As a Garth Ennis war comic, I’m not sure Nightingale is the best War Story. As a War Story, it’s the best comic. Ennis’s script gets out of the way and lets David Lloyd’s art do its terrible magic. Because Nightingale is a nightmare, not just because it takes place on rough, cold waters in World War II, giving Lloyd all sorts of opportunities for literal stomach-churning art of the water. Ennis also digs in on it with the script, the words making the imagery all the more unsettling.
To get the clarification out of the way—it’s either the best or second best War Story (so far). Ennis’s script is so straightforward it’s almost loose. This story’s narrator is the first officer of a British warship, the Nightingale. She’s on convoy protection duty, and, until now, the ship’s had extraordinary luck. We know the luck will run out because the story opens with the ship at the bottom of the sea, the first officer narrating from beyond the grave.
Now, it’s never a horror comic. There’s never the slightest supernatural hint, but Lloyd’s dark, turgid panels create this disquieting effect, even as the first officer may be narrating a dream, not reality. Ennis doesn’t imply any hopefulness exactly, just potential for a metaphoric sinking. When the first officer returns home on leave, he has a nightmare, for instance. There’s a particularly phenomenal sequence of panels showing downed ship after downed ship cluttering the ocean floor. It is a nightmare, one Lloyd and Ennis do a stunning job conveying.
Things start going wrong for the ship when they’re ordered to abandon the commercial freighters during a mission. The admiralty has heard a German super-ship is out of port, and the protocol is scattering the convoy will make it harder on the Germans. Except that plan just leads to the Germans picking off the freighters and their civilian crews as the Nightingale’s crew just listens to the distress calls.
The crew then becomes convinced they’re cursed for their dereliction of duty despite it being ordered (and double-ordered) from on high.
Ennis keeps the script very simple; he’s got far more unexplained jargon than usual, with the first officer’s narration at times hurried and erratic. The memories are too rapid, the narration in a race to keep up with Lloyd’s panels as they flash forward; beautiful pacing in the panels, just breathtaking work from Lloyd. He’s the reason Nightingale’s so spectacular; another artist, same script, it’d have been successful, though nowhere near as much. Lloyd’s rough, queasy art makes Ennis’s—not in a bad way—obvious narrative hit harder and, frankly, more viciously. Nightingale’s not mean exactly, but it’s definitely hostile.
And absolutely first-rate war comics. It’s easily the most formally ambitious of the War Story issues, making its success even more accomplished.
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