Sunday, November 2, 2008

Review: War is Hell: The First Flight of the Phantom Eagle

I've mentioned how much I love writer Garth Ennis's work on the Punisher, so you know I had to get the new collection of his recent mini-series War is Hell: The First Flight of the Phantom Eagle (Marvel MAX, 2008, 120 pages, $24.99). And while it doesn't reach Punisher's "holy crap this is incredible" level, it's a good book and well worth checking out.

The comic tells the story of Karl Kaufmann, a World War One wanna-be flying ace fighting with the American volunteers in Britain's Royal Flying Corps. It alternates between nutso dogfights and the goings-on back at the barracks, and we get to watch as Kaufmann gradually transitions from a complete schmuck into a hardened warrior of the skies.

I'll be honest -- there isn't a ton of plot here. We're basically just watching Kaufmann learn on the job, face the horrors of war, and befriend other soldiers who then die. But Ennis's dialogue is sharp and Kaufmann is a compelling character to watch. He starts out as such a clueless idiot, but at the same time is kind of a loveable lug, that you root for him. By the end of the book, I was certainly ready to read more stories about him.

And the book is more about the "feel" of war, anyway. Ennis and artist Howard Chaykin made an interesting choice about how to depict dogfighting: it comes off as a mad scramble that is over almost as soon as it starts. These battles are short: our heroes either shoot down the Germans or they are shot down. Or they just disappear, and we learn later that they didn't make it home.

The reader is put in that cockpit with Kaufmann, and the book effectively conveys the insane nature of airborne war.

Another big draw of the book is the, um, drawing. Chaykin fills every panel with stuff -- smoke, flame, soot, planes, falling pilots:

(click to enlarge, and behold the carnage)

The art feels like a movie made by Ridley Scott, who always seems to have a ton of stuff just hanging in the air around his characters. For example:


and how could we forget:

(scenes from Alien, Blade Runner, and Legend)

When done well, this kind of image is enthralling -- it just feels full of life. And Chaykin pulls it off here. It's vivid work, and it fits perfectly with a book that is trying to show the reader just how crazy war can be.

(click to enlarge)

And it makes for a terrific contrast to those few panels that aren't filled with stuff. I'm thinking of the parts of the book showing what it is like to fly before you've engaged the enemy, when the air is clear and you feel completely free. Those are the panels where Chaykin leaves a lot of unused space that allows the characters/planes room to breathe.

(click to enlarge)

It's a nice break for the reader, too. You almost wish Kaufmann could just fly around for a bit and enjoy his time in the clouds. But Ennis won't let you or Kaufmann linger too long up there before plunging you back into the crazy mess. War is hell, after all.

You can buy this book here: War Is Hell: The First Flight Of The Phantom Eagle

1 comment:

  1. I love Legend.

    Assignment for your next post- Put up a picture from TheDark Crystal.