4 out of 5
The first half of 303 ranks with the best material Garth has ever written. The back half – which is really two issues of an aside and a conclusion – is tonally consistent, and still well-written, but feels like a confusing direction to take the story.
Garth indirectly speaks to this in an intro to a preview book that came out prior to the series, that the writing ended up taking him down unexpected paths, and while I could be misapplying that sentiment, I feel like it does show in that above-mentioned two issue aside. So I’m brought to wonder: had the throughline been more linear, would the ending have hit with a more resounding impact?
Still, I can’t by any means dismiss the excellence of first three issues, and their presence, along with the admittedly interesting events depicted, hovers over the latter three issues to still keep you in the mix, just, perhaps, not as immersed. A simple takeaway is that Ennis seems at his best when he’s also at his grimmest, which is probably unfortunate for him because it can’t be that much fun to wallow in such emotional depths for prolonged periods. But it produces some good stuff.
303 is named for a rifle that features semi-prominently in the story. Semi-prominently because its more conceptual: the cold history of the weapon; reliance on it as a killing machine. This is juxtaposed against the men and women wrapped up in war games throughout history, shifted and disposed of as pawns, or operating a certain way because they know no better. Our narrative anchor for this is a particularly stoic Russian sergeant, leading a troupe to investigate a downed American plane in Iraqi territory during the 2000’s edition of skirmishes in that region. Political and gunfight scuffling ensues when a British regiment shows up to do the same, for same amazingly tense stand-offs between wizened wartime tacticians.
Part one – issue three – ends with the discovery of what’s in the plane – which underlines the preceding issues events in that humanly-hollow fashion at which Garth, at his darkest, excels.
The story could end here.
But it doesn’t.
Ennis takes it forward, and the surprised-it-didn’t-get-more-press conclusion is evidence of the mind-numbing frustration – and inability to directly do something about it – that many felt then and, perhaps ironically, feel now under (at this time of this writing) a Trump presidency. It’s a shocking ending, but also somewhat lacking the heavy grace of the first half. …Because between then and then, we take a detour to meet a small town sheriff, saddened by the recent loss, to cancer, of his wife, and what comes of his interaction with the Russian sergeant.
This storyline fits, but I’m not sure it fits in a two-act structure. It’s such a weird compromise because it’s a stunning story within itself, but it feels only tonally linked to 303, and not directly related. As if this little capsule version of his larger story occurred to Ennis while scripting, and he couldn’t avoid including it. When, unfortunately, it might’ve been better suited as its own tale or a perfect subplot in an ongoing. It just feels herky jerky in a mini-series.
Jacen Burrows’ delivers his reliably stark, stunning artwork, but this isn’t as visually cluttered as other Ennis / Moore projects he’s worked on, so we end up with some unmotivated talky panels, but that’s Garth’s expositional style.
Although its compositionally flawed, I still consider 303 as top tier Ennis. Every moment, individually, is fantastic, with the first three issues utterly amazingly effective. It’s a bummer it doesn’t all fit together, but it leaves a lasting impression nonetheless.