Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

17 February 2010

The Quarter Bin: War Is Hell: The First Flight of the Phantom Eagle #1

Trade paperbacks and — God forbid — hardbacks are a big risk; dropping $14.99 to $34.99 on material you’re not sure about can lead to buyer’s remorse and bitter, bitter recriminations. Why didn’t someone warn you that Captain America and the Falcon, v. 1: Two Americas was so bad? A sample would have warned you, but you had to order the whole thing.

Well, I’m not made of money either. So I’m trying out that sampling approach in what I hope will be a new feature, The Quarter Bin. Recent comics that have lower promotional prices, are Free Comic Book Day giveaways, or I have found in that holy of holies, the Quarter Bin, get a quick review and a recommendation on whether it might be worthwhile to pick up the trade. So, without further ado, we have …

The Issue: War Is Hell: The First Flight of the Phantom Eagle #1 (May 2008, Marvel)

The Culprits: Written by Garth Ennis, art by Howard Chaykin

The Hook: Garth Ennis retells the origin of the Phantom Eagle, a German World War I flier who bluffs his way into a British squadron

Collected in: Hardcover ($24.99, $18.99 at Amazon) and paperback ($19.99, $15.59 at Amazon)

War Is Hell: The First Flight of the Phantom Eagle #1Strengths: This is a Garth Ennis war story. You probably already have an inkling on whether you like that or not. It involves blowing someone’s “fun” expectations of war all to hell, experienced soldiers making wry comments about men dying, and a generous helping of mutilated human flesh. The deaths in the issue are unexpected but not quite out of character. The period and the setting feel authentic, although my idea of “authentic” is influenced by mass media influences. Howard Chaykin’s art does capture the brutality of air combat.

Weaknesses: The detached and alcoholic characters whom the Phantom Eagle meets when he joins the squadron seem a bit stock. I have no idea why a World War I pilot, born in Germany, would be singing a song most associated with the American Civil War. The humor seems a bit too understated; if it’s meant to work against the grimness of the material, it doesn’t quite work. I don’t care for Chaykin’s art at all, as the characters look stiff, the non-death scenes are visually dull, and he makes everyone’s face look filthy; that last is understandable for pilots in open cockpit planes, but not so much for officers on the ground.

Mitigation: The book is called War Is Hell; of course there are going to be stock characters. And it’s not like Chaykin’s given much to work with; it’s all conversations and plane flights. Many people who know about comic art will probably enjoy Chaykin’s art, as my particular preferences get in the way.

Judgment: Ennis has a good track record with war stories and a sense of humor that marries well with violence. On the other hand, Phantom Eagle seems a bit less than unmissable — there are plenty of other Ennis war stories to select from, and most of them aren’t saddled with being a reimagining of a Marvel title.

Hardcover, TPB, or Nothing?: I could see myself buying the TPB, although I’m not exactly rushing out to buy it.

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Blogger Marc said...

I used to enjoy Howard Chaykin's artwork, but these days I tend to think he should just stay as far away from the drawing board as possible. He's sort of like John Byrne in that he used to be an excellent artist, but his overdone style in more recent years has basically turned him into a caricature of himself.

I think Ennis sometimes falls into the same trap. When he's really passionate about something, he does great work. Sometimes you can tell he's just phoning it in, though, but when you see a story written with the same themes and style as his better work, it tends to make you think that what you're reading is better than it actually is. That's exactly what your description of War Is Hell sounds like to me, although I haven't read it so I could be wrong. Like I said, though, I'm a fan of Ennis when he's at his best, so I may take a chance on this just to see how it stacks up.

11:29 PM  

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