Review by Luke Williams
Please be aware that this review contains minor spoilers
The new Battle Action Special, a hardback release from the Treasury of British Comics, curated and completely written by Garth Ennis, is a love letter to a specific period in the life of the IPC comic war comic, Battle Picture Weekly. The weekly title had just gone through a merger with the comic Action, notorious for its violence and irreverence. Following a media outcry, Action had been “banned”, or rather eviscerated by editorial and resurrected in an anaemic, zombified version of its former self before plummeting circulation saw it folded into its senior partner.
In much the same way as Starlord gave a faltering 2000AD a shot in the arm when it was folded into it, the neutered Action did similar for Battle, certainly in terms of story style. Garth Ennis believes that the approximately three year period of Battle-Action, with almost equal billing on the masthead, before it reverted once more to just Battle, is very much a golden and overlooked era of British comics – and equally as important to British comics as the “Galaxy’s Greatest”. Indeed, no Battle or Action, no 2000AD.
Ennis hopes this anthology, modelled on this era, will help redress the balance in terms of recognition of Battle’s impact, and bring the creative teams of that era greater recognition. With Garth as curator / writer, this was always going to benefit the project, and increase its cross Atlantic appeal, too.
Garth is ably aided and abetted by a terrific stable of artists to bring this vision to life, all sympathetic to the original strips. Keith Burns’ gritty art is brought to bear on “Johnny Red / Skreamer of the Stukas”, possibly the most “traditional” of the strips presented, and in similar tone to the Titan min from the creative team from a few years ago.
PJ Holden’s expressive black and white art lends itself well to a day in the life of a section of the British Army in “The Sarge”. It acts as an introduction to the strip, but also a reminder that the focus of many IPC titles was more on the working class participants of the war, and the often terrifying lot of the ordinary soldier, which reached its apotheosis with “Charley’s War”.
The inspired choice of Chris Burnham on black marketeer and seemingly indestructible Captain “Crazy Keller” of the American Army lends a madcap, “Loony Tunes”, kinetic feel to the tale of kidnap/rescue of a Nazi scientist from the clutches of our (then) Russian allies.
“Dredger” is described by Ennis in the introduction as “Dirty Harry meets The Ipcress File by way of The Sweeney”, which is pretty good summary of his take. John Higgins and Sally Jane Hurst are an inspired choice for what is essentially the blunt instrument of military espionage. Higgins and Hurst’s art can beautifully evocative and atmospheric, but at the other end of the scale they don’t need a lot of encouragement to illustrate almost cartoonish grievous bodily harm.
Ennis and British comic art legend Mike Dorey combine forces once again to deliver another story featuring the honourable and chivalrous Panzer commander “Hellman”, facing off against the cowardly but glory seeking US tank commander Jeb Rider of the lesser-known Battle strip “Glory Rider”. Dorey provides beautiful greywash line work, lending the strip and its characters a melancholy feel.
Kevin O’Neill’s much vaunted contribution, “Kids Rule O.K”. is typically anarchic but the strip is the odd one of the bunch (warning – spoiler ahead!). Less a continuation of the original story of a world run by kids following the plague induced death of much of the adult population, it is more a commentary on what happened to Action and why, cleverly splicing narrative with the creative team imagining the editorial discussions following publication of that cover.
Finally, in “Nina Petrova and the Angels of Death”, Ennis and the underrated and underused Patrick Goddard take a Johnny Red supporting character and spin her into her own strip. The Angels of Death refer to the “Night Witches”, all female Soviet squadrons equipped with obsolete biplanes who harried the Germans under cover of darkness. The deployment of female combatants by the Soviets is a subject Ennis has covered previously in his and Russ Braun’s Night Witches series, and in Ennis’ and Steve Epting’s“ Sara” .
Garth’s favourite themes and subjects are all present in this collection: male bonding, honour, the betrayal of the ordinary bloke by the upper classes, the whole “Lions led by donkeys” vibe and thinly veiled attacks on the establishment topped off with black humour and extreme, often cartoon violence. But it is balanced with genuinely affecting sequences displaying compassion and commentary on the tragedy and horror of war. Ennis purposely maintains the historical context of the two non war stories of the collection, the troubled late 1970s /early 1980s, locking those strips into a specific era arguably bringing more freedom to the strips and avoiding anachronistic and inconsistent updates.
Aside from being great comics, there are short introductory text pieces for each of the strips, giving some background to their creation the creators and context, minor history lessons on both comic and the subject matter.
Parting with a few extra quid for the webshop edition will give you the lovely John Higgins cover, although the frankly splendid Andy Clarke “group cover” seems to be more representative of the project.
It’s strange that Rebellion seems slow to produce material drawn from their properties like this that is more in line with the tone of 2000AD. There is a reason Battle -Action (both apart and as one comic) and 2000AD are spoken of as being directly linked sharing a sensibility that many of the other Fleetway/IPC titles lacked (at least until Battlebecame an extended toy advert anyway, fun as that was). It would seem logical that this material would appeal to 2000AD’s existing and lapsed readership, whereas Scream/Misty, Smash etc is more “niche”.
In interviews, Ennis has expressed impatience at an apparent lack of willingness to exploit this specific stable of characters after his taste of writing them anew in the Battle of Britain and Action specials, released in 2020. Thankfully, that has led to this magnificent collection of stories.
• The Battle Action Special is available in all good comic shops from 8th June 2022 and from bookshops, including AmazonUK, from 14th September 2022
Battle Action Launch Events
Writer Garth Ennis will head up two special signing events in the UK to mark the direct market release of the Battle Action Special from Rebellion Publishing – one in London, one in Northern Ireland.
GOSH Comics London – Battle Action Special Signing
1.00 – 2.00pm, Saturday 11th June 2022
GOSH, 1 Berwick Street, London, W1F 0DR
Join writer Garth Ennis, veteran artist Mike Dorey (Hellman of Hammer Force, Ro-Busters), artist John Higgins (Watchmen), and colourist Sally Jane Hurst (Judge Dredd) will be signing copies at Gosh Comics
Enniskillen Comic Fest Presents Garth Ennis and More
11.00am – 5.00pm, Saturday 18th June 2022
• Facebook: EnniskillenComicFest
Enniskillen Comic Fest will be hosting one of the biggest names in comics on 18th June as Garth Ennis promotes the new Battle-Action Special hardcover at one of just two signings in the UK… an event featuring four artists featured in the book as well!
This is Garth Ennis first convention signing on the island of Ireland in 23 years, appearing alongside Keith Burns, PJ Holden, Patrick Goddard and Mike Dorey.