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Monday, 24 February 2014

Garth Ennis presents Battle Classics

Physically Titan Books have thrown everything into producing a highly quality deluxe hardback book that will take pride of place on the shelves of anyone interested in not only 1970's UK comic culture but anyone who likes intelligently told war stories. When I first heard this book was coming out I'd assumed it would be another anthology like the recent Best of Battle and collect together several episodes from the best known Battle strips but this is not the case. It is an anthology but it collects together the complete runs of both HMS Nightshade and The General Dies at Dawn as well as a several one off stories.For that latter think Tharg's Future Shocks from 2000AD but in a war setting.

 This is a far better idea than the 2009 Best of Battle collection (which I felt was a missed opportunity) since by collecting together the complete runs of each story the book really does these classic tales justice.

There's an introduction by comic books superstar Garth Ennis and this is not the standard couple of hundred words liberally sprinkled with a few 'Greats' a lot of 'Cors' and several 'Wows', but a full scale in depth essay that looks at what the original writers and artists achieved with the story.

And Battle often achieved great things - personally I think that Battle is the best British comic of all time and
easily eclipses 2000AD, which came from the same publishing house and shared many creators, but war stories fell out of vogue while Sci-Fi continues to prosper. Hence 2000AD is still here while sadly Battle is not. To my mind Battle was better at telling stories and in their very best stories such as Charley's War, Hellman, HMS Nightshade, Johnny Red or even Major Easy the strips had characters that defied the conventional comic book stereotypes and were presented as very real people with very real concerns. 2000AD has been very much influenced by Battle and over the years has tried to retell Battle stories in a SF setting but I don't think they've ever been truly successful at this. Battle at its best seemed real...very real indeed.

HMS Nightshade then, the lead story in this collection, originally ran in Battle for about a year and told the story of the HMS Nightshade, a Corvette class (a small easily maneuverable warship) warship which is assigned to protect the convoys taking supplies across the U Boat infested seas.

The modern corvette appeared during World War II as an easily built patrol and convoy escort vessel. The British naval designer William Reed drew up a small ship based on the single-shaft Smiths Dock Company whale catcher Southern Pride, whose simple design and mercantile construction standards lent itself to rapid production in large numbers in small yards unused to naval work. First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, later Prime Minister, had a hand in reviving the name "corvette". Wiki

The story uses a device similar to that used in Charley's War but where that classic World War 1 story was narrated largely by letters home from serving soldier Charley Bourne, Nightshade is told by aging George Dunn who is telling his grandson all about his adventures in the second world war as a member of the Nightshade's crew.

There are some stunning secondary characters and all are capable of surprising us. Take for instance the character of Parsons - at first this bullish man who delights in making the lives of weaker crew members a misery seems to be the stereotypical school bully placed in a war situation, but he grows over the space of several issues and even dies a deeply touching and incredibly heroic death. This unexpected act of Parsons throws the reader a curve ball and is as powerful as anything ever seen in the best war movies. In fact I'm going to use a 1970's comic bookism here - WOW!

Other characters were equally well flushed out and by the time the reader reaches the last story he is left exhausted though all the better for it. This story really is a fitting tribute to the brave men who served on ships like the Nightshade.

The General Dies at Dawn in another classic story and unusual in that the protagonist is a German character. Battle did several stories from the German point of view, most notable Hellman but The General Dies at Dawn is easily the best. It originally ran for eleven issues, the complete run is collected here, and also uses the device of one character relating the story.

 This time the narrator is Otto Von Margen who has been condemmned to death for cowardice and treason. He is the holder of the Knight's Cross and as he relates his story to his jailer we learn how this great man has fallen so  low. Again Garth Ennis precedes the story with a detailed essay and here's another comic bookism - COR!

This book then is a must have for anyone who enjoys stortelling in a graphic medium, and comic book fans brought up on Superman, Batman and others could give this book a try and discover that there is far more to comic books than brightly coloured lycra and unusual muscle development.

1 comment:

Ray said...

Excellent. I have this book.