Creating War Comics: Garth Ennis on the return of Battle Action in 2024

Paul Trimble, coordinator of the Battle Fans Facebook Group, recently chatted with Garth Ennis about his work, Battle Picture Weekly, and more. With his permission – and, Garth’s – we’re representing the interview here on downthetubes, which includes some teases for the revival of the war comic next year from Rebellion. Enjoy…

Enniskillen Comic Fest 2023 - James Bacon with Hibernia Comics David McDonald, Garth Ennis and event organiser Paul Trimble
James Bacon with Hibernia Comics David McDonald, Garth Ennis and event organiser Paul Trimble

Garth, thank you very much for agreeing to answer some questions submitted by members of our Battle Fans page.

First of all our thanks and congratulations on reviving our favourite comic. Just a few years ago Battle was overlooked and pretty much forgotten but now the title is a major success all over again with its status restored. How do you feel about the success of the hardcover special and the miniseries. Has it been a surprise?

Battle Action Special 2022 - Final Cover

I had no idea what to expect when we did the special last year, it was a real leap into the dark. If it hadn’t worked, I would have just had to concede that there wasn’t enough of an audience for these characters. But when it actually did succeed, enough to do more Battle Action, I was delighted.

With the miniseries I suppose you have a more comprehensive testing of the waters, making sure the special wasn’t just a flash in the pan, but I figured we were on surer ground this time around. That’s three metaphors in one sentence, if anyone’s counting.

Many fans have commented on how great is has been to pick up regular issues of our favourite comic again, just a shame it wasn’t available in newsagents for old times sake. The series will be collected at some point but who’s idea was it to have published in issues rather than a second Special?

That was Ben Smith [at Rebellion]. The decision was a pleasant surprise to me, actually, because I’d assumed that we’d only be doing a slightly larger special. I’ve been very impressed by how careful Rebellion are being with Battle Action – rather than just hammering out a ton of material as soon as they saw the success of the special, they opted for the miniseries with an emphasis on keeping up the quality. There’s a real sense that we’re building something here, which I appreciate very much.

A few readers commented that rather than two stories per issue they’d have preferred perhaps four shorter stories to recapture the feel of the original comic. Was there any consideration for this?

The problem there would be with six to seven page stories on a monthly schedule, rather than the meatier fourteen. I really think you want to give people something substantial enough to get their teeth into on a thing like Battle Action.

I remember back in the day seeing short stories in Crisis or Judge Dredd Megazine, and feeling a bit frustrated at how they felt like they were over before they began. Then it was thirty more days to wait for another six pages.

2000AD Prog 2350 - Cover: Cliff Robinson / Dylan Teague

What did you think of the recent “What If” Battle Action had been merged into 2000AD back in 1982” issue of the Prog and Meg?

I thought it was well done but ultimately not really for me, in the same way that I find it hard to maintain interest in most sci-fi or fantasy strips. Just personal taste, really. I do like those genres, but in small doses and only now and again. However, as you say, every little helps when you’re talking about promoting Battle Action as a going concern.

It too seems to have been a huge success, raising the profile of the Battle characters even more. You weren’t a part of the project but if you had been what would be your choice BA/2000AD mashup?

Charley's War: Lieutenant Snell
Charley’s War’s Lieutenant Snell

See last answer. However, one thing does come to mind in a sort of oblique way: in the late eighties Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill did a Torquemada story in which Torque is hypnotised and given a look at his previous lives – various historical monsters show up, including a National Front leader, Adolf Hitler, the Witchfinder General, the original Torquemada etc. I remember reading this and being certain that at any moment we were going to see [“Charley’s War” character] Lieutenant Snell.

It’s terrific news that Battle Action will return in 2024 and this has caused enormous excitement, and speculation among the group. I realise a lot of it will be hush hush but can you give us any hints about the next series?

I can tell you there’ll be ten issues, each one featuring an episode of a multi-part Johnny Red story by myself and Keith Burns (with the last issue all Johnny Red), alongside a one-off in the same format as the special and miniseries. You’ll see some of the stories we’ve been doing returning, along with some that haven’t featured before. Likewise, the creative teams will be a mixture of current and new.

Battle Action #1 (2023) - Johnny Red by Garth Ennis and Keith Burns
Johnny Red by Garth Ennis and Keith Burns will be back in 2024. Art here from Battle Action #1 (2023)

A few members have asked if there’s any chance of it being weekly like 2000AD, which would be amazing, but I’m guessing monthly is more likely?

We’re sticking with the monthly schedule for now. Keeping up the quality on 2000AD is hard enough (and hats off to Matt Smith for what he’s able to achieve there), doing the same thing with a second weekly would be bloody difficult- particularly as we’d both be feeding from the same talent pool. And we want to maintain Battle Action at its current standard.

Will the next series stay in the two stories per issue format?

Yep, that’s the one that works best in terms of schedule and quality.

Will the numbering continue with #6 or restart with #1 as US publishers are so fond of doing?

As far as I know we’ll start again with #1.

There have been lots of requests for characters/series to make a return – Mike Nelson aka The Eagle, “Clash of the Guards”, “Fighting Mann”, “The Fists of Jimmy Chang, “The Hunters”, “SI6”, Joe Two Beans, “The Wilde Bunch”, “Darkie’s Mob”, “Coward’s Brand on Bradley”, “Sergeant Without Stripes”, “Fighter from the Sky”, “Rat Pack” and, perhaps, a flashback story for Walt Mann and how he met Chong in Korea. Hopefully some food for thought there?

There was even a request for the return of “X-Changers Cosmic Cowboys” [who only appeared in one issue]…

As far as which characters will return, it’s very much a question of what various writers want to do. If someone comes to editor Oliver Pickles and myself with a decent idea, I think we’ll consider it no matter how obscure the character – after all, if I can do “Cooley’s Gun”, the sky’s pretty much the limit.

There are a good few on that list that I have zero interest in seeing, but I’d have said the same thing about “D-Day Dawson”, and Dan Abnett and Phil Winslade surprised me by making the character so interesting.

A page of "D-Day Dawson" from from Battle Action #2
A page of “D-Day Dawson” by Dan Abnett and Phil Winslade from Battle Action #2

Otherwise on the list I see several stories I like well enough (“The Eagle”, at least the 1981 series, “Fighting Mann”, “Clash of the Guards”, “Joe Two Beans”, “The Wilde Bunch”, “Fighter from the Sky”) but wouldn’t necessarily want to write myself, so it would come down to someone else pitching an idea.

I’d certainly love to see John Wagner have another crack at “Darkie’s Mob” at some point, although for the upcoming series he’s focusing on “HMS Nightshade”. And I’d like another go at “Rat Pack” eventually. I really enjoyed writing them for the 2020 special- but not this time around.

Darkie's Mob by John Wagner and Mike Western
Darkie’s Mob by John Wagner and Mike Western

The trouble with “Fighting Mann”, I think, is that once you move away from the search for his son – which really drives the Vietnam story –- you’re not left with much except a couple of blokes in a war, which isn’t exactly a unique concept. But again, maybe another writer can see something there that I can’t.

To be honest, I don’t recall who the Cosmic Cowboys are.

How about the return of some more of the Action series? “Hook Jaw”, “Death Game 1999”, “Kids Rule OK” or “Look Out For Lefty”? It would move away from the war/military theme of the comic but be fun to see.

We realised that the miniseries was a bit Battle-heavy (eight out of ten stories), so next time we’ll definitely have more Action characters – in fact, out of ten stories, it’ll be half and half Battle and Action. Among others you’ll see Dredger and Hellman again, and I’m very pleased to say that a certain giant marine predator will be showing up in fine style…

Battle Action Special 2022 - Hellman of Hammer Force, art by Mike Dorey

Mike Dorey’s return to “Hellman” back in 2020 has been very welcome and John Wagner returning to write a new “HMS Nightshade” story has been a dream come true. Are there and other of the original writers and artists you’d like to have return? Unfortunately so many have left us now.

Nail on the head, sadly. Re-reading, say, a 1979 Battle Action and seeing Pat Mills, John Wagner, Tom Tully, Alan Hebden, Eric Bradbury, Joe Colquhoun, Mike Western and John Cooper all in the same comic is just mind-boggling.

Are there any plans yet for Battle‘s 50th anniversary in 2025?

We do have tentative plans, but for now it’s a matter of keeping an eye on how this next series performs and crossing our fingers. Watch this space…

Battle - The General Dies at Dawn

To finish – outside of “Johnny Red” and “Charley’s War”, what would be some of your personal favourite Battle characters/series?

Apart from those two, my other all-time favourites would be “Darkie’s Mob”, “HMS Nightshade” and “The General Dies At Dawn”.

Close behind them would be “Crazy Keller”, the last series of “Rat Pack” and “Hellman”, “The Sarge”, “Fighting Mann”, “Cooley’s Gun” and “Death Squad”.

I’m also quite partial to “War Dog” and “Invasion 1984”. And one other strip comes to mind – “Kommando King”, about the German Brandenburger commandos, by Gerry Finley-Day, Cam Kennedy and Geoff Campion. A better idea than it was a story, and yet I do find myself thinking about it from time to time. Hmm…

"Kommando King", created by Gerry Finley-Day and Geoff Campion, debuted in Battle No. 243, cover dated 3rd November 1979
“Kommando King”, created by Gerry Finley-Day and Geoff Campion, debuted in Battle No. 243, cover dated 3rd November 1979

On behalf of all members of Battle Fans thank you very much for agreeing to answer these questions, your support for the group is very much appreciated.

And thanks, the group’s support of Battle Action is very much appreciated too. It’s been a real treat bringing these characters back from limbo and helping them find the audience they and their creators deserve, and we all hope to be able to continue doing so for years to come. I’m currently closing in on the end of this Johnny Red story, and I haven’t enjoyed anything so much in years!

Check out The Battle Fans Facebook Group here

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