Mike Western Remembered

Mike Western - Self PortraitOne of the giants of British comics, Mike Western, laid down his pen for the last time on Tuesday, 13 May 2008, at the age of 83.

His credits, spanning decades of British comics, included “The Wild Wonders” for Valiant; “The Leopard of Lime Street” for Buster; “Darkie’s Mob”, “HMS Nightshade” and “The Sarge” for Battle and many, many more fantastic strips.

In 2005, a special issue of the fanzine Eagle Flies Again celebrated the work of this great artist to mark his 80th birthday. here, we present an online, updated version of one of the features of the issue.

Tributes and memories from British comics creators and downthetubes readers to Mike appear on this page.

Mike Western didn’t have particular ambitions to become an artist — he was a wages clerk who got a job in film animation after army service. He was soon employed on a comic called Knockout, for which he drew “Johnny Wingco”, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Action Annual 1980 original preparatory artwork by Mike Western with margin editorial comments. From the archive of Jan Shepheard, Fleetway art editor

Action Annual 1980 original preparatory artwork by Mike Western with margin editorial comments. From the archive of Jan Shepheard, Fleetway art editor

Mike is perhaps best known for his famous Battle story “Darkie’s Mob“, written by John Wagner, and has cited this story as his favourite. It ran from August 1976 to June 1977 and some episodes were reprinted in 1981. The story made a return in the Judge Dredd Megazine in the 2000s, telling the tale of Captain Joe Darkie who leads a rag-tag group of British soldiers behind Japanese lines in Burma.

In Eagle Flies Again Issue 11, John Wagner commented that if he was writing “Darkie’s Mob” now, he tone down some of the jingoistic language and Mike himself expressed reservations about some of the violence. It’s true that certain elements of the story and dialogue may have dated, but the artwork certainly has not. Mike’s crisp drawings are as fresh as the day they were first printed.

Mike was born in Southampton on 4th February 1925. He attended East School in Hounslow and as a boy read such comics as Comic Cuts, Joker and Chips. He was keen follower of films and cinema and would later base the faces of his characters on movie stars he admired.

The Leopard from Lime Street - Strip ExampleHe worked on comics from the 1950s, drawing several stories for Buster, most famously (in the 1970s and 80s) “The Leopard from Lime Street“, on which he shared the artist’s chores with his colleague Eric Bradbury who later brought life to Doomlord in the 1980s Eagle. Mike also drew “Biggles” for TV Express, taking over from Ron Embleton, brother of Dan Dare artist Gerry Embleton.

He then worked on Valiant in the 1960s and 1970s and in 1975 was invited by editor David Hunt to work on Battle. Mike’s most famous strips after “Darkie’s Mob” for the weekly war comic were “The Sarge” and “HMS Nightshade“. This latter strip ran to four pages an episode, meaning that Mike required the assistance of an inker to complete the final two pages of each instalment.

He would later remark that “The best times were spent working for Valiant and Battle”.

Mike went on to draw stories for Speed and Tiger, drawing “Golden Boy” for Tiger which carried over to Eagle when the two comics merged. His Eagle period was to be another golden era: he contributed to “Computer Warrior“, “The Hard Men“, “Shadow” and “Avenger“.

He also drew “Billy’s Boots” for Roy of the Rovers and “Roy of the Rovers” for The Star newspaper.

Eagle Flies Again Issue 6 Cover

Eagle Flies Again Issue 6 Cover

Mike was a true friend to Eagle Flies Again. He was interviewed in Issue Three (reproduced here online), wrote an article for Issue Four and contributed our front cover for Issue Six.

8Oth Birthday Tributes

Tributes and memories to Mike on his passing in May 2008 from British comics creators and downthetubes readers to Mike appear on this page

DAVID BISHOP, EDITOR

I recently prepared a series of articles about British war comic Battle for the Judge Dredd Megazine. I knew Dredd co-creator Carlos Ezquerra had graced Battle with his art for a while and had heard much about the classic strip “Charley’s War” by Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun, but the name of artist Mike Western meant nothing to me. Then I started reading back issues of Battle as research for my articles…

Mike’s art for Battle is stunning — the storytelling ability, the characterisation, the uncluttered style, all of it combine to produce some of the finest work in the comic. He gives lesser strips a class the scripts don’t always deserve, while his collaboration with John Wagner on “Darkie’s Mob” elevates the grim and gritty tale to stand proudly among the best ever published in Battle.

In an era where the panel count per page was often double that you see in most comics today, Mike was able to communicate often complex narratives with clarity and subtlety and wit. Most of the artists now working could learn a lot from studying the works of this under-appreciated master.

I don’t know why Mike never worked for me when I edited the Megazine and, subsequently, 2000AD in the 1990s. Maybe he had already retired, maybe I was offered his services and stupidly turned them down. But he’s a class act in any decade and deserves every accolade he gets.

David Bishop
Editor of 2000AD (1996-2000) and the Judge Dredd Megazine (most of the 1990s)

DAVE GIBBONS, COMICS ARTIST AND WRITER

Mike Western is one of those artists that, as a kid, I took for granted. Everything would look so authentic and exciting that I just fell into the drama.

It’s only later that, with a professional eye, I realised the effort that this apparent effortlessness took. The craft that is needed to fit ten or more pictures onto a page, with variety and clarity. The skill that it takes to organise the elements in each picture, often with a large cast of individual characters and an exotic or atmospheric setting, not to mention often wordy speech balloons, without crowding the composition. The fluency that ensures the story is always clear, the action always coherent. The vision that can render in ink, in pure black and white, people and places with such presence and vivacity. The discipline that it takes to perform this feat week in and week out, without missing a beat.

It’s a tribute to Mike that, despite all that, I STILL just fall into the drama of his work!

Dave Gibbons
Artist, 2000AD, Watchmen; Writer and Artist, The Originals

ALAN GRANT, WRITER

We only ever met in the pages of comics, Mike. I was a runny-nosed kid with a sweetie cigarette and a bundle of comics. Now I have three grandkids, every one dedicated to reading comics. Thanks for the art, and for the inspiration.

Alan Grant
Writer

The Wild Wonders by Mike Western

The Wild Wonders by Mike Western

STEVE HOLLAND, WRITER AND ARCHIVIST

I’ve led a fortunate life when it comes to comics. My first comic was Valiant at a time when it was filled each week by some of the best artists in the field. Yes, colour comics had more immediate impact — Frank Bellamy, Frank Hampson, Ron Embleton, Don Lawrence and others were each remarkable talents in their individual ways — but I learned to appreciate the skills of the black and white artist through the comics of the late 1960s and for me that was a golden era.

Jesus Blasco on “The Steel Claw”, Eric Bradbury on “The House of Dollmann”, Bill Lacey on “Mytek the Mighty”, Eric Dadswell on “Sexton Blake”, Solano Lopez on “Raven on the Wing” and Mike Western on “The Wild Wonders”… It’s an astonishing line-up if you think about it.

I’ve been lucky enough to have met or corresponded with three of those six amazingly talented artists; back in 1989, I had the idea of producing a series of little booklets dedicated to each of them and a few others I’d grown to appreciate (Geoff Campion and Joe Colquhoun were two that sprang to mind). Like most of my best-laid plans the little matter of earning a living got in the way and I only managed one little booklet… The Mike Western Story.

Mike was incredibly gracious and supportive. He wrote at length about his career; his letters were rambling and insightful and introduced me to titles like the Knockout, which I had only barely heard of back then. Through our correspondence I realised there was a far broader history that needed researching when it came to British comics.
15 years later, I’m still researching whenever the time allows. The generosity of people like Mike to answer all manner of questions about their careers and memories of fellow artists and writers is still the inspiration that keeps me going.

My little 50-copy booklet sold out and a couple of year’s later Brian Whitworth reprinted it; Mike kindly added a note to update readers on his career and provided a cover. I’m looking at his illustration of Rick and Charlie Wild as I write and I still have the same deep affection for the characters that I did when I first read them over thirty-five years ago. I can look back at the Wild Boys’ misadventures with professors Krun and Golightly and they are still laugh out loud hilarious. For them alone, Tom Tully and Mike Western earned themselves a place amongst the greats of British comics.

Like many, I followed Mike into darker territories when he moved to Battle Picture Weekly, drawing “Darkie’s Mob” and “HMS Nightshade” amongst others. Classic strips that have earned themselves some well-deserved recognition in the past few years. Sad fanboy that I am, I also used to buy the Star when Mike was drawing the “Roy of the Rovers” daily strip.

One happy moment not too many years ago, I had a phone call from Alistair Crompton who was trying to put together a magazine for a theatre group. He wanted to include a comic strip and contacted Mike at my suggestion. I remember seeing the strip when it appeared — in colour, which was a really nice surprise. The characters were instantly recognisable and I was so pleased to see that, although he had been retired for some years, Mike’s hand and eye were as sure as ever. He still has that God-gifted talent for comic artistry and story-telling that he showed in what must amount to thousands of pages of comic strips over a period of forty years.

Thank you for “Johnny Winco”, for “No Hiding Place”, for “The Shrinker”, for “The Duke of Dry Gulch”, for “The Leopard From Lime Street”, for “The Sarge”, for “Billy’s Boots” and for the dozens of other strips that have filled — and continue to fill — so many happy hours of my childhood and adulthood.

Steve Holland – Bear Alley

A promotional image for Darkie's Mob's first publication in Battle.

A promotional image for Darkie’s Mob’s first publication in Battle.

MARK JARVIS, FAN

Mike’s wonderful art illuminated the childhood of whole generations of British schoolboys in an era when comics sold to a mass market. It is very sad that comic book artists are so under appreciated in this country whereas in the US they are given the acclaim they truly deserve. The reprint of “Darkie’s Mob” in the Judge Dredd Megazine showed that his talent stands up to comparison with the best artists on either side of the pond.

I hope one day much more of his work will be collected in Graphic Novel format and he will be finally recognised alongside Joe Colquhoun as one of the finest British artists of his time.

Mark Jarvis
Webmaster, Battle fan site

DAVID LLOYD, COMICS ARTIST AND WRITER

When I first chanced upon Mike Western’s work, I hated British war comic strips. The usual run of them in the comics I saw around and about but never bought, were scratchily drawn, often had lots of unnecessary shading, and generally had no design sense built into their compositions. They were too often like a series of illustrations stuck together, pretending to be comic strips. In fact, at the time, a lot of the British comics publishers preferred to use the term “picture stories” to describe the content of their periodicals. They obviously knew their business. Stories made up of pictures is definitely the right description for much of what you’d see in the British war comics of that period.

Mike Western’s stuff was in a different league altogether. He’d design pages, use dynamic layouts — and there was a certain three-dimensional quality to his work which was almost the direct result of his powerful style of line drawing. It was a clean, sharp, bold style. It had muscle – with strong blacks and no unnecessary shading. Classic, thin to thick, form-making technique, honed to perfection. I read an interview with him, recently, in which he described his admiration for the American masters of strip art — artists such as Alex Raymond. It didn’t surprise me. Like is attracted to like. War comics were the only ones I’d seen Mike’s work in during those years, and I wish it had converted me into reading more of those he appeared in. If it had, I’d probably have ended up collecting the stuff he did in those comics, in the same way that I know Garth Ennis has, treasuring it and keeping it safe; but, back then, I was too interested in things that were out of this world to be attracted by stories which obviously took place within it, however well-crafted they happened to be.

It’s my loss.

David Lloyd
Artist, V for Vendetta, Espers, Night Raven, Metal Hurlant and Kickback — a graphic novel for for the French publisher Editions Carabas and Dark Horse.

BARRIE TOMLINSON, WRITER AND EDITOR

Mike Western is one of the true greats of British comics. As a Fleetway Editor, it was always my ambition to get Mike to work for one of my titles…but it took years to persuade him! But his drawings were well worth waiting for! His artwork for the comics is now rightly recognised as pure genius! From “The Sarge” to “Billy’s Boots”, to “Roy of the Rovers”, his work was in a class of its own. Not only that, he is also a perfect gentleman!

Barrie Tomlinson
Editor, Tiger (and others), Writer, Scorer

JAMES TOMLINSON, WRITER

With my father, Barrie, being a Fleetway Editor, it was perhaps no great surprise I became a big comics’ fan and later a scriptwriter. The tremendous artwork really appealed to me, especially the talent of superb artists like Mike Western.

Battle was my favourite title so I saw a lot of Mike’s work. “Darkie’s Mob” was one of my top all time stories, a tough and often brutal tale set in the jungles of World War Two. Mike’s artwork really brought this hard hitting story to life. From war to adventure to sport, Mike’s drawing talent is wide ranging. His work on “Billy’s Boots” and “Roy of the Rovers”, for example, brought true realism to these legendary heroes of the football pitch.

James Tomlinson
Writer, Ring Raiders, Computer Warrior, Storm Force

Johhny Wingco - Knockout by Mike WesternMike Western: A Selected Stripography

(This is not a complete list of Mike’s work. Special thanks to Steve Holland for his help with this)

1950s

Knockout
• Captain Phantom
(Mike’s first comics work)
• Davy Crockett
• Hopalong Cassidy (later drawn by Ian Kennedy)
• Lucky Logan
• Johnnie Winco

1960s

TV Express
• No Hiding Place
• ‘Biggles

Buster
• The Creeping Peril
• The Shrinker
• The Dome of Doom
• The Boy Who Knew Too Much

Valiant Summer Special - Cover by Mike Western

Valiant Summer Special – Cover by Mike Western

Valiant
• The Wild Wonders
Mike drew this for 13 years, into the 1970s, as well as many other strips, covers etc. for the title.

1970s

Buster
• The Leopard from Lime Street

Battle Picture Weekly
• Darkie’s Mob’ (1976-77)
• The Sarge’ (1966-78)
• HMS Nightshade (1979)

1980s

Speed
• Baker’s Half Dozen

Tiger
• Topps on Two Wheels

Eagle
• Shadow
• The Computer Warrior
• The Hard Men
• Avenger

1990s

Roy of the Rovers
• Billy’s Boots

Daily Star
• Roy of the Rovers (1992-93).

Theatre Mask
• Birney & Co.

Mike continued to produce monthly illustrations until 2003.

He took up oil painting on retirement, doing work which included landscapes and local characters

For tributes to Mike Western by many comic creators, visit this page

This feature includes material first published in the fanzine Eagle Flies Again and is used with the full permission of editor Ian Wheeler

Special thanks to Rufus Dayglo for his assistance with some of the images on this page. © is as indicated

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