This time out it's a tale of Vampires in World War Two. COMICS! The gift that never stops giving! Anyway, this... FIENDS OF THE EASTERN FRONT Art by Carlos Ezquerra, Colin Macneil Written by Gerry Finley-Day, David Bishop, Dan Abnett Rebellion, £9.99 (2010) Fiends of The Eastern Front created by Carlos Ezquerra and Gerry Finley-Day Originally serialised in 2000AD Progs 152-161,The Judge Dredd Megazine 4.17 & The Judge Dredd Megazine 245-252
At the stately age of 10 there were few pleasures which could compare with the arrival of a new Prog of 2000AD weekly, and only one which could exceed them; the end of a storyline. With the end of a storyline I would be free to pull all the relevant Progs out, crack open the biscuits and weak orange drink and get stuck in. Naturally, every week I would have read each episode of any given series but once complete a full re-read would be on the cards, and intermittently thereafter and for a far greater portion of my life than might strictly be deemed healthy. I got my money’s worth is what I’m saying there. This irregular revision of the strips of 2000AD probably accounts for the fact that when I saw a collection of Fiends of The Eastern Front listed I could maybe have sketched out several of the pages from memory and most definitely outlined the plot with a truly spooky degree of accuracy. Since I am no longer 10 this would have been the behaviour of a madman so I settled for ordering it.
In 1980 when this strip first appeared the three greatest works of Art I had been exposed to were Flesh, Shako and Fiends of The Eastern Front. How foolish and how very like a child this seems in retrospect. Now 30 years and change later I have experienced the movies of David Lynch, stood toe to toe with Rothko’s work in the Tate Modern, read Shakespeare and seen Batman Live. Consequently the three greatest works of Art I have now been exposed to are Flesh, Shako and American Flagg! Why then the loss of Fiends of The Eastern Front from the Kane canon?
The simple answer for those of you with a bus to catch is that it just isn’t up to snuff like that other stuff. But it’s still a far cry from awful. It had, after all, remained entrenched in my memory for several decades which is no mean feat for a strip which ran for a meagre 10 weeks and in toto comprises 44 pages. But what pages they are. Oh, what a nightmarish war. Oh, what pages Ezquerra and Finley-Day have gifted posterity. If posterity loosened its knickers a bit and appreciated them anyway.
Gerry Finley-Day may be a name more unfamiliar to most than Carlos Ezquerra but he has his place in Brit Comics History; and it is hardly a negligible one. Like many of the men who would go on to change the face of British boys comics Finley-Day started being of historical interest in the ‘70s with his work on IPC’s girl’s comics. Here he and Pat Mills etc honed their skills writing as though they wished to seriously emotionally disturb their audience. They would carry this approach across to the boy’s weeklies Action, Battle and, of course, 2000AD. Although there are exceptions (Harry Twenty On The High Rock, Ant Wars) Finley-Day’s boy’s comic work was largely war orientated. On Battle and Action he appears to have had a particular penchant for The Good German (Panzer G-Man, Hellman of Hammer Force etc.) And if these did not influence a tiny Garth Ennis then I’m French. 2000AD had a ready made place for Finley-Day in its regular Future-War slot which he dutifully filled with enduringly popular series such as The V.C.s and, most notably, Rogue Trooper.
Fiends of The Eastern Front is a throwback to Finley-Day’s WW2 strips set as it is on the Eastern Front. Like his straighter stuff the main character is a Good German and like Rat Pack in Battle he is paired up with Carlos Ezquerra on art. Unlike any previous strip the pair had inflicted on the febrile male minds composing their audience here they doubled down on the horrors of this war with the addition of Rumanian vampires into the unholy vortex of the Russian Front. The first few episodes embrace formula with the Germans being attacked weekly by a new iteration of the Russian Army (tanks, Cossacks, paratroops, ski-troopers) which the Rumanian vampires best and leaving Hans Schmitt somewhat conflicted and questioning in the final panel. With the fith episode things turn around rather sharply for Schmitt and he and the entire German army are on the back foot of a sudden. Because it turns out that Rumania didn’t stay on the German side for the duration. And it’s at this mid-point the strip abandons any pretence of everyday logic and embraces the nonsensical non logic of nightmare. And becomes all the better for it. It becomes as outlandish as a fever dream and it succeeds as such because of Carlos Ezquerra.
In all fairness Fiends of The Eastern Front is not a fit testament to the scripting skills of Finley-Day. It is rushed, haphazardly plotted and clumsily contrived. It has the feel of a fill-in; something pulled out of a hat at the last minute to fill ten week’s worth of pages. Finley-Day rises to that (assumed on my part) challenge as best he can but the success of Fiends of The Eastern Front, the reason why it causes unease in me thirty four years later is due to two things: the suicidal pacing and Carlos Ezquerra’s dark, dark art. Pacing wise Fiends of The Eastern Front doesn’t just move it hurtles along like a sprinter with his hair on fire. The speed of Finley-Day’s script seeks to pull you through the pages at such a pace that you don’t have time to notice all the deficiencies. Because they are deficiencies, but they also don’t really matter. The pleasures of Fiends of The Eastern Front are more sensual than cerebral. And this works because Fiends of The Eastern Front is a nightmare and nightmares aren’t about thinking they are about feeling; they are about feeling fear. And if you want fear on the page you’re on to a winner with Carlos Ezquerra.
Carlos Ezquerra may be one of the best horror artists in the business despite his forays into fear being far fewer than his war and S-F strips. He is, after all best known as the co-creator of Judge Dredd and Strontium Dog and, to more recent readers, his name will be hard not to associate with Garth Ennis’ war comics. As adaptable as his art is to many genres it always has the same base elements; grubby tickling and flat blacks, blunt faces and scrappy holding lines. He only has to punch these up a little and his tattily tactile and grottily grubby art seems Hellishly apt to the horrors on these pages. The misshapen and unclean aspects of Ezquerra’s art totally convince in their depictions of things that could never be, things that should never be.
The book ends with a Dan Abnett 2006 reimagining of the strip with the addition of Ezquerra’s Strontium Dog character Durham Red. Most notably this reveals Ezquerra’s art has become more disciplined and focused without losing one jot of the essentially Ezquerra-esque qualities present in the 1980 strip. Additionally laid over the art is some lovely colour work in which browns and greys are played off against beautifully lurid purples and reds to queasy effect. Sandwiched between the two Ezquerra strips is a Dave Bishop and Colin MccNeil resurrection of the concept which appeared in The Judge Dredd Megazine.
Bishop’s Stalingrad set script is as (intentionally?) daft as Finley-Day’s original but MacNeil is less successful in diverting attention from this. Don’t get me wrong, MacNeil is a talented artist (with particularly great work showcased in Judge Dredd: America) but here his art is a little too stiff and defined in comparison to Ezquerra’s to survive unscathed. And also I wasn’t 10 when I read it although that’s neither Bishop nor MacNeil’s fault. In the end it’s mostly Carlos Ezquerra’s fault that Fiends of The Eastern Front is GOOD!