World War II's 'Battlefields,' First Wave's Doc Savage and 'Awakening' zombies come alive

By Andrew A. Smith
Scripps Howard News Service

It is said that Garth Ennis is the best writer of World War II stories in the comics biz today, and Battlefields ($29.99, Dynamite Entertainment) is convincing evidence of that reputation.

Battlefields is a collection of three unrelated WWII miniseries, involving female Russians flying obsolete biplane bombers ("Night Witches"), a traumatized British nurse who survived Japanese occupation ("Dear Billy") and a British tank crew in Normandy ("Tankies"). Each is based on historical events, as Ennis has done his homework (described in an afterword, along with a bibliography).

They also describe the horror of war appallingly well in carefully crafted stories with real emotional weight. “Dear Billy” in particular could bring tears from the coldest heart, while never depicting or even discussing the brutal act at its heart. And you’ll get to know several members of the Soviet 588th Night Bomber Regiment in “Night Witches,” as well as some of their foes in the German Wehrmacht, which makes their eventual fates all the more poignant.

Even my wife, no fan of war stories, enjoyed Battlefields. Possibly that was due to the strong female presence in the first two stories, a gender usually absent in war comics entirely. But I like to think she enjoyed them for the same reason I did, which is that they kept me riveted throughout, and troubled me long after I’d read them.

Battlefields is a continuation of Ennis’s War Story for Vertigo, which has two collections available. I don’t remember those stories as vividly, which could mean I was unprepared for Ennis’s unique insight into the double-W deuce when they were published. Or it could mean he’s on a learning curve, meaning the best is yet to come.

Elsewhere:

* Pop culture is awash in zombie stories, so it’s easy to write off Awakening ($19.95, Archaia Press) as just a trendy book. That would be a mistake.

As much as I enjoy some “mainstream zombie” books (if that’s even a genre) like Image’s Walking Dead, I have no problem with the unique version of cannibals we meet here. Neither the mindless, shambling brain-eaters of George Romero, nor the “fast zombies” of 28 Days Later, writer Nick Tapalansky gives us something in between. This variety goes for stomachs rather than brains and seem to be a little smarter. Plus they don’t infect, and have mutated into a form that is highly resistant to injury.

Also, Awakening is at heart a hard-boiled detective noir mystery. While retaining much of the horror of a good zombie attack, the story focuses on private dick Derrick Peters, who must solve the central mystery of who these attackers are and how they got that way.

This collection of the first five issues of Awakening doesn’t answer that question. Presumably we’ll learn more in the next collection – disappointing, but almost inevitable in serial fiction.

Also, the art may be off-putting to some. Alex Eckman-Lawn (whose name, when paired with letterer Thomas Mauer inevitable reads “lawn mauer”) uses mostly a woodcut style with heavy impressionist overtones and a smattering of multi-media. This style has the authority of having been used in one of the earliest experiments in graphic storytelling, Frans Masereel’s 1926 Passionate Journey, as well as by contemporaries like Peter Kuper (The Jungle). While I quite enjoy this style, I understand it’s not to everyone’s taste.

Anyway, Tapalansky’s story is clearly building to something big, and he’s got me hooked.

* Batman/Doc Savage Special ($4.99, DC Comics) is the first issue of something called “First Wave,” an entirely new 1940s-style world of heroes without super-powers but with modern technology. It stars pulp hero Doc Savage as the pinnacle of human achievement, who meets a young Bruce Wayne, feeling his way along in his new career as “The Batman.” This Dark Knight is based on the character as he was in his 1939 debut, when he carried guns and liked to use them.

It was fun to see both of these characters, who meet and must learn to trust each other to solve a murder. This new “World’s Finest” team will be joined in a miniseries next year by a number of other non-powered characters, including a new version of Will Eisner’s The Spirit, pulp hero The Avenger, Rima the Jungle Girl, the Blackhawks and Black Canary.

This weird mash-up will probably provoke howls from purists. But comics characters are supposed to be fun, not museum pieces, and “First Wave” looks to be a hoot.

Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at capncomics@aol.com.

Views: 215

Comment by Mark Sullivan (Vertiginous Mod) on November 19, 2009 at 4:31pm
I loved the Ennis War Story Vertigo series, so if Battlefields is even better, sign me up!
Comment by Figserello on November 19, 2009 at 4:44pm
One of the War Story issues was about a British warship in the north Atlantic. It was a very powerful piece and stayed with me a long while. I'd reccomend it. Its probably in the first collection.
Comment by Captain Comics on November 19, 2009 at 4:56pm
I remember enjoying War Story, and being disappointed when it appeared to be 'canceled' (if such a word applies to an occasional series). And, yes, I think Ennis is actually getting better!
Comment by Randy Jackson on November 20, 2009 at 4:23pm
This Dark Knight is based on the character as he was in his 1939 debut, when he carried guns and liked to use them.

I'm really fascinated by this idea now that I've read many of those stories. To my knowledge, Batman only used a gun twice in the Golden Age--once against the Mad Monk, the other against one of Professor Strange's deformed madman giants. True, he would kill with impunity (and so did Robin, at least initially), but it was much more likely that he would hurl someone into a vat of chemicals or choke someone to death or something else more up close and personal.
Comment by ClarkKent_DC on November 20, 2009 at 4:45pm
The notion that Batman "carried guns and liked to use them" in the 1930s/1940s is as much an urban legend as the notion that Batman can defeat anybody because he "prepares."
Comment by Don Collett on November 20, 2009 at 6:19pm
So, would Batman be prepared for....the Spanish Inquisition????
Comment by Travis Herrick (Modular Mod) on November 24, 2009 at 10:20am
Well I read the Batman/Doc Savage comic and I liked it. I have no problem with this Batman using a gun, it is a different Batman in a different universe. This Batman may use guns, but right now he isn't so dark and grim. Cocky and overconfident sure.

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