Review: The Red Baron flies once more, beautiful and brutal…
Pierre Veys & Carlos Puerta
The world of WWI aerial combat, full of chivalry, gentlemen flyers with strict codes, a better war fought by better men than those on the ground? That’s the popular image, but that’s not what you’ll find in the pages of ‘Red Baron‘, a fictionalised work, described right at the start of this first volume as ‘loosely inspired by the life of Manfred von Richthofen as well as events and historical figures from the First World War.‘
The book opens beautifully, a red German biplane of the Imperial German Flying Corps and a British SPAD of the Royal Flying Corps dog-fighting across the skies of the countryside, the voice of the German pilot heard in the captions, supremely confident in his victory, certain it’s merely a matter of time before he downs his adversary.
He’s absolutely right. He’s simply too good, tactically masterful and before long he’s landing in the same field the British plane landed in, the young man in the cockpit climbs out, walks over to the obviously dead British pilot and in three panels we go from the empathetic young man, the ideal of the WWI flying ace to something far nastier and darker, everything caught in his thoughts…
“But he caught a bullet instead, and I’m watching him die.
And the sight of it gives me indescribable pleasure.”
The chivalrous ideas we had when opening the graphic novel die in this monster’s eyes. That’s what really gripped me in this first volume. Puerta’s artwork is staggeringly beautiful and his aerial scenes are magnificent sure (and I’ll return to the art in a moment), but it’s the immediate threat of Richthofen, the idea that Veys is going to take this iconic character into the realms of the psychopathic, that’s something that makes you want to explore this one.
Effectively the 46-page story is told in four setpieces, the initial WWI opener when Richthofen was an established air-ace, two scenes from ten years earlier of Richthofen at military academy first dealing with bullying students and later exploring a dangerous area of Berlin and finally a closing scene in 1915 Ostend with Richthofen a gunner/observer involved in another dogfight earlier in his career.
The idea of Richhofen the psychopath, or possibly the sociopath is further explored though the scenes in his youth, although more precedence is given to the other slightly less fascinating fictional addition of writer Veys, the idea that young Manfred discovers an uncanny, indeed almost supernatural ability to sense the thoughts of others, or at least glimpse moods and actions.
The hatred he senses comes from the other boys reaction to Manfred’s dogged refusal to be second-best in anything. Their bullying and violence unforgivable of course, but Manfred’s steel here, coupled with the beating he gives to the gang, aware of the moves they’re thinking of before they make them, is yet another indicator of the brutality beneath the surface.
It’s a brutality he explores when he heads into the darker parts of Berlin, his reaction to all this strangeness is not the natural one of uncertainty, fear even, but of cold, calculating interest. He plans to test himself against the “lowest possible class“, his calmness and arrogance quickly exploding into rage and brutality…
It’s this element of ‘Red Baron’ that truly intrigues, the mental state of the man, not the powers he has. Thankfully I feel Veys has the capability and the storytelling power to pull off the story I want to read, a story just started here in really good form.
It’s a brutal tale, a nasty tale, and relies upon Carlos Puerta’s artwork to be able to capture the madness and the ruthlessness of Richthofen. But not just that, as it’s also a book that delights in contrasting the despicable nature of the man (and by extension the despicable nature of warfare) and the beauty and tranquillity to be found in the air.
Thankfully Puerta’s artwork is more than capable of capturing both, and although there are obvious moments his figure work down on the ground feels just that little too posed and photo-referenced there’s still a fabulous sense of motion, look at Richthofen brutally swinging his stick above to see what I mean. The real beauty I’m talking about comes out when the planes take flight. The tranquillity I mentioned is there as well, the deliberate lack of sound-effects in the aerial scenes really isolating the action, we’re here as quiet observers of the ballet in the sky, a ballet that comes to Earth occasionally, but it rarely ends well when it does…
Overall, Red Baron absolutely intrigues. The brutality of the lead character contrasting with the ideals of chivalry we’ve come to expect from this aspect of the Great War is fascinating, the beauty of the flying sequences so perfectly illustrated and choreographed contrasting with the ugliness of the man utilising his powers. The ideas of the book I had going in were swiftly thrown out, replaced by something far more interesting and I’ll be looking forward to following the exploits of this very fictionalised Red Baron with the second book, due out in September.