JOHNNY RED: FALCON'S FIRST FLIGHT
Written by Tom Tully
Art by Joe Colquhoun
This is a strip about a pseudo-disgraced British pilot (he got a bad rap, y’see) who then goes to fly with the Russians in a plane he steals/borrows during a debacle of a battle is the sort of old time lad-mag fun that kids used to go crazy for. It’s got stirring fights in the air and gritted teeth against a pure and evil enemy. You kill the opposition, war is that simple. But the thing that doesn’t sit right with me is that he goes to fly with the Russians. I can’t wrap my mind around it being okay that Johnny becomes a ‘Red’ – but maybe that’s my Cold War upbringing and prejudice coming into play.
Not to say I don’t like Russians. I think they’re the cats pyjamas, now, but back then they were pretty formidable. Even if your own superior officers had you charged with being a goon it still wasn’t alright to go fly with the vodka corps.
Once you get past that, you get a story about a man seeking redemption. He was always sure he’d be the best pilot and this is his only chance to prove it. He takes the plane, while no one is looking, and then he wings it for a foreign coast. Upon arrival, Johnny nearly gets hacked up by a savage Russki but once they see eye-to-eye things get cleared up. These foreign men are just heroes too, and they prove it in the first battle by sacrificing themselves while flying into the enemy, the true kill shot of the sky.
My favourite part of this book is the slang and lingo so gloriously slathered in every strip. Johnny yells for them to get their kites up into the air. The use of kite to not mean a pithy paper instrument of frivolous fun but instead referring to industrials behemoths of death isn’t explained or winked to the audience. Johnny says it and through context we know what he means. This book might as well be a guide for all kids reading to become the fighter pilot of their school yard. They’ll know what to say, and how to say it, and authenticity will be their admission ticket to cool.
I can imagine some little brat pouring over every page and holding his model plane while Johnny names everything he shoots down in the sky. This is a manual, a historical document, as much as it is a narrative. It’s the sort of thing a war enthusiast, in all his macabre glory, can use to hone his vernacular and become part of the club. This is all about the little stuff you know, and Johnny Red knows it all.
The three page structure of each strip means the narrative zings along and before you get one resolution you’ll be sure to end up elbow’s deep in the next complication. It makes for a breathless ride that can become numbing at times. After so many dogfights, you just won’t feel the danger anymore and a modern revamp would do well to meter out the pace of the true aerial spectacle but for the target audience of the time this comic delivers in Russian-fuelled, Kraut-killing spades.
Colquhoun’s art is a wrought and detailed affair and the planes look good but often the weathered faces and battered souls look better. He doesn’t stylise much of this war business, though he does present the violence in as dynamic a way as possible. His use of angles and framing with the planes in the air lends the story a tighter and more dramatic hold over these action scenes. He’s working to make sure we know there are men in each of these planes, even as the planes consume their owners in flames and death.
Verdict – Buy It. This isn’t about war, this is about one man’s war. Johnny barely has time to pause between shooting down the bad guys and making sure no one mistakes him for one either. He’s a Brit fighting with the Russians and because of this his position in the war, and in the world, is precarious. He must prove himself every single time through every action. Nothing can be rushed off, Johnny needs to have the best of impulses to do what is right and what is best. This book feels like a historical document and yet reads like the best of any boy’s fiction in any genre. Buy this book and enjoy the authenticity amidst the thrills.
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