Battler Britton is the next IPC character to see revival through DC Comics Wildstorm imprint, in a five-issue mini series from writer Garth Ennis, illustrated by Colin Wilson, with painted covers by Garry Leach.
The first issue will go on sale in specialist comic stores from 6 July 2006.
“Battler Britton – England’s Fighting Ace of Land, Sea and Air” was an IPC staple for over 25 years. He debuted in Sun Issue 361 in January 1956, created by writer Mike Butterworth and artist Geoff Campion, then moved over to Knockout in 1960 after Sun folded. In 1960 and 1961, IPC/Fleetway published two hardback compilations of Battler’s adventures – packaged as Battler’s memoirs — with authorship credited to “Wing Commander Robert Hereward Britton.”
He entered his finest era in the early 1960s, creatively speaking, and began starring in the Air Ace Picture Library and Battle Picture Library digests — where his adventures were illustrated by (among others) Hugo Pratt, Francisco Solano Lopez and – most famously — Ian Kennedy and Graham Coton.
The five issue Wildstorm is set in at the midpoint of the Second World War, “as the Nazis rain terror throughout Europe, Allied forces are on the run in North Africa.
“It’s October 1942 and Rommel’s Panzers are unrelenting in their pursuit,” a promotion for the new title states. “Wing Commander Robert “Battler” Britton of the RAF and his squadron have been dispatched to an American airstrip to spearhead a joint action against Hitler’s war machine. Now they need to survive the taunts, the threats, the assaults… and that’s just from the Yanks!”
Explanations and Inspirations
So, why Battler Britton? “He was the only character on the list Wildstorm had bought up that I was interested in,” Garth Ennis, one of Britain’s most popular comics writers, reveals. “The rest were all old 1950s and Sixties characters, well before my time,” the writer, perhaps best known for writing Judge Dredd for the UK’s 2000AD, Preacher and Hitman for DC Comics, continues. “[Editor] Scott Dunbier at Wildstorm showed me the list and I worked my way down it, thinking — no, no, huh?, no, never heard of it, no, no… Battler Britton? Bloody hell, it’s Battler Britton! Very pleasant surprise.
“I used to read Battler as a kid in the Battle and War Picture Library reprints of the earlier Air Ace stuff. The strip had great artwork by people like Ian Kennedy and Graham Coton,with a surprisingly hard edge to some of the stories.”
“While I didn’t know a great deal about the actual Battler character, I was a pretty familiar with the old UK war comics,” says Colin Wilson, whose credits after 25 years in the comics business include Judge Dredd, Tex and Blueberry. “Having grown up in New Zealand reading the Fleetway stuff, especially War Picture Library and Air Ace.
“It was the art that always interested me most, which was probably why I never really got into the Commando series, which for some reason I always thought less well drawn.
“A favourite of mine were books drawn by Ian Kennedy,” Colin adds, “who, at least as far as I was concerned, was in a league of his own when it came to the look and feel of aircraft and flying. Which is why in many ways I am treating these Battler books that I am currently working on as something of a homage to Ian Kennedy and those original Air Ace stories, several of which I still have. If I can capture some of that, then I’ll be very happy.
“Battler is also a chance for me to work with Garth Ennis, which is something I’ve wanted to do for a long while.”
Garth and Colin happily admit to being British war comics fans. “I love the Picture Libraries,” says Garth, “and I recall reading things like Victor and Warlord from time to time. The best war comic of all time, of course, is Battle, with brilliant stuff like Darkie’s Mob, HMS Nightshade, Crazy Keller, The General Dies At Dawn and Rat Pack — especially the later stories drawn by Eric Bradbury. Charley’s War remains unsurpassed, even 25 years later; the humanity, tragedy and sheer subversion of that story combine to elevate it well above the rest of the pack.
“My favourite as a kid, mind you, was Johnny Red, which is what I was actually hoping to find on the Wildstorm list. I don’t know who has the rights to that one nowadays, but Johnny’s the one character I’d still drop everything to write. In the meantime, Battler will do nicely.”
(Johnny Red and Battle are not owned by IPC Media – Egmont Fleetway does, and although they seem happy to re-sell material they own in Europe, appear to have no plans to reprint such classic strips or capitalise on their ownership).
“Back in those days, for me it was always about the art, and to this day I haven’t a clue who wrote any of those stories,” says Colin of war comics. “Air Ace was the series that really got me, probably because of my interest in mechanical things. And the flying of course. I got into that series very early, and I can still remember the first issue to arrive that was held aside for me at the local newsagent — McGregor’s Crew. I think that it was issue No 6, probably drawn by the great Solarno-Lopez.
“Years later when I was publishing my comics fanzine Strips in New Zealand, we ran a story trying to identify some of those original artists, because of course in their day they were never credited. It was interesting to discover just how many of them went on to become very well known in Europe — Hugo Pratt being the obvious example, but also other guys like Victor de la Fuente and Gino d’Antonio.
“It was also at this stage that I discovered it was Ian Kennedy that drew all those wonderful flying stories.
Despite huge sales for war comics in the past, the market has shrunk in recent years. “I’d say their appeal has greatly diminished,” Garth acknowledges, “largely because the generation whose parents experienced the Second World War have mostly moved beyond comics. The conflicts we’ve had since have either been singularly uninspiring, like Vietnam, or been fought by the MTV/ Nintendo/internet generation, for whom comics have less appeal.
“All the same,” Garth feels, “there’s a small but steady level of support for material of this nature — it’s hard to top the drama of a war story, especially when you realise that things like what they’re depicting actually happened, that people really did this stuff once upon a time.”
“What can be more dramatic? A life and death struggle… as a genre it’s got everything going for it,” Colin adds. “Most readers also have a general feel for the framework and some of the history, and so there’s no need for a large amount of exposition, you can immediately get right in there.”
Apart from Battler Britton, Garth is keeping busy with several comics projects. “There’s The Tyger, a Punisher special drawn by John Severin, Ghost Rider: Trail of Tears, a western illustrated by Clayton Crain, four issues of JLA Classified with art by John McCrea, featuring a flashback to our old Hitman book, and A Man Called Kev drawn by Carlos Ezquerra, the last (for now) Kev Hawkins story,” he reveals. “I’m also working on the monthly Punisher title, a Punisher miniseries with John Romita Jr., Wormwood with Jacen Burrowes, The Midnighter with Chris Sprouse, a western called Streets of Glory, and something quite special I’m not really at liberty to mention at the moment.
“Finally, there’s The Boys, a new monthly drawn by Darick Robertson, which is going to be occupying a good deal of my time over the next five years. I’m loving every minute of that one!”
As for Colin, “At the moment I also have a successful series running in France – Du Plomb Dans La Tete, written by Mats — and the third book in this series was published by Casterman in January.
“I’m also talking to [writer] Andy Diggle about a couple of very interesting projects, as we’ve been trying to get together on something for years.Doing three issues for The Losers with Andy last year was fun, and I’m starting to find more and more interesting possibilities opening up for me in the US market.”
(Thanks to Garth Ennis, Andrew Sumner, Colin Wilson and Wildstorm for their help with this story).