Rebellion Publishing have kindly sent us a very Advance Review Copy of Battle Stations by Donne Avenell and Hugo Pratt, the first of a new Treasury of British Comics series re-publishing classic strips from the long-running War Picture Library. Battle Stations is due for release in hardback next February, the series will continue a second release in July 2020 with Battler Britton.
Fans of Corto Maltese creator and artist Hugo Pratt have already welcomed the news of Rebellion’s over-sized reprints of his 1960s British war comic work and for me, Battle Stations: War Picture Library lives up to expectations – both in story and art.
British war comics have been a staple of the industry for generations, with DC Thomson’s Commando still on sale today, currently in the process of reviving some old characters from popular comics such as Victor and Warlord. Unsurprisingly, these comics often get stereotyped for delivering stories of derring do at the expense of Britain’s foes, but this first War Picture Library representation has little of that kind of flag waving mock patriotism. Indeed, the final message of Battle Stations, of a hoped-for reconciliation between rivals thrown into a deadly war, is perhaps the best takeaway from this terrific story, and all the better for it.
Taking its title from the story “Battle Stations” first published in War at Sea Picture Library No.34 in 1963, the story, by Donne Avenell, illustrated throughout by Pratt, this is, for me, a remarkable and powerful story, far beyond the simplistic “Nazi bashing” of many a British war comic story.
Battle Stations opens with the sinking of an anti sub trawler by a U-Boat and the callous murder of survivors by the submarine’s crew. Just three British crew men survive, eventually reassigned to the HMS Vengeful – a ship’s name that for the angry survivors has more meaning than most would assign.
Without revealing too much of the story so far ahead of publication, the trio again find themselves in cast adrift, but this time alongside German survivors of a sea battle. Can they rise above the anger of past acts?
Hugo Pratt worked on US-inspired Italian comics after World War Two, before moving to London in 1959, to work on British publisher Fleetway’s war-inspired Picture Library titles, and we’ve previously featured his work on them thanks to Commando artist Keith Page. His lifelong interest in militaria proved particularly useful on such work.
A telegraphist in the Navy during World War Two before returning to Amalgamated Press where he had worked before the conflict, Donne Avenell, brings a sensibility this story that to be honest, I wasn’t expecting. It’s worth noting that in terms of British comics, naval strips have, for some reason, proven a hard sell down the decades, even to war comics fans, with numerous writers, including John Wagner and Pat Mills trying to make the setting work (the latter writer in episodes of “Charley’s War”) with varying degrees of success. Sam Glanzman, for one, had much more success in the United States with this particular theatre of conflict.
Perhaps it’s Avenell’s wartime experience that gives his naval stories an impressive edge, offering a great deal of both believability through attention to detail and careful plotting, with Hugo Pratt’s striking, stark art complementing his storytelling perfectly.
Indeed, it’s Pratt’s work that boosts the delivery of scenes where, for example, survivor Stoker First Class Sully rages at being stuck below decks as HMS Vengeful goes into action, and some page turn shocks are truly stunning as one battle heats up to the cost of both sides. It’s easy to see, even for this title produced to tight commercial deadline, just why Pratt is admired, by his fans and artists alike.
Avenell is rightfully highly regarded for his work on The Phantom, and of course Rebellion have also collected his chilling tale from Lion, “Dr. Mesmer’s Revenge“, drawn by Carlos Cruz, out next month, a story with tie-ins to the current The Vigilant release. I’d argue he deserves as much praise as Pratt for “Battle Stations”, and I’m now keen to read other stories by him.
I’d like to give a shout out, too, for Rebellion Publishing’s Ben Smith, who provides an introduction to this ARC presentation of “Battle Stations”, setting out Rebellion’s Treasury of British Comics raison d’etre in no uncertain terms as aiming to bring the very best of classic British comics the company now owns back into print. Battle Stations is very definite evidence of comics that have been languishing unseen by all but a small band of knowledgeable collectors well aware of their artistic worth.
As we’ve previously noted, Battle Stations will be published in an oversized format, befitting the importance of his incredible and highly influential artwork. The ARC isn’t quite final print size – I’m told the final hardback will be just a smidgen wider – but the photograph below, show the preview copy alongside a Titan Charley’s War collection, a standard bande dessinée album and a US format comic collection, should give you an idea of how “over size” Battle Stations will be.
The publication of Battle Stations next February is a very welcome to the growing Treasury of British Comics library offering powerful storytelling and great art in what’s shaping up to be a well-chosen format. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did, on release.
• Unleash Hell: War Picture Library Collection includes “The Iron Fist” first published in War Picture Library Issue 25, published in September 1959, drawn by Hugo Pratt
• There’s a guide to writer Donne Avenell’s work here on the UK Comics Wiki
Hugo Pratt: His Fleetway Work
His work for the Picture Libraries is noted as follows, over on a profile of his career on “Dan Dare Info”
War Picture Library
War Picture Library 25 – The Iron Fist
War Picture Library 40 – Pathfinder
War Picture Library 50 – The Crimson Sea
War Picture Library 58 – Up the Marines!
War Picture Library 62 – Strongpoint
War Picture Library 91 – The Bayonet Jungle
War Picture Library 92 – Dark Judgment
War Picture Library 133 – The Big Arena
Battle Picture Library
Battle Picture Library 62 – Night of the Devil
War at Sea Picture Library
War at Sea Picture Library 34 – Battle Stations
Thrilller Picture Library
Thriller Picture Library 297 – Battler Britton and the Wagons of Gold
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War Picture Library and associated titles © Rebellion Publishing Ltd