Author Interviews

The Stringbags

If you do the incredible often enough, they’ll want you to do the impossible.

Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and Fascist Italy began World War II with aircraft that could devastate enemy warships and merchantmen at will. Britain’s Royal Navy squadrons went to war equipped with the Fairey Swordfish. A biplane torpedo bomber in an age of monoplanes, the Swordfish was underpowered and undergunned; an obsolete museum piece, an embarrassment. Its crews fully expected to be shot from the skies. Instead, they flew the ancient “Stringbag” into legend.

Writer Garth Ennis (PreacherThe BoysWar Stories) and artist PJ Holden (BattlefieldsWorld of Tanks: Citadel) present the story of the men who crewed the Swordfish: from their triumphs against the Italian Fleet at Taranto and the mighty German battleship Bismarckin the Atlantic, to the deadly challenge of the Channel Dash in the bleak winter waters of their homeland. They lived as they flew, without a second to lose—and the greatest tributes to their courage would come from the enemy who strove to kill them.

Based on the true story of the Royal Navy’s Swordfish crews, The Stringbags is an epic tale of young men facing death in an aircraft almost out of time.

Part 1: Garth Ennis

What is the backstory behind “The Stringbags”?

The Stringbags is the story of the British Royal Navy’s Fairey Swordfish crews in World War II, told through the experiences of one fictional three-man crew as they take part in the aircraft’s most famous operations: the attack on the Italian fleet at Taranto, the hunt for the German battleship Bismarck in 1941, and the Channel Dash incident the following winter- when three German warships attempted to run the gauntlet of the British defenses in the English Channel.

I’m not in the Military, I don’t have any life-threatening challenges, and I don’t even know anyone in the military. I’m just an average dad who lives and works in the suburbs, how would this book benefit me and what could I learn from it?

This is a story of incredible courage and fortitude in the face of very heavy odds, but even beyond that there’s a notion worth pondering: that as the generation who fought and won the Second World War passes away, the world itself seems to be going rapidly down the drain. It’s almost as if the influence they had through the values they fought for is passing with them – the world we grew up in was, after all, the one they fought to give us. Is it perhaps worth revisiting the conflict through stories like The Stringbags, and considering the values they fought both with (courage and duty) and for (democracy and freedom)?

What advice would you have for a mid-career military officer who is considering writing a book?

What grabs readers first is the experience of people: their reactions, motivations and decisions. So do your best to capture that human element; it really is the quickest shortcut to engaging the reader on a relatable level. Be they real people or fictional characters, try to express the way they act, think and especially speak. In terms of getting the reader’s attention, that really is half the battle.

What are you reading now?    

I’ve just started Cover of Darkness by Roderick Chisholm, a British night fighter pilot’s account of operations over both England and Germany during World War II. Other recent books have included Stuka Pilot by Hans Ulrich Rudel (Nazi Germany’s number one airman tells his own story), An Army of Tribes by Edmund Burke (British army cohesion and misbehavior during the early part of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, 1970s), and Soldiers by Sonke Neitzel and Harald Welzer (a highly revealing study of captured German servicemen’s opinions in World War II, when they didn’t know anyone was listening). I also re-read Michael Herr’s classic Dispatches.

What books had the most impact on you and your development?

In terms of storytelling and in no particular order, novels by Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry, JRR Tolkien, Joseph Heller, Stephen Hunter, Joe R. Lansdale, Derek Robinson, Irvine Welsh and James Ellroy.

As for comics and graphic novels, work by Pat Mills, John Wagner, Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Paul Chadwick and Peter Bagge.

And my interest in military history comes from historians like Max Hastings, Anthony Beevor, Carlo D’Este, Stephen Bungay and Svetlana Alexievich. I’ve also read a great many memoirs—I’ll mention two in particular, Quartered Safe Out Here by George MacDonald Fraser, and Wing Leader by Johnny Johnson.

What is next for you?

As far as war comics go, I’m talking to Dead Reckoning about a new graphic novel about the Battle of Britain, which is something I’ve wanted to do for almost my entire career. Beyond that, I’m going to be doing further stories of Russian women soldiers on the Eastern front, one involving partisan fighting behind the lines, one probably involving the battle for Berlin. I’m also planning a story about the Chindits, the British special forces unit that fought the Japanese in Burma, and another featuring a Canadian bomber crew in the dying days of the war.

PART 2: P.J. Holden

How did you get involved in “The Stringbags”?

Garth approached me some time ago, while we were in the middle of doing another War Story – World of Tanks Citadel, about the battle for Kursk. He said a new publisher was interested in a graphic novel, around 160 pages. At that point, I think the longest single-story ARC I’d drawn was around 120 pages, and so 160 seemed like a good amount. And knowing Garth it would be an interesting project, so I said yes.

How has drawing “The Stringbags” made you a better thinker and better person?

Well, there are two separate impacts here —one is purely on doing a project of this size, it’s a year’s worth of work and requires constant back and forth with a team of people;  so you learn to meet deadlines, research like mad, and then hope your instincts don’t fail you as you put the research material down and move on to the next bit.

The second impact is a little harder to quantify, so often with Garth’s war stories, they’re based on true events (and this story in particular) but not just in the bigger picture, but down to some of the smaller, crazier elements of the story (the Stringbag wrapping itself around the line of the barrage balloon, for example). And so, you’re always hit with the realization these are real stories, that happened to real people – and often these people were kids. Even “Pops” in our story, considered the oldest of the crew would’ve been much younger than I am now. So, every so often you stop and think how lucky your life is, because of the sacrifices that the crews of the Fairey Swordfish made throughout the war.

3. What is the biggest takeaway that you hope a reader will take from “The Stringbags”?

Well, primarily I hope they’re entertained. But with that, they’ll find out a lot more about the war, the role the Stringbags played and I’m sure be as surprised as I was to find out how much damage can be done by a slow-moving, biplane fitted with almost nothing more than a couple of peashooters and a single torped

4. What are you reading now?

I generally confine my reading to research for whatever job I’m doing next (which sounds dull, but I move between WWI, WWII, to the far future with the work that I do, so it can cover a lot of ground) but, post Father’s Day my kids gave me Ted Chang’s Exhalation, and a book of Oscar Wilde’s plays. (I admit, they didn’t pick these books.)

5. Drawing a book is tough, were there any surprises as you set out on that journey?

At this stage, I have thousands of pages under my belt, so I rarely get surprised by what happens as I draw. That said, as this was the longest single project I’d done, I don’t think I was prepared for how long it would take. Technique changes a little as you go, but, say, unlike writing, I rarely go back to page one to edit – so I’m usually hoping to get the ‘voice’ right early and so the art doesn’t shift too much as I go on.

Purchase The Stringbags Here

Garth Ennis

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.

P. J. Holden

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.

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