‘The Stringbags’: Are You Ready For A Spot Of Aviation From Garth Ennis And PJ Holden?

by Richard Bruton

The Stringbags – biplanes flying through WWII, underpowered, undergunned, whose crews never expected to become heroes in a plane that was never expected to become the stuff of legends. Garth Ennis and PJ Holden‘s Stringbags takes three of the most famous missions and ties it all together through the exploits of a trio of fictional Navy airmen – Ennis is on top form doing what he loves and Holden delivers career highlight artwork.

This is a tale of warfare of old, The Fleet Air Arm and their Fairey Swordfish, introduced in just 1936 but already, by the time of the early days of WWII a relic of a time gone by, a biplane in a world of Spitfires, Hurricanes, and Messerschmitts.

As Germany and Italy entered the war with their fast, modern torpedo bombers that devastated Naval fleet, the old Fairey Swordfish was, at times, all the Fleet Arm Arm could offer.

It’s 1940 and the Navy has only recently wrested control of the Fleet Air Arm from the ‘Brylcream Boys’ of the RAF and the Swordfish was a big part of what they had to offer. Nicknamed the Stringbag due to the sheer variety of equipment it was called upon to carry, it was slow, lacked power, lacked firepower, and was manned by crews fully expecting to be shot down every time they took to the skies.

Instead, as you’ll see from Ennis and Holden’s Stringbags, they became legendary – a triumph against the Italian Fleet at Taranto, an integral role in the sinking of the pride of the German Fleet – The Bismarck, and the deadly Channel Dash against German ships and aircraft running for home.

Frankly, what Ennis and Holden do here is simply stunning. Through the three chapters, ‘To Your Lads In Their Enterprise‘, ‘Our Belief In You, My Fuhrer‘, and ‘By Either Side That Day‘, we gain a real appreciation of the sheer incredible acts of bravery of these most unexpected of heroes – frankly just the very act of getting into a Stringbag knowing you might be coming up against the might of the Italian or German Navy or, worse, the deadly force of the Luftwaffe is an act of bravery in itself.

Ennis’ decision to use a fictional three-man crew, Shanks, Archie, Pops, to represent the spirit of the men who flew the Stringbags is a masterstroke – it allows him to engineer things to get the trio involved in the three key moments of Stringbag history, their triumphs and their tragedies. That they’re a rag-tag group, prone to cock-ups, their laughter a standard mask in war, adds a lightness and adventuring quality to the early triumphs of Operation Judgement, targeting the ships in Taranto habour, and the pivotal role played by the Swordfish in damaging the Bismarck before its sinking.

The cock-ups and the comedy doesn’t exactly go over too well with their commanding officers, but damn, it adds so much to the book, humanises the people and the events of the book.

Of course, giving us a comedic trio of leads is an old trick, Ennis swiftly establishing empathy and getting us inside the action, rather than treating it as a dry repeating of the facts. Instead, what happens is that Ennis, and Holden of course, give us a quite incredible history lesson, so many facts are consumed whilst enjoying all that goes on.

And then, of course, there’s the switch out that occurs, in the aftermath of the BIsmarck, where it all gets too much, where the comedy drops, where the lightness goes – and the horror of what happened hits home – for both them and for us. It had been adventurous, exciting even, thrilling in the missions of the Stringbags, and then things change. It’s a perfectly executed bit of storytelling for sure.

That Ennis is passionate about war stories is well-known but you can hear it through the entirety of Stringbags, but never more so than the words in Ennis’ afterword. The Stringbags, as Ennis notes, is offered in tribute to the men who flew the Fairey Swordfish into battle.

He says that he hopes it would not have displeased them… it most definitely would not.

Finally, whilst it will be Garth Ennis’ name that gets the headlines here, a word or three about PJ Holden’s artwork. You’ll perhaps have seen him in the pages of 2000 AD or the Judge Dredd Megazine, and as much as I love his work there, I think it’s quite obvious that this is a career-high for his art.

It’s a book that has the look and feel of a frankly stunning labour of love on Holden’s part – something that comes through in every panel, every page.

Of course, the big, impressive shots of aerial warfare are the wow moments here, with Holden’s detailing of the aircraft and warships just excelling at delivering all of the intensity of the action.

Yet his work elsewhere, whether it’s the long-shots of the landscape or the perfect character studies of all involved, is just as impressive.

He expertly navigates the difficult process of getting the perfect balance between a slight caricature in his facial work to give us all the lightness that’s intended and the more introspective beauty of the character work as we go further and further into the book.

And it’s this combination of Holden’s work, the big, expansive stuff, the tightness of his representations of the aircraft and warships, the sheer intensity of the battle scenes, plus all the fine, fine work of getting the characterisations just absolutely right that really makes The Stringbags a triumph.

Like I say, it’s Ennis’ name that will get the main billing with The Stringbags, such is the nature of both his relative fame and the way comics are reported, but I imagine that Ennis will not mind when I say that The Stringbags is one of those books that would have been good with any artist, such is the strength of the story. The thing that really elevates it into the brilliance that I found on repeated readings of the book is Holden’s artwork – like I say, this is career-defining, career-high work from an already impressive artist.

 

The Stringbags – written by Garth Ennis, drawn by PJ Holden, colored by Kelly Fitzpatrick, letters by Rob Steen, published by Dead Reckoning / Naval Institute Press, 2020

Now, as an extra bonus – just to give you the feel of how good The Stringbags is and the scope of Holden’s career-high artwork, the first six pages…

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