Monday, April 13, 2009

War is hell - the First flight of the Phantom Eagle

Last year, Marvel published the "Phantom Eagle" mini-series as a part of it's "mature readers" Max imprint. Featuring covers by John Cassaday, the series united longtime war stories enthusiast Garth (Preacher) Ennis with industry veteran Howard (American Flagg) Chaykin. The result was a 5-issue mini-series with a set of very unique creative goals set for itself.

1. War is hell

As part of it's agenda, the editorial behind Marvel's Max imprint thought it wise to update the trademarks to a couple of decades old genre comics, such as "War is hell" and "Dead of night". The latter turned out to be a moniker for a series of mostly unconnected mini-series trying to re imagine Marvel's horror characters for today's audience, but the former didn't so far yield any follow-ups. For all intents and purposes, so far it remains but a subtitle for the Ennis and Chaykin series.

2. the First flight of Phantom Eagle

Yet, despite "the Hood" and "Alias" being among the first projects Marvel Max projects, the imprint has since mostly avoided being used as a platform for creator-owned characters. Thus, when writer Garth Ennis first proposed the idea for a story about Great war pilots, the editor Nick Lowe had to try and find a suitable company owned character.

Eventually, the little known war ace Phantom Eagle ended up being used as a vehicle for the story. The character's back story mostly consisted of his original appearance in 1968, which suited Ennis. Taking the basic ideas behind Phantom Eagle's origin, Ennis reportedly set out to do additional research for the project.

3. Garth Ennis, the writer

Reading Ennis' work, it's always been obvious that he is a history and military enthusiast. Even the series with heavy supernatural elements, like "Hellblazer" and "Preacher", featured whole issues that had little to do with their protagonists, instead spotlighting memorable war stories. On "Hitman" he even went so far as to mirror some of his favourite movies with an extended homage to "Kelly's heroes", recasting the famous film using DC's classically bizarre "Haunted tank" iconography.

DC was receptive to his way of doing things, giving the writer a chance to revisit the later career of the German Great War pilot "Enemy ace" in a prestige format series. Following this, the Vertigo imprint was open to allow the writer to write effectively a series of creator-owned one shots under the title "War stories".

Several years later, he was tying up his four year long tenure on Marvel Max's highest profile title, "the Punisher", with, appropriately, a story calling back to the Vietnam war conflict. This overlapped with his commitment to finally write the "Phantom eagle" mini-series, which was to be published following his departure from the ongoing title. Marvel counted on Ennis' familiarity with the historical events, but it's another source that seems to have left a much more direct influence on his script.

Nowhere in the promotional material was it mentioned that "Aces high", Jack Gold's 1976 film ended up being the biggest inspiration for the project. The mini-series mirrors most of the movie's plot point by point, with Phantom Eagle and his little known back story being the most notable addition to the Malcolm McDowell-starring feature. This should come as no surprise, remembering Garth Ennis' tendency to stick close to his inspirations, but it brings about comparisons that may well be to detriment to Marvel's series.

In retrospect, it's obvious that Ennis couldn't have drawn much inspiration from the 1968 mystery man aviator, but he still manages to elevate Phantom Eagle to the status of a fleshed-out character. To Ennis' fans this should come as no surprise, as the writer always excelled at realistic characterisation and natural dialogue. In fact, some of the comics' most memorable male bonding dynamics come from the relationships he set up and fully developed in "Hitman" and "Preacher", so that the camaraderie between the pilots comes off as very believable. Phantom Eagle's colleagues are all new multi-faceted characters, with the drama aided by the fact that the reader isn't at any point sure if they will survive the next aerial fight, such is the unique standpoint they find themselves in.

The series alternates between the dialogue-heavy scenes featuring the aforementioned base staff interacting with the unique lead character, and fast-paced action sequences filled with shock and suspense. This gives Ennis a unique chance to develop Phantom Eagle in the brief moments of his highly-dangerous flight experiences, while showing his continuing maturation through the eyes of his fellow officers as they struggle to make sense of their lives between missions.

The fast-pace of the story and it's relative brevity could make for some confusing moments by the reader not accustomed to Ennis' style of writing and the particular story setting. Ennis makes the most of the minimalistic format, but some of the characters still remain as little more than caricatures, which does not go far to making the reader care for their sudden deaths. Coupled with the period language, the lack of space leaves the book with some scenes that potentially make more sense upon rereading.

Still, the work does not suffer from the stylistic choices, as Phantom eagle's character arc works very successfully, leading up to the last chapter that reveals the mysteries of his past as the character comes full circle in his understanding of the horrors of the war. Similar to the approach taken by Jason Aaron on his "Other side" mini-series, Ennis paints yet more realistic portrayal of a war hero, learning to live with the seemingly endless war in ways both tragic, and times comical.

Faced with the limited space to present his impression of Great war aviators, Ennis had to leave out some of the background details that made up the experience. Still, the opening page sets up the experience so well, that the little particularities always keep amassing around the pilot's calling, but without calling too much attention to themselves. Naturally, there is a heavy focus on character and plot, but the script keeps asking the artist to present the experience from all points.

4. Howard Chaykin, the artist

Chaykin's art only recently started coming out on the regular bases again, after a long spell when he was focused on writing for television shows. During those years he continued working in comics almost exclusively in a co-writer capacity, with David Tischmann presumably scripting over his story concepts. The veteran writer-artist went back to pencilling on a regular basis with DC's short-lived "Hawkgirl" revamp, and quickly followed suit to work on Marvel's "Blade", "Wolverine" and "Punisher War Journal". 

Somewhere in his busy schedule, Chaykin found the time to collaborate with Garth Ennis. His involvement with the mini-series about aviator is again no surprise to his fans, due to his previous involvement in reestablishing DC's WW2 flying aces comic "Blackhawks" for the modern audience. The veteran artist had by 2008 went through several revisions of his signature style, but the Marvel Max series ended up being most similar to his then-current work for the publisher.

Tackling a period-piece mini-series comes with a heavy dose of research, and nowhere is it most apparent than in a work of the penciller. Despite having to draw a complete set of new character designs, Chaykin had to take care to paint every single detail by using whatever reference he had available, and integrate it all into his own style, while worrying about the storytelling choices inherent in bringing someone else's script to life. This kind of time-consuming commitment is rare for American comic book pencillers, who mostly stick to working in the superhero genre, thereby reusing the same iconography over and over.

Chaykin solves some of these problems with the action sequences, using high altitudes as an excuse to sometimes pencil simpler backgrounds, but even then he was left with a very particular storytelling challenge. Due to the static nature of images in a comic book, the car chace scenes usually end up being confusing and are very rarely depicted, which makes his task in drawing a story filled with aerial combat sequences seem almost insurmountable. Being a professional with decades of experience, the artist manages to guide the reader's eye in an expert manner through even the most complicated scenes, featuring multiple air crafts maneuvering all at the same time. Interestingly, Chaykin and Brian Reber, credited as color artist, decided to render some of the vehicles using computer graphics models, while being careful never to depict this way the main planes during the crucial sequences.

The particular special effects are most pronounced in the strange hue of the mechanics clothing, that distinguishes them from the pilots which the story's centered around. Despite the coloring, the special effects seemingly reappear mostly in the textures on the wallpapers and photos. The effects call to themselves when contrasted with Chaykin's appropriately gritty and thick-lined art. Thankfully the use of photos to replace backgrounds is very seldom used, and almost only when depicting the trees seen through the windows in the barracks.

As for the scenes featuring the pilots' witty conversations, Chaykin is careful to constantly change the angle, depicting them with diversity that would have made the dogfight sequences very chaotic. The long dialogues are thus brought to the reader in a very realistic way, as the characters emote all their rage and stress, under the formally reserved facade, leading more often then not to humorous situations. Chakyin renders all of these with the same skill, but his penchant for square-jawed men unfortunately calls too much of intention to itself during at some points. There is no real fear of confusing the main officers, as they are all distinguished by their hair-colour and facial hair stylings, but the artist remains true to his style even when some more diversity could have been potentially called for.

Nevertheless, tasked with drawing such a complicated and unique project, Chaykin succeeds at what's most important, bringing a cohesion to the mini-series' look, that sets it apart from similiar works. The reader is never lulled into a sense of comfort, as the down and dirty life in the base, as depicted by Chaykin, offers little chance of escape, with the bloody air fights being most often the source of quick death for both the allies and the enemy. It is thus, in bringing to page the most graphic elements of the conflict, that the brutality of war leaves it's mark on the reader. Even the silliest of the put-downs that the officers arrange for one another, doesn't work only to depict the inexperience of the young pilot, but as to show the continued gravity of the situation that surrounds his coming of age in the hostile environment.

Chaykin uses the space provided him to paint the portrait of the Phantom eagle's maturation from the over the top cocksure pilot that plays down his role in the conflict, to his eventual rise in the ranks, due to experience and, even more often, survivor's luck. The character's impulsive bursts and buffoonish manner give way to a much more pragmatic, war hardened pilot, without ever feeling too abrupt, despite the short time the story takes place in. Ironically, this also means dispensing with the character's original look, and most of the setup, to give way for the realistic portrayal of an allied pilot in the early days of war.

Surely, despite the many different goals the editorial set for the creators, the most important message comes through loud and clear, echoing the title, while providing the reader with the experience as entertaining as it is tragically realistic.

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