By Garth Ennis, PJ Holden, Kelly Fitzpatrick and Rob Steen
Published by Dead Reckoning on 30th May 2020
Review by Luke Williams
The latest war comic from Garth Ennis and regular artistic partner PJ Holden, a hefty 192-page graphic novel in this case, the “Stringbags” title refers to the affectionate nickname the crews gave the Fairey Swordfish.
The Swordfish was a carrier based, wood / metal framed , canvas clad biplane torpedo bomber that entered service with the Fleet Air Arm in 1935 and was obsolete at the start of World War Two. Despite this, it saw sterling, often legendary service throughout the conflict, even outliving its replacement the Fairey Albacore (otherwise known as the “Applecore”).
According to Ennis, the Swordfish gained its nickname from its ability to carry anything and everything, like an old string shopping bag, but a bit more lethal than fruit and veg – torpedos, rockets, bombs, mines and depth charges.
Primitive but hard wearing and adaptable, the Swordfish was involved in many of the biggest and most significant naval actions of World War Two, crewed by incredibly courageous young men, flying in freezing conditions, poor communication even between the crew with only canvas between them and certain death.
The Stringbags story follows a crew of three, Pops, Ollie and Archie – three misfits, dogged by bad luck, socially ham fisted, unpopular, unable to fit in and unwelcome with their CO. We follow them through three major air naval battles of World War Two.
They almost miss the Fleet Air Arm’s decisive attack on the Italian fleet at Taranto; participate on the attack on the infamous German battleship and convoy raider the Bismarck following its destruction of the pride of the British fleet, HMS Hood; and, finally, the attempt to intercept the heavily escorted German battleships Scharnhost, Gnesienau and Prinz Eugen off the south coast of England in their “Channel dash” to safety.
Holden is an old hand at the war story lark. His referencing is exemplary. His characters are expressive, almost to the point of being cartoony, coming across like a gritty Phillip Bond, but his vehicles are authentic and solid looking; and war-worn, haggard, backgrounds evoke the avgas/sea air scented, sea air, smokey and unglamorous life of the Fleet Air Arm.
Your reviewer has read an advanced reading copy of the book, part coloured, part gray scaled and part unadorned line art. The colour that is there is understated and atmospheric, but I’d have been equally happy to read this in black and white.
Ennis’s dialogue is realistic, the characters likeable and sympathetic, although if you wanted to be critical, you could argue both they and their roles have been seen in other Ennis strips. He avoids glamourising a terrible period in our history, whilst also steering clear of pontificating.
Unusually, Ennis provides an afterword explaining the decisions he made with the plot, the historical events and minor incidents he adopted and adapted to tell the story.
This is an unusual format for comics, particularly in a minority genre, and not cheap. But it’s beautifully presented worthy of anyone’s attention. More power to Dead Reckoning’s elbow.
Garth Ennis has been writing comics since 1989. Credits include Preacher, The Boys (both adapted for TV), Hitman and successful runs on The Punisher and Fury for Marvel Comics. He is particularly known for his war comics, including War Stories, Battlefields, Out of the Blue, Sara, and a recent revival of the classic British series Johnny Red. Originally from Northern Ireland, Ennis now lives in New York City with his wife, Ruth.
PJ Holden is a Belfast-based comic artist. Best known for his work for 2000AD on “Judge Dredd”, over the last twenty years he’s also drawn “Rogue Trooper”, Robocop/Terminator, James Bond: M, World of Tanks, and Battlefields. He is the co-creator of Dept. of Monsterology and Numbercruncher. He is married to Annette and has two children, Thomas and Nathan. You can also find him on Twitter @pauljholden
Kelly Fitzpatrick is a Hugo nominated comic book colorist and illustrator. She has worked on everything from Kickstarter and indie publications to DC graphic novels. Kelly spends all of her free time doting on her dog, Archie as well as training dogs, doing yoga and aerial acrobatics, and self-publishing her own books. Find Kelly on Twitter | Instagram | Tumblr
Rob Steen has lettered comics for all major comic book companies. He is also the illustrator of the children’s book series Flanimals, written by Ricky Gervais, and Erf, written by Garth Ennis.
Dead Reckoning is a publisher of graphic novels and an imprint of the Naval Institute Press located in Annapolis, Maryland. They publish nonfiction and fiction with a special focus on military and naval history, military and naval biography, history, and stories of the high seas. The publisher is committed to publishing new and established talents from the worlds of both independent and traditional comics while bringing the rich complexities of history and military service to an enthusiastic, sophisticated readership.
The Naval Institute Press is the publishing arm of the U.S. Naval Institute, an independent, non-partisan, non-profit, professional military membership association. Through Dead Reckoning, the Naval Institute seeks to broaden the community of those who understand the history, dedication, and experiences of all who serve.