Story: John Wagner, Alan Hebden, Cam Kennedy
Art: John Cooper, David Hunt, Cam Kennedy
What They Say
From 1975 to 1988, the weekly war comic Battle featured work by some of the all-time great names in British comics. In this brand-new collection, Garth Ennis—writer of Preacher, The Boys and Crossed, as well as his own war series War Story and Battlefields—introduces some of his favourite strips from Battle’s heyday.
HMS Nightshade, by John Wagner and Mike Western, is the heartbreaking story of a British escort vessel on the lethal Artic run—where sailors barely out of their teens face not just German U-boats and torpedo-bombers, but conditions so savage that a moment’s hesitation can kill a man as surely as any bullet.
In The General Dies at Dawn, by Alan Hebden and John Cooper, hero of the Third Reich General Otto Von Margen languishes in a prison cell under sentence of death. As his last night draws on, the General tells his jailer of his terrible wartime experiences—the while hoping that American forces will reach the prison before sunrise.
The collection is rounded out by three short stories featuring art by Battle favourite Cam Kennedy, including the action-packed Hot Wheels and the haunting Private Loser.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers):
If there’s one thing I’ve noticed about British comics, it’s that the war titles are some of the best around. I’m not quite sure why that is, but my pet theory is that it has to do with the country’s experiences in the first and second World Wars. The United States, thanks to its geographical position, has been removed from all of the major wars in which it has been involved in the past hundred years or so and this has lessened the impact on the general population. Great Britain, of course, was right there—especially in the Second World War where it suffered nearly daily bombings—so I imagine that that proximity did affect the national psyche. This translates into war stories that are less jingoistic and more focused on the men who served and died.
Obviously I’m benefitting from the fact that I only get to see the cream of the crop. I’m sure for every HMS Nightshade there are a dozen less than stellar titles out there, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that the stories collected here are very, very good, and well deserve a place on the shelf along with the other excellent British titles such as Charley’s War and Johnny Red.
The first story (also the longest) is the HMS Nightshade. It’s an oddity in British war comics in that it’s a navy story that succeeded. As Garth Ennis writes in his introduction, “There was a prevailing wisdom at the time, not unjustified, that ‘ship stories’ simply didn’t work in comics.” The Nightshade does, and there are many reasons for it, not the least of which being the incredible writer and artist behind it. In the comic, George Dunn is telling his grandson about the time he served on the Corvette the HMS Nightshade. The Nightshade made the nightmarish Arctic run from Great Britain to Northern Russia. During its voyages the Nightshade protected convoys from U-Boats, battleships, bombers, and fighter planes, but the real story focused on the lives of the men who served on the old, but beloved tub, and it’s those characters—their history, their fears, their moments of courage and cowardice—that make this such a powerful work and probably the strongest of the stories presented in this collection. It helps that the writer was John Wagner, the creator of (among other things) Judge Dredd. Ennis goes out on a limb and writes that Nightshade is Wagner’s most important work, and while I’m not as familiar with Wagner’s body of work as others, I agree. The grounded nature of the story, the humanity and empathy imbued in even the smallest character, make this a gripping story and it’s all brought to life by the excellent art of Mike Western, who does equally well at drawing facial expressions as he is with fiery battle scenes.
The second story, The General Dies at Dawn, is an example of a “Good German” story—perhaps one of the best. In terms of the quality of this one, I don’t have much to say other than it’s great fun to read and the art is on par with the art of Nightshade. It does raise some contentious issues, though, which Ennis brings up in his introductions. The Good German movement began in the 1950s and grew out of the Cold War. NATO looked to German troops to bolster their lines of defense against Communist forces, and many of those solider began writing their memoirs. Naturally these memoirs glossed over certain glaring facts, but this became the image that coalesced in the idea of the Good German: the elite, capable soldier forced to serve a bad cause. This, of course, trickled down to comics like The General Dies at Dawn. While I did enjoy the story and the character of the General, I will say that the historical and cultural forces behind this particular character archetype were far more interesting to me.
The final three stories, Clash by Night, Hot Wheels, and Private Loser were all drawn by the excellent Cam Kennedy. Clash by Night is a rather paint by numbers story which is enjoyable, but suffers from its proximity to other, more interesting stories. Hot Wheels is a very tongue-in-cheek rollercoaster of a story about two drivers in the Red Ball Express (a real fleet of modified trucks used to deliver food and supplies to the front lines). The protagonists are lazy, shiftless rogues with ridiculous urbane affectations and their story is a hell of a lot of fun. The final story, Private Loser, is the best of the three. The titular Private is wounded and has to be left behind by the rest of his squad. As he waits for a Japanese patrol, all the pain and humiliation he experienced in his life come bubbling to the surface and gives him the resolve to end his life on his own terms.
The art in the final three stories is perhaps my favorite. Kennedy does a fantastic job with little details. His linework, the facial expressions and general figure work are excellent.
All of the stories in this collection are great, but what makes this a real treat for me are the introductions by Garth Ennis. He provides fascinating insight into these comics: their history, their creators, and their importance to the medium. One of the feelings I came away with from reading this collection was that I wish that Ennis would write an entire book about British war comics.
Titan Books has done an outstanding job of collecting and preserving classic British war comics. What it began with Charley’s War and Johnny Red it’s continuing here with Battle Classics. The stories collected here are excellent, but be warned that they are also dense and will take some time to get through. Thankfully, they are worth the time and effort. Highly recommended.
Content Grade: A
Art Grade: A+
Packaging Grade: A
Age Rating: N/A
Released By: Titan Books
Release Date: January 28th, 2014