When I saw the announcement for The Stringbags, after the obvious glee at a new Garth Ennis comic, the publisher stood out; publisher Dead Reckoning is the graphic novel imprint of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Naval Institute Press. So war comics but for war history enthusiasts, which is about the only way to phrase that demographic without making them sound exceptionally callous. And something about Ennis working with them clicked, potentially; he’d finally have a place—theoretically—with a matching concern for war comics.
And The Stringbags is even better than I’d hoped. It’s not just Ennis getting to do a longer form—a hundred and eighty-ish pages split into three parts, so it’s the equivalent of eight issues? Only without forced twenty-two page chapters. Ennis gets to take his time. Each part of Stringbags has text exposition, giving historical context, sometimes bridging between scenes; it’s great text too. Ennis writes history with a mix of enthusiasm and flair—he takes it seriously, explaining his creative choices with facts in the afterword (because he too seems to recognize the potential of the project)—so even as you wait to find out what’s happening to the heroes, you don’t really want the lecture to end. Ennis is concise and fact-filled, with an intention of making those facts count not fill. The historical context stuff often has very little to do with the eventual story content—with major exceptions, sure—but there’s also a history of the Blitz just to set up a scene occurring during the Blitz but its content unrelated. It affects the initial read pace in the first part, then changes throughout. The second part, which has that Blitz opening, ends up being the shortest as far as the text exposition goes but has the most historical contextualizing in it. You get the feel for the time period, knowing what Ennis has explained, seeing how the characters interact with each other in it, with the setting. It works out beautifully and, really, could be Ennis’s thing going forward with this kind of work. He’s finally comfortable enough telling the history and making a story in it. He’s had war story heights before, some quite high and even more effective than Stringbags, but he’s never done the history amid the historical fiction so well before. It’s fiction with straight non-fiction tangents.
Stringbags is the story of these particular planes—the Fairey Swordfish, which was a cheaper, older plane used by the Royal Navy—WWII, at least in so far as it relates to the planes (like where they were used), and then the three fictional leads. In that order of importance, but the fliers don’t make any sense without the planes and the war and vice versa. Like these planes were so slow barrage balloon cables couldn’t cut them fast enough. Enemy ships and planes’ guns weren’t timed for them. So the pilots are experiencing the events around them through this slower paced lens; in the first story, they sit back to watch the British bomb Italian ships and are in almost pure wonderment. Ennis has this fantastic narrative distance to play with; the three leads are in the war, but detached from it, both by the speed of their plane and then of their combined circumstances. Captain Archie is a mediocre pilot with goofy man-slut (but pretty thirties chaste) Ollie for a navigator and then gunner Pops, who’s been in the Royal Navy for ten years without a promotion. Archie gets ambitious, which changes their destiny and gives Ennis some particular points of view to examine the events through. They’re occasionally stereotypes so Ennis can get across the average—besides the three, there’s only one other recurring character; everyone else is purely functional—which contributes to the whole feel of the setting.
So, really good work from Ennis. Like I said, he’s figured out how to do this comic. Because the heroes aren’t just trying to get through their missions, they’re trying to get through the war, through life. The third part—heavy on history text third part—is also the culmination of a distance C plot in the first part and then a still distant B plot in the second. Ennis does it subtly. Or maybe he doesn’t and it just seems subtle because he’s got this inherent distraction of the history text.
I’ve read Stringbags three times and will definitely read it again. But reading it each time, once Ennis and PJ Holden establish the comic’s narrative language, this anticipatory enthusiasm kicks in. Stringbags is always good in the right way and Ennis doesn’t restrain himself in finding ways.
Holden’s just as important. Stringbags has details without being too detailed. There’s a fluidity to the people, particularly when they’re talking or listening, and a different kind of fluidity with the action art. Holden’s very affable with the characterizations too, so it’s fun to see how the leads react to things. Their expressions, occasionally gestures. It’s fun. And the book can get away with the lightness because these guys are removed from their surroundings. Technologically detached, which fits them.
The Stringbags is, one more time, awesome. Even if it doesn’t kick off a new phase of Garth Ennis’s creative career, it provides another supporting pillar in it.