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Bargain Bag – War Is Hell: The First Flight Of The Phantom Eagle

War Is Hell #1–5 by Garth Ennis and Howard Chaykin

Another Gosh! bargain pack (£5 for the five issues) and a real bargain – this is really good stuff from Ennis and Chaykin. Ennis is well known for his love of old war comics, and has been doing as many of his own as he can create (the majority of his output at Dynamite at the moment are war comics). There is a good reason for this – he is very good at writing war stories; the camaraderie, the horror, the black humour, the sacrifices, the sense of honour are all themes that populate his work.

In this story, Karl Kaufmann is an American who flies to the front lines of the First World War in his own plane to join up to a squadron of American pilots under British command. He is naïve, idealistic and unprepared for the realities of warfare – Ennis provides an introduction to the harshness of being a fighter pilot in its infancy: planes made of wood and wire, no breathing apparatus or parachutes, most dying before even seeing the enemy. Ennis shows Kaufmann’s development and his relationships with the various officers and men and what it means to be a pilot, doing so with skill and humour (the ‘buggering incident’ is one such example, as is the tattoo).

After seeing Chaykin’s work on slightly lesser material, it’s great to see him working on something that is really good and to see him doing a great job as well. He draws the horror of war with great skill, but the majority of the book is about people talking to each other (Ennis has a lovely way with dialogue, revealing story and character without it coming across as flat exposition), and Chaykin’s facial expressions and storytelling are a perfect match for the tone and material. Of course, Chaykin draws Kaufmann as his typical brown-haired, square-jawed hero type, but it fits that he should look like that, and his style was always more suited to the early half of the previous century anyway.

I don’t know how Marvel justified the money they must have paid for such top talent on a book that presumably didn’t sell very well, but I’m glad they did: this is a very good comic book.

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