Vol. 3? Yes, the original two volumes of “War Stories” were originally released through Vertigo as a series of eight one-shots well over a decade ago. This was when I was going through a phase of picking up single issues and they’re all in my collection in that form. Those one-shots represent the first “pure” war stories written by Garth Ennis for the American comics market. By this I mean that he had previously slipped some stories about fighting in wars into his runs on “Hellblazer” and “Preacher,” these were the first comics he delivered without having to deal with shoehorning the subject matter into some other title. They also represent some of his strongest comics work, particularly in the latter half, showcasing many different perspectives from the second world war, fully realized characters, and a willingness to keep his sophomoric tendencies well in check to avoid distracting from the stories’ themes.
This third volume isn’t in the same league. If what I said in the paragraph above didn’t clue you in, then let me make it clear that I’m onboard for any war story Ennis has to tell. He has told a lot of great ones over the years. The ones collected in this volume? While they make for a decent read, there’s only one here that stands as a really worthwhile addition to his canon.
Castles in the Sky kicks off the volume and is an odd mix of tones. On one hand, it showcases the horrors of flying in a British bomber as Sgt. Leonard Wetmore sees planes explode on the airfield before takeoff, German fighters shooting down or flying straight into his comrades’ planes, and his fellow crewmembers being shot up so much that they have to be hosed out of their gun compartments after the battle. Then you have the innocent courtship between Sgt. Wetmore and a British war widow and her son -- who HATES Yanks -- and some mild culture clash comedy via the “Instructions For American Servicemen in Britain” manual.
There’s nothing inherently wrong in this mix, but I was left with the feeling that Ennis should’ve just focused on Wetmore’s experience on the bomber crew and built a focused narrative out of that. Those scenes are the most interesting and compelling parts of the story, yet their effectiveness is compromised by the recurring cutbacks to the character’s romantic life. Artists Matt Martin and Keith Burns also handle the military and action scenes a lot better than they do with the civilian ones. Particularly in Burns’ case as he’s got a great eye for physical details -- watch for the “For Adolf” inscription on a bomb being torn out of a plane in one scene -- but less so for dealing with actual humans.
Children of Israel is unique in that it’s about a country and a war that Ennis hasn’t touched upon in all of his writing up to this point. Taking place at the Golan Heights in Israel at the start of the Yom Kippur War, we see the fighting through the eyes of an unnamed sergeant who commands one of the many tanks defending the region. It’s through his experiences that we learn enough about the history of wars in Israel up to this point to prepare us for the magnitude of what’s coming. While Israel has faced down attacks from Egypt and Syria before, this time the sergeant and his men will witness what their attackers can do with years of Soviet training and supplies behind them.
When I mentioned earlier that there was one story here that was worthy of being added to the canon of good war stories by Ennis, this is the one I was talking about. The writer, along with artist Tomas Aira, do an incredible job of conveying the enormity of what the Israelis were up against with the combined Egypt/Syria onslaught, while also showcasing the kind of quick thinking that was needed in order to triumph over it. Particularly in the case of the sergeant whose utter implacability is the foundation for this story. Yes, the story is firmly on the side of Israel in this conflict, but it doesn’t neglect the larger questions of the cycle of violence that they’re helping to perpetuate here. When one of the tank crew compares the attacks by the Arabs to Hitler and the Holocaust, another reminds him that if someone keeps bringing up the Shoah whenever someone starts something then this will truly never end.
Fittingly, we come back to the Nazis for the final story in this collection, The Last German Winter. Aira illustrates this story as well, which begins as a number of German civilians are fleeing through the countryside and are set upon by Russian forces. A small family is saved by a Panzer crew who go on to escort them through the countryside. Though it may appear that the Russians are the villains of this story, it soon becomes that the truth is a bit more complex (and even cyclical) than that.
The first of Ennis’ “War Stories” was called “Johann’s Tiger” and was about a tank commander who had done some very bad things in the war and was determined to make sure his crew got out of it alive before he went out to claim the death he felt he deserved. It’s kind of the same here, even if the added dynamic of the rescued family and some romantic complications with the daughter keep things from feeling like a straight retread. There are still some interesting parts about the dangers of finding unmanned vehicles in war and keeping one’s sanity during wartime, but this is probably the most formulaic of the stories in this particular collection.
While I’m always up for a “War Story” from Ennis, this collection represents one of his less notable efforts even with “Children of Israel.” In fact, anyone coming straight to this volume from the first two will probably feel particularly let down after experiencing the quality of those original eight stories. Vol. 3 isn’t a bad read, but only those who are already onboard with Ennis’ war comics will likely find any degree of satisfaction here.