Interview: Battle Editor Dave Hunt

Comics Editor David Hunt - 2011
Former comics editor David Hunt in 2011

Dave Hunt was the Editor of Battle and played no small part in the genesis of Charley’s War. It was Dave’s idea to link Joe Colquhoun up with Pat Mills (taking him off the top story at the time Johnny Red). Dave has very kindly agreed to answer some questions about the period.

Pat Mills says that it was your decision to take Joe Colquhoun off of the most popular story at the time Johnny Red and put them together. He says: “The significance of Dave Hunt’s influence and input into Charley’s War cannot be emphasised enough. We all owe him a great debt of gratitude. He knew how to put creative teams together – a gift very few modern writers have today.”

Basically what I’d like to ask is — why take the risk? What was the motivation behind the decision? Was it a vision of what could be done with these two together (the Lennon and McCartney of comics!) or was it the challenge of making it work? Also why World War One? a subject that nobody had ever made work before? Were you interested in the period anyway? Or was the fact that no-one else had done it that pushed you?

Dave: First and foremost I’d just like to make one very important point clear. Whatever part I played in the evolution of this terrific war story, it was a bit role when compared to Pat and Joe’s input. While I’m delighted to answer your questions, Neil, I feel it is extremely important for me to stress this point.

“Charley’s War” was without doubt the best boy’s adventure story I ever had the honour to be associated with. My long career in comics, which started in 1961, had, thankfully, many highlights, but young Charley Bourne’s adventures were I think the most rewarding. But how can I say such a thing when Charley’s War was a story of such awful carnage and hardly the stuff of usual comic book adventures?

The answer is simple, the two vital ingredients in this groundbreaking story was scriptwriter Pat Mills and the artist Joe Colquhoun.

Battle Picture Weekly was proving to be an extremely successful publication for IPC Magazines Juvenile Department. Launched in 1975, its circulation was healthy thanks to the continuing excellence of its story content. As the title’s Editor I was forever conscious and determined never to let adventures run past by their sell-by-dates and so we had a continuous turn-over of what I considered to be top-notch characters and war adventures. We’d also experimented with a host of different scenarios and, most importantly, even conveyed stories from the enemy’s concept. But World War One still hadn’t been attempted.

If my memory serves me correctly, Pat had left IPC to resume his freelance career and the pair of us were in continuous contact over what stories he might do for Battle. During these discussions it became apparent to me the 1914-18 conflict appealed to Pat – and it appealed to me, too. But I was all too aware that if we were ever going to do something featuring this major point in history then it had to be done by a scriptwriter who would give it every chance to succeed. So; at the time; I consider myself an extremely fortunate guy to have had Pat eager to give it a go.

It was an awful long time in the planning. Being the perfectionist he undoubtedly is, Pat obviously researched everything he did before finally producing a script. But with Charleys War he went that extra mile. We spent hours on the phone talking the concept through. As Pat realised at the time, Word War 1 was an extremely static conflict and a war of attrition in the trenches certainly wasnt the usual stuff of boys comics. So Pat’s ploy was to give the story a very human touch in the shape of the under-age Charley Bourne. The awful conflict would be told through the eyes of a kid who only ever wanted to do his best for King and country, but even more than this, his best for his mum and dad. The postcards home, full of spelling mistakes, were a revelation. Even the visual of the heading, with the ‘S’ the wrong way round, seemed to capture the very essence of the story and its lead character.

Pat never saw Charley as a superhero, that would have been wrong and a slight on all the brave guys who were the cannon fodder during this most terrible of conflicts. Charley was brave without being heroic; Charley was moral without ever knowing why. As each chapter unfurled, as each development of the conflict was uncovered, be it gas, be it the tanks, you knew that you were witnessing a remarkable piece of creative storytelling.

But now that we had Charley Bourne and an excellent first script, it was vital we captured the right artist for the series.

At that time Joe Colquhoun was the visual creativity behind the extremely popular Johnny Red series in Battle. As strange as it might seem, and obviously aside from him being a naturally talented artist, I felt he was particularly brilliant at conveying the carnage that was the reality of the German/Russian conflict. I then had the gut feeling he would be the perfect artist to capture the brutal essence of Charley’s War and the First World War – but first I had to entice him away from Johnny Red. What better enticement than for him to read the No.1 script. I knew, also, that if I were to keep Pats interest in the project then it would only work if he had a top artist to work with.

Thankfully, Joe was immediately hooked.

It proved to be perfect casting on my part because the pair gelled in a very special way. If I’m honest then, yes, I will take the plaudit on this one. I suppose it took some courage for me to move Joe away from a number one story into an arena that could so easily have flopped with the readers. But you have to remember that I knew both guys well. It wasnt difficult for anyone to realise that Pat and Joe were both special talents who would never cheat on any subject they approached.

When the first episode of the artwork landed on my desk at the Battle offices I knew the chemistry between the pair had worked perfectly Pat’s Charley’s War was in Joe’s perfect hands.

Had you known of Joe’s work before Johnny Red? When and how did you first become aware of his work? Had you worked with him before Battle?

Comics Editor David Hunt - 1970s
David Hunt, left of picture

Dave: When I began my career in 1961, I recall Joe being a vital part of the traditional team of artists who served Amalgamated Press so well at that time.

My first weekly title was as a sub-editor on Tiger, with Editor Derek Birnage in charge, and we shared offices with Lion, the publications stable companion. I’m trying to remember things and happenings in the right sequence and, if my memory’s correct, then Joe was working on Paddy Payne for Lion when, as a bright-eyed, eager young man, I really started to take an interest in the scriptwriters and artists so popular with readers in the early 60s. Joe’s work certainly attracted my attention. I always felt there was a tremendous vitality to his pages – a magical ingredient that put simply, was called talent.

I’ve always been interested in sport, especially football and when Joe took over the artwork of Tiger‘s flagship character, ‘Roy of the Rovers’, I was truly amazed the guy could attempt such vastly different subjects so easily and effortlessly – from war to sport in one easy jump. However, Joe would have told you himself he was never a fan of football, but being the consummate professional he undoubtedly was, the man could turn his brushes to any subject. You have to remember, also, that these guys were freelance contributors with livings to make and, very often, families to feed. So a subject that wasn’t a favourite one was very often, I’m afraid, the least consideration for them to make.

As time progressed I lost touch with Joe a little and especially when I was chosen in the early 70s to be Editor of a new football publication aimed at the younger fan, namely Scorcher. Aware of Joe’s lack of interest in the subject I never had the courage to approach him to do any work for me on this title. This was a big mistake on my part, because I recall him doing some great character work on the story Football Family Robinson for Jag.

But I quickly corrected this mistake when I became Editor of Battle. I desperately wanted Joe to work for me and, in the fullness of time and when scriptwriter Tom Tully had created Johnny Red, I knew Joe would be good for this series.

I was proved right, but hey, no big deal because, as already said, Joe could turn his hand to just about any subject and do justice to all of them.

Did you ever meet with Joe personally? How do you think he compares with some of the artists of today?

Dave: The one thing that truly amazes me now is how rare it was then for contributors to meet. A scriptwriter and artist might be proving to be a tremendous double-act as together they went about the creation of a top-notch story, but for them to meet-up and discuss things face to face was never considered to be that important. Please believe me when I say I was never adverse for this to happen, it just never did. Im sure there were countless times when Pat and Joe must have spoken and discussed important story-related matters with each other on the phone, but certainly in my time as Editor of Battle the pair never once met.

I suppose one extremely important factor for this non-happening was the amount of work we expected artists to produce on a weekly basis. Some Charley’s War episodes were four pages in total – a staggering amount when you consider the complex characters developed by Pat in his scripts and also his ever-changing scenarios. We were so demanding of them. If my memory serves me correctly, I did sometimes allow for short breaks between the you was rare and my thoughts now are one of regret as I feel we often treated these talented guys almost like sausage-machines.

I’m sure that Joe used to live in a converted lighthouse on the South Coast. I remember the phone ringing forever before it would be answered. Never the flashy type, I considered Joe to be unassuming and so down-to-earth. We had long conversations on the telephone when, incredibly, I’d always be reassuring him just how good his artwork was and how well the story was being received by the Battle reader. Joe took all of this philosophically. His ego was never so big that it needed any massaging from me.

Battle - 11th August 1979 Cover DateOne particular memory of meeting Joe that stands out was something that happened when I must have been Editor of new Eagle. Barrie Tomlinson was the Managing-Editor of the Juvenile Group at the time and hed struck up a sponsorship deal with a company called Tucktonia, who ran quite a smart leisure/activity centre in Chichester, which included fairground type rides, a go-kart track, etc. Barrie’s amazing PR skills had negotiated a designated area within the complex devoted to the comics produced by the Group at that time and guest of honour at the unveiling was the England and Yorkshire cricket great Geoff Boycott.

One of the many contributors invited along for this opening was Joe Colquhoun, but I recall the pair of us were more interested in playing a good game of pool than paying attention to all the fuss that surrounded Sir Geoff. Typical of Joe, really, but I’m pleased to recall this trivial matter as I felt that I got to know Joe more at this event than any of the countless phone calls Id had with him before this. But all too soon Joe was on his way home and back to his beloved artwork.

I’m not so sure he would have used the word beloved when sweating to meet his next Battle deadline for the ever-demanding Charley’s War!

Because I’ve been out of the industry for some time now, I’m not sure who are considered to be the big-guns on the comic front as far as artwork is concerned. To my mind, Joe’s work stands the test of time and I’m so pleased for him and his family that his work is still remembered so fondly to this day. Even taking into account his extreme modesty this site, dedicated to Pat, Joe and Charley Bourne would, I’m sure, have pleased him a lot.

Pat Mills also said of you that you were the only Editor “Never to censor what I did, he just let me get on with it” – were there any subjects while you were working with him that you had to ponder on?

Some of the subject matter was so groundbreaking for a comic of Battle‘s kind were there times when you thought “I don’t know if we should/could put this out?”

For example in a scene of American soldiers racially abusing a black fellow soldier, Charley is seen stepping in to help – and Pat was told said it may offend people. Pat’s view was “like who? The Klu Klux Klan?” What are your views on this later censoring?

Dave: I wouldn’t have been an Editor of any note if I hadn’t considered carefully all that was going into the pages of a title I was responsible for.

(Editor’s note: In June 2013, former Battle editor Terry Magee contacted this site to catergorically deny he had asked for the scene to be edited. “I certainly did not censor that scene,” he said. “Any censoring would have come from above me. I supported the scene and still do.”)

The censored race scene
The censored race scene

Again the memory clicks into action and I recall John Craven from BBCs Multi-Coloured Swap-Shop unexpectedly paying a visit to the Battle offices to ask the same kind of question you are posing now. The tenor of his questioning was should children be expected to see such violence from what, after all, is a comic? I answered him the same way as I answer this question now our objective was always to show the hero as very strong morally, be it a character from the home side or from the enemy viewpoint, but that war should not be looked on as a subject just to be glorified. Simplistic, maybe, but I’ve always felt the same way. My stance was that if stories were told in a thought-provoking and well-constructed way then children could only ever learn from them.

There were moments in Charley’s War when Pat showed the reader as it really was. Who can ever forget his and Joe’s portrayal of the evil Captain Snell? But Snell was, very often, the reality of this terrible campaign. I think it would be far worse for children to see characters on our side as just whiter than white heroes.

On the latter point of the racial abuse then I think I would have let this one go, again because it is an exact portrayal of something that actually occurred. But you have to remember that, after Action, we had a frontline board at IPC Magazines who were extremely twitchy. To his credit John Sanders, the Juvenile Groups then Editorial Director, was always fighting our cause, but Editors and senior management were constantly being reminded to tone it down or face the risk of another title biting the dust.

On Eagle I once had a run-in with TVAM when they highlighted a particular nasty incident in a story called The Hand. I don’t think it really matters what the incident was now, but I recall John being very supportive of the title at a time when I was reeling from the flak I was receiving.

Yes, it was a continuous tightrope, but with writers of the calibre of Mills, Wagner, Grant, Finley-Day and Tully as a vital part of the Battle team, then I was always confident we could pull it off.

Were you surprised that Charley’s War (your baby basically) became the most popular story practically overnight, and was released in graphic novel form (I believe the only Battle story to have had that honour) Are you surprised that to this day it’s the most remembered of all? What are your views on it in retrospect?

Dave: Charley’s War was as near perfect an anti-war story as one could get. It never glorified in conflict, it was never gratuitous with violence Pat simply told it like it was and he did that brilliantly. With Joe, this talented duo with their attention to detail, the wonderful characters and to the period, created a masterpiece that truly deserves every accolade.

And finally is there anything I haven’t covered that you would like to add about that period?

Dave: No, but I would like to say thank you for giving me this chance to air my views. When I recall this time in my life Im just so pleased that I had the chance to be involved with something as good as Charley’s War.

If any ex-Battle readers have any questions to ask me, via your impressive website, of course, then I would only be too pleased to give them a response.

A thousand thanks to Dave Hunt for sparing the time to answer my questions and making the story of its genesis complete.

CHARLEY’S WAR ™ REBELLION PUBLISHING LTD, COPYRIGHT ©  REBELLION PUBLISHING LTD, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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