On Garth Ennis and Gary Erskine’s War Stories: Archangel

There’s such an obvious distinction to be made between the two, but there’s a lot of folks who consistently fail to do so. On the one hand, there’s the Second World War story as it’s regularly encountered in popular culture; shallow, stereotypical, ill-informed, content to plough on with the clichés of spectacle and wish fulfilment. On the other, there are those comparatively few tales concerned with the trials of recognisably human individuals as they’re challenged by unique and impossibly trying historical circumstances. Garth Ennis’s War Stories are all admirable examples of the latter breed, as thought-provoking and heartfelt as they’re thoroughly entertaining. Though he’s deeply immersed in the military as well as the social affairs of the period, warfare in itself isn’t a matter of fascination in tales such as Archangel. Instead, it’s his cast that Ennis is primarily concerned with, and it’s that which ensures that his War Stories carry an appeal and even an importance which the very idea of “war comics” might so easily, and so unfairly, obscure.

Pop culture’s relentless whittling away of the richness and complexity of the events of the Second World War appears to be a process which Garth Ennis finds exceptionally wearisome. In the easy shorthand of potboilers, war-porn documentaries and rainy-afternoon history projects, the war has become reduced to a progression of immediately-recognisable media abstractions, each with its own instantly recognisable conventions and easy-to-digest moral content; the Battle Of Britain and the Blitz, Pearl Harbour and Guadalcanal and Hiroshima, Churchill and Hitler, Roosevelt and Stalin, Dunkirk and D-Day, the Camps and the Resistance. By contrast, Ennis’s War Stories constantly and quite deliberately carry his readers far away from such over-simplified and trampled-flat scenarios. And so, Archangel might begin with a dogfight between Spitfires and Messerschmitts over the green fields and hedgerows of Southern England, which might seem to be remarkably familiar territory indeed. But the Battle of Britain’s long over in Archangel, and the reader soon realises that they’re witnessing a tale set in the comparatively ill-explored events of the following year, where a great many of the Few have fallen, and where the R.A.F. is marked by quiet resignation and undiagnosed trauma as well as by self-sacrifice and comradeship. It’s a vision of the War as formed from the memoirs of the people who actually fought it, from the evidence of the overwhelming mass of excellent and yet so often ignored scholarship on the period. What it isn’t is one more tired and idle-headed distillation of the most wellworn of clichés available to media-literate and yet historically ignorant storytellers.

Archangel is perhaps the most successful of all of the tales which Ennis wrote for his Vertigo-published “War Stories”. It succeeds in sidestepping all the cant and complacency and easy politics that’s so often present in stories concerned with the Second World War, and yet it does so without ever undermining either the justice of Britain’s cause or the fundamental decency and bravery of a great many of those who fought their way as best they could through the conflict. In that, it certainly is a challenge as to how the war is so often portrayed, and yet it isn’t in any way a polemic against the Allied commitment to the struggle itself. Those who object to the way in which the war’s so often been portrayed are often also concerned with challenging the legitimacy of the conflict itself and the powers that were responsible for pursuing it. If Ennis is clearly under no illusions about how egalitarian and efficient the British war effort actually was, he’s obviously nothing but the most sincere of respect for the sacrifices and achievements of the vast majority of the people who persevered through those days.

Archangel is a story inspired by the real-world, and consequently rather improbable, exploits of Flying Officer A.H. “Jackie” Burr. Burr’s wartime feats as a Hurricat pilot fighting to protect a merchant convoy headed to Russia had already served as the starting point for Tom Tully and Joe Colquhoun’s Johnny Red, one of Ennis’s favourite strips from the war comics of his youth. In Ennis’s hands, the historical record of Burr’s experiences allow him to present a story of doubt and heroism which appears to come from a quite different war to that which we’re used to seeing endlessly regurgitated. Events which would appear to be quite unbelievable in any typical tale of wartime derring-do are here presented in a fashion which makes them entirely convincing. For Archangel is so grounded in convincing detail and creditable characterisation that it never seems to exist solely as a sequence of ever-escalating crises leading inexorably to a barnstorming, audience-sating climax. And so, when Ennis’s character of Jamie MacKenzie succeeds in intimidating an entire flight of Luftwaffe bombers into dumping their torpedoes far from the convoy, his surprise and pleasure is ours. We’re not thinking how unlikely the whole business is so much as how unpredictably kind life can very occasionally prove itself to be. Similarly, when MacKenzie manages to survive a hopelessly fuel-light flight to safety across the waters from the convoy to the U.S.S.R., the reader is entirely relived rather than complacently expecting the outcome. The stories don’t work as war tales tend to, so their conflicts and conclusions are compelling even when they share something with the more numbingly familiar takes on the period.

It’s in presenting something of the uncertainty of the war as it would have been experienced by those of the time that Ennis’s work really hits its mark. Archangel isn’t a tale of events which feel as if they’re nothing but ancient history, long since settled and entirely predictable in hindsight. In taking us away from the commonplace and focusing on the lives of his small cast of touchingly-depicted individuals, Ennis constantly compels us to remember how chaotic and unpredictable his character’s lives are. Jamie MacKenzie finds himself expelled from his R.A.F squadron simply because his face doesn’t fit with his nerve-fried commanding officer, and, despite his excellent fighting record, he ends ups as the sole “volunteer” pilot attempting to protect a convoy with a plane which has no way of landing at sea once it’s been launched. MacKenzie’s life appears to be almost entirely out of his own control, and his tomorrows seems to be marked by the worst of all possible options. No matter how skillful and successful MacKenzie is, his future beyond the next round of aerial combat appears to have little to do with even the very best of his efforts.

Gary Erskine’s artwork constantly captures this sense of a deeply modest and honourable man caught up in circumstances which appear to persistently defeat him. It’s an achievement which begins in the remarkable opening full-page splash of Archangel, where the reader is presented with the entirely anarchic reality of close-quarters dog-fighting from the point-of-view of MacKenzie as he wrestles with his Spitfire’s controls. All we see of him in that first shot are his gloved hands, but from the off, he’s a man who’s struggling to stay in control and alive, and his behaviour when his fellows aren’t around is far less composed and unconcerned than it ever is in their company. The foreground of the page, which describes the fighter’s cockpit, is a relatively familiar and even comforting sight to the reader who’s been exposed to anything of the war and its aircraft. Everything is where we might expect it to be, appropriately ordered and effectively symmetrical. But beyond the windscreen is a freeze-frame of the disorder of a battle which mimics the experience of the time-slowing-shock which kicks in whenever a collision suddenly appears inevitable.

It’s a phenomenal achievement of a first page, and it appears to perfectly capture the brew of confusion and concentration and terror which pilots have consistently referred to in their recollections. Erskine’s composition is so precisely achieved that the eye seems to be perpetually carried from one flying obstacle to another, and the reader is suddenly aware that their own reflexes and skills would never be able to weave a path to safety through all of that. In its strange mixture of stillness and speed, order and its absence, Erskine’s page appears to serve as a close-up of the events depicted from afar in Paul Nash’s famous 1941 painting, The Battle of Britain. There’s that same sense of an entirely illusionary and strangely beautiful order arising from the simple act of staring at such a terrifying energetic and threatening affair, and a similar suggestion that any such an illusion is nothing but a nano-second away from disappearing again too.

There’s a great deal of that same tension – between the demands of the moment and those of the events which are hopefully beyond it – that’s reflected in the character of Jamie MacKenzie himself. A Spitfire pilot so worn down by the war that he believes himself to have “run out of dash”, MacKenzie’s become so habitualised to the endless fighting that he’s quite unable to cope with the uncertainty of anything beyond it. His life has collapsed to the business of doing “the right thing or you’ve had it  … No wondering, no doubting, no having to live with the uncertainty”. In that, he inhabits a world which appears to be summed up by the situation as shown in that very first page. Whether in the air or not, all MacKenzie feels he can do is survive the chaos until the chaos returns, hanging on as best he can while calculating how to cope with the madness around him. And yet, beyond the still and passing abstractions which mark the moment when the “right thing” has to be done, there are other patterns and more complex and human opportunities too, if he could only perceive them.

It’s remarkable how much Erskine succeeds in telling us of MacKenzie’s emotions without ever compromising the pilot’s essentially restrained and private nature. Free of the anachronisms which so many of the fictions of later eras have chosen to impose upon the women and men of the Second World War, Ennis and Erskine’s characters know nothing of entitlement, soul-baring, or inner children. Even MacKenzie’s attempts to express his doubts and fears carry an authentic sense of personal unease with them, as if both the emotions and the talking about them are at best necessary indulgences and at worst rather shameful weaknesses. Only Beth, his beloved “bloody woman” who lives outside of the circle of R.A.F. officers which MacKenzie almost exclusively inhabits, appears to know how to express her own feelings and live not just for the day, but for the days beyond it too. Serving touchingly but never sappily as the emotional core of MacKenzie’s existence, her own philosophy of life becomes his only at the moment at which his fuel runs out far above the Bering Sea and all his choices seem to have disappeared. It’s there, in a place where every hope is exhausted, that he discovers an ability to believe in the possibility of embracing life rather than capitulating before the likelihood of a fighter pilot’s always-imminent death.

And because that’s the real story here, and because all the aerial battles and seaborne disasters are in so many ways a means to further it rather than solely an end in themselves, Archangel stands as an exemplar of what the largely ignored genre of the war comic can still achieve. For Archangel is fiercely focused with a considerable measure of heart and skill on the problem of how to cope with the fact that tomorrow may not always have a place for us, and it’s hard to think of a more universal theme for a fiction of any kind. In the end, Ennis and Erskine’s story is one concerned with the empiricist’s solution to the problem of faith in the future. Sometimes the best that can be hoped for isn’t simply a day when everything doesn’t go entirely wrong. Occasionally, just occasionally, everything can go wonderfully well too, and that’s sometimes never so obvious as in the moment when every single slightly hopeful prospect seems to have been exhausted.

If Ennis and Erskine choose to avoid any portrayal of heroism which strays into the sentimental or the macho, they never attempt to deny its existence or underplay its significance.  The spontaneous outpouring of pride and hope on the part of merchantmen observing the catapulting of MacKenzie’s Hurricat into the skies above them is entirely convincing. The creators of Archangel may have no time for any pulpish definition of the heroic, but they’re also against the ideological conviction that we shouldn’t respect and be inspired by the bravery and self-sacrifice displayed by those who’ve risked their lives to preserve our own. MacKenzie himself is a man whose clearly capable of being terrified by the situations which he finds himself in day-after-day, as most sane individuals surely would be, and yet he’s as keen to hide his successes as he is to ensure that none of his colleagues are ever imposed upon by the fears that on occasion threaten to overwhelm him. A hero then, but one who’s so because of what he chooses to do rather than because of any superior heroic qualities beyond his admirable stoicism and his fortitude.

It’s a balancing act between the mindlessly conservative and the aggressively radical views of history which all of Ennis’s scripts concerned with World War Two maintain. In doing so, he allows his readers to enjoy these war-time tales without ever imagining that they’d want to be involved as combatants in the events that they’re witnessing. The seduction of the war story is that it can reduce the most terrible of times to a over-testosteroned daydream, in which the lives of those who’ve undergone challenges which most of us can barely imagine become reduced to a fantasy world of easy kills and violently noble deeds. In Archangel, we’re ferociously pleased that MacKenzie survives, but surely no-one would ever want to be in that character’s shoes. Ennis and Erskine celebrate the achievement of a character who chooses to step into the role of a warrior without ever portraying their protagonist as an indomitable hero. In doing so, they show their respect to the folks who lived something of the life which MacKenzie represents without ever glorifying anything of the horrors of the war or undermining its ultimate purpose and value.

There’s nothing at all glamorous about the business of a wartime convoy heading across the seas towards Archangel, largely unprotected from the bombers and submarines of the Nazi Empire. The lives of the tens of thousands of merchantmen who served during the Second World War were impossibly hard and their efforts recognised to a ridiculously limited degree by the nation which they so successfully struggled to keep alive. Yet Archangel, in a fashion which is itself modest and undemonstrative, reminds the reader of how impossibly demanding and dangerous those lives were, and of how admirable were the men who fulfilled their part in that role, whether as Hurricat fighter pilots or not. Not exactly the stuff of one-dimensional heroes then, after the typical Hollywood fashion, but certainly that of men and women who behaved heroically, as their duty demanded.

The last of my current pieces intended to touch upon the concerns of the New Year, Archangel is the perfect inspirational antidote for anyone who finds their behaviour running short of their resolutions just a few weeks into 2012. Though it never under-estimates how cruel and difficult things can be, Ennis and Erskine’s tale does emphasise something that it’s easy to forget when the New Year reveals itself to be little different from the old: the improbable is always possible.

Garth Ennis and Gary Erskine’s Archangel is available in the War Stories vol. 2 collection from Vertigo Comics.

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Colin Smith is currently Q Magazine’s comics columnist and blogs at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and on Tumbler.

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