Monday, March 17, 2008

War is Hell: The First Flight of the Phantom Eagle #1

If there's one thing Garth Ennis doesn't fear, it's boundaries – the concept of doing something that's out of fashion, or something that hasn't been done before, it doesn't faze him. War is Hell is a prime example: the shelves aren't exactly overflowing with stories about the world's first fighter pilots, confusedly strafing the skies during World War I before the inclusion of parachutes were deemed appropriate (higher-ups feared that the aircraft would be abandoned too quickly if pilots were provided an escape route). But Ennis has a story to tell, and when he's motivated like this, it's best not to get into his way.

He's clearly done a good bit of research, too, because while the storytelling itself may be fictional, its backdrop is draped in authenticity. Bits and pieces of trivia, tidbits and facts dating back nearly a full century are scattered about this issue, and they do nothing but enhance the story. While the actual storytelling is about as subtle as a butcher knife, coated with the writer's trademark gallows humor, (the personality and ultimate fate of Captain Clark is pure Ennis) that historical backdrop gives it the right dosage of reality to keep things grounded and generally readable.

One of the writer's longstanding faults is his passion for foreign accents and regional dialects, and that's especially noticeable here. When a pair of British officers share a conversation near the issue's outset, it's bathed in a combination of military jargon and eastern European lingo that I found borderline illegible. That the dialog is so tough to follow is a bad thing, too, because there's so goddamn much of it. When the action is focused on the skies and the war taking place up there, it's pure adrenaline and straight action, but once the squadron's wheels touch grass, it's wall to wall discourse.

Handling the artistic chores is Howard Chaykin, who I've had absolutely no time for recently. His work on Wolverine was so bad, I audibly groaned when I opened this issue and discovered that he was the artist. Surprisingly, though, his work within this issue is much, much stronger than his efforts with the hairy mutant. Chaykin is still a long ways from my good graces, and his panels are still very difficult to read on a few occasions here, but he's at least proven that he does have something to contribute. While he often struggles to accurately portray a human subject, his work with aircraft and the landscape is absolutely gorgeous. When he illustrates the unbridled madness of a dogfight - explosions, gunfire and bodies floating around the page in a chaotic slow dance - the result is both horrific and beautiful. It's obvious that the skies are where his passion lies, and it's a shame that he doesn't get more of an opportunity to show that off in this issue.

Ultimately, your opinion of The First Flight of the Phantom Eagle is going to depend on your opinion of Garth Ennis. If you share his black sense of humor, as I do, you'll laugh out loud a handful of times throughout the issue. If you don't, well, you might want to turn your attention elsewhere, because despite the aid of some great research and a compelling subject, much of the issue exists solely to set up the next morbid punchline. It's not the writer's best work, but it's an entertaining and original jaunt through the history books all the same. I'd recommend you borrow it if just to try something different, although your mileage may vary.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 3.5

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