Garth Ennis’s Knights of the Sky, Part One: The Phantom Eagle

Posted by on January 19th, 2011 at 12:01 AM

Garth Ennis is best known for writing supernatural thrillers like Hellblazer and Preacher.  But he’s also written several comics about aerial combat — dog fights, bombing runs and the lives pilots lead when they’re on the ground with the rest of us.  He’s explored the subject from several angles: sometimes following a new recruit through the first weeks of his military career; sometimes portraying veteran pilots as they return to duty.  He has set one story during the First World War, one during the Spanish Civil War and a third during a science-fiction space war some time in the future; but most take place during World War II.

The plot is usually tied to some specific, real-world historical event, and because Ennis’s history is pretty good, the stories largely de-romanticize warfare.  Ennis ends War is Hell: The First Flight of the Phantom Eagle with a quote from real-world fighter pilot Oliver Stewart:

Bar-room brawling, bicycle chains and broken bottles have a closer affinity to the early fighting in the air than the chivalrous, formalized, knightly encounters with lance and epee to which it has been likened. . . .  To those who studied it closely enough, the limitless open sky became as good a place to lie in wait for an unsuspecting passer-by as a darkened alley off a sleazy street, and the sudden act of violence, when it came, could be as deadly.

Stewart provides the moral to the story, but the quote is almost superfluous given what came before.

Phantom Eagle places the classic Fawcett/Marvel hero in World War I, and stresses how badly his heroic ideals and his peculiarly American arrogance clash with the nature of a big, bloody, pointless war.  Ennis begins, on the very first page, by describing the reality of air combat:

Pilots flew in open cockpits, lacking radios and breathing apparatus.  At twenty thousand feet the cold alone could kill them.  So could oxygen starvation.  Airframes were built of wood and canvas, held taut with wire, repaired with glue.  Engines failed and guns misfired. . . .  No parachutes were carried, senior commanders fearing aircraft would be abandoned prematurely.  The men who flew were very young. . . .  Most died before they even saw the enemy, let alone got a chance to fire their guns.

Into this mess steps Karl Kaufmann, an eager American with German parents and a supremely naive sense of what the war will be like.  Howard Chaykin draws Kaufmann as a big, broad-shouldered, square-jawed, wide-smiling doofus.  The character’s arrogance shows in the way he carries his massive body, and his callowness shows in his face.

On his first mission up, Kaufmann is reluctant to fire until his opponent has a chance to “make a fight of it.”  When he finally uses his guns, the German pilot is decapitated and the “Phantom Eagle” heroically throws up in his cockpit.

Later he confesses to his commander, “I guess I thought there’d be . . .  more heroism. . .  more chivalry. . . You know, like knights in olden times.  Like we’re the knights of the sky.  You face the other guy in a fair fight, you do it with honor.”

His commander quickly puts him right:  “Lieutenant, if I ever see you behaving honorably or fairly up there, I’ll shoot you down myself. . . .  I’d have thought climbing into a clapped-out pup two or three times a day was quite heroic enough.”

Eventually the real nature of the situation begins to sink in.  Having seen most of his squad wiped out, he reflects:

“It just carries on, doesn’t it?  The war, I mean.  It doesn’t matter if Franklin was a Lord, or you don’t want to be an American, or I . . . want what I want.  The war couldn’t give a fig for what we care about.  People come and go, but it just carries on.  Rolls over us.”

This is the essence of Ennis’s view on war:  However just the cause, however honorable the fighters — war has its own logic and its own demands.  It is utterly indifferent to individual lives or human values.  War subjects everything to its own destructive force.  And survival or sacrifice, even victory or defeat, are small matters compared to the overwhelming violence, the thorough negation, that war creates, and imposes, and is.

Images ©2008 Marvel Characters, Inc.

Next: Four Views of Spain

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One Response to “Garth Ennis’s Knights of the Sky, Part One: The Phantom Eagle”

  1. […] The most involved is a six-part series for The Comics Journal on Garth Ennis’s stories of ariel combat. […]