Talking about Garth Ennis’ comics means talking about war.
Whether he’s writing about telepathic contract killers or monumentally depraved superheroes, odds of encountering a story arc set during World War II or the Vietnam War are at least a thousand to one in an Ennis-authored series. Even those few Ennis comics that lack WWII/Vietnam narratives still lean on references to America’s most cinematic conflicts; the climactic battle in Demon, for instance, starts with fiends in shark-headed warplanes shooting down angels. Then, of course, there are his many war comics – for example, War Stories and War Is Hell, the latter being a 1970s title that he briefly resurrected for Marvel MAX.
Therein lies one answer to the classic protest song’s query: war! What is it good for? Lots of Ennis comics (as a bonus, this scans with the original melody).
However, we must still address the question of why. Why war comics? (1) While they do offer an epic yet historically grounded backdrop for spilled intestines and grizzled men discharging their weapons, there are other potential settings for violence with much greater scope for fantastical innovation and less stringent research requirements.
Perhaps the reasoning behind Ennis’ perpetual return to the theater of organized armed conflict lies in the maxim Write what you know. Before he began writing comics, when he was only reading them, his formative experiences of the medium were rooted in British war comics such as Warlord and Battle, comics that looked at the uglier, under-reported, and above all more personal aspects of war. (2) War in these publications was still thrilling, since their young male target audiences wouldn’t have had it otherwise (to be fair, who would?), but in a harrowing, tragic way that undermined mainstream insistence on portraying war as a patriotic and therefore morally upstanding exercise. Here, British pilots flew in the Russian Air Force; readers were asked to consider the humanity of the “bad guys” – deserters, German officers in World War II; soldiers suffered from conflict-related trauma, abused their power, faced racial discrimination from fellow troops, and, when forced to choose between their fear of death and loyalty to their peers, could not always be sure whether the latter would win out.
The appeal of war comics was likely increased by Britain’s comics market at the time, which by the late 1970s was in a parlous state. Except for titles like 2000AD, British publishers were floundering, partially because traditional comics audiences (i.e. children) had started turning to TV for their at-home entertainment fix, and partially because the sociopolitical climate was becoming more conducive to stories that challenged rather than reinforced establishment values. These companies were not helped by the creation of Marvel UK, Marvel’s British publishing arm, in 1972. Dedicated to reprinting Marvel comics for the British market, Marvel UK introduced readers who normally could not access US comics to a universe full of metahumans and mutants, as well as the relative exotica of America. When Marvel UK’s superhero output began to prove more successful than its homegrown British competitors, it soon became clear that British comics needed to provide unique content if they were to remain relevant, not to mention solvent. Hence war comics.
Unsurprising, then, that for a reader like Ennis – no lover of superheroes, and living in an area where American comics were in short supply – war comics were a compelling prospect that would come to greatly impact the comics he created. In an email to the Battle fansite Battle Stations, Ennis himself openly admits as much, writing that Battle was “one of my favourites as a kid and a big influence on my own work”. (3) To back this up, an astute fan also uploaded a photo of a reader letter from Battle, written by Ennis himself in his youth, which corrected the comic’s editors on tank-related details:
In ‘Battle-Action’ dated 7th October, 1978, you mention that the tanks coming at Crazy Keller were King Tigers. They were not King Tigers, but Tiger Mark Ones! I have checked this carefully in my book, “Tanks and Fighting Vehicles”, pages 122 and 126.
Unsurprising, perhaps, that Ennis would go on to write The Tankies and The Green Fields Beyond for Battlefields, Johann’s Tiger for War Stories, and World of Tanks: Roll Out, among many other tank-focused war comics.
More generally, Ennis has stated that the personalities of his comics’ protagonists are greatly shaped by the war comics that he read as a child. (4) The parallels are not difficult to spot; a typical lead character in a 1970s British war comic and a typical Ennis protagonist are both hardbitten sociopolitical underdogs who adhere to semi-cynical but nonetheless strict moral codes formed by some kind of trauma. But the connections between British war comics and Ennis’ work extend beyond character development to encompass the worlds in which these characters operate. War can be described, albeit reductively, as unrestrained violence generated by male-dominated sociopolitical structures and perpetuated in the blood of Good Men (“the real heroes are,” etc.) – and few Ennis comics could exist without the dissonance between these two, asking us as they do to decry the former while giving our hearts to the latter.
Given the volume of Ennis’ war comics output, analysis of which could fill a book by itself, this series will focus on a few comics that conceptually summarize his war narratives and his comics as a whole. From straightforward war-is-hell stories rooted in Northern Irish daily life, to women’s under-recognized but incredible capabilities in the theater of combat, to gleeful self-parody of his own work in the genre, these comics go some way towards encapsulating the themes that have come to drive Ennis’ work.
War Story: The Ballad of the D-Day Dodgers
At first glance, War Story: D-Day Dodgers (2001) may appear not to deviate from the standard for contemporary narratives about World War II: a forgotten Army division whose members capture audiences’ affections before dying horribly. It’s the sort of story that could reasonably be described as “post-Saving Private Ryan.”
The comic draws its title from a real-life satirical folk song, the lyrics to which were written during World War II in response to Lady Astor reportedly calling soldiers fighting in Monte Cassino, Italy “D-Day dodgers” in Parliament (although she denied having done so) – this despite a bloody campaign described as the largest organized action prior to D-Day that left almost 200,000 casualties in its wake. (5) These soldiers were accused of “dodging” service in the Normandy landing simply due to being deployed in a less prestigious campaign; if the accusation was in fact made by a politician or aristocrat, it would be a case of the powerful disparaging underdogs for what they had ordered them to do. In the afterword of War Stories: Volume 1, Ennis calls the insult “a small injustice, historically speaking, but no less foul for all that”. (6)
Before approaching the narrative of the D-Day Dodgers comic, we should start by examining the lyrics of its namesake, partly to better understand the comic’s central concerns and partly because these lyrics are juxtaposed with full-page images of violent death over a span of eleven pages. As printed in the comic, said lyrics reflect the discrepancy between the assumption that war can be a luxury and the experiences of soldiers who know otherwise. (7)
We’re the D-Day Dodgers, way off in Italy
Always on the vino, always on the spree;
Eighth Army scroungers and their tanks,
We live in Rome, among the Yanks.
We are the D-Day Dodgers, way out in Italy.
We landed in Salerno, a holiday with pay,
The Jerries brought the bands out to greet us on the way.
We all sang songs, the beer was free
We kissed all the girls in Napoli.
We are the D-Day Dodgers, way out in Italy.
The Volturno and Casino were taken in our stride,
We didn’t go to fight there, we went just for the ride.
Anzio and Sangro were all forlorn,
We did not do a thing from dusk to dawn.
For we are the D-Day Dodgers, over here in Italy.
On our way to Florence we had a lovely time.
We ran a bus to Rimini through the Gothic Line.
All the winter sports amid the snow.
Then we went bathing in the Po.
For we are the D-Day Dodgers, over here in Italy.
Once we had a blue light that we were going home
Back to dear old Blighty, never more to roam.
Then somebody said in France you’ll flight.
We said never mind, we’ll just sit tight.
The windy D-Day Dodgers, out in Sunny Italy.
Now Lady Astor, get a load of this,
Don’t stand on the platform and talk a load of piss.
You’re the nation’s sweetheart, the nation’s pride
But we think your lovely mouth is far too bloody wide.
For we are the D-Day Dodgers, out in sunny Italy.
Look around the mountains, in the mud and rain,
You’ll find the scattered crosses, some that have no name.
Heartbreak and toil and suffering gone,
The boys beneath just slumber on.
For they were the D-Day Dodgers, over here in Italy.
So listen all you people, over land and foam,
Even though we’ve parted, our hearts are close to home.
When we return we hope you’ll say
“You did your little bit, though far away
All of the D-Day Dodgers, way out there in Italy.”
Ennis appends a note to the final page: “The last note to be sung with vino on your lips and tears in your eyes.”
Besides the general description of the Italian campaign as a long vacation rather than a gory hell, where to start? Let’s home in on Verse 1′s references to the Eighth Army and living “among the Yanks.” Since the Eighth Army was a British division and the word “among” suggests separation – i.e. describing oneself as living “among” the Yanks implies that the speaker is not a Yank themselves – the song’s speaker is likely British. This is backed up by the mocking description of Lady Astor as “the nation’s sweetheart, the nation’s pride” in Verse 6, and of course the lyrics “we were going home/ Back to dear old Blighty” in Verse 5. In other words, this song is a British war story. And thanks to its satire, it’s a British war story that trades on turning trauma into sociopolitical critique, not unlike the war comics Ennis and other readers in his age bracket would have enjoyed in the 1970s.
Due to its tone, the song is quite removed from a military context, with only one reference to military equipment of any kind (“Eighth Army scroungers, and their tanks” in Verse 1) and little mention of combat beyond D-Day and “You did your little bit.” It also avoids traditionally patriotic idealizations of Britain; unlike nationalistic songs such as “There’ll Always Be an England,” which avers, “There’ll always be an England/ While there’s a country lane,/ Wherever there’s a cottage small/ Beside a field of grain,” “The D-Day Dodgers” simply describes Britain as “home,” but a home to which they cannot yet return – and, in the case of the many dead soldiers “slumber[ing] on” in unmarked graves, a home that will never be seen again. (8) Britain here becomes a locus of longing and grief.
In drawing upon this song for inspiration, Ennis underscores the comic’s humanity, which is a particularly salient component of a Monte Cassino narrative. All successful war stories are people-focused to an extent, but a Monte Cassino war story needs to be a non-technologically-driven story to a greater degree than stories about other theaters of battle, given its history. Unlike other major World War II campaigns, Monte Cassino was dependent upon ground troops rather than sea power, planes, tanks, or other armaments found on pages 122 and 126 of Tanks and Fighting Vehicles, which lends an even more personal dimension to retellings of the campaign. (9) Accordingly, Ennis’ Monte Cassino story hinges not on explosions or weaponry, but on the bonds forged and selflessness shown by men in impossible circumstances.
“Sure we’re all dodging D-Day together”
The main characters in D-Day Dodgers are members of the Antrim Rifles, a fictional regiment whose “organization, weapons and tactics are a reasonable approximation of a British infantry regiment’s in the latter half of the second World War,” as Ennis writes in the afterword to War Stories: Volume 1. (10) Within that general locality, the regiment’s name, as well as several other elements of the comic, ground this story in Ennis’ home country of Northern Ireland. Antrim is one of Northern Ireland’s six counties; several of the soldiers speak in a Northern Irish dialect – Sergeant-Major Dunn’s final speech to his men even begins, “Do not forget that yez are Ulstermen! Every one’ve yez!”; and the password for a nighttime mission is “Yello Man,” which Ennis states is “the name of a sticky, honeycomb confection sold in seaside towns along Ireland’s north coast, most notably Ballycastle [in Antrim]”. (11)
Enter Lieutenant Ross, an upper-class officer from an exclusive private school who “hoped to go on to Oxford afterward, but the war sort of got in the way”. (12) Ross’ apparent function in the comic is twofold: to serve as the recipient of exposition so that readers can be introduced to the Antrim Rifles, and to be the posh foil to his men’s down-home demeanors. However, it eventually becomes clear that he serves a third function, namely to demonstrate the transcendent potency of male relationships.
The Northern Irish origins of the men in the Antrim Rifles are some distance from Ross’ background among England’s moneyed blue-bloods, both literally (Ross went to school at Harrow, in Northwest London, over 470 miles from Antrim) and conceptually. As we’ve already seen, Sergeant-Major Dunn references Ballycastle, a small coastal town in Northern Ireland mostly known as a quiet getaway destination, during a dangerous mission. Meanwhile, enlisted man Smith volunteers for that mission in order to take care of a childhood friend, Willy, “for his ma,” as the friend sustained head injuries years ago when “the coalman’s horse went over him”; upon first meeting Ross, Willy blurts out that a dead soldier’s “whole fuckin’ head came off, so it did!” (13)
Then there’s Captain Lovatt, “an enormously disappointed Catholic” who, when Ross and the readers first encounter him, is drinking wine and shooting at a sculpture of Christ in a ruined church, like any good Ennis protagonist. (14) Lovatt’s national and socioeconomic origins are unspecified, but he does not speak with the same accent as Dunn, Smith, or Willy. All we know from the initial encounter with Ross is that he is sick of “sending men to their deaths for four years,” and that he resents Ross’ presence due to the latter’s background, which he perceives as providing the luxury of detachment.
Oxford? Ah. Well now. “That this house will in no circumstances fight for its king and country,” isn’t that how it goes? […] Motion for debate passed by the Oxford Union, in nineteen thirty- three. Big fuss in all the papers. That the sort of sneering peacenik bollocks you go in for, Ross? (15)
Of course, Lovatt is partially mistaken about Ross’ desire to treat war as an abstraction, as many people with preconceptions in Ennis comics tend to be. While the measured response to his tirade is, “I’d've been eight, sir,” Ross later says that the worst part of command is “feel[ing] so horribly awkward” and “the – essential silliness of it”, which may not be the most sensitive remark in a conversation with someone disillusioned by war to the point of firing bullets at Jesus. (16) To summarize the interaction, Ross is unspoiled, Lovatt is sullied, but together these two extremes will unite in the brotherhood formed by suffering through mass violence.
The looming threat of mortality is a great equalizer in Ennis’ work, since it reminds characters and readers that one human body is as permeable as the next. Here, this shared vulnerability allows Ross to find acceptance among the Antrim Rifles. While some of the men assume that Ross and the other officers hold Lady Astor’s disparaging view of them as “D-Day dodgers” due to sharing her socioeconomic background, Smith notes that their actions prove otherwise: “I mean if yez really do think the same way she does, what’re yez doin’ out here up to yer necks in shite wi’ us? Sure we’re all dodgin’ D-Day together.” (17) In contrast to the still common narrative of a working-class individual striving to be accepted by patricians (e.g. the egregious Kingsman: The Secret Service and its obsession with what makes a “gentleman”), Ross must obtain the approval of working-class men in order to fulfill his purpose.
It helps, too, that earlier Ross manages to fell a German soldier, who approaches undetected by the others, with a single kill shot. A man is judged by his actions, which in Ennis’ world include his ability to successfully inflict violence. As befits the setting and tone of the comic, this is a one-on-one confrontation with no technology more complex than a single handgun, emphasizing the ultimately personal nature of violence even in global war.
That personal note is a key aspect not only of D-Day Dodgers, but, as will become clear over the course of this series, of Ennis’ work throughout his career. By putting aside the question of what makes men begin fighting in favor of what keeps them going, Ennis extracts affecting and deeply human narratives from what a lesser author might reduce to unfocused firepower and viscera. In his war stories, as well as his other comics, the abstractions of leaders, countries, and religion are too distant to sustain characters in the face of death. Instead, we see a young man pushing himself through hell to keep an eye on a childhood friend. When Lovatt voluntarily hands over his rifle to Ross, insisting that the latter carry it into battle, we see a reluctant leader trying to keep others alive as long as possible, down to the last minute.
There is a moment just before the enemy approaches when two of the Antrim Rifles clasp hands in a silent gesture of support – not a handshake, since one man’s hand is on top of the other, but a pure signifier of companionship. It’s a brief yet eloquent demonstration of how Being A Man and meeting death with (masculine) dignity need not be incompatible with expressing emotional connection. After all, as Ennis’ comics argue, what else is there to fight for?
1 To be read in the voice of “But…why male models?” from Zoolander.
2 Garth Ennis, New York Comic Con Special: The 2000AD Thrill-Cast 14 October 2015 (Oxfordshire, 2015) https://soundcloud.com/2000-ad/new-york-comic-con-special-the-2000-ad-thrill-cast-14-october-2015 [accessed October 15, 2015].
3 The message is not dated, but the last listed update of the site is dated 08/03/05. Battle Stations (2005) http://fanboy.frothersunite.com/Battle_Stations.html [accessed January 5, 2017].
4 Garth Ennis, New York Comic Con Special: The 2000AD Thrill-Cast.
5 See Peter Caddick-Adams, Ten Armies in Hell (London: Arrow, 2013). To my knowledge, Ennis has, surprisingly, never used this as a title for a war comic, despite its very metal quality.
6 Garth Ennis, War Stories: Volume 1: Afterword (Rantoul: Avatar Press, 2015).
7 To the tune of “Lili Marlene.” There are several extant variants of this song, often featuring verses that do not appear in the comic, and slight changes to individual lyrics.
8 Ross Parker and Hughie Charles, “There’ll Always Be an England” (1939). The rural idyll evoked in this song was already on the wane by 1939, but Parker and Charles went ahead and presented it as an eternal symbol of English life anyway.
9 Peter Caddick-Adams, Ten Armies in Hell.
10 Ennis, War Stories: Volume 1: Afterword.
12 Garth Ennis and John Higgins, War Story: D-Day Dodgers (New York: Vertigo, 2001).
14 Presumably Lovatt would have opted for Guinness or whiskey if they were not deployed in Italy.
15 Ennis and Higgins, War Story: D-Day Dodgers. In the afterword to War Stories: Vol. 1, Ennis notes that “Captain Lovatt’s recollection of the Oxford Union debate of 1933 is accurate.”