In Very Advance Review: Battle Stations by Donne Avenell and Hugo Pratt

Battle Stations: War Picture Library. Note this may not be the final cover

Battle Stations: War Picture Library. Note this may not be the final cover

Rebellion Publishing have kindly sent us a very Advance Review Copy of Battle Stations by Donne Avenell and Hugo Pratt, the first of a new Treasury of British Comics series re-publishing classic strips from the long-running War Picture Library. Battle Stations is due for release in hardback next February, the series will continue a second release in July 2020 with Battler Britton.

Fans of Corto Maltese creator and artist Hugo Pratt have already welcomed the news of Rebellion’s over-sized reprints of his 1960s British war comic work and for me,  Battle Stations: War Picture Library lives up to expectations – both in story and art.

British war comics have been a staple of the industry for generations, with DC Thomson’s Commando still on sale today, currently in the process of reviving some old characters from popular comics such as Victor and Warlord. Unsurprisingly, these comics often get stereotyped for delivering stories of derring do at the expense of Britain’s foes, but this first War Picture Library representation has little of that kind of flag waving mock patriotism. Indeed, the final message of Battle Stations, of a hoped-for reconciliation between rivals thrown into a deadly war, is perhaps the best takeaway from this terrific story, and all the better for it.

War at Sea Picture Library No.34Taking its title from the story “Battle Stations” first published in War at Sea Picture Library No.34 in 1963, the story, by Donne Avenell, illustrated throughout by Pratt, this is, for me, a remarkable and powerful story, far beyond the simplistic “Nazi bashing” of many a British war comic story.

Battle Stations opens with the sinking of an anti sub trawler by a U-Boat and the callous murder of survivors by the submarine’s crew. Just three British crew men survive, eventually reassigned to the HMS Vengeful – a ship’s name that for the angry survivors has more meaning than most would assign.

Without revealing too much of the story so far ahead of publication, the trio again find themselves in cast adrift, but this time alongside German survivors of a sea battle. Can they rise above the anger of past acts?

Hugo Pratt worked on US-inspired Italian comics after World War Two, before moving to London in 1959, to work on British publisher Fleetway’s war-inspired Picture Library titles, and we’ve previously featured his work on them thanks to Commando artist Keith Page. His lifelong interest in militaria proved particularly useful on such work.

A telegraphist in the Navy during World War Two before returning to Amalgamated Press where he had worked before the conflict, Donne Avenell, brings a sensibility this story that to be honest, I wasn’t expecting. It’s worth noting that in terms of British comics, naval strips have, for some reason, proven a hard sell down the decades, even to war comics fans, with numerous writers, including John Wagner and Pat Mills trying to make the setting work (the latter writer in episodes of “Charley’s War”) with varying degrees of success. Sam Glanzman, for one, had much more success in the United States with this particular theatre of conflict.

Perhaps it’s Avenell’s wartime experience that gives his naval stories an impressive edge, offering a great deal of both believability through attention to detail and careful plotting, with Hugo Pratt’s striking, stark art complementing his storytelling perfectly.

Battle Stations by Donne Avenell and Hugo Pratt

Battle Stations by Donne Avenell and Hugo Pratt

Indeed, it’s Pratt’s work that boosts the delivery of scenes where, for example, survivor Stoker First Class Sully rages at being stuck below decks as HMS Vengeful goes into action, and some page turn shocks are truly stunning as one battle heats up to the cost of both sides. It’s easy to see, even for this title produced to tight commercial deadline, just why Pratt is admired, by his fans and artists alike.

Battle Stations by Donne Avenell and Hugo Pratt

Avenell is rightfully highly regarded for his work on The Phantom, and of course Rebellion have also collected his chilling tale from Lion, “Dr. Mesmer’s Revenge“, drawn by Carlos Cruz, out next month, a story with tie-ins to the current The Vigilant release. I’d argue he deserves as much praise as Pratt for “Battle Stations”, and I’m now keen to read other stories by him.

Battle Stations by Donne Avenell and Hugo PrattI’d like to give a shout out, too, for Rebellion Publishing’s Ben Smith, who provides an introduction to this ARC presentation of “Battle Stations”, setting out Rebellion’s Treasury of British Comics raison d’etre in no uncertain terms as aiming to bring the very best of classic British comics the company now owns back into print. Battle Stations is very definite evidence of comics that have been languishing unseen by all but a small band of knowledgeable collectors well aware of their artistic worth.

As we’ve previously noted, Battle Stations will be published in an oversized format, befitting the importance of his incredible and highly influential artwork. The ARC isn’t quite final print size – I’m told the final hardback will be just a smidgen wider – but the photograph below, show the preview copy alongside a Titan Charley’s War collection, a standard bande dessinée album and a US format comic collection, should give you an idea of how “over size” Battle Stations will be.Battle Stations - Size Comparison

The publication of Battle Stations next February is a very welcome to the growing Treasury of British Comics library offering powerful storytelling and great art in what’s shaping up to be a well-chosen format. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did, on release.

Battle Stations: War Picture Library is scheduled for release on 20th February 2020 and can be pre-ordered here (Amazon Affiliate Link)


Read our news item “Rebellion launch new oversize Hugo Pratt war comic reprints next year”

Read Keith Page’s Hugo Pratt Creator Spotlight

Hugo Pratt works available on Amazon

• Unleash Hell: War Picture Library Collection includes “The Iron Fist” first published in War Picture Library Issue 25, published in September 1959, drawn by Hugo Pratt

• There’s a guide to writer Donne Avenell’s work here on the UK Comics Wiki

Hugo Pratt: His Fleetway Work

His work for the Picture Libraries is noted as follows, over on a profile of his career on “Dan Dare Info”

The British war comics featuring Hugo Pratt’s art inside. Of these, Battler Britton, a hardback special published back in 1960/61 often commands the highest back issue price. Photo with thanks to Bambos Georgiou

The British war comics featuring Hugo Pratt’s art inside. Of these, Battler Britton, a hardback special published back in 1960/61 often commands the highest back issue price. Photo with thanks to Bambos Georgiou

War Picture Library

War Picture Library 25 – The Iron Fist
War Picture Library 40 – Pathfinder
War Picture Library 50 – The Crimson Sea
War Picture Library 58 – Up the Marines!
War Picture Library 62 – Strongpoint
War Picture Library 91 – The Bayonet Jungle
War Picture Library 92 – Dark Judgment
War Picture Library 133 – The Big Arena

Battle Picture Library

Battle Picture Library 62 – Night of the Devil

War at Sea Picture Library

War at Sea Picture Library 34 – Battle Stations

Thrilller Picture Library

Thriller Picture Library 297 – Battler Britton and the Wagons of Gold

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War Picture Library and associated titles © Rebellion Publishing Ltd

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1 reply

  1. Three things John.

    I am a little bitter about the focus of the war comics on the Tommie’s and Fly Boys. Not because they didn’t deserve to be portrayed in bravely in action during the war but because the Navy/Merchant navy was never credited with for their efforts in comics in my opinion. Which incidentally followed the lead of the film industry! Some actors such as John Mills starred in a few of the wartime naval or merchant ship movies which were done very well. So I think it has more to do with the influence of the film industry at the time with the great movies produced in the UK that focusing on the land and air battle’s of the war which in truth would have affected more people in the UK than the sea battles. Having said that my father who was actually a Danish merchant seaman who left home at 14 and signed on as a deck hand in 1939. In April 9th 1940 Germany invaded both Denmark and neutral Norway at the same time and the shipping companies of both countries sent out radio messages telling all of their ships to sail into allied Ports. In all 9200 Danish and Norwegian sailors and their vessels joined the convoys. They were based in the union pool in Newcastle. My father only a kid really sailed on the North Atlantic run for the remainder of the war. Others sailed on the Murmansk and the Mediterranean (Gibraltar) runs.

    Most films focused on land or air battles. But over the length of the war the convoys sailed across the seas every day. Hundreds perhaps thousands, I don’t know. From 1940 to 19443 casualty rates were very high. Of the 9200 registered with the union 3400 were killed or lost at sea, which equates to 27%. You go into the water and there no medic swimming over to you to administer first aid, you have to find your way to one of the overcrowded lifeboats and hope you get picked up by one of the passing naval ships as the convoy moves, on and this was unlikely as it would make the naval ship a sitting duck if the subs were still in the theatre! So then you were on your own. You go into the water on the Murmansk run and you are dead from the cold in a few minutes. The Naval ships did have cold water survival gear which they wore all the time but not usual for the merchant ships.

    My dad was a quiet thoughtful man with a measured side to him. His childhood in Denmark had not been easy I learn’t later on, as my grandfather who was getting on when he married and had kids didn’t hesitate to put a bit of stick about. When he was 14 his headmaster wanted him to stay on at school but my grandad said he ate too much and should get a job. They were poor. I remember when I was maybe 5 getting my finger caught in the back door of the back yard that led to the back lane of our 2 up 2 down row house in Byker in Newcastle and running in crying. My fingernail went black right away and was throbbing like hell, my dad took my hand and told me to stop crying and used his line that he always used if I got hurt. “Worse things happen at sea” and in one swift motion pulled my nail right off! The blood spurted all over the back of my hand and after the shock I realised that my finger wasn’t throbbing any more as the pressure had been relieved 🙂 On another occasion probably when I was about six I was being cheeky to my mum and my dad chased me down the back yard and I looked back to see where he was and ran into the bin and ended up head first in it. He caught me whacked my arse and left me upside down with a nose bleed in the bin. To him that was justice done 🙂 He was not cruel or mean but like many of his generation he had seen things I didn’t know about at the time that made my woes insignificant.

    Oddly enough following in his footsteps I left home at 16 and went into Swan Hunters shipyard as an apprentice engine fitter, and moved into digs with a couple of lads a lot older than me. Having bored out the stern tube bearing to accommodate the shaft and then winched the 3.5ft diameter shaft about 40ft long into the stern tube tube and bearings I know exactly what it’s like to be in a shaft tunnel, and it’s tight. When we were on sea trials as an apprentice one of my jobs on watch was to go down the shaft tunnel to make sure the oil levels of the bearings were OK. At 6ft 3ins it was a squeeze!

    My dad never talked about the war but when my mum died suddenly he literally went to pieces. He was a big man, strong as a bull, quiet, just got on with things never complained and treated my mum like a princess. So to see him like this literally scared me, I was unprepared. He never really went back to Denmark only once before I was born and once when I was about 11 when I met my grandma for the first time in hospital when she was dying of cancer. He had an older brother in Denmark who had worked on the Danish Railways during the war, but was in the resistance and helped blow up the tracks and supply trains. He was captured and sent to Germany to work in the factories. He survived. When mum died dad returned to his roots and went back to his roots and went over to Denmark to see his brother and old friends he sailed with throughout the war. He stayed for six months in Denmark before coming back to Canada where most of the family ended up emigrating to. He had changed, he was calmer more open and talked a lot about the war, how scared he was, being torpedoed twice and spending two weeks in a life boat in the North Atlantic and a third of the crew lost before being picked up and mined once, though the mine didn’t detonate properly and just blew a portion of the bow off just outside of the Tyne piers, and they managed to close the water tight doors to the bow. He talked about how you didn’t really want to go to sleep in case you didn’t wake up again with the wolf packs out there particularly in those early years. He was a deck hand and sometimes he would sleep outside on the deck instead of being in a cabin. It was hard for me to imagine how a 15 year old got through this, but it certainly made me understand why he was the way he was.

    Maybe you had to live through it to understand how bad it was and the sea war was almost invisible because they weren’t attacked anywhere people knew? The North Atlantic wasn’t just over the water like Franc or Belgium, or over the skies of the UK. It was map coordinates somewhere in the middle of the ocean . Perhaps it was difficult for the writers to imagine what it was like to fight at sea even though the writer who did do the scripts and did produce real life stories as mentioned by John was on active duty with the navy, mostly revolving around naval ships, as I only found only one War at Sea PL that might have been about a merchant ship “Dangerous Cargo” 🙂 Really? What does that mean? Fuel Oil? Explosives? Volatile Chemicals? I don’t think the subs popped up the periscope to sea if they could figure out what exactly what a ship was carrying, though you could probably pick out an oil or chemical carrier. If you had time to make a choice?

    If ever you are in Newcastle and have time to spare have a wander into the Cathedral, and walk down to the far left hand side pretty much as far down as you can go. There you will find a memorial to the Danish sailors funded by the people of Newcastle and Fred Olsen Cruise line which was put in in 1995. In addition they installed a stained glass window. There is a glass case on a plinth and inside is the union book with all the names of the sailors who sailed not only on Scandinavian vessels during the war but on British vessels also,those who lived and those who died. This sounds unbelievable but it’s true, one day my wife who is quite religious wandered into the Cathedral and I saw the memorial for the first time. Believe it or not they turn a page of the page of the union book every day, and there on the page I was looking at was my dad’s name. He had idea this was there when I told him or that they held a service every year to commemorate his fallen comrades. Every year after he and the family attended the service in Newcastle and he met up with a couple of his old pals there. Even when he was confined to a wheelchair he still went over. He died two years ago just before his 91st birthday in 2017. At the time of his death only four veterans remained. All dead now.

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