My main hobby is comics (you’d never have guessed, would you?) but one of my many other interests is history. When I found out about the Great War Dundee event that combined both, involving the launch of the free Great War Dundee Comic and appearances by Pat Mills, Ian Kennedy and Anya Morozova, located in the new V&A Dundee, I booked last Friday day off from work faster than a pigeon crossing No Man’s Land in World War One.
The day, packed with a slew of speakers from the worlds of comics and academia, was introduced by Dr Billy Kenefick and included not only the launch for the Great War Dundee Comic but a Hidden Histories booklet, a talk on World War One in Comics, Film and Games with Professor Chris Murray, former Commando editor Dr Calum Laird and Dr Iain Donald, chaired by Phillip Vaughan, and a Commando Comics Workshop.
We were also treated to a Great War Dundee roundtable discussion with Dr Billy Kenefick, Dr Derek Patrick and Dr Iain Donald, chaired by Dr Murray Frame, an interview with Pat Mills covering his work on “Charley’s War” through to his new strip, “Ragtime Soldier” – and a round table discussion with Pat Mills, artists Ian Kennedy and Gary Welsh, Phillip Vaughan, Commando writers Hailey Austin and Anna Morozova and Calum Laird – chaired by Chris Murray.
The day ended with a signing event with Pat Mills, Ian Kennedy and the creators of the Great War Dundee comic in Dundee Comics Creative Space.
There’s no need for me to point out what I was looking forward to the most – but the bits of the day I enjoyed surprised me.
As comics expert, author and former retailer John McShane and I settled into our seats, we were welcomed by Dr Billy Kenefick, who explained what the Great War Dundee project was about. This segued smoothly to Fiona Sinclair inviting us to look at the Hidden Histories book that had been placed on every seat, which lookes at how the Great War had affected those who were born and bred Dundonians – but also those who had adopted Dundee as their home and other associations with Dundee.
The next session was how the “War To End All Wars” had been depicted in comics that were of the time and how the war had been reinterpreted by the generations that were increasingly removed from the senseless slaughter of the Flower of Britain’s youth. We were treated to some beautiful Winsor McCay illustrations featuring anti-war propaganda prior to the United States being drawn into the conflict in 1917.
This talk obviously culminated in discussing the new Great War Dundee Comic, which can in no way ever be called a clarion call to go to war.
However, as educational and entertaining Calum Laird and Chris Murray were, it was Iain Donald, a lecturer who previously worked IT and Game Development and led several award-winning Applied Games projects, who stole the kudos for that part of the day. Iain explained that where gaming goes, it has yet to lead as, too often, the ground it walks has been trail-blazed by cinema and comics. However, he was able to recommend three of the best examples of the use of World War One in gaming – Valiant Hearts, Verdun and Battlefield 1.
While there is historical accuracy in each game, Battlefield 1 follows the U-571 movie’s approach to history. However, I will recommend Valiant Hearts for one reason above all others, for its Vimy Ridge “Easter Egg”. By using columns of smoke, Ubisoft paid tribute to the fallen, to create an ethereal model of the memorial that would one day stand there for all the fallen Canadians of World War One.
This session proved unexpectedly personal for me as, during the Q&A session, Iain was asked for examples of how gaming could be used to create a fitting tribute to the fallen. He spoke of his work with PoppyScotland to create a virtual memorial and the example he used took me back 25 years in a second. They’d created a virtual model of the Poppy Scotland working centre, where veterans work to assemble the poppies, and it shows how their work stations were personalised with mementos of their lives.
The example he used was the white mug that had been a staple of all the United Nations deployments in the Former Republic of Yugoslavia. You don’t stop HM Forces by fighting us. Take away the brew kits and the Forces would come to a grinding halt!
I am not ashamed that even now I am a little emotional about something I have not thought about for over 20 years.
Unfortunately, of the planned speakers, all but writer Hailey Austin were unable to attend the Commando workshop, but that did not deter Hailey. With her engaging matter and a sneak preview of Commando 5 … ah, that would be telling!
Hailey took us through the creative process of how each issue is put together, from original pitch to finally being seen in print. (Both she and Calum made sure every time I went near the original art, it did not end up falling accidentally into my bag!).
At this point, we adjourned for lunch and I was able to hang back and chat with the creatives. It was an absolute pleasure to spend time with Ian Kennedy, Calum, Gary, Hailey and Anya and to have Calum gently ribbing me about half-inching the box of Commandos that had been brought down as printed examples.
I expected the round table discussion regarding the Great War Dundee project to be one that I would least enjoy. I was genuinely pleased to be proven wrong. Many subjects were brought up, one the arguments about the placement of the Dundee memorial on the Law Hill that was originally designed to incorporate Austrian lumber. Needless to say, that did not go down well with the veterans of the time. We also found out the reason why it is only lit on the 25th September each year so that Dundee can remember its darkest hour.
Another subject to be raised was the curious duality of Dundee having the highest rate of war resisters and volunteers to join the Forces before conscription was introduced. One story that highlighted this duality perfectly was two funerals took place in Dundee on the same day. One was a soldier who had fallen; the other was a war resister. As each cortege proceeded in opposite directions, they passed one another. The column of war resisters raised their hats to acknowledge one who had died for his country. The soldiers saluted the departed war resister who had fought for his community according to his principles. It was acknowledged that Dundee was possibly the only city where this could have happened as in many other cities, war resisters were vilified and often publicly attacked while the authorities would not press charges on those beating up a ‘conchie’. The similarities to certain events in today’s society can not be ignored.
Now we had come to the bit which I had been most looking forward to – but it felt like a natural progression to the day to have a comic launch. Once editors Chris Murray and Phil Vaughn had made sure we all had a copy of the Great War Dundee Comic, they gave the floor to Pat Mills.
Well, one thing you will never be able to accuse Pat of is sitting on the fence! With passion and eloquence, Pat explained that “Ragtime Soldier”, the comic’s key strip, was a natural progression from “Charley’s War” and his rebuttal of all those who appear to see the mass slaughter of battles such as Verdun, Loos, the Somme, Passchendale and all the others as some sort of victory, rather than the factory of death by attrition that it was.
If the real history of the Great War intrigues, there’s a section on the “Charley’s War” micro site here on downthetubes with a number of book recommendations, originally compiled by the late Neil Emery, but at the event, Pat also mentioned Prolonging The Agony by Jimmy MacGregor and Gerry Docherty. Pat highly recommends this book for those who are feeling distinctly unsettled by the way the Great War is currently being seen as a “great war”.
One fact that stunned me was that some of the German machine gunners stopped firing on the first day of the Battle of Loos, as they could not continue to commit mass murder as the wall of corpses grew in front of their guns.
Well, this article went dark quite quickly. I am sure others will review the comic and speak of it in glowing terms. I have read “Ragtime Soldier” and the story is classic Pat Mills. I had been saving “Casualties of War” and the “Women’s Toon” too read, and plan to enjoyed reading them while Scott Joplin plays in the background. (For those not lucky enough to get to the launch, fear not for Comic Scene has done a deal to publish it as a pull out in October’s issue – and a free digital download will also be available.
Hopefully, Dundee-based publisher UniVerse gets the funding for Issue 2, as I would love to see the continuation of “Ragtime Soldier”. And yes, before anyone asks, I got some squiggles at the signing event, not to mention a lovely addition to Project SKETCHBOOK from Gary Welsh.
Oh, and if you thought my taking the day off for this event was a bit cheeky, that’s nothing compared to the dedication from the Awesome Comic Podcast’s Antony ‘Es’ Esmond, who made a nine-hour drive to be at the launch event! Above and beyond…
• The Great War Dundee Comic will be available free to download from the University Research Web Portal soon and also in the October issue of ComicScene Magazine