Ennis (the Preacher series) pays tribute to the Royal Navy pilots who flew Fairey Swordfish biplanes to stunning underdog victories in WWII in The Stringbags (Dead Reckoning, Apr.).
What attracts you to war comics?
I grew up in Northern Ireland. Due to a quirk of distribution, we didn’t get many superhero comics—so I found myself reading a great deal of war comics. Once I realized that they were based, broadly speaking, on real life, that took me into an interest in military history and eventually to writing my own. There’s something about the epic quality, particularly of WWII stories, of the far-reaching effects that the war has had on life even up to the present day. More than any other genre, war stories bring out the extremes of human behavior on the very knife-edge of experience.
Why did you want to tell the story of the Fairey Swordfish pilots?
Flying in open-cockpit planes in conditions in the mid-Atlantic, or winter in the Mediterranean, against giant German and Italian battleships seems beyond David and Goliath. It was an incredible mismatch. The planes look as if they belong somewhere else, somewhen else.
How much of the story is fictionalized?
The three lead characters—Archie, Ollie, and Pops—and their occasional nemesis Captain Shanks are invented. Everything else is pretty much true. Someone did the things you read about in the story at some point. To avoid disrespecting any of the real figures who took part in these actions, it seemed smart to create fictional characters, who readers can stay with throughout the plot. I was also anxious to avoid that kind of dry documentary feel that can creep in when you’re writing about real-life events.
I’ve read military history most of my life, but I did consult pilots’ accounts, crews’ accounts, and other sources. P.J. Holden, the artist, also doesn’t stint on research and filled in details. Those British roundels they paint on the aircraft can be quite tricky.
What are some of your favorite war comics?
Again, the distribution problems where I grew up meant we got almost no American comics, so my favorites are all British. Charley’s War—the story of a 16-year-old lad who joins the British army during WWI, in time for the Battle of the Somme in 1916, written by Pat Mills and drawn by Joe Colquhoun—I believe to be the finest comic strip ever produced. I’m glad to say it’s back in print.
What do you hope readers take away from the book?
It’s a tremendous story of courage and sacrifice. And, of course, it’s about men who fought the forces of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy and gave us the world that we have now. No matter how much of a hash we seem to be attempting to make of it, they are the ones who gave it to us. Things could have been far worse, and men like that saw to it that they weren’t.