Monday, November 11, 2013

Opening Contract - Battlefields: Dear Billy #1

This week’s Opening Contract is taken from the first panel of Battlefields: Dear Billy #1 by writer Garth Ennis, artist Peter Snejberg, colourist Bob Steen and letterer Simon Bowland from Dynamite Entertainment.

One of Ennis’ hallmarks is bringing that which dwells in the dark into the light. I’m not talking about some transformative ‘feel good’ story whereby the protagonist manages to quell the darkness within with peace, love and understanding. Instead, what Ennis does is bring the darkest facets of the human condition before our eyes, forcing us to bear witness to them. In Punisher MAX we saw everything from human trafficking to the horrors of Vietnam. In Fury MAX we observe the ethical amnesia and moral grey areas of American foreign policy that few talk about, even now decades later. Dear Billy is no different in that regard. 

The opening panel of Dear Billy is all in the light. Steen’s colours do an excellent job of conveying the light, airy tones of a sunny afternoon somewhere in the Pacific. The various shades of blue making up the flawless sky and ocean, even the hint of golden yellow sand at the bottom of the panel, are all pitch perfect.

The central focus of the panel though, is of course the women. They have their backs to us, all standing ankle deep in the water, some are in a state of undress, others aren’t. Even without the captions the reader can sense that something is awry by the rivulets of red running down their legs, a stark contrast to the pastel tones present in the rest of the panel. It makes for an unsettling image — blood on the flesh, blood in the water. It becomes even more unsettling when we read the captions accompanying the image. They take the form of a letter written by the protagonist, Carrie Sutton, to her lover, Billy.

Carrie is writing the letter in an attempt to make Billy understand - to understand her, and the things she's done. The fact the captions are from a letter, and Bowland’s excellent rendering of Carrie’s handwriting, make them all the more personal. The last caption of the page, in the lower right hand corner, halts us in our tracks:
”First they raped us. Then they walked us into the shallows and turned machine guns on us.”
The idea of rape as an act committed in war on prisoners and a civilian populace has been with us since time immemorial. In fiction though it’s rarely mentioned, in comics even less so. This, unfortunately, is reflective of societies overall reaction to the subject. We live in a world where some Japanese officials still deny the Nanking Massacre ever took place (the link contains pictures and material that some may find disturbing), or elements of the incident were fabricated or exaggerated. We live in a world where those who perpetrated camps dedicated solely to the purpose of rape in Bosnia were never tried or convicted. Dear Billy and Carrie’s story is a reaction to that, to the horror of such things, the damage it does and the indifference our culture displays in the aftermath.

The fact the panel is a splash page has two effects. Firstly, it forces the reader to confront what’s happening. There's no hiding. Secondly, it illustrates how central the event is to Carrie's character. The horror and indignity she’s put through here is what drives her subsequent actions. She’s the only survivor of the ordeal. She constructs a tough exterior to protect herself from the world, only really ‘softening’ (I use the term loosely) with the appearance of the eponymous Billy, a pilot with the RAF. She begins to conduct a relationship with him, hiding the murkier depths of her soul, the things that live there, the details of her ordeal and her firsthand knowledge of the terrible things men can do in times of war. It could be argued this suppression contributes to Carrie’s later actions, whereby she murders several Japanese prisoners who come under her care in the hospital she works in. The large opening image represents a paradox. It’s what drives Carrie to do the things she does, but is also a source of shame, an event she feels she has to hide.

She explains in her letter it isn't the done thing to complain. A war is on after all and she survived, didn't she? As she puts it:
”The war makes things seem so small.”
Don’t speak up. Don’t rock the boat. Keep quiet. These are the thoughts which society has deigned to create in Carrie’s mind. It could be argued little has changed. Even today, when cases such as Steubenville come to light, there are still parts of the community condemning the victim, not the perpetrators.

There’s a savagery to the violence in Dear Billy, like there is in most of Ennis’ work. We see bombs dropping on Japanese soldiers and their splintered, broken bodies being thrown into the air like dolls. We see planes strafe helpless Japanese survivors in the water. There’s a sense of justice or revenge here. The ocean runs red with their blood in the aftermath of the attack, a reflection of the blood in the water motif from the opening panel. But these men are dead. They didn't survive. They didn't have to live with the horror of their ordeal like Carrie has to. By showing only the merest hint of blood in the opening panel it suggests Carrie has been condemned to dying a slow death, a torturous and drawn out affair where she's forced to wrestle with everything she's been through as well as live in a world where such things are ignored, consumed as they are by the larger schemes of things.

With the opening panel, Ennis is effectively suppressing the ordeal too, compressing it down into the opening image and the panels that follow. It’s an image with the power to make us understand why Carrie does the things she does, and ultimately explains her final fate. He shows us that long after the ordeal and the images associated with it fade, its scar can still be felt. There is no escaping it. The damage is done.

In Conversation with Goya: Signs, Bridges, Bosnian author Ivo Andric said:
”One sometimes wonders whether the spirit of majority of the Balkan peoples has not been forever poisoned and that, perhaps, they will never again be able to do anything other than suffer violence, or inflict it.”
This quote is reflected in the darkness present in Carrie’s soul as well as her tragic self-awareness. She knows she’s a different person now, a person born of war and the horror it spews out into the world. She knows the chasm already in her soul will widen when the war is over, that the lines of black and white will break down and create new borders and allies out of enemies. It will never be as clear as that day on the beach, just a steady devolution into ever darker shades. Billy’s reply to her outburst about this coming world only confirms what she knows — it's not a place she can live in.

The opening panel is the splinter in Carrie’s mind. It fuels her revenge and anger. It’s her reason for living. It’s her reason for dying. As the final issue plays out we see glimpses of the island in the Pacific once more. We see flashes of Carrie’s ordeal and the other women turned towards the sea before we cut back to the present.

Blood on the flesh, and blood in the water. We’ve come full circle.
”A story like ours could only ever have one end.”

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