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Fanboy of Fear Chris Gage Review by
Chris Gage
WAR STORY # 1 - 4
WRITER: Garth Ennis; ART: Various
$4.95 each

Okay, people, what's the ultimate horror? Yep! As we know all too well these days, war is far more horrifying than anything dreamed up by Poe or Lovecraft. And that's what writer Garth Ennis is exploring in his latest mini-series, WAR STORY.

It's a bit misleading to call WAR STORY a mini-series, because each 64-page issue is self-contained, with a different artist and different characters. But the backdrop is the same: World War II, and the horrors faced by the men thrust into that conflict.

After SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and BAND OF BROTHERS, it's become a bit of a fad lately to portray World War II "as it really was." But Ennis is not jumping on any bandwagons; his fascination with the war, and with the men who fought it, has run through his earlier work - from THE DEMON to PREACHER to ENEMY ACE - for years. Here, he turns his focus fully on those men in a series that is often difficult to read, and more disturbing than any horror comic you'll find.

Ennis very deliberately stays away from the major battles of World War II: you won't see the characters in WAR STORY storming Omaha beach or raising the flag at Iwo Jima. He also spotlights the rank and file as opposed to high-ranking decision makers (in fact, if there can be said to be a villain in WAR STORY other than war itself, it's officers who issue ill-considered orders that needlessly send men to their deaths). As a result, the focus of these stories is squarely on the fighting men themselves, and what the war has done to them, which is as it should be. Ennis' work also shows the results of meticulous research, which always impresses the hell out of me, because I enjoy research about as much as a prostate exam from Captain Hook.

The individual issues are as follows:

#1: JOHANN'S TIGER (art by Chris Weston and Gary Erskine): In the waning days of the war, German tank commander Johann and his crew want only one thing: to be captured by the Americans instead of the Russians, who would kill them without mercy. Going AWOL, with only each other and their tank to rely on, Johann and his crew must avoid encounters with both the Russian army and their own: since they would now be shot as traitors; with the elusive salvation of the American troops always tantalizingly out of reach. The art by Ennis' collaborators on ENEMY ACE complements the story well, especially in the evocative facial expressions, which are so important to conveying emotion. Johann, haunted by the war crimes he has committed, considers himself damned: he hopes to achieve some measure of salvation by delivering his crew, who are all good men, to safety before ending his own life. The war has other plans, though, and the ending finds Johann in a hell worse than any he could have imagined. JOHANN'S TIGER may well be the darkest of the four tales, as the ending is by far the most depressing, with no heroism to be found, only horror.

#2: D-DAY DODGERS (art by John Higgins): In 1943, Lady Astor made a speech in Parliament in which she called the soldiers fighting the Italian campaign "D-Day Dodgers," implying that they had it easy because they were avoiding the real action in France (she later denied saying it). The soldiers in question were so incensed, they composed a sarcastic song, "The Ballad Of The D-Day Dodgers". This book focuses on those troops as they prepare for what they know is a suicide mission, ordered by superiors who were embarrassed by Lady Astor's words and wanted to save face. Initially, this was my least favorite of the four books; I told myself it was because the story had little plot and the characters, more than in the other three books, are the kind we've seen before in war stories: the green Second Lieutenant with a blueblood background who must prove himself to his blue-collar men; the jaded Captain who's seen enough war to make him bitter and gruff but who has a heart of gold. I later realized the truth: I disliked this book because it made me angry. More than any of the others, D-DAY DODGERS shows with stark clarity how decisions of political expediency, made by desk jockeys an ocean away from the war, result in the death of thousands of good men. To see the soldiers marching off to fight, knowing that they're going to die, but doing their duty anyway, is a wrenching sight, and conveys the hard, simple truth about what soldiers really fight for: not God, or country, or a political cause, but the guy to their left and the guy to their right. Ennis wisely does not show us the battle, just the aftermath, with the lyrics to "The Ballad Of The D-Day Dodgers" providing the only commentary. And despite some of them being archetypes, the characters are well done and likeable, which only adds to the reader's feelings of frustration. This is the toughest one of the bunch to take, but necessarily so, and it powerfully conveys its simple point: sending men to their deaths is inevitable in war, so make damn well sure you have a good reason.

#3: SCREAMING EAGLES (art by Dave Gibbons): After the heaviness of the last two issues, SCREAMING EAGLES is a change of pace: it's funny. The humor is black, to be sure - there is an undercurrent of uneasiness about it as you wonder if the characters you've come to like will be blown to bits: and the flashbacks to the tragedies they have faced before coming to this point remind you of where you are. But that's appropriate, and makes the humorous incidents resonate with the poignancy that all pleasant moments spent under the threat of death possess. The story (the only one of the four featuring American troops) concerns four members of the 101st Airborne (the Screaming Eagles) who are the last of their unit to have survived since D-Day. As the war winds down, they are sent by a snotty Lieutenant into a dangerously unstable region to secure a headquarters for a soon-to-arrive general. They get there to find that the villa had been used by Nazi officers to stash booty they'd looted throughout the war. Having been stomped on for years, the Screaming Eagles decide to live it up for as long as they can, enjoying the food, cigars, and friendly local ladies until the general shows up.

SCREAMING EAGLES continues the theme of grunts doing the best they can in the face of incompetent and/or corrupt leadership, but approaches it in a completely different way - and for once, the grunts get the last word in the closest you'll get to a happy ending in this series. What really makes this issue a joy is the art by Dave (WATCHMEN) Gibbons. As with all the artists in this series, Gibbons excels at drawing real people. If DC was publishing SGT. ROCK or ENEMY ACE these days (and how I wish they were), I'd want Gibbons doing the art.

#4: NIGHTINGALE (art by David Lloyd): The last of the four books is the creepiest one of all. It may be because it's set on the ocean, which has always scared the crap out of me (if God wanted us in the ocean he'd have given us gills), but mostly its because of the dark, moody art by David (V FOR VENDETTA) Lloyd. The story concerns the HMS Nightingale, a British warship charged with protecting the merchant vessels transporting supplies to the depleted Russian army. When an ill-considered order from London forces them to change their tactics, and most of the ships in their care are lost as a result, the Nightingale and her crew earn an undeserved reputation as jinxes. Despite knowing it's not their fault, the crew are haunted by their failure, so when an opportunity comes to redeem themselves, they seize it without regard for their safety. Ennis' story is haunting by itself, but merged with Lloyd's art, it creates a spine-chilling masterpiece. The panel of the Captain barking orders with half his face blown off is something I'll never forget. Lloyd is a master of depicting human horror, and his art alone is worth the cover price. In these times, we all long for escapism. You won't find it in WAR STORY. And yeah, you might want to reach for a copy of ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN in between issues of this series just to stay sane - but this is some powerful stuff here, folks, more sheer horror than you'll find anywhere else, and worthy of four Rabid Fanboys.

Review copyright 2001 by E.C.McMullen Jr.

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