Review by Win Wiacek
Despite his self-deprecating foreword, Garth Ennis’ affinity for and love of combat tales makes him the go-to guy if you’re planning to re-publish classic war stories, and even more so if they all come from his favourite boyhood read.
From 1975 to 1988 Battle ran through 673 blood-soaked, testosterone-drenched issues, producing some of the best and most influential war stories ever. Charley’s War, Darkie’s Mob, Johnny Red and The Sarge are preserved in sturdy reprint collections, ably supplemented by taster tome The Best of Battle, but this compendium gathers two of the very best serials in their entirety and provides a triple dose of short, sharp shockers illustrated by doyen of war artists Cam Kennedy.
‘HMS Nightshade’ disproved the publishing maxim that kids didn’t want to read “ship stories”. Ennis’ introduction details how the feature’s 48 instalments were so special. The simple answer is sheer talent: scripter John Wagner and illustrator Mike Western created a minor classic of grit, determination and courage under fire in sharing the World War II stories of Seaman George Dunn as told to his grandson.
Escorting merchant ships and tanker convoys or re-supplying war materiel prove to be days of back-breaking toil and unending tedium, punctuated by moments of insane amusement or terror-filled tension and sudden death. The old salt slowly and engagingly reveals how bonds forged between shipmates and the vessel that protected them remain strong.
Wagner’s stunning ability to delineate character through intense action and staccato humour carries the series from the North Atlantic, through an astounding sequence in Russia, to Africa, blending sea battles with evocative human adventures. The saga abounds with sharply defined and uniquely memorable supporting stars, with constant attacks leading to a high turnover. Intense combat action, bleak introspection, oppressive tension and stunning moments of gallows hilarity supply the life and inescapable death of HMS Nightshade. It’s a masterpiece of maritime fiction and war comics, and alone would be worth the price of admission here.
Yet there are a few more dark delights…
‘The General Dies at Dawn’ is a short and provocative serial dealing with the concept of “the Good German”, cleverly delivered by a disgraced Wehrmacht officer. Scripted by Alan Hebden with art by John Cooper, it traces the meteoric career of Otto Von Margen. Found guilty of cowardice, disobedience, treason and defeatism, he sits in a cell counting down the hours to his execution by telling his side of the story to his jailer. It’s both gripping and genuinely moving, and the glittering, dwindling hope of the Americans arriving before his execution keeps the suspense at an intoxicating level.
Three complete short stories all illustrated by the magnificent Cam Kennedy are the final offerings. Only the last – and by far best – has a writer credit.
In ‘Clash by Night!’a group of US Marines fall for the Japanese trick of imitating wounded American soldiers. ‘Hot Wheels’ wryly follows flamboyant supply truckers Yancy and Mule breaking all the rules to supply food and ammo to hard-pressed American troops closing in on Berlin in 1945.
Finally Battle’s veteran editor Dave Hunt scripts the impressively gripping ‘Private Loser’. A meek, hopeless failure left to die during a British retreat from Burma in 1942 finally finds a horrific, gore-soaked, existentialist moment where he matters.
These spectacular tales of action, tension and drama, with heaping helpings of sardonic grim wit are as affecting and engrossing now as they’ve ever been. Fair warning though: this stuff is astoundingly addictive, and a second volume, Fighting Mann, was issued in 2016.