, of course, outmatched in their battered old planes, but that doesn’t keep ‘em from kicking Nazi tail.
In an amusing appreciative intro, comics writer Garth Ennis (himself no slouch when it comes to crafting war comics), notes how Johnny’s Hurricane, the plane he’s initially “borrowed” to save his mates on a besieged catapult ship, takes an amount of punishment that no real plane could have survived. Tully and Colquhoun may’ve been fairly unstinting when it came to showing the brutality of war, but, in the end, you’ve still got to keep your hero and his plane intact to fly in next week’s installment.