Till the early/mid 1970's, British comics could be very tame. Then along came three classic titles that broke the mould by telling stories that were grimmer and grittier and more realistic than before.
Action: which told stories from many genres, but all of which tried to live up to the comic's title.
Battle: which told war stories. It being less than three decades since the end of World War Two, it was still quite fresh in the national consciousness.
2000AD: which told science fiction tales.
This volume is the latest from Titan to reprint strips from Battle. As with all the other ones, the reprints are all in black and white [some of the original pages were in colour]. The quality of the reprint can vary, given the age of the source material. And some of the language may not go down too well with modern readers. But comes from the time in which the story was set. The occasional gap on a page is because there was originally an advert there. Plus they also reprint some of the covers from the comic that related to the story.
And each weekly reprinted instalment runs for three to four pages.
This one is a little longer than the others in this range, because it contains two complete stories. And three stand alone ones.
There's an introduction to each from popular comics writer Garth Ennis. Plus an afterword from him as well.
First story, reprinting every single instalment of it [almost a year's worth] is HMS Nightshade. This begins by showing us a marker buoy which shows where a ship was sunk in the channel during the war. And an old war veteran called George Dunn, who served on it. A corvette called HMS Nightshade. The narrative device has George telling grandson about his wartime experiences on the ship.
Written and drawn by the team who'd previously done the very popular 'Darkie's mob' story, this has storylines of varying length. Sometimes complete in two weeks. Sometimes a lot longer. It strives very hard for realism and succeeds superbly well. The characters are all down to earth everymen, which makes them believable. Some though really stand out thanks to their behaviour. In particular Tony 'Never gonna make it' Brown, the most pessimistic crewmember in regards to their survival chances. Who also happens to be the luckiest man on the ship.
It's all very believable. There's no movie style heroics. The ship's time on a convoy to Murmansk superbly conveys the appalling conditions and danger those convoys went through. And it also conveys the nature of war. Characters can die at a moment's notice. Sacrifice can be required. There are moments that might just bring a tear to your eye.
The ending is stunning, unexpected, realistic, and has one powerful taste of irony.
Ever since this range began I'd been hoping this story would be reprinted. So it must have made as big an impression on me back in the day as it clearly did on Garth Ennis. So you can sometimes get what you want. And it was worth the wait. This is British war comic writing and art at it's finest. And you'll never forget it once read.
The second story is 'The General Dies at Dawn.' Which runs for just eleven instalments. Some of which were in earlier volume 'The Best of Battle.' It's 20th April 1945. In a military prison in Germany, General Otto Van Margen, known as the wolf of Kiev and a man with many medals, has just been found guilty of cowardice and crimes against the Reich by a military court. He will be shot at dawn.
As the hours tick by, he tells his jailer his story. And just why a hero of Germany has been condemned to this fate. All the time though, hoping against hope that the Americans might reach the jail before morning.
By this time, war comics had started experimenting with stories from the German point of view. These, as mentioned by Garth Ennis, are inspired by the raft of biographies from German veterans which depicted them as 'the Good German'. Fighting for the Fatherland. Frustrated by the petty nazi bureaucrats back in Berlin. And having to contend with the behaviour of the SS.
There are concessions to fiction, not least since Von Margen never discovers the holocaust, and there's a military action that never happened. But the narrative framework of this is so cleverly done and the lead character so sympathetic that it hooks from the off and won't let go.
Will the General survive? You won't see the ending coming. But it's a fine piece of writing, and a memorable end to another memorable story.
There are also three standalone tales, all complete in four pages. All in here because they're early work from artist Cam Kennedy, who went on to do a lot for 2000AD. 'Clash By Night' is a memorable little tale of action on Iwo Jima and a few things soldiers did at the time. 'Hot Wheels' is a fun little story of the American supply corps in action.
Then there's 'Private Loser.' Burma, 1942. Private Hollis. A meek little man who has spent his life being bullied and put down. He's done for. And he now has no choice but to finally stand up for himself.
This is an amazing example of how to write a story in just four pages and make it unforgettable. A stunningly good character drama with an ending that doesn't cop out. You won't forget this one either.
All in all a superb volume of classic war comics, and yours to treasure forever. I would give it more than five stars if I could.