As an American, I can’t say that I was familiar with Battle, Battle Picture Weekly, Battle Action Force, or any of the dozen of variations on the title of the long-running British war comic book until Titan Books came a’calling and asked if I wanted to review Battle Classics, a new collected edition of select stories from the series’ run. But now that I’ve given the book a chance, I wouldn’t mind digging a little deeper into the Battle canon to see what other treasures I might find.
Battle was a weekly, ongoing series that ran for 673 issues between March 1975 and January 1988. Weekly, folks. We can’t get American comic publishers to stick to a monthly schedule, and yet the Brits were running a weekly comic book that had fantastic art and some really impressive storytelling. The comic covered various eras of warfare – from the American Civil War to World War I and, the bulk of the issues, took place during World War II – as well as many different types and nationalities of soldiers. The comic was best-known for some of it’s ongoing serial storylines, including Charley’s War set in the trenches of WWI, a Dirty Dozen knock-off called Rat Pack, and Darkie’s Mob about a group of lost soldiers fighting a guerrilla war against the Japanese in the jungles of Burma. Many of those serial stories have been collected in past Titan Book Battle releases, which makes Battle Classics a little different in that it tries to spread the love around a little and not just stick with the series’ best-known stories.
The first and best story in this release is HMS Nightshade, the fictionalized story of real accounts of Royal Navy soldiers who served in World War II, created by John Wagner. The story is told in flashback as a grandfather tells his grandson about his time during The War. It’s a nice framework to hang the story on, because it gives the writers the opportunity to skip ahead a little, to just get to the good parts, rather than have to go moment-by-moment in the lives of the small group of soldiers we follow throughout. However, the more you read of Nightshade, the fewer “good” parts you’ll find. Sure, there’s plenty of hard-fought battles against deep-diving U-Boats and Stukas on bombing runs, but there are some pretty tough deaths in the story that are felt by the characters and the reader. It’s an epic story, taking up 185 of the book’s 255 pages, so it’s quite a commitment, but as of this review I’m about 75 pages in and I already feel like it’s worth the journey.
Aside from the excellent story, the look of HMS Nightshade is something to behold. The artwork by Mike Western is incredibly well done with beautiful, black-and-white images that are some of the best WWII military porn you’ll ever find. The detail on the vehicles is insane. There are explosions on nearly every jam-packed page. Seriously, there are so many visuals, requiring some pretty crafty panel layouts taking up every square inch, that one can only assume Western’s’ philosophy was, “Whitespace is for pussies.” The same attention to detail shown on the vehicles is also on display in the men’s faces, giving us plenty of close-up views of their battle-worn wrinkles and stubble. Visually, it’s just a masterpiece.
Aside from HMS Nightshade, you’ll also find The General Dies at Dawn, about a German officer who has been condemned to death by firing squad for disobeying his Nazi commanders. This is a rare entry in the “Good German” subgenre of war comics, which tries to make sense of the willingness of German soldiers to fight despite the barrage of human rights violations their government perpetrated. Generally the Good German character is ignorant of the concentration camps, hates the SS, and refuses to commit the atrocities that are demanded of him, but is only there to fight the good fight to defend the Fatherland and his family back home. This tale is no exception, but it’s well worth reading.
There are also a few one-shot short stories that are pretty charming and fun, but they’re definitely the tag-alongs to HMS Nightshade and General Dies at Dawn.
By the way, the book is curated by none other than Garth Ennis, creator of Preacher and writer of one of the most successful runs on The Punisher in the character’s history. Ennis has mentioned more than once that Battle essentially got him into comics. So while he didn’t actually work on the series, he’s a worthy expert to point readers to some of the best stuff the title had to offer. Not only did he choose the stories to reprint, he writes the segue pieces between each story and his commentary is well worth reading.
It’s disappointing that American kids weren’t exposed to more foreign comic books like Battle when the books were in their prime. I understand it probably wasn’t financially feasible to ship a weekly comic book over the pond, but it’s surprising that these comics haven’t really been collected and available to a wider audience until just the last few years. Thankfully Titan Books is bringing us Battle Classics, as well as a number of other collected stories from the comic, so we can get a glimpse of what we were missing. Better late than never, I guess.
Garth Ennis Presents Battle Classics is available now at Amazon and other fine comic book retailers.