By John Wagner, Alan Grant (writing as Rick Clark) and Eric Bradbury
Publisher: Treasury of British Comics / Rebellion
Review by Andrew Darlington
WAR! What is it good for? Absolutely NOTHING!
I was born to the immediate post-war years, grew up through the blitzed rationing austerity into the new thermonuclear Cold War standoff and the seemingly endless TV Vietnam napalm-atrocity on the nightly news-slot. My sympathies were with the CND Peaceniks, and I never attuned easily to the Brit-comic fascination with World War Two. The heroic Space-Age thrills of the sci-fi strips were the ones I became fanatical about.
Of course, back then, there were always the “Battler Britton”, “Commando One” and “Rockfist Rogan” weekly war-stories, and DC Thomson’s long-running monthly Commando picture library title on newsagents’ displays. These 64-page editions began in September 1958 with “Fight Back To Dunkirk”, Number One of War Picture Library, produced for a marginally higher demographic than its weekly counterparts in an attempt to ratchet up the reader age-level. It was followed by Air Ace Picture Library (the first issue titled “Target Top Secret” in January 1960) and War At Sea Picture Library (Number One titled “Devil’s Cargo” in February 1962). Commando itself began in July 1961 with “Walk Or Die” titling its launch issue. Other kids traded them around the schoolyard, and of course I read them, but never got hooked.
The offensive, often near-caricatured Japs and militaristic Germans all seemed like the kind of history old men talked about in the corner of pubs when they’d drunk one too many. Shiny rocket ships and domed Martian colonies were the future I thirsted for.
Battle was a weekly comic launched by IPC – ‘Blasting Into Action’ complete with Free Combat Stickers, the first issue cover dated 8th March 1975, in direct competition to DC Thomson’s successful Warlord. It survived until January 1988, when it was swallowed up by the newly relaunched Eagle.
Initially, Battle consisted largely of gritty second World War tales, and went through a number of variant-title changes, running hard-hitting serials such as Tom Tully’s “Johnny Red”, a British World War Two pilot who finds himself serving on the Eastern Front with the Falcon Squadron. There was “D-Day Dawson” the Sergeant with a bullet lodged next to his heart; given a year to live he becomes “the soldier with a date with death”, illustrated by Geoff Campion.
“Charley’s War” from Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun – set in World War One, was also reprinted in Eagle, later reclaimed and eulogised by comics historians, while “Lofty’s One-Man Luftwaffe” was later reprinted as bound-in editions with Judge Dredd Megazine. The Gerry Finley-Day scripted “Hellman Of Hammer Force” viewed the war from the German perspective, while the hero of “Fighting Mann’, by Alan Hebden and Cam Kennedy, ventured on an unauthorised quest into the Vietnam War to hunt out his missing son, and even the Falklands debacle provides subject-matter for ‘Invasion!’ by Terence Magee and Jim Watson. As Denis Gifford notes in his The International Book Of Comics (Hamlyn, 1984), “Battle’s lingo tended to be tougher (almost every strip had someone saying ‘Blimey!’, for years a forbidden word in comics), as did its strips.”
“It Would be Mankind’s Last Battle!”
Running from the issues cover dated 26th March to 31st December 1983, if “Invasion: 1984” was an attempt to stretch the warfare-format in new directions, it took care to retain many ingredients familiar to Battle readers. Writers John Wagner and Alan Grant provide scripts that explode into life through Eric Bradbury’s fluid artwork. The TV news-reader announces that ‘The Fantasy Of Science Fiction Writers Has Now Become A Grim Reality!’ Because, as a sci-fi concept, the idea of a fleet of malevolent alien ships attacking planet Earth, much like the Independence Day (1996) movie, was scarcely breaking new ground, and misses out on the plotting detail of familiar themes used by an earlier generation of Space Heroes such as Dan Dare, Jet-Ace Logan, or Captain Condor. A first-contact mission US Space Shuttle Columbia is destroyed, and British war-planes, scrambled to intercept the intruder fleet at the end of the first episode are smashed by energy-beams in the opening frames of the second.
Although the alien armada proves well protected – “those flying coffee grinders have some kind of defensive shield” that the Sidewinder missiles launched from Phantoms and Harriers can’t penetrate – the skull-like alien ‘Spooks’ themselves are killable, vulnerable to gunshot, Chieftain tanks and rocket-launchers. “If You Spooks are thinking of pleading for mercy, forget it, I’ve got none”, yells Major ‘Mad Mac’ McVicker as he blasts them.
So as not to stretch the expectations of Battles core readership, Mac’s ‘Storm Squad’ are easily-recognisable from the comic’s “Rat Pack” strip (initially drawn by Carlos Ezquerra and written Gerry Finley-Day), itself derived from the movie The Dirty Dozen (1967), in which no-hoper crooks and convicts are released in order to carry out suicide missions. The line “Storm Squad make The Dirty Dozen seem like a bunch of kindergarten kids!” rather gives the game away. The “bunch of misfits” include the “filthy conniving thief” Burke, Geiger who collects a “Spook-Tooth Necklace” from the corpses of his scimitar-wielding alien kills, ex-Para Sergeant Roy ‘Fives’ Dent, twice-busted for striking officers, and the sharp-shooting Hogan Brothers.
Storm Squad’s initial task is to retrieve Language Professor and family-man Edward Lomax, who attempts to escape panic-stricken London with wife Marion and son Mike, seeking temporary refuge by trudging through the tube-tunnels from Camden Town to Golders Green stations. Once he’s lifted to safety, Lomax is delegated to decipher the Spook’s high-frequency language – just as Louise Banks (Amy Adams) does in the intelligent Sci-Fi movie Arrival (2016), while Storm Squad set out to capture a live alien on which to test his theories.
With just three pages a week, the story takes the colour cover for the 11 June cover-dated issue, showing Piccadilly Circus destroyed in flame, as the Spooks massacre the bickering Westminster government. A Polaris nuclear retaliation that wipes Glasgow off the map fails to halt the alien invaders “sweeping across the globe like a deadly plague!” The aliens then create a Concentration Camp army of obedient slaves implanted with control-devices. The Defence Secretary makes an impassioned speech for peaceful-coexistence in every way the equal to Jack Nicholson’s plea in Mars Attacks (1996), but is summarily beheaded.
With all major cities destroyed, extraterrestrial diseases ravaging the survivors (“Now we know what the Black Plague must have been like!”), and a resistance movement bunkered secretly in the Bedfordshire countryside, it seems that “Our planet no longer belongs to us, Lomax! The Human Race is Doomed.”
“Are You Brave Enough To Read The Next Terrifying Episode?”
With the language-key deciphered, some panels of Eric Bradbury’s finest art shows “the Spooks own planet” somewhere out in the constellation of Cygnus, which is “already becoming uninhabitable” as its sun swells into nova, a parched and arid world with the huge rising solar disk menacing above the horizon. Hence the alien’s expeditionary invasion force will be followed by a vast exodus of refugee colonists. This is not simply war, but a potential planetary extinction-event.
Retrieved by the numerically depleted Storm Squad, the use of the germ-warfare ZX-Seventeen virus from the decommissioned Geddon Down research facility (a reference to Wiltshire’s Porton Down centre), is probably a skewed tribute to HG Wells, whose original Martian invasion in the War Of The Worlds (1898) novel was defeated by the humble terrestrial germ. Leaving the ‘Children Of 1984’ to repopulate the world.
WAR! What is it good for? Absolutely NOTHING!
With England devastated to a post-apocalypse wasteland, seeded with plantations of alien crops, as a fusion of traditional Battle war story, with enough mix-match sci-fi themes to satisfy us with CND Peacenik sympathies, Invasion 1984! works remarkably well. Violent, and populated by ruthlessly scurrilous characters, the strip looks forward to the 2000AD invasion by Volgans, and Bill Savage’s Resistance fight-back, also piloted by Pat Mills and Gerry Finley-Day.
As a taster for Rebellion’s ambitious Treasury Of British Comics series, it forms an irresistible invitation to more.