Publisher: Titan Books
Out: 9th January 2014
The Book: New York Times bestselling writer Garth Ennis, writer of The Boys, Preacher and Battlefields, selects his favourite stories from the seminal 1970s British boys comic Battle. Included here for the very first time is the complete HMS Nightshade, and the full story of The General Dies At Dawn. Rounding out this classic collection are three short stories drawn by fan-favourite Cam Kennedy: Clash By Night, Hot Wheels, and the superb Private Loser.
With insights and introductions by Ennis himself, these war comic rarities are not to be missed!
The Review: First announced for release for last October, this collection of stories from Battle Picture Weekly is a welcome addition to Titan Books war comic range, which already includes ten volumes of Charley’s War, Darkie’s Mob and a collection of some of the lesser-known but equally enjoyable Battle strips, The Best of Battle.
Although The Best of Battle was well received and the strips carefully selected, it was a strange collection, featuring only parts of longer stories, and when no follow up volume emerged some Battle fans thought the format had been abandoned.
Similarly, although Titan released Major Eazy Volume 1: Heart of Iron and Rat Pack Volume 1: Guns, Guts and Glory, both series were put on hiatus in 2012 and only three volumes of Johnny Red were published.
Now, hopefully, thanks to Garth Ennis – who freely admits how the war stories of Battle influenced his own war tales – and dedicated restoration work by Moose Harris, the concept might be re-ignited, offering in this volume the complete “HMS Nightshade” and the “The General Dies At Dawn”, one of the strips partly featured in Best of Battle – plus three short stories, all drawn by Cam Kennedy.
Written by John Wagner and drawn by Mike Western (inked in part by, perhaps, Ron Tiner), “HMS Nightshade” debuted in Battle in its 200th issue in 1979, alongside “Charley’s War” and the panned “Glory Rider”. The story of a Royal Navy Corvette K70, it was well received, although naval stories never seemed to generate the same kind of following as land-based tales like Wagner and Western’s best-known Battle strip, “Darkie’s Mob”.
Each episode was introduced by old George Dunn (who looked uncannily like artist Mike Western), who told the story of the plucky little ship he served in as a young man to his grandson, who was always eager to hear more.
The framing device of a war remembered perhaps didn’t work well for some readers as the crew of the Nightshade battle their way from rescuing soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk and deadly U-Boats to an ignoble end. As the tale progresses, the role of the ‘Grandad’ figure occasionally takes a back seat, although it’s too Wagner’s credit that it’s never dropped completely and the story both begins and ends with the elderly pensioner. As with “Darkie’s Mob” and Mills’ “Charley’s War,” “HMS Nightshade” never pulls punches, exposing the terror of sea war with the attention to detail and grim storytelling and point-sharp characterisation (punctuated with some black humour) that is Wagner’s trademark.
Mike Western’s distinctive art excels, as ever, the veteran artist turning his hand to the war at sea with the same consummate skill with which he applied himself to strips such as Battle‘s “The Sarge” and the fondly-remembered “Leopard of Lime Street” in Buster and Valiant‘s “The Wild Wonders”.
Written by Alan Hebden with great art from John Cooper, “The General Dies at Dawn” was part of the build up to Battle’s 200th issue, and ran for eleven weeks. Each episode counted down another hour of the General’s life,leading to the dramatic conclusion as the US Army reach Stadtheim. It rightfully deserves it reputation as an undiscovered classic, telling the story of the war from a German point of view – something rarely done in British comics until the debut of Battle. It’s good to see the complete tale told in this volume and Cooper’s excellent art of the tale no doubt helped him secure his long term commission to continue “Johnny Red” from issue 200 onwards after Joe Colquhoun moved on.
The selection of three Cam Kennedy tales to round off the collection nicely, and I’ll happily second Garth Ennis’ opinion that, together with Titan’s other Battle collections, this new compendium represents the very best of the strips in the comic’s long and highly regarded run. There are other stories that deserve consideration for any future collection, but in terms of their storytelling “HMS Nightshade” and “The General Dies at Dawn” are head and shoulders above many of the war comic’s other strips, despite the quality of the art on many.
A final tip of the hat on this book must go to Moose Harris, whose dedication to providing the very best scans of the Battle pages goes well beyond the call of duty. Moose began his work for Titan on the Charley’s War volumes I edited and I know how much he puts into trying to ensure the very best presentation of these tales, despite the original paper stock that drank ink and probably left many artists tearing their hair out when they saw how their fine line art was wrecked by poor printing. He’s done a stand out job on Battle Classics, and deserves much praise for his work.
• An earlier collection, Best of Battle, was published in 2009
• Although Titan released Major Eazy Volume 1: Heart of Iron and Rat Pack Volume 1: Guns, Guts and Glory, both series were put on hiatus in 2012 – but a fourth volume Johnny Red has just been released in comic shops, with a book shop release of 6th September 2016