With the exciting news of a new hardcover Battle-Action Special from 2000AD publisher Rebellion, launching in June, Paul Trimble, who runs the Battle Fans Facebook group caught up with the book’s writer, Garth Ennis, to talk to him about the project.
The new Battle-Action Special will feature eight new stories, all written by Garth Ennis (The Boys, Preacher), with a cover from Andy Clarke (Batman and Robin) and Dylan Teague (Madi) – and interior art by Kevin O’Neill, Keith Burns, Mike Dorey, John Higgins, Chris Burnham, Patrick Goddard and PJ Holden, as well as colourists Jason Wordie, Len O’Grady and Sally Jane Hurst.
Garth Ennis: As regards the announcement, let’s distinguish language used for promotion on a mainstream site like CBR from the way British comics readers of the era talk about Battle and Action. So this isn’t a graphic novel, it’s an anthology. The Action angle is being pushed for whatever controversial cache that title still retains.
For the record, this is the Battle Action Special. It has seven stories, most taken from the period of or following the merger between Battle and Action. One story, “Kids Rule Okay”, is included for the purposes of commentary on what caused Action to be cancelled and then folded into Battle.
Ultimately, the point of the Special is to celebrate the work of the writers and artists who helped make both comics so good, separately and together.
Paul: Thanks for clearing that up, there does seem to be a bit of misunderstanding as to what exactly the Special is. I guess it’s a nod to that amazing late 1977 to mid 1981 run of Battle-Action, that was such a big influence on you as a reader?
Garth: What’s so interesting about the Battle-Action period is just how long it lasts, with Action appended to the Battle logo from late 1977 to the middle of 1981. It seems clear that editorial were loathe to give up on Action, even after the strips from the title were gone and it survived only in spirit.
But during that period, all of Battle’s very best stories either continued or started their runs: “Johnny Red”, “The Sarge”, “The General Dies At Dawn”, “Crazy Keller”, “HMS Nightshade”, “War Dog”, “Cooley’s Gun”, “Death Squad”, “Fighting Mann”, by far the best “Rat Pack”, and, of course, “Charley’s War”. You’ve also got “Hellman” (in a much better series) and Dredger coming over from Action, and a reprint of “Darkie’s Mob”, starting in 1981. So to me, Battle-Action really was Battle at its best, and that’s what we’re hoping to focus on with the new special.
Paul: Battle was the first of the new Pat Mills/John Wagner era of comics for IPC and its success paved the way for Action and then, 2000AD. How do you rank Battle compared to other 1970’s/1980’s comics?
Garth: I’d put Battle behind 2000AD. I like war stories better than sci-fi or fantasy, but in terms of sheer excellence, you really have to give it to the Galaxy’s Greatest – but ahead of Action. The latter just didn’t last long enough to develop anything in the same class as Battle’s finest; it has nothing on the level of “Johnny Red”, “Darkie’s Mob” or “HMS Nightshade”, and certainly none of its strips come anywhere near “Charley’s War”. If it hadn’t run into the trouble it did, and been cancelled, that might have been a different story.
As things stand you have great concepts in Action – “Dredger”, “Hellman” – that aren’t given time to grow, and only one genuinely excellent story, the “Hookjaw” oil rig twelve-parter.
Paul: Battle ran for 13 years, incorporating Valiant and then Action, and introduced some of the best known British comics characters. How did this Special come about? Who’s idea was it?
Garth: Mine. I was thinking about 2020’s Battle and Action specials, both of which I enjoyed very much, and hoping there’d be more – but it didn’t seem like there would be anytime soon, I wasn’t getting much sense of urgency in that direction.
So I thought, well, what if I did it myself? I pitched it to Rebellion in the terms described above, as a celebration of the greatest period in Battle’s history – perhaps partly as a result of the injection of talent that arrived after Action folded – and [editor] Keith Richardson said yep, sounds good.
Paul: You’ve previously written “Johnny Red”, “Hellman of Hammer Force” and “Rat Pack”. How tough a choice was it to pick “The Sarge” and “Crazy Keller” for this Special?
Garth: Not at all, they’re two of my all time favourites. “The Sarge” featured superb characters and wonderful artwork; I can recall as a kid following the exploits of Jim Masters and his section with bated breath, anxious as hell about who might not make it through the latest episode. And “Crazy Keller” is just irresistible to me, fantastic writing and art moving the story along at 90mph, guns blazing.
Paul: Nina Petrova, from the “Johnny Red” strip, gets her own story in the Special. A very strong character, and a big favourite among Battle fans, so overdue a solo spot?
Garth: Very much so. I make this point in one of the text pieces I’ve written for the Special, but in terms of strong female characters in British boys’ comics, Nina predates almost all of them. She arrived before Judges Anderson and Hershey, before Venus Bluegenes and Purity Brown.
She and her squadron have the added advantage of being based on real people, the Russian female aviators who flew against the Nazis. She’s extremely capable and makes an excellent comrade for Johnny Redburn – there’s nothing either of them can do that the other can’t, and if one pulls the other out of trouble, the favour is soon returned.
Paul: The crossovers are really inspired, with Johnny Red encountering Skreamer Of The Stukas and Hellman facing Glory Rider. This is an unexpected treat, like Major Eazy taking over Rat Pack back in 1977. Some things just cry out to be done!
Garth: Indeed they do. It was a nice way to scratch a couple of itches – neither “Skreamer of the Stukas” nor “Glory Rider” are first-rank Battle strips, but there are elements of them that stick in the mind. There’s the amusement of watching a nasty, pompous bastard like Otto Skreamer do his thing, and the sheer frustration of seeing the monstrous Jeb Rider get away with murder again and again. So I was fond enough of them to want to include them, and folding them into more popular strips like “Johnny Red” and “Hellman” seemed like the way to go. Certainly they’re a good match in thematic terms, featuring combat aviation and armoured warfare respectively.
Paul: Due to falling sales Action was merged with Battle in November 1977 with “Hellman”, “Dredger” and “Spinball Wars” moving over. Why did you chose to include “Kids Rule OK”, rather than “Spinball Wars”?
Garth: The “Kids Rule OK” story in the Special is an odd one; in some ways, it’s more of a story about a story. It gave me a chance for a kind of oblique commentary on the downfall of Action, which of course resulted in the existence of Battle-Action in the first place. So here, we’re concerned less with the original strip and more with what i t- and the famous Carlos Ezquerra cover that it inspired – is supposed to have caused to happen. Very mysterious, I know, you’ll have to read it to see what I mean.
It’s worth noting, of course, that the Special broadly reflects what I see as being the best period in Battle’s history – it’s not a direct celebration of the actual moment of the merger. So you won’t be seeing “The Spinball Wars” anymore than you will “Major Eazy” or “Joe Two-Beans” (which also appeared in the first Battle-Action issue), largely because I have no particular interest in any of those stories. Dealer’s choice, you might say.
Paul: Thank you for taking time to answer these questions about the upcoming Battle Action Special and, on behalf of Battle Fans, thank you for bringing so many of our favourite characters back. Hope there will be more to follow!
Garth: I can honestly say it’s my pleasure. Ultimately, I wanted this Special to happen because I think Battle is one of the most important British comics of all time. If it hadn’t worked, there’d have been no chance for Pat Mills to do Action and then 2000AD, and the UK end of the medium would have withered on the vine.
The Special is a chance to remind people of that, and of the work by Tom Tully, Joe Colquhoun, John Cooper, Gerry Finley-Day, Mike Western, Alan Hebden, Eric Bradbury, Mike Dorey, and so many more, that helped make Battle what it was.
This is a tribute to the greatest war comic ever by one of its biggest fans. And, of course, by some of the best artists in the business. Working with Keith Burns, PJ Holden and my old pal John Higgins is always a treat. Chris Burnham was a revelation. Patrick Goddard was more than equal to the task of giving a great comics heroine her own story, after something like 40 years. To work with original “Hellman” artist, Mike Dorey, not once but twice now, has been an absolute delight. And Kevin O’Neill, well, I still remember being eleven and seeing the divine, demented genius of “Nemesis the Warlock” explode across the pages of 2000AD – so you can imagine what having Kev draw one of my scripts meant to me.
Our thanks to Paul Trimble for sharing this interview with Garth, first featured in the Battle Fans Facebook group
• Battle Action Special by Garth Ennis et al goes on sale in June 2022 from before arriving in traditional book shops in September | Read our full news item on the new upcoming Battle-Action Special here
RECENT AND UPCOMING COLLECTIONS
Hellman of Hammer Force
Released: 9th December 2021
Format: Standard paperback and webshop exclusive hardcover
Dimensions: 276×210 mm
This isn’t your grandad’s war comic – never had there been an anti-hero like Hellman of Hammer Force! One of the major highlights of the controversial 1970s comic, Action, Major Kurt Hellman is a Panzer commander in the 1940 German invasion of Belgium. But this man is no Nazi – he avoids taking life wherever possible, all while facing foes without and treachery within!
Collected for the first time, and from the very beginning, this groundbreaking series of thrilling combat is written by Gerry Finley-Day (Rogue Trooper) and drawn by Mike Dorey (Ro-Busters).
The Sarge Volume One
By Gerry Finley-Day (Writer) and Mike Western (Art)
Out: 12th May 2022, Hardback, 144 Pages, £19.99
THEY DEPENDED ON THE SARGE. AND THE WORLD DEPENDED ON THEM.
British Sergeant Jim Masters, a veteran of WW1, has to protect and lead his inexperienced platoon during the Second World War.
From Dunkirk to North Africa, the might of the German Army face the ultimate adversaries when Masters and his boys spring into action – Nothing can substitute experience!
One of the most prolific writers in the comic’s history, Gerry Finley-Day holds a special place in many 2000 AD fans’ hearts as the creator of classics like Rogue Trooper, Fiends of the Eastern Front and The V.C.s, as well as Harry 20 on the High Rock and Ant Wars. A keen “ideas man”, Finley-Day’s concepts of the horrors future warfare had in store were key to both Rogue and The V.C.s’ continuing popularity, ensuring that their recent return to the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic was well-received. Finley-Day also scripted episodes of Judge Dredd and Dan Dare, and co-scripted much of Invasion! (and entirely scripted the prequel story, ‘Disaster 1990!’).
Widely regarded as one of the best artists to ever grace the British comic industry, Mike Western began his career on Knockout, having already spent time working for GB Animation. During the 1950s he shared art chores with Eric Bradbury on the popular western strip Lucky Logan. In 1960 he moved onto TV Express where he drew No Hiding Place and Biggles. Buster and Valiant followed where Mike found himself drawing long-running strips such as Wild Wonders. In the 1970s he was very prolific, illustrating Buster’s Leopard from Lime Street and several key strips for Battle, including Darkie’s Mob, The Sarge and HMS Nightshade. Mike made an impact on the iconic Roy of the Rovers, illustrating the newspaper strip which ran in the Daily Star during the 1990s.
Some of the original Battle covers featured here are via Great News for All Readers – some via Battle Fans