Showcase Presents Enemy Ace


By Robert Kanigher, Joe Kubert, Dennis O’Neil, John Severin, Howard Chaykin, Frank Thorne, Ed Davis, Russ Heath, Neal Adams & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1721-1

The first recorded aerial dogfight between powered aircraft occurred sometime during the Battle of Cer sometime between August 15th and 24th 1914 in the skies over Serbia.

Enemy Ace first appeared as a back-up in DC’s flagship war comic Our Army at War: home of the instantly legendary Sergeant Rock. The tales, loosely based on “Red Baron” Manfred von Richthofen, were a magnificent and thought-provoking examination of and tribute to the profession of soldiering whilst simultaneously condemning the madness of war, produced by the dream team of Robert Kanigher & Joe Kubert during a period when the ongoing Vietnam conflict was beginning to tear American society apart.

An immediate if seminal hit, the series told bitter tales of valour and honour from the point of view of German WWI fighter pilot Hans Von Hammer: a hidebound but noble warrior fighting for his country in a conflict that was swiftly excising all trace of such outmoded concepts from the business of government sanctioned mass-killing.

Robert Kanigher (1915-2002) was one of the most distinctive authorial voices in American comics, blending rugged realism with fantastic fantasy in his signature war comics, as well as in horror stories, westerns and superhero titles such as Wonder Woman, Teen Titans, Hawkman, Metal Men, Batman plus other genres too numerous to cover here. A restlessly creative writer, he frequently used his uncanny but formulaic adventure arenas as a testing ground for future series concepts.

Among the many epochal war features he created were Sgt. Rock, The War that Time Forgot, The Haunted Tank, The Losers and the controversial star of this stupendously compelling war-journal.

He sold his first stories and poetry in 1932, wrote for the theatre, film and radio, and joined the Fox Features shop where he created The Bouncer, Steel Sterling and The Web, whilst providing scripts for Blue Beetle and the original Captain Marvel.

In 1945 he settled at All-American Comics as both writer and editor, staying on when the company amalgamated with National Comics to become the forerunner of today’s DC. He wrote Flash and Hawkman, created Black Canary and many sexily memorable villainesses such as Harlequin and Rose and the Thorn. This last turbulent temptress he redesigned during the relevancy era of the early 1970s into a schizophrenic crime-busting vigilante who haunted the back of Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane, which Kanigher also scripted.

When the taste for mystery-men had faded at the end of the 1940s, Kanigher moved seamlessly into adventure yarns, westerns and war: becoming in 1952 writer/editor of the company’s combat titles.

As well as scripting for All-American War Stories, Star Spangled War Stories and Our Army at War, he created Our Fighting Forces in 1954 before adding G.I. Combat to his burgeoning portfolio when Quality Comics sold their line of titles to DC in 1956. This was whilst still working on Wonder Woman, Johnny Thunder, Rex the Wonder Dog, Silent Knight, Viking Prince and a host of others.

In 1956 he scripted ‘Mystery of the Human Thunderbolt’ – the first story of the Silver Age which introduced Barry Allen as the new Flash to the hero-hungry kids of the world. Drawn by Carmine Infantino, the risky experiment included multi-talented veteran Joe Kubert as inker for the crucially important debut issue…

Kubert was born in 1926 in rural Southeast Poland (which became Ukraine and might be Outer Russia by the time you read this). At age two his parents took him to America and he grew up in Brooklyn.

His folks encouraged Joe to draw from an early age and the precocious kid began a glittering career at the start of the Golden Age, before he was even a teenager. Working and learning at the Chesler comics packaging “Shop”, MLJ, Holyoke and assorted other outfits, he began his close association with National/DC in 1943, whilst still dividing his time and energies between Fiction House, Avon, Harvey and All-American Comics, where he particularly distinguished himself on The Flash and Hawkman.

In the early 1950s he and old school chum Norman Maurer were the creative force behind publishers St. Johns: creating evergreen caveman Tor and launching the 3D comics craze with Three Dimension Comics.

Joe never stopped freelancing, appearing in EC’s Two-Fisted Tales, Avon’s Strange Worlds, Lev Gleason Publications & Atlas Comics until in 1955 when, with the industry imploding, he took a permanent position at DC, only slightly diluted whilst he illustrated the contentious and controversial newspaper strip Tales of the Green Beretsfrom 1965 to 1968.

This terrific monochrome tome re-presents the blockbusting exploits of Von Hammer from Our Army at War #151, 153, 155, Showcase #57-58, Star Spangled War Stories #138 -145, 147-150, 152, 158, 181-183, 200, Men of War #1-3, 8-10, 12-14, 19-20, The Unknown Soldier #251-253, 260-261, 265-267 plus an intriguing tribute from Detective Comics #404: a period spanning February 1965 to August 1982.

The canon encompasses a period during which superheroes were supplanted by horror stories before bouncing right back again, whereas the genre of combat chronicles soldiered on regardless and largely unbothered by vagaries of reader fashion.

To be brutally frank, the stories are infinite variations on the same theme and, despite being illustrated by many of the greatest artists of two generations, might feel a little samey. If so, just stop every now and then to cogitate a little. This isn’t a book to blaze through; its one to savour in sensible portions…

It all kicked off in the back of Our Army at War #151 ((cover-dated February 1965), which introduced the ‘Enemy Ace’ in a short, sharp shocker set in 1918 wherein celebrated aerial warrior Rittmeister Von Hammer was hospitalised after downing a succession of Allied aircraft.

The coldly stoic hero was simultaneously admired by comrades and nurses whilst being shunned and feared by them: they all inevitably came to characterise Germany’s greatest hero as cold and a “human killing machine”…

Von Hammer took recuperative solace in hunting the wilds of the Schwartzwald, where he met a solitary black wolf who seemed to understand and share his lonely life of death and honour…

When his wounds were fully healed the dark knight returned to prowl once more “the Killer Skies”…

That fifteen page yarn perfectly defined everything that could be said about the character but the public could not get enough, so Von Hammer returned in #153 as ‘Flaming Bait!’ Dialled back to 1917 now (scripter Kanigher was never slavishly tied to tight or formal continuity), the cautionary tale featured the superstitious Rittmeister’s attempts to offset a wave of deaths which occurred each time a photographer took a pilot’s picture…

Our Army at War #155 (June 1965) featured ‘Fokker Fury!’, which saw the fanatically fair and scrupulous air ace accidentally shoot down an unarmed British fighter. After some excoriating self-castigation, Von Hammer was compelled to reclaim his honour in a valiant display of mad bravado…

Mere months later, he was the star of a brace of full-length thrillers in prestigious tryout vehicle Showcase.Issue #57 (July/August 1965) offered ‘Killer of the Skies!’ which recapitulated all that had gone before whilst introducing  a potential equal in the form of Canadian ace “The Hunter”.

A new wrinkle had also been added to the mix as Von Hammer now perpetually agonised and bemoaned his inability to save the human conveyor belt of naive, foolish replacement pilots to his Jagdstaffel from killing themselves through enthusiasm, bravado and youthful stupidity…

The following issue (#58, September/October) explored ‘The Hunters – and the Hunted!’, detailing how, after a blazing succession of kills, Von Hammer took a recreational trip to his beloved Black Forest and renewed acquaintances with his lupine companion. Here he had a brief encounter with a beautiful lady whose passion for the celebrity hero died as she soon as apprehended his cold, apparently emotionless executioner’s nature…

With all forms of human warmth clearly denied him, the Hammer of Hell reluctantly returned to the aerial killing fields…

Things went quiet after that as Enemy Ace clearly didn’t sell highly enough to garner its own continuing feature. Time passed and anti-war sentiment increasingly gripped the nation. In 1968 bimonthly war-mag Star Spangled War Stories – a title with a reputation for and history of offbeat material (Mlle. Marie, The War that Time Forgot) – revived Von Hammer for a spectacular run of mesmerising tales which conclusively proved, time after time, that any War was Hell…

It began in #138 (April/May) with the visually intoxicating epic ‘The Slayers and the Slain!’, which introduced a French counterpart to the Teutonic Terror in the forbidding form of the masked and hooded, eerily anonymous Hangman.

This sombre sky-warrior flew a sinister coal-black Spad and threw the German pilots into a paralysing psychological funk, but a conclusive duel with Von Hammer was postponed until the German could recover from yet another bout of wounds won in the Killer Skies…

With room to explore their timeless theme of a good man forced into wicked actions, SSWS #139 flashed back to the boyhood of the Air Ace in ‘Death Whispers… Death Screams!’ Here the austere life of a noble Junker was revealed; the manly pursuits of a Junker in training drummed into young Hans by his severe but loving father.

That grizzled old warrior, from a proud family of patriotic heroes, inculcated in the last of his line an overarching dedication to duty and honour above all other considerations, beliefs which carried him in his present endeavours though the shock of being humiliatingly shot down by the Hangman.

When they met again in the skies it was the Frenchman who crashed to earth, but he too survived to fly another day…

Also included here is a superb Kubert pictorial fact feature Battle Album: Fokker DR-1 and Spad S.13 to add to the already technically overwhelming ambiance…

In #140 the next clash of equals hideously exposed ‘The Face of the Hangman’, resulting in both men crashing on the French side of the lines and becoming respectful intimates as Hammer recuperated in his rival’s chateau before the call of country and duty resulted in one final, fateful airborne showdown…

Star Spangled War Stories #141 was inked by Frank Giacoia & Joe Giella, taking a hard look at the men who flew with Von Hammer. ‘The Bull’ was an ambitious new flier in the Jagdstaffel who endangered and even killed his own comrades in a pitiless quest for fame and glory. Eventually the Rittmeister had to take decisive and fatalistic action…

‘Vengeance is a Harpy!’ then saw the impossible return of the Hangman to sow death and terror amongst the German pilots, forcing Von Hammer into a battle he did not want with a person he had come to admire, if not love…

In ‘The Devil’s General’, after more time spent with the wolf in the woods, the brooding Rittmeister returned to duty, harrying ground troops and spectacularly eradicating opposing fliers. His composure was soon blighted by elderly General Von Kleit, who forced his son Werner into the Squadron, expecting Von Hammer to keep the boy safe in the pitiless skies.

When the callow youth was shot down and captured, The Hammer of Hell moved Heaven and Earth to bring him back alive…

For #144 Kubert inked hot new penciller Neal Adams on ‘Death Takes No Holiday!’ wherein another death-dealing macabre French Ace – dressed as a skeleton – terrorised and slaughtered the Jagdstaffel’s pilots, forcing the German Ace into insane action to inspire his men and cure a young flier of fear-induced madness…

With Kubert back on solo art duties, SSWS #145 saw Von Hammer plagued by nightmares of his greatest opponent, as he attempted to school a trio of veteran pilots for the inevitable day when one would replace him. However the actual ‘Return of the Hangman’ shattered those plans forever…

Another baroque opponent surfaced in #147 as an obsessive English lunatic who believed himself St. George put on a suit of armour and shot down far too many of the Rittmeister’s pilots as part of his scheme to give the infallible Hammer of Hell ‘A Grave in the Sky!’ However that particular vendetta concluded on the ground with ancient swords drawn…

Kanigher was never above using wrenching melodrama and sheer sentimentality to his advantage. The moving saga in #148 describes how a little puppy becomes a mascot for solitary, isolated Von Hammer, but the cute little tyke’s inescapable horrific ending is just another hammer-blow of heartbreak in ‘Luck is a Puppy named Schatzi!’

Despite immense critical acclaim, the series was dwindling in popularity. Star Spangled War Stories 149 (February/March 1970) saw Viking Prince join the eclectic comic’s line up with Enemy Ace reduced to fifteen pages. ‘Reach for the Heavens’ – inked by Sid Greene – found Von Hammer meeting again with hated flying school rival Heinrich Müller, a complex sadistic killer who redeemed himself after committing war crimes in a tale tinged with supernatural overtones…

The run truly ended with #150 and ‘3 Graves to Home!’, as the Enemy Ace was shot down over rural France and had to fight his way back to his own lines. He encountered a succession of civilians all putting a human face on the war he usually fought so far above them, but his time in the sun was almost over…

With Star Spangled War Stories #151(June/July 1970), a new feature replaced Enemy Ace as star feature, running until the magazine changed its name with the 204th (February 1977) issue to reflect the newcomer’s popularity. As The Unknown Soldier, it continued for a further 64 episodes until it too died with #268 (October 1982).

Star Spangled War Stories #152 however offered one more uncompromising mission from which only the Hammer of Hell returned. ‘Rain Above… Mud Below!’, illustrated by Russ Heath, was supplemented by another informative Kubert Battle Album starring the Lafayette Escadrille

Although gone, the iconic German warrior was far from forgotten. SSWS #158 featured a stunning Kubert ‘Special Pin-up: Enemy Ace – the Hammer of Hell’ whilst issue #181-183 held a compelling 3 part back-up serial by Kanigher & Frank Thorne which pitted the noble intellectual against maverick American Ace Steve Savage – “The Balloon Buster” in ‘Hell’s Angels Part One: The Hammer of Hell!’, ‘Hell’s Angels Part Two: The Maverick Ace!’ and the savage but inconclusive finale ‘Hell’s Angels Part Three: To End in Flames!’(June/July to November/December 1974)…

Von Hammer resurfaced in the anniversary Star Spangled War Stories #200 (June/July 1976) in ‘Shooting Star’ written and drawn by Joe Kubert, as a German innovation in rocket-propelled aircraft catastrophically proved to be an invention whose time had not yet come…

A new anthology comicbook debuted inAugust 1977. Men of War starred Gravedigger, a black American GI in WWII, but had alternating back-ups. Enemy Ace copped the first slot in issues #1-3 (by Kanigher, Ed Davis & Juan Ortiz) as ‘Death is a Wild Beast!’ saw Von Hammer down a devil-themed British pilot who accomplished a miraculous ‘Return from Hell!’ before exhibiting ‘The Three Faces of Death’ in the final instalment.

As ever, the real meat of the macabre missions was the toll on the minds and bodies of the merely mortal fliers that died whilst Von Hammer lived on…

Another triptych featured in #8-10. ‘Silent Sky… Screaming Death!!’ – illustrated by Larry Hama & Bob Smith – began a trenchant tale of a family at war before Howard Chaykin took over the art as a duel in the sky resulted in attack by vengeful siblings and the return of Von Hammer’s father in ‘Brother Killers!’

It all ended badly in a fateful ‘Duel at Dawn!’

Men of War #12-14 offered more of the same as ‘Banner of Blood!’ saw the troubled Rittmeister strive to retrieve the Von Hammer family flag from a cunning French air ace who was an ancestral foe of ‘The Last Baron!’ The centuries-long vendetta with the Comtes de Burgundy finally ended in one last honourable ‘Duel!’

Issues #19-20 (August and September 1979) finished another run with one more tale of idiotic honour and wasted young lives as Von Hammer made ‘A Promise to the Dying’ and sought to return a contentious souvenir to its rightful owner in ‘Death Must Wait!’

In the May 1981 Unknown Soldier – #251 – Enemy Ace began an occasional series of adventures illustrated by the phenomenal John Severin.

First was ‘Hell in the Heavens Part One: I, the Executioner’ wherein Von Hammer’s whirlwind romance with Fraulein Ingrid Thiesse hit a bump after he told of the British boy pilot who died in his arms. Having sworn to find his valiant foe’s sister and return an heirloom, Hans soon found himself under attack in #252’s ‘Hell in the Heavens Part Two: the Midnight Spy’,before shocking answers were forthcoming in the concluding ‘Hell in the Heavens Part Three: Midnight and Murder’…

A far more imaginative yarn unfolded in #260 (February 1982) with ‘I Am My Own Executioner Part One: Stolen Face – Stolen Ace!’ when the German High Command brought in a doppelganger to replace the national hero Von Hammer as he recovered from wounds.

Unfortunately the impostor was not only a sadistic butcher but crazy as a loon and the real deal had to defy his doctors and military superiors before shooting the maniac out of the skies – for the sake of the country and his own besmirched good name – in #261’s ‘I Am My Own Executioner Part Two: Death of a Double!’

The last flight of the war-weary warrior came in Unknown Soldier #265-267 (July to September 1982) as the British Government put a huge price on Von Hammer’s head in ‘A Very Private Hell Part One: the Bounty Hunters!’

The resultant furore led to a return engagement for Yankee white trash Steve Savage in ‘A Very Private Hell Part Two: the Substitute Ace’ and the death of a brave but foolhardy fake ace before the drama ended – again inconclusively – in ‘A Very Private Hell Part Three: Debt of Blood’

Although the grim conflicts of the chivalrous cavalry of the clouds conclude here, this epic tome holds one last treat in reserve: a rather outré but definitively classy tribute to the Hammer of Hell which originally appeared Detective Comics #404 (October 1970).

‘Ghost of the Killer Skies!’ by Denny O’Neil, Neal Adams & Dick Giordano found the Masked Manhunter attempting to solve a series of impossible murders on the set of a film about German WWI fighter ace Hans von Hammer.

All evidence seemed to prove that the killer could only be a vengeful phantom, but in the killer skies over Central Spain the mighty Batman uncovered almost incontrovertible evidence of a malign human intelligence behind the deaths.

…Almost incontrovertible…

These often bizarre but always moving and utterly unforgettable stories reveal a true high point in the annals of combat comics: crafted by masters of the art form and who never failed to ram home the point that war is not a profession for anybody who enjoys it, and that only the lucky, the mad and the already-doomed have any chance of getting out at all…
© 1965, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1974, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1981, 1982, 2008 DC Comics All Rights Reserved.

Charley’s War – A Boy Soldier in the Great War


By Pat Mills & Joe Colquhoun (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-78116-914-8

When Pat Mills & Joe Colquhoun began their tale of an impressionable lad who joins up just in time to fight in the disastrous Somme campaign, I suspect they had, as usual, the best of authorial intentions but no real idea that this time they were creating sheer comicstrip magic.

As affirmed in Neil Emery’s splendid appreciation ‘Into Battle: a Chronology of Charley’s War’, the landmark feature was originally published in British war anthology Battle (AKA Battle Picture Weekly, Battle Action etc.). A surprise hit, the serial launched in issue #200, running from 6th January 1979 until October of 1986.

It recounted, usually in heartrending and harrowing detail and with astounding passion for a Boys’ Periodical, the life of an East-End kid who lied about his age to enlist with the British Army reinforcements setting out to fight the Hun in 1916.

The stunning strip contingent contained within this superb Omnibus edition – 86 weekly episodes in all – form one of the most powerful and influential characterisations of the oh-so-ironic “war to end all wars”, touching upon many diverse aspects of the conflict and even the effects on the Home Front, all delivered with a devastatingly understated dry sense of horror and injustice and frequently leavened with gallows humour as trenchant as that legendarily “enjoyed” by the poor trench-bound “Tommies” of the time.

Before the tale commences however there are also a brace of educational and informative features to enhance the experience ‘Landships: the Evolution of the Tank’ by Steve White and a wonderful glimpse into the mind of that sublime and much-missed illustrator courtesy of  ‘Joe Colquhoun in Conversation’ by Stephen Oldman.

This magnificent monochrome mega-compilation opens with a 4-page instalment (for much of the middle run the series came in 3-page episodes) ‘Charley’s War – the Story of a Soldier in World War One’ which followed 16-year-old London Bus Company worker Charley Bourne as he eagerly enlisted and so-quickly graduated to the unending, enduring horrors of the muddy, blood-soaked battlefield of The Somme.

Military life was notoriously hard and unremittingly dull… except for those brief bursts of manic aggression and strategic stupidity which ended so many lives. Closely following the recorded course of the war, Mills & Colquhoun put young Charley in the Westshire Regiment and showed a rapidly changing cast being constantly whittled away by various modes of combat attrition.

The weekly hell showed lesser-known, far from glorious sides of the conflict that readers in the 1970s and 1980s had never seen in any other war comic. Each strip was cunningly punctuated and elucidated by the telling narrative device of the simple lad’s letters to his family in “Blighty” and also cleverly utilised reproductions of cartoons and postcards from the period.

With Boer War veteran Ole Bill Tozer as his mentor Charley narrowly survives shelling, mudslides, digging details, gas attacks, the trench cat, snipers, the callous stupidity of his own commanding officers – although there are examples of good officers too – and the far too often insane absurdity of a modern soldier’s life.

Slowly but irrevocably the callow, naïve boy became a solid, dependable warrior – albeit one with a nose for trouble and a blessed gift for lucky escapes.

When Tozer leads a party across No-Man’s Land to capture prisoners for interrogation new pal Ginger sustains a frankly hilarious wound in his nether regions. But as a result, and despite the sortie establishing the inadvisability of an attack, the Allied Commanders continue their plans for a Big Push. Thus Charlie is confronted with an agonising moral dilemma when he catches a comrade trying to wound himself and get sent home before the balloon goes up.

This time, grim fate intervenes before the boy soldier can make a terrible choice…

The unit’s troubles increase exponentially when arrogant, ruthless aristocrat Lieutenant Snell arrives; constantly undermining and sabotaging every effort by sympathetic officer Lieutenant Thomas to make the riffraff cannon fodder’s lives tolerable. The self-serving toff takes a personal dislike to Charley after the lad drops his huge picnic hamper in the trench mud…

On July 1st 1916 The Battle of the Somme began and, like so many others, Charley and his comrades are ordered “over the top” and expected to walk steadily into the mortars and machine gun fire of the entrenched German defenders. Thomas, unable to stand the stupidity, cracks and commands them to charge at a run. It saves his squad but lands his men in a fully-manned German dug-out…

After ferocious fighting the lads gain a brief respite but the retreating Huns have left insidious booby-traps to entice them. Many beloved characters die before Charley, Ginger and poor shell-shocked Lonely are finally captured by “the Boche”.

As they await their fate the traumatised veteran reveals to Ginger and Charley the horrific events of the previous Christmas and why he so wants to die. Moreover the sole cause of that appalling atrocity was the same Snell who now commands their own unit…

Through Charley’s dumb luck they escape, only to blunder into a gas attack and British Cavalry. The mounted men then gallop off to meet stern German resistance (resulting in some of the most baroque and disturbing scenes ever depicted in kids comics) whilst Bourne and Co. are miraculously reunited with their comrades.

The combat carnage has not ceased however. Waiting for the order to attack, Lt. Thomas and his hard-pressed men are suddenly subjected to a terrific barrage. With horror the officer realises they are being shelled by their own big guns and dispatches a runner to Snell who has a functioning line to Allied HQ.

The role of messenger was the most dangerous in the army but, with no other means of communication except written orders and requests, failure to get through was never acceptable. By the time Charley volunteers a dozen men have failed. With British shells still slaughtering British troops Bourne is determined to pushing his luck as the “thirteenth runner”…

As previously stated Charley’s War closely followed key events of the war, using them as a road map or skeleton to hang specific incidents upon, but this was not the strip’s only innovation. The highly detailed research concentrated more on the characters than the fighting – although there was still plenty of heartrending action – and declared to the readership (which at the time of original publication were categorically assumed to be boys between ages 9-13) that “our side” could be as monstrous as the “bad guys”.

Mills also fully exercised his own political and creative agendas on the series and was always amazed at what he got away with and what seeming trivialities his editors pulled him up on (more fully expanded upon in the author’s informative ‘Strip Commentary’ which concludes this Omnibus edition)…

With the Thirteenth Runner storyline, likable everyman Charley Bourne slowly began his descent from fresh-faced innocent to weary, battle-scarred veteran as the war reached beyond the cataclysmic opening moves of the Somme Campaign and into the conflict’s most bloody events.

Frantically making his way to the rear positions Charley successfully passes the fallen twelve runners but only encounters more officer arrogance and Professional Soldier stupidity before the battle ends. Snell refuses to even read the message until he has finished his tea…

Helpless before the aristocrat’s indifference Charley angrily returns to the Front. Finding everybody apparently dead, he snaps: reduced to a killing rage he is only dragged back to normal when Ginger, Smith Seventy and the Sarge emerge from a shattered support trench.

The lad’s joy is short-lived. Thomas is arrested for showing cowardice in the face of the enemy, and with him gone Snell now commands the unit of despicable disposable commoners…

Removed to the Rear to have their wounds treated, Charley and his pals meet Weeper Watkins. The former ventriloquist cries permanently. His eyes have been ruined by exposure to poison gas but he is still considered fit for duty…

Soon however they all fall foul of sadistic military policeman Sergeant Bacon who has earned his nickname as “the Beast” over and over again…

With a chance to blow off steam – such as a hilarious volunteer Concert Party show – Charley and Weeper are soon in the Beast’s bad books. However his first attempt to beat and break Bourne goes badly awry when a couple of rowdy Australian soldiers join the fray and utterly humiliate the Red Cap.

Bullies are notoriously patient and Bacon’s turn comes at last when Lt. Thomas is found guilty. Charley and Weeper refuse to be part of the firing squad which executes him and are punished by a military tribunal, leaving them at the Beast’s non-existent mercy. Enduring savage battlefield punishments which include a uniquely cruel form of crucifixion, their suffering only ends when the base is strafed by German aircraft…

With sentence served and Bacon gone, Charley is soon back in the trenches, just in time for the introduction of Tank Warfare to change the world forever.

A fascinating aspect of the battle is highlighted here as the strip concentrates heavily upon the German reaction to this military innovation. The Central Powers considered the tank to be an atrocity weapon in just the same way that modern soldiers do chemical and biological weapons.

In the build-up to the Big Push Charley is singled out by a new replacement. Unctuous Oliver Crawleigh is a cowardly spiv and petty criminal, but he’s also married to Charley’s sister Dolly. The chancer ignobly attaches himself to the young veteran like a leech, offering to pay Charley to either protect him or wound him some minor way which will get “Oiley” safely back to Britain…

The next day the Empire’s new landships make their terrifying debut with army infantry in close support and the effect on the Germans is astounding. In a ferociously gripping extended sequence Mills & Colquhoun take the readers inside the hellish iron leviathans as the outraged Huns devote their manic utmost efforts into eradicating the titanic terrors.

The carnage is unspeakable but before long Charley, Oiley and Smith Seventy are inside one of the lumbering behemoths, reluctantly replacing the dead crew of clearly deranged tank man Wild Eyes as the modern-day Captain Ahab drags them along for the ride: seeking a madman’s redemption for the loss of his comrades, the slaughter of a town and destruction of a church…

In the quiet of the weary aftermath Oiley deliberately puts his foot under a tank to “get a Blighty” (a wound sufficiently serous to be sent home to England) and attempts to bribe Charley into silence. The disgusted, exhausted teenager makes him eat his filthy money…

During this lull in the fighting, events on the German side saw despised commoner and Eastern Front veteran Colonel Zeiss spurn his aristocratic Junker colleagues’ outdated notions and devise a new kind of Total Warfare to punish the British for their use of mechanised murder machines…

Charley meanwhile is wounded and his comrades celebrate the fact that he will soon be home safely. Naturally, things are never that simple and the callous indifference of the army medical contingent – especially the notorious “Doctor No”, who never lets a man escape his duty – means that any soldier still able to pull a trigger is sent back into battle.

Bourne returns to the trenches just in time to meet the first wave of Zeiss’ merciless “Judgement Troops”, who stormed the British lines, slaughtering everyone – including German soldiers who got in the way – in a savage, no-holds-barred assault, whose “Blitzkreig tactics” overwhelm everything in the path.

Charley and his mates experience fresh horrors: battlefield executions, new and experimental forms of poison gas, flamethrowers, strafing by steel javelins and brutal, uncompromising hand-to-hand combat in their own overrun trenches before the bloody battle peters out indecisively…

Zeiss is subsequently cashiered by his own appalled superiors, but knows that one day his concepts of Blitzkrieg and Total War will become the norm…

Exhausted, battle-weary Charley is again injured, losing his identification in the process and returned eventually to England as a shell-shocked temporary amnesiac. His mother undergoes slow torture as she receives telegrams declaring her son, missing, dead, found wounded and lost again…

Mills & Colquhoun now begin a masterful sequence that breaks all the rules of war comic fiction; switching the emphasis to the Home Front where Charley’s family are mourning his apparent death and working in the war industries, just as the German Zeppelin raids on British cities are beginning.

Mills’ acerbic social criticism makes powerful use of history as the recovering hero experiences the trials of submarine warfare, when the troop ship carrying him and Bill Tozer back to Blighty is torpedoed…

When their perilous North Sea odyssey at last brings Charley back to Silvertown in London’s West Ham, it is in the wake of a catastrophic disaster in which fifty tons of TNT exploded at a munitions factory, killing more than seventy workers and injuring a further four hundred…

No longer comfortable around civilians and with no stomach for the jingoistic nonsense of the stay-at-homes or the covert criminal endeavours of boastful “war-hero” (and secret looter) Oiley, Charley hangs out in pubs with the Sarge and thereby reconnects with old soak and Crimean War survivor Blind Bob

London is a city under constant threat, not just from greedy munitions magnates who care more for profit than the safety of their workers or even the victory of their homeland, but also increasingly common aerial bombing raids which provoke mindless panic and destruction at the very heart of the British Empire.

Focus here divides as Charley’s days are contrasted with the zealous mission of devoted family man Kapitan Heinrich von Bergmann who leads his squadron of Zeppelins in a carefully calculated night sortie against the hated English…

When Blind Bill is evicted from his rooms Charley invites him to stay with the Bournes and the beggar’s incredible hearing (coupled with the area’s quaint air-raid listening devices) provides enough warning to seal Bergmann’s doom, but not before the airman has rained tons of explosive death on the capital…

During the bombing Charley discovers his mum is still toiling in the local munitions works. The exploitative owner has decided not to sound his air raid evacuation alarm as he has his profits and contracts to consider. Charley is not happy and dashes to get her out…

This stunning collection ends with a sharp jab at the dubious practices of British recruitment officers (who got bonuses for very volunteer they signed up) as Charley stops his extremely little brother Wilf from making the same mistake he did, and teaches the unscrupulous recruiter a much deserved lesson

To Be Continued…

Charley’s War is a highpoint in the narrative examination of the Great War through any artistic medium and exists as shining example of how good “Children’s Comics” can be. It is also one of the most powerful pieces of fiction ever produced for readers of any age.

I know of no anti-war story that is as gripping, as engaging and as engrossing, no strip that so successfully transcends its mass-market, popular culture roots to become a landmark of fictive brilliance. We can only thank our lucky stars that no Hollywood hack has made it a blockbuster which would inescapably undercut the tangibility of the “heroes” whilst debasing the message.

There is nothing quite like it and you are diminished by not reading it.

© 2004 Egmont Magazines Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
Charley’s War: A Boy Soldier in the Great War is published on August 8th 2014.

World War One: 1914-1918


By Alan Cowsill, Lalit Kumar Sharma, Jagdish Kumar & various (Campfire)
ISBN: 978-93-80741-86-4

In 1914 following thirty years of empire building and politicking by wealthy nations, Europe was a tinderbox sitting atop a powder-keg. On June 28th in the city of Sarajevo a bomb was thrown, shots were fired and a spark set everything off…

There have been many graphic novels set in and about the Great War, but very few that have been brave enough to offer a comprehensive overview of the entire conflict. This compelling primer by writer Alan Cowsill and illustrators Lalit Kumar Sharma & Jagdish Kumar pulls off the neat trick of bullet-pointing the key events whilst simultaneously personalising the conflict through the unfolding fortunes of a number of ordinary “Tommies” who enlisted at the very start…

The account begins on The Somme in 1916 where George Smith and his brother Joe prepare to go “Over the Top”. As the attack commences he recalls how they all got there, beginning with a review of the initially botched assassination by a dying Serbian Nationalist in an inconspicuous little town in Bosnia-Herzegovina – and how German military ambition and Austro-Hungarian indignation slowly, inexorably kindled the flames of conflict on a continent enmeshed in a convoluted web of complex alliances…

The tale then switches to idyllic England where anti-German sentiment was the backdrop to the introduction of the Smith boys. Older brother Joe was part of the first wave – the British Expeditionary Force – dispatched to France in August 1914 for the hellish wake-up call that was the Battle of Mons

Back home underage George and his pal Fred Cowsill had little problem enlisting and were soon coping with basic training as focus shifts to the Central Powers where German plans were explored and the appalling rate of attrition meant younger and younger soldiers were being ferried to the front…

And so it continues: the Smith’s experience of mud, mayhem and crippling tedium interspersed with incisive examinations and overviews of the military and political forces at play,

Whilst the boys slogged through mud, dug trenches and dodged bullets and gas, the narrative explores the role of other advantage-seeking countries such Japan, naval engagements and the supremacy of submarine combat, the war in Africa, Germany’s role in the Russian Revolution and the foolish mistakes which led America to surrender its neutrality and join the Allied Powers…

Also touched upon are the achievements of T.E. Lawrence (“…of Arabia”), Wilfred Owen, the Christmas Day football match, the creation of Tanks and development of aerial combat, the disproportionate and astounding contributions of the Australian and New Zealand contingents, the bombing of Britain, the vile executions of deserters and psychologically scarred “shellshock” victims and how, but for political intransigence, the war might have ended in 1916…

Quite understandably for a book from an Indian publisher, some long-delayed attention is paid to the crucial contributions of the Empire’s Asian soldiery, such as Sepoy Khudadad Khan Minhas (first soldier of the Indian Army to win the Victoria Cross) whom Joe meets in a field hospital, and there are some damning views of the folks at home, smugly doling out white feathers to any men they consider shirkers or cowards…

Peppered with significant factual titbits and landmarks, the report continues, following the disastrous campaigns, the technological advancements, the battles, the global involvement and implications and how, even after the Armistice, the killing continued, whilst George and his comrades fall one by one by one…

Superbly précising the entire conflict, smartly mixing factual overview with eyewitness perspective at home and abroad and never straying far from action and bloodletting, this is a captivating introduction to the “War to End All Wars” (although I might quibble on the art side and wish for a little more diligent use of photo reference in certain places) and is ably augmented by fact-features such as ‘Was it Really a World War?’ and a truly heartbreaking illustrated essay on ‘Silent Soldiers’: the astounding animals who were awarded incredible honours for their incomprehensibly valiant deeds in the human Armageddon…

© 2014 Kalyani Navyug Media Pvt Ltd. All rights reserved.

Buz Sawyer volume 3: Typhoons and Honeymoons


By Roy Crane (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-703-1

Once you start reading classic masterpieces of cartoon art you just can’t stop…

In these seen-it-all 21st century times where science is astounding and confounding us on a daily basis, it’s hard to remember a time when folk were impressed by things we now take for granted and merely human-scaled adventure was enough to set pulses racing and hearts pounding… until you read a book like this one.

This third stout and sturdy hardcover edition re-presents more magnificent newspaper strip exploits of dynamic all-American everyman Buz Sawyer: war hero, globetrotting troubleshooter and imminent groom-to-be, covering the epochal period from July 21st 1947 to October 9th 1949 wherein – after much procrastination, intrigue, bloodshed and sexy skulduggery – our boy finally married his extremely understanding sweetheart Christy Jameson.

Of course he then dragged her into his lethally adventurous world as prime problem-solver for Frontier Oil - a company with fingers in many international pies…

Before the two-fisted romance kicks off, however, the ever-erudite Rick Norwood uses a letter from Crane’s personal papers (donated to Syracuse University) to examine the creator’s history, influence and opinions in his own forthright words in ‘The Life of a Professional Artist’.

Crane and his creative team (see Buz Sawyer volume 2: Sultry’s Tiger for details) laboured long, hard, often acrimonious hours to produce each daily strip; all mesmerisingly rendered in monochrome through Crane’s masterly techniques employing line art and craftint (a mechanical monochrome patterning effect which added greys and halftones to produce miraculous depths and moods to the superb underlying drawing) but the toll was heavy on personnel and feelings.

The colour Sundays were usually the province of ghost artist Hank Schlensker and starred Buz’s grizzled old sidekick Roscoe Sweeny, and this volume concludes with a brief selection that primarily guest-starred the named lead and Roscoe in wartime reminiscences and occasional contemporary gag goof-offs…

The never-ending rollercoaster of thrills, spills and chills picks up as Frontier Oil’s Mr. Fixit reels at the realisation that he’s finally formally engaged to his girl…

Buz is only just coming to grips with the marriage in prospect, whereas avowed “Ladies Man” Chili Harrison is cynically unmoved that his former office-mate is on Cloud 9… at least until they get a desperate call from mutual Navy buddy Thirsty Collins. Their homely shipmate has a problem only Buz can solve…

The old salt had made good since hostilities ended and owns his own plantation on his own island. He has, however, been maimed in an accident whilst wooing a woman by post. Now she is coming to marry her Mr. Collins, based on his winning words and a single photo… of Buz.

With the jig up, Thirsty deeds Patricia Patterson all his worldly goods, sets up Sawyer to marry her and attempts his own wildly flamboyant suicide…

Reluctantly flying down to Puerto Rico, our hero is soon embroiled in a ludicrous imbroglio as, even after having everything explained, Pat professes to prefer the hunk at hand rather than her timid, missing matrimonial mystery man.

Thankfully a colossal hurricane and a conniving lecherous playboy cad do more to convince Collins to fight for and win his baffled bride than all Buz’s infuriated, exasperated arguments…

In Roy Crane’s world there are no tidy beginnings and endings. Each adventure follows seamlessly on from the last and even as Buz makes his way back to New York the next escapade was well underway.

Patient sweetheart Christy has had enough waiting around and goes looking for a job, landing up as Chili’s secretary, but only after the unrepentant, blithely unaware hound-dog clears the way by promoting his own highly efficient but unsightly amanuensis – at great personal financial cost – so that he can have unrestricted access to the pretty stranger joining Frontier Oil.

Naturally the sparks fly when Sawyer finds his fiancée toiling for his dissolute and probably degenerate former wingman, whilst Chili is horrified to find he had lost this particular hot babe to “old Buzzo” even before he had hired her…

As Buz lays his wedding plans and retirement, his crafty boss Mr. Wright convinces him to sideline all that mushy stuff for one last job, and soon Sawyer and Sweeney are in the Goat Islands off Portugal, hunting a devious gunrunning ring supplying rebels in Salvaduras.

Masquerading as itinerant writers on a yachting jaunt, our heroes don’t fool the bombastic Brobdingnagian bully Hammerhead Gool or his puny, effete but Machiavellian boss Harry Sparrow for a moment. It’s only the diminutive mastermind’s overwhelming squeamishness and sensitivity to the thought of blood that prevents their immediate destruction.

Moreover when deception, bribery and seduction fail to deter the undercover operatives, Sparrow resorts to abducting them whilst immediately despatching the cached ordnance and munitions to the revolutionaries wrecking Frontier’s Salvaduran oil fields.

That slow voyage of the damned only leads to the explosive loss of Sparrow’s ship and shipment as well as the end of the coup…

Back in America Buz has proved himself too valuable to lose, and Frontier’s most important executive J.J. Freeze finds herself – after all, a mere woman – compelled to employ him as a bodyguard on her secret mission to Java and all points East to secure lucrative mineral rights deals.

Sawyer is just as reluctant, but the promise of enough money to retire in style proves too tempting, and patient, understanding Christy is again left behind to fret and worry…

She has good reason: Sparrow is still alive and eagerly anticipating the prospect of a vast payoff and cruel vengeance…

Tracking Freeze and Sawyer from Ireland to Egypt to Singapore, the little weasel poisons Freeze, who orders Buz to go on to Surabaya, Java alone, carrying a cash payment of $1,000,000 for the nation’s capricious and over-educated Maharaja.

Harry even brazenly confronts Buz; putting our hero off guard as he instigates his latest master-plan: hiring a double to blacken Sawyer’s name and reputation in prim and proper Javanese High Society.

With the deal effectively scuppered, Sparrow maroons Buz on a desert island to force him to surrender the cash – unsuccessfully – before playing his final stroke: drugging the valiant troubleshooter with a solution that causes amnesia…

Back in America when word comes that the deal has flopped and both Buz and a million bucks are missing, Christy refuses to accept the slanderous stories and sells everything she owns to buy passage to Java. Soon she is an innocent abroad searching the dives and alleys of Surabaya for her man.

When she is targeted by bandits and worse, Christy’s frantic escape brings her into contact with a crazy old lady who collects stray cats – and did the same for a derelict American with no name or memory…

The action seamlessly shifts into romantic melodrama as Christy tries to win back Buz from the lonely and dangerous harridan he has come to love, but even after that struggle heart-wrenchingly succeeds, the greater fight to clear his mind and his name continues…

When that minor miracle is finally accomplished, the restored Buz at last begins the oft-postponed wedding plans, only to be kidnapped by his rich, crazy and somehow not dead stalker Sultry, the Maharani of Batu.

In no mood to be balked, however, the impatient two-fisted groom-to-be fights his way out of her palace and onto a Honolulu-bound plane…

Back in their rural hometown in time for Christmas, Buz and Christy finally tie the knot and prepare for the rest of their lives but the new Mrs. Sawyer is still terrified that domesticity might kill her over-active husband…

As the newlyweds enjoy a carefully sequestered and discreet honeymoon off-panel, Sweeney appropriates the daily strip for a few weeks in a hilarious comedy sequence as he attempts to find them the perfect wedding present and ends up hunting Longhorn Sheep off-season in the near-arctic conditions of the Rocky Mountains in December…

A turning point began in early 1948 as Wright and the Frontier Oil brass tracked down Buz to offer him a life-threateningly dull desk job or a perilous field assignment in Darkest Africa.

Perfect wife Christy, understanding Buz’s needs, bravely ignores her own feelings and talks him into the latter, offering to share his addiction to danger and the unknown…

Soon the couple are trekking across the Veldt: pioneers tasked with carving an airport and oil installation out of the jungle, but the natural wonders and threats of Africa are as nothing compared to the murderously conniving schemes of their nearest neighbour.

Dashing, debonair Kingston Diamond is solicitous in advice and unctuous in his welcome of the young Americans, but his patient game includes sabotage, terrorism, slaughtering Christy’s menagerie of pets and even murdering Buz to eventually win him the only white woman in 100 miles…

As previously mentioned, also included here are fourteen of the best Sundays – all notionally with appearances by Buz (spanning July 29th 1945 to 17th February 1963) – a cheerily tantalising bonus which will hopefully turn one day into an archival collection of their own. Whilst not as innovative or groundbreaking as Captain Easy, they’re still proficient works by one of the Grand masters of our art-form.

Buz Sawyer: Typhoons and Honeymoons is another sublime slice of compelling comics wonder: an ideal way to discover or reconnect with Crane’s second magnum opus – bold, daring, funny and enthralling adventures which influenced generations of modern cartoonists, illustrators, comics creators and storytellers. The seriesranks amongst the very greatest strip cartoon features ever created: always offering comics tale-telling that is unforgettable, unmissable and utterly irresistible.
Buz Sawyer: Typhoons and Honeymoons © 2014 Fantagraphics Books. All Buz Sawyer strips © 2014 King Features Syndicate, Inc. All other material © the respective copyright holders. All rights reserved.

Buz Sawyer volume 2: Sultry’s Tiger


By Roy Crane & various (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-499-3

Modern comics evolved from newspaper comic strips, and these pictorial features were, until relatively recently, utterly ubiquitous. Hugely popular with the public and highly valued by publishers who used them as an irresistible weapon to guarantee sales and increase circulation, the strips seemed to find their only opposition in the short-sighted local paper editors who often resented the low brow art form, which cut into advertising and frequently drew complaint letters from cranks…

It’s virtually impossible for us today to understand the overwhelming allure and power of the comic strip in America (and the wider world) from the Great Depression to the end of World War II. With no television, broadcast radio far from universal and movie shows at best a weekly treat for most folk, household entertainment was mostly derived from the comics sections of daily and especially Sunday Newspapers. “The Funnies” were the most universally enjoyed recreation for millions who were well served by a fantastic variety and incredible quality of graphic sagas and humorous episodes over the years.

From the very start comedy was paramount; hence the terms “Funnies” and “Comics”, and from these gag and stunt beginnings – a blend of silent movie slapstick, outrageous fantasy and the vaudeville shows – came a thoroughly entertaining mutant hybrid: Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs.

Debuting on April 21st 1924, Washington Tubbs II was a comedic, gag-a-day strip which evolved into a globe-girdling adventure serial. Crane produced pages of stunning, addictive high-quality yarn-spinning for years, until his eventual introduction of moody swashbuckler Captain Easy ushered in the age of adventure strips with the landmark episode for 6th May, 1929.

This in turn led to a Sunday colour page that was possibly the most compelling and visually imaginative of the entire Golden Age of Newspaper strips (see Roy Crane’s Captain Easy, Soldier of Fortune: The Complete Sunday Newspaper Strips volumes 1-4).

Practically improving minute by minute, the strip benefited from Crane’s relentless quest for perfection: his imaginative, fabulous compositional masterpieces achieved a timeless immediacy that made each page a unified piece of sequential art. The influence of those pages can be seen in the works of near-contemporaries such as Hergé, giants-in-waiting like Charles Schulz and comicbook masters such as Alex Toth and John Severin ever since.

The material was obviously as much fun to create as to read. In fact, the cited reason for Crane surrendering the Sunday strip to his assistant Les Turner in 1937 was NEA/United Features Syndicate’s abrupt and arbitrary demand that all its strips must henceforward be produced in a rigid panel-structure to facilitate their being cut up and re-pasted as local editors dictated.

They just didn’t lift the artist any more so Crane stopped making them.

At the height of his powers Crane just walked away from the astounding Captain Easy Sunday page to concentrate on the daily feature, and when his contract expired in 1943 he left United Features, lured away by that grandee of strip poachers William Randolph Hearst.

The result was a contemporary aviation strip set in the then still-ongoing World War II: Buz Sawyer.

Where Wash Tubbs was a brave but largely comedic Lothario and his pal Easy a surly, tight-lipped he-man, John Singer “Buz” Sawyer was a joyous amalgam of the two: a good-looking, popular country-boy who went to war because his country needed him…

Buz was a fun-loving, skirt-chasing, musically-inclined pilot daily risking his life with his devoted gunner Rosco Sweeney: a bluff, brave and simply ordinary Joe – and one of the most effective comedy foils ever created.

The wartime strip was – and still is – a marvel of authenticity: picturing not just the action and drama of the locale and situation but more importantly capturing the quiet, dull hours of training, routine and desperate larks between the serious business of killing and staying alive. However when the war ended the action-loving duo – plus fellow pilot and girl-chasing rival ChiliHarrison – all went looking for work that satisfied their penchant for adventure and romance wherever they could find it…

Crane was a master of popular entertainment, blending action and adventure with smart drama and compellingly sophisticated soap opera, all leavened with raucous comedy in a seamless procession of unmissable daily episodes.

He and his team of creative assistants – which over the decades comprised co-writer Ed “Doc” Granberry and artists Hank Schlensker, Clark Haas, Al Wenzel, Joel King, Ralph Lane, Dan Heilman, Hi Mankin and Bill Wright) – soldiered on under relentless deadline pressure, producing an authentic and exotic funny romantic thriller rendered in the signature monochrome textures of line-art and craftint (a mechanical monochrome patterning effect used to add greys and halftones to the superb drawing for miraculous depths and moods) as well as the prerequisite  full-colour Sunday page.

This primarily black-&-white tome contains an impressive selection of those colour strips – although Crane came to regard them only as a necessary evil which plagued him for most of his career…

The eternal dichotomy and difficulty of producing Sunday Pages (many client papers would only buy either Dailies or Sunday strips, but not both) meant that most creators had to produce different story-lines for each feature – Milt Caniff’s Steve Canyon being one of the few notable exceptions.

Whereas Dailies needed about three weeks lead-in time, hand-separated colour plates for the Sabbath sections meant the finished artwork and colour guides had be at the engravers and printers a minimum of six weeks before publication.

Crane handled the problem with typical aplomb; using Sundays to tell completely unrelated stories. For Wash Tubbs he created the prequel series starring Captain Easy in adventures set before the mismatched pair had met, whilst in Buz Sawyer he turned the slot over to Roscoe Sweeney for lavish gag-a-day exploits, big on slapstick laughs and situation comedy.

During the war years it was set among the common “swabbies” aboard ship: a far more family-oriented feature and probably much more welcome among the weekend crowd of parents and children than the often chilling or disturbing realistically sexy sagas that unfolded Mondays to Saturdays.

A year before Steve Canyon began, Crane tried telling a seven-days-a-week yarn in Buz Sawyer – with resounding success, to my mind, and you can judge for yourself here – but found the process a logistical nightmare. At the conclusion he retuned to weekday continuity whilst Sundays were restored to Roscoe with only occasional guest-shots by the named star.

This second lush and sturdy archival hardback re-presents the tense and turbulent period from October 6th 1945 to July 23rd 1947 wherein de-mobilised adrenaline addict Buz tries to adjust to peacetime life whilst looking for a job and career – just like millions of his fellow ex-servicemen…

Before getting out, he had returned home on leave and ended up accidentally engaged. Buz was the son of the town’s doctor; plain, simple and good-hearted. In that ostensibly egalitarian environment the school sporting star became the sweetheart of ice-cool and stand-offish Tot Winter, the richest girl in town,

Now when her upstart nouveau riche parents heard of the decorated hero’s return they hijacked the homecoming and turned it into a publicity carnival. Moreover the ghastly, snobbish Mrs. Winter conspired with her daughter to trap the lad into a quick and newsworthy marriage.

Class, prejudice, financial greed and social climbing were enemies Buz and Sweeney were ill-equipped to fight, but luckily annoying tomboy-brat girl-next-door Christy Jameson had blossomed into a sensible, down-to-earth, practical and clever young woman.

She’d scrubbed up real pretty too and showed Buz that his future was rife with possibility. Mercifully soon, the leave ended and he and Sweeney returned to the war. The Sawyer/Winter engagement fizzled and died…

When their discharge papers finally arrived (in the episode for September 9th 1945) an era of desperate struggle was over. However that only meant that the era of globe-girdling adventure was about to begin…

Before the comics wonderment resumes, Jeet Heer and Rick Norwood take some time here discussing ‘The Perfectionist and his Team’. Concentrating initially on ‘After the War’ the fascinating explorations then delve deep into the detail of the artist’s troubled and tempestuous relationship with ‘Crane’s Team’ before offering ‘A Word on Comic Strip Formats’ and the censorious iniquities local newspaper editors would regularly inflict upon Crane’s work…

With all the insightful stuff over, the cartoon adventure begins anew as the newly civilian Mr. Sawyer goes home to a life of indolence before his own restless nature starts him fretting again.  The old town isn’t the same. Tot has inherited her father’s millions and moved to New York and even Christy is gone: away attending his old alma mater…

After a brief interlude wherein he visits the cheery Co-Ed and debates the merits of returning to college on the G.I. Bill, Buz instead opts for fulltime employment and heads to the Big Apple where Chili Harrison has a new job offer and an old flame waiting.

As he heads East, Buz chooses to ignore his instincts and the huge mysterious guy who seems to turn up everywhere he goes…

In NYC the aloof, alluring Tot is the cream of polite “arty” society but her wealth and clingy new fiancé – opera singer Count Franco Confetti – are all but forgotten when “the one who got away” hits town and she finds her interest in her High School beau rekindled.

Buz has moved in with Chili, blithely unaware that the strange and ubiquitous giant has inveigled himself into the apartment next door and is now actively spying on him…

Sawyer wants a job flying but is only one of hundreds of war-hero pilots looking for a position at International Airways. Moreover his reputation as a hot-shot risk-taker makes him the last person a commercial carrier might consider. However after well-connected Chili intercedes with a major player in the company – something does come up…

The truth about Buz’s hulking stalker comes out when the Maharani of Batu’s yacht docks in New York. The exotic Asian princess is one of the wealthiest women on Earth and cuts a stunning figure with her tiger on a leash. However when Buz first met her she was simply “Sultry”: a ferocious, remorseless resistance fighter helping him kill the occupying Japanese on her Pacific island.

She never forgot him and will ensure no other woman can have him…

Sultry moves into the penthouse adjoining Tot’s and is witness to the ploys of the Winter woman as she sidelines Confetti and makes a play for Buz. She is also a key figure in the tragic heiress’ sudden death…

Just prior to Tot’s gruesome demise Buz had finally met the unconventional Mr. Wright of International Airways. The doughty executive had no need for pilots but wanted a quick-thinking, capable fighter who could solve problems in the world’s most troubled conflict zones. He even has a spot open for good old Roscoe Sweeney…

Buz is all set for his first overseas assignment when the cops decide he’s the other prime suspect in Tot’s murder and, with Sawyer and Count Confetti in jail, Sultry tries to flee America before the truth comes out.

However Sweeney and the freshly exonerated Buz soon track her down, but Sultry turns the tables on them and shanghais her erstwhile lover, imprisoning him on her yacht, determined to make him her permanent boytoy, far, far away from American justice…

Never short of an idea and blessed with the luck of the damned, Buz’s escape results in a terrifying conflagration and the seeming death of his obsessed inamorata – but Sultry’s body isn’t recovered…

It takes a lot of pleading to get Mr. Wright to give him another chance but, soon after, Buz and Sweeney are winging north to Greenland to stop a crazed sniper taking pot-shots at aircraft passing over the “Roof of the World”.

This savage, visceral extended saga soon reveals the shooter to be a deranged leftover Nazi and his hapless attendants, but the heroes’ astonishing hunt for and capture of the Teutonic trio is as nothing compared to the harrowing trek to get them back to civilisation: especially since poor Roscoe is putty in the hands of Frieda, beautiful devil-daughter of the utterly mad Baron von Schlingle.

Before Buz get the survivors home safely, he loses his plane, has to forcibly trek across melting floes, gets them all stranded on a iceberg and even has his pretty-boy face marred forever…

Worst of all by the time he gets back to civilisation his job no longer exists. Mr. Wright has quit and moved on to another company…

It’s not all bad news: Wright has euphemistically become “Personnel Director” for Frontier Oil, a truly colossal conglomerate active all over Earth and wants Buz to carry on his unique problem-solving career for his new employers.

Despite a large bump in salary, the weary war hero is undecided – until he hears Christy is helping her father in the Central American nation of Salvaduras in his role as a geologist for Frontier Oil. This happily ties in with an outstanding missing persons case; said vanished victim being Bill Daniels, playboy son of a prominent company executive.

It takes very little to convince Wright to despatch Buz and Roscoe south of the border to investigate, opening the floodgates to a spectacular epic of light-hearted romantic adventure a world apart from the previous harrowing tale…

The story also saw Crane and Co. merging the Daily and Sunday strips into a single storyline (with the Sundays primarily illustrated by Schlensker) as the boys tried to trace the missing American in a country that seems locked in fear and poverty…

After initially hitting a wattle-and-daub wall, Buz takes time off for a picnic with Christy and, after a close call with a faux Mexican bandit (in actuality a Yankee fugitive from justice with an atrocious fake accent), declares his undying lover for her.

He is not rebuffed and there’s the hint of wedding bells in the air…

First however he and Sweeney need to finish their mission, and help comes from a brave peon who breaks the regional code of silence to put them on the trail of the mysterious Ranch of the Caves and its American émigré who runs the isolated canton with blood and terror.

After romancing the daughter of vicious “Don Jaime” Buz and Roscoe infiltrate the desolate fiefdom and the gang boss’ international band of thugs, discovering not only the very much alive missing playboy but an incredible lost Mayan treasure trove…

Mission accomplished, Buz returns to New York to marry Christy, only to find he’s already needed elsewhere. Christy too is having doubts, worried that she will always play second fiddle to her man’s lust for action, whereas in truth the real problem is that trouble usually comes looking for Buz…

Boarding a Frontier plane for the Yukon, Sawyer is merely a collateral casualty when the ship’s other passenger is kidnapped. The mysterious men abducting plastic surgeon Dr. Wing take their helpless hostages all the way to deepest Africa where they expected the medic to change the face of an infamous madman everybody in the world believes died in a Berlin Bunker…

Tragically the fanatics are not prepared for the physician’s dauntless sense of duty and sacrifice nor Buz’s sheer determination to survive…

The latter part of this tale describes Buz’s epic river trek with mercenary turncoat honey-trap Kitty as they flee from the vengeful Nazis, but even after reaching the coast and relative safety the insidious reach of the war-criminals is not exhausted and one final attack looms…

Eventually Buz returns to New York alone and wins time from the slave-driving Mr. Wright to settle things with Christy. He follows her to Nantucket Sound but even their romantic sailboat ride turns into a life-changing adventure…

This splendid collection is the perfect means of discovering – or reconnecting with – Crane’s second magnum opus: spectacular, enthralling, exotically immediate romps that influenced generations of modern cartoonists, illustrators, comics creators and storytellers.

Buz Sawyer ranks amongst the very greatest strip cartoon features ever created: stirring, thrilling, outrageously funny and deeply moving tale-telling that is irresistible and utterly unforgettable.
Buz Sawyer: Sultry’s Tiger © 2012 Fantagraphics Books, all other material © 2012 the respective copyright holders. All Strips © 2010 King Features Syndicate, Inc All rights reserved.

Uber


By Kieron Gillen, Canaan White & Keith Williams (Avatar Press)
ISBN: 978-1-59291-218-6

There’s something of an immediately post-WWII zeitgeist in effect in Britain at the moment: exhibitions, documentaries, a few exceedingly good TV dramas (Bletchley Circle, Murder on the Home Front, Foyle’s War) and even some comics.

Being British, writer Kieron Gillen grew up reading war comics like Battle and so has our peculiarly manic and trenchant viewpoint – engendered by the works of Pat Mills, John Wagner, Tom Tully, Alan Hebden and Gerry Finley-Day – to augment his own uniquely dark and sardonic imagination, previously displayed in strips and comics as varied as Phonogram, Save Point, Dark Avengers: Ares, Thor, Uncanny X-Men, Iron Man and many more.

Now he has applied the implausible metahuman trappings of the American superhero comicbook to the bleak, gritty, apocalyptically human scaled drama of “the Last Good War” to produce a vicious, nasty and utterly enthralling sci-fi-tinged epic of staggering scope and power.

This first full-colour trade paperback compilation, illustrated with stark, gory verve by Canaan White & Keith Williams, collects issues #0-5, and posits a much debated “What If…?” as Germany’s Götterdämmerung is averted at the very last moment by a very nasty miracle…

Blending scrupulous historical research with a canny take on human nature, the story begins with the triumphant Russians barbarously overrunning Berlin on the night of April 24th 1945, even as arch-patriot General Sankt delivers at long last a handful of incomprehensible human weapons to General Heinz Guderian, just as that demoralised, defeated Reichsmann readies himself for the end.

Five days later in a secret base near the Swiss border, a trusted scientist for Projekt U murders her former colleagues and sabotages the outpost before dashing towards the advancing American forces, carrying an incredible secret…

With Hitler putting a gun into his mouth word comes of an impossible turnaround. The human “BattleshipsSiegmund, Siegfried and Seiglinde, supplemented by lesser supermen and wonder women, have ravaged and repulsed the despised subhuman Soviets…

The Generals realise even these Wunderwaffen (the result of years of ruthless research) cannot reverse Germany’s fate, but by their ghastly actions and uncanny efforts the nation may be able to negotiate a favourable armistice that won’t leave the country broken forever.

Der Fuhrer, however, totally demented and wantonly vengeful, wants Grand Opera outcomes: Wagnerian Cataclysm and the world made into a rubble heap that would make Berlin seem merely scratched…

The madman appals his closest cronies when he orders Seigfried to execute a million Russian prisoners of war before despatching his ghastly Hell-kinder to destroy Paris and resume his holy war on Russia.

Meanwhile British spy Stephanie has made it back to England – having en route despatched two of the Übermensch she helped create – and convinced Winston Churchill to fast-track the Allies’ own Human Tank project.

To facilitate this, she had brought stolen samples of the transformative crystalline chemical Woden’s Blood and copies of artefacts and documents used by Nazi scientist Professor Metzger.

The ancient – possibly extraterrestrial – inscriptions and records the biochemist was working from go to BletchleyPark where brilliant cryptologist Alan Turing lets his new Electronic Brain loose on deciphering the still untranslated majority of the writings…

Woden’s Blood only upgrades 1 in every 5000 humans, and needs repeated, gradual applications, but even so the harried Allies still find enough volunteers to get the ball rolling, and as weeks pass they slowly become a plausible answer to the now limited and stalled German superhuman project.

In the intervening time, Battleship Sieglinde has led her less-developed and incomplete Mark 2 comrades in the march upon so-recently liberated Paris to carry out Hitler’s demands for punishment. Now as the fanatical Über Soldaten prepare to raze the city they are ambushed by a hastily prepared Expeditionary Force of Anglo American Human Tanks.

They are not enough…

To Be Continued…

Savage, brutal and visually shocking, this stunning, doom-drenched drama crackles with tension, drips with mystery and suspense and comes with a chilling 20+ page gallery of covers, variants and ancillary artwork, and will appeal to lovers of fantasy fiction and unreal war stories alike…

© 2013 Avatar Press Inc. Uber and all related properties ™ & © 2013 Avatar Press Inc.
Uber will be released on April 1st 2014

With Only Five Plums books 1-3


By Terry Eisele & Jonathon Riddle (CreateSpace)
ISBNs: 978-1-48399-114-6, 978-1-48399-123-8 and 978-1-48399-127-6

As any long-time reader will attest, I’m a huge advocate of doing it yourself when it comes to making comics, and this collection – three books of an epic historical exposé of one of modern humanity’s greatest atrocities – shows just why, as it spectacularly blends harsh fact with high drama to reveal the tragic story and eventual small triumph of Anna Nesporova whose family was targeted in error by the Nazis occupying Czechoslovakia…

Divided into three quietly understated, deeply evocative volumes, this triptych of ambitiously oversized monochrome memoirs is crafted by historian Terry Eisele and illustrator Jonathon Riddle from Nesporova’s own words, dramatising the horrific story of the Nazi atrocity at Lidice in Czechoslovakia. The memories are not merely those of a survivor but come from a woman whose entire family was intimately connected with the cause of the tragedy…

The history opens in With Only Five Plums: The Time Before as an elderly woman is encouraged by an interviewer to talk of times long past but never forgotten. She cautiously relates the idyllic life in the nondescript hamlet of Lidice before specifically concentrating on the expansive Horak family and her life as innocent, ordinary Anna Horakova in increasingly trying times.

Relating instances of village life, childhood experiences and the early days of her marriage, the story takes a dark turn when describing Christmas customs. In 1941 a cherished family meal tradition presaged disaster for the entire Horak clan…

In June 1938, European leaders trying to appease Hitler allowed Germany to annexe part of Czechoslovakia and as a consequence Anna’s brother Josef fled to Britain, joining the growing émigré/refugee population.

He soon wrote back that he numbered amongst his new friends Edvard Benes and Jan Masaryk: leaders of the government-in-exile…

The next stage in the tragedy came when Nazi aristocrat Reinhard Heydrich – a sadistic monster eagerly expediting Hitler’s pogrom against the Jews – was assassinated and the Horak family were mistakenly implicated in the plot.

The Nazi retaliation was astoundingly disproportionate: the village where they lived – almost universally Christian – was eradicated from the Earth, the male population massacred and the women sent to concentration camps in a display of calculated butchery as bad any thing visited upon the Gypsies, Jews or any other ethnicity the Nazis deemed “subhuman”.

Heavily pregnant at the time, Anna – along with other expectant mothers – was separated from the rest. Once the children were delivered, they were taken away. Those that passed certain tests were removed to be brought up German, and the mothers joined their sister villagers in packed cattle-cars at rail marshalling yards. The destination was Ravensbruck Concentration Camp…

The tale resumes in With Only Five Plums Book 2: This Dark Age where, following a brief recap, Anna details the appalling journey, paying especial detail to an elderly Jewish woman’s attempts to cheer up younger girls with the story of Rabbi Loew’s Golem: created to protect the Jews of Prague during a previous wave of persecution…

After many days and hundreds of miles, the train arrives in Fürstenberg from where the survivors are marched to the camp. Anna’s record of daily humiliations and the slow, piecemeal destruction of bodies and spirits covers three years, but she considered herself lucky. At least she had a skill the Germans found useful (professional-standard sewing) and wasn’t part of a group considered genetically inferior such as the Roma Gypsies.

Heartbreaking memories of Romani inmate Florica (and her folktale of the origins of blonde-haired people) poignantly counterpoints the diary of privation and desperation and serves to underline the horrific accounts of the scientist-torturers Ernst-Robert Grawitz and Ludwig Stumpfegger who used the women as guinea pigs for their horrendous experiments…

The captivity ended one spring. The panicked Germans were in retreat: burning files and dismantling buildings. The women were led out of the gates with a few guards and ordered to march. They staggered through Germany and other countries shattered by bombs and, as the days passed, many died. Soon they were not enough soldiers and Anna and some other women slipped away, always heading towards home.

Avoiding the “liberating” Russian soldiers, the group finally reached Czechoslovakia, battered but once more a free nation. Here Anna met Mrs. Kubrova; wife of her husband’s employer, who took her in and eventually drove her to Lidice… or at least where it had once been…

The graphic documentary concludes in With Only Five Plums Book 3: Life in the East is Worthless, describing the aftermath of the war. Throughout all her trials and torments Anna had been utterly oblivious to the fate of her family and her home. Now she learned that both had been eradicated with devastating efficiency. All that was left was the daughter taken from her at birth and lost seemingly forever somewhere in Germany…

From Kubrova, Anna learned what the Nazis had done to turn a thriving, bustling village into a barren featureless field and of other survivors – mostly stolen children – and these scenes are more harrowing in their understated simplicity than anything else in this grim graphic testament…

However there is a slight moral victory to be seen as she then relates how Lidice was rebuilt and repopulated (despite the Soviet Union’s absorbing the newly liberated nation into their Warsaw Pact-enforced alliance) before the saga concludes with an emotional Epilogue wherein Anna finally shared the fate of her stolen daughter…

Slipping back and forth in time, conversationally adding depth and historical background to a remarkably restrained, tightly controlled and shatteringly effective examination of human nature at its worst and best, With Only Five Plums (a Czech expression akin to “with only the clothes on your back”) focuses on one of the most depraved and appalling acts in human history and manages to derive a message of hope and triumphant perseverance from the tragedy.

This triptych is a superb example of pictorial reportage and graphic memoir, with each big (280 x 216mm) book also offering poetry written about the atrocity (The Far-off Village by Mazo de la Roche, Lidice by C. Day Lewis and To Lidice by George England respectively), text features and extensive, fascinating excerpts from ‘Jonathon’s Sketchbook’.

Anna Nesporova passed away in 2006, before these books were completed, but the sense that the brooding, painfully oppressive and grimly moving story related would have made her proud remains. As with all accounts of Atrocity, the tale of Lidice needs to be told and retold, if there’s to be any hope of stopping such things from happening again.

With Only Five Plums is a powerful story of inhumanity, stupidity and endurance that will certainly impress fans of war stories and devotees of fine storytelling, but hopefully it will most appeal to history teachers; professional and not…

© 2013 Terry Eisele. All rights reserved.
For more information and to obtain your own copies check out www.terryeisele.com

Garth Ennis Presents Battle Classics


By John Wagner, Alan Hebden, David Hunt, Mike Western, John Cooper, Cam Kennedy & various (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-78116-741-0

In case you don’t know: apart from his other scripting wonders, Garth Ennis is the best writer of war comics in America today. In fact, if you disregard the marvellous Commando Picture Library series published by DC Thomson (which you shouldn’t – but no one admits to reading them in my circle), he may well be the only full-time comics professional regularly working in the genre in the entire English Language.

His credentials are well established now and, despite his self-deprecating tone in his Foreword, Ennis’s 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…

For most of the industry’s history, British comics have been renowned for the ability to tell a big story in satisfying little instalments and this, coupled with superior creators and the anthology nature of our publications, has ensured that hundreds of memorable characters and series have seared themselves into the little boy’s psyche inside most British adult males.

One of the last great weekly anthology comics was Battle, a strictly combat-themed anthology which began as Battle Picture Weekly (launched 8th March 1975) which, through absorption, merger and re-branding (as Battle Picture Weekly & Valiant, Battle Action, Battle, Battle Action Force and Battle Storm Force) reigned supreme in Blighty before itself being combined with Eagle on January 23rd 1988. Through 673 blood-soaked, testosterone-drenched issues, it fought its way into the bloodthirsty hearts of a generation, consequently producing some of the best and most influential war stories ever.

Happily some of the very best – notably Charley’s War, Darkie’s Mob and Johnny Red – have recently been preserved and revisited in sturdily resilient reprint collections, ably supplemented by a taster tome entitled The Best of Battle, but there’s still loads of superb stuff to be found …

This particular compendium gathers in two of the very best in their entirety and provides a triple dose of short, sharp shockers illustrated by doyen of war artists Cam Kennedy.

In his introductory essay ‘And you expected to die hard: HMS Nightshade, Ennis fills in the background on the strip which disproved the publishing maxim that kids didn’t want to read “ship stories”: detailing how and when the feature began (like Charley’s War in Battle #200, dated January 6th 1979 for 48 instalments) and just why it was so special…

The simple answer is sheer talent: scripter John Wagner (Bella at the Bar, One-Eyed Jack, Joe Two Beans, Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog, Fight for the Falklands, Button-Man, Batman, A History of Violence etc.) and illustrator Mike Western (The Leopard of Lime Street, Jack o’ Justice, The Wild Wonders, The Sarge and so many more) had worked together on other strips such as Partridge’s Patch and the aforementioned Darkie’s Mob, but here especially their talents synchronised and merged to form a minor classic of grit, determination and courage under fire and despite stupidity and cupidity.

Set in an almost forgotten maritime arena, HMS Nightshade shares the stories of Seaman George Dunn as told to his grandson: grim and glorious events of the Second World War as seen from the rolling decks of a British Flower-Class Corvette.

Escorting the merchant ships and tanker convoys that kept Britain on her feet during the Battle of the Atlantic or constantly re-supplying war materiel to Russia on the Murmansk Run proved to be days of back-breaking toil and unending tedium punctuated by moments of insane amusement or terror-filled tension and sudden death, but the old salt slowly and engagingly reveals how bonds forged between shipmates and the vessel which protected them remain strong – even though old George is the last survivor of those perilous days…

With occasional art assistance from Ron Tiner, the saga begins with young George and his new shipmates Big Stan, Smiffy and Jock McCall joining the relatively tiny vessel in May 1940.

Forced to adapt quickly to life aboard ship, the quartet are just in time to become part of the vast flotilla rescuing British soldiers from Dunkirk, experiencing first-hand and up close all the horrors of war and shocks of personal loss.

Learning to despise the ever-present, merciless U-Boats and perpetual airborne attacks from Stukas and other predatory planes, the Nightshade’s crew soon become adept at spotting and shooting back, but escort duty still consists mostly of barely suppressed panic and the appalling anger and pain as one more tanker or cargo ship under their protection explodes and sinks…

Wagner’s stunning ability to delineate character through intense action and staccato humour carried the series from the North Atlantic, through an astounding sequence in Russia, to Africa: blending sea battles with evocative human adventures – such as an imbecilic merchant sea captain, Smiffy’s tragic marriage and brush with Black Marketeers or George’s vendetta with psychotic bullying shipmate Parsons. That villain’s ultimate fate was one of the most unforgettable scenes in British comics history…

The saga abounds with sharply defined and uniquely memorable supporting stars such as Handsome John, tragic Dennis Flowers and despondent “Never-gonna-make-itBrown – who was so obsessed with his impending demise that every man aboard carried one of his goodbye letters to his mum. Even Dogfish: a half-drowned mongrel saved from drowning whose canine senses proved invaluable in early warning of German air raids became a beloved canine star – which meant nothing to a writer like Wagner who knows how to use sentiment to his advantage…

Constant attacks led to a high turnover and later replacements included Whitey Bascombe who barely survived an immersion in Arctic waters and never felt warm ever again, affable coward and inevitable absconder Tubby Grover and simpleminded body builder “MusclesThomson – who took his repugnant role of “Ship’s Crusher” to his heart…

Packed with intense combat action, bleak introspection, oppressive tension and stunning moments of gallows hilarity, the life and inescapable death of HMS Nightshade is a masterpiece of maritime fiction and war comics, and alone would be worth the price of admission here.

Even so, there are a few more dark delights to tickle the military palate, and the next inclusion offers a view of the conflict through an enemy’s eyes…

As explained by Ennis in ‘Rest Easy, Herr Margen: The General Dies at Dawn is a short yet provocative serial dealing with the concept of “the Good German”, cleverly delivered here as a deathbed confession by a disgraced Wehrmacht officer awaiting execution at Nuremberg.

Scripted by Alan Hebden (Rat Pack, Fighting Mann, M.A.C.H. 1, Meltdown Man, Major Eazy etc) with art by John Cooper (Thunderbirds, Judge Dredd, Dredger, Armitage, One-Eyed Jack, Johnny Red, Dr. Who and so much more) this brief – 11 episodes from October 4th to December 28th 1978 – thriller traces the meteoric career of professional soldier Otto Von Margen.

Found guilty of Cowardice, Disobedience, High Treason and Defeatism by his fellow generals, he sits in a cell at Stadiheim Military Prison near Nuremburg, on the 20th of April 1945, counting down the 11 hours to his execution by telling his side of the story to his jailer.

Beyond the walls, the surging US army is drawing ever closer…

From early triumphs in Poland to the invasion of Norway, from Dunkirk to Yugoslavia, the Siege of Stalingrad and eventually Normandy – where his constant opposition to the monstrous acts of his own side finally became unpardonable – Von Margen and his devoted comrade Feldwebel Korder proved themselves brilliant, valiant and honourable soldiers.

However their incessant interference in Gestapo affairs and SS battlefield atrocities made them marked men, and finally the General went too far…

The tale of a patriotic soldier who served his country ruthlessly and proudly as a tank commander, whilst conducting a private war against barbaric Nazi sadists of the Gestapo and SS, is both gripping and genuinely moving, and the glittering, dwindling hope of the Americans arriving before his execution keeps the suspense at an intoxicating level…

This epic oversized monochrome collection (256 pages and 312mm x 226mm) then concludes with three complete short stories all illustrated by the magnificent Cam Kennedy (Commando, Fighting Mann, Judge Dredd, Rogue Trooper, Batman, Star Wars, The Light and Darkness War, The Punisher, Zancudo).

Sadly, as explained by Ennis in his prelude ‘Get out, Leave me alone! This is my grave!: Private Loser and other stories’, only the last – and by far best – has a writer credit.

‘Clash by Night!’ is a classic “irony” tale as a group of US Marines on Iwo Jima fall foul of the Japanese trick of imitating wounded American soldiers, whilst the equally anonymous ‘Hot Wheels’ wryly describes the do-or-die antics of flamboyant supply truckers Yancy and Mule as they break all the rules to get a shipment of food and ammo to hard-pressed American troops closing in on Berlin in 1945…

There’s a subtle knack and true art to crafting perfect short stories, and Battle’s veteran editor Dave Hunt shows how it should be done in the impressively gripping ‘Private Loser’ wherein 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…

Ennis’ Afterword then wraps everything up with appropriate Thank-Yous and some very handy information on where to find even more masterful martial comics madness to enthral and delight anyone whose appetite for torment, tragedy, blood and wonder hasn’t been fully slaked yet…

These spectacular tales of action, tension and drama, with heaping helpings of sardonic grim wit from both sides of World War II and beyond, has only improved in the years since Battle folded, and these black and white gems are as affecting and engrossing now as they’ve ever been.

Fair warning though: this stuff is astoundingly addictive but with no sequel scheduled you might feel compelled to campaign for a second volume…
© 2013 Egmont UK Ltd. All rights reserved.

Garth Ennis Presents Battle Classics is scheduled for release January 9th 2014.

Charley’s War: volume 1: 2 June 1916-1 August 1916

New, Expanded Review

By Pat Mills & Joe Colquhoun (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-84023-627-9

When Pat Mills & Joe Colquhoun began their tale of an impressionable lad who joins up just in time to fight in the disastrous Somme campaign, I suspect they had, as usual, the best of authorial intentions but no real idea that this time they were creating sheer comicstrip magic.

According to Neil Emery’s splendid appreciation ‘Into Battle: a Chronology of Charley’s War’, the landmark feature was originally published in British war strip anthology Battle – AKA Battle Picture Weekly, Battle Action etc. – beginning in issue #200, (6th January 1979 and running until October of 1986): recounting in harrowing detail and with shocking passion the life of an East-End kid who lied about his age to enlist with the British Army reinforcements then setting out to fight the Hun in 1916.

Prior to that author Pat Mills’ Introduction reviews the tone of those times and his intent to shake things up by sneaking an anti-war saga into a ferociously successful periodical which featured gritty he-men dealing with “the Enemy” in a variety of memorable effective means and milieus…

The stunning strip contingent – 29 episodes in all – of this magnificent monochrome hardback opens with a 4-page instalment. ‘Charley’s War – the Story of a Soldier in World War One’ sees 16-year-old London Bus worker Charley Bourne join up – despite not being old enough – and enduring horrific experiences in the mud and blood-soaked trenches.

Military life was notoriously hard and unremittingly dull… except for brief bursts of manic aggression which ended so many lives. Closely following the recorded course of the war, Mills & Colquhoun put young Charley and a rapidly changing cast (constantly whittled away by various modes of combat attrition) through weekly hell and showed another, far from glorious aspect of the conflict to the those 1970s readers.

Each episode was cunningly punctuated and elucidated by the telling narrative device of the lad’s letters to his family in “Blighty” and later reproductions of cartoons and postcards of the period.

With veteran soldier Ole Bill Tozer as his mentor Charley narrowly survives shelling, mudslides, digging details, gas attacks, the trench cat, snipers, the callous stupidity of his own commanding officers – although there are examples of good officers too – and the too often insane absurdity of a modern soldier’s life: quickly becoming a “Tommie” with a gift for lucky escapes.

When Tozer leads a party across No-Man’s Land to capture prisoners for interrogation new pal Ginger sustains a frankly hilarious wound in his nether regions. But as a result and despite the sortie establishing the inadvisability of an attack, the Allied Commanders continue their plans for a Big Push. Thus the lad is confronted with a moral dilemma when he catches a comrade trying to wound himself and get sent home before the balloon goes up. This time, grim fate intervenes before the boy soldier can make a terrible choice…

The unit’s troubles increase exponentially when arrogant toff Lieutenant Snell arrives; constantly undermining every effort by sympathetic officer Lieutenant Thomas to make the soldier’s lives tolerable. The self-serving aristocrat takes a personal dislike to Charley after the lad drops his huge picnic hamper in the trench mud…

On July 1st The Battle of the Somme began and, like so many others , Charley and his comrades are ordered “over the top” to walk steadily into the mortars and machine gun fire of the entrenched German defenders. Thomas, unable to stand the stupidity, cracks and commands them to charge at a run. It saves their lives but lands his men in a fully-manned German dug-out…

After ferocious fighting the lads gain a brief respite but the retreating Huns have left insidious booby-traps to entice them. Many favourite characters die before Charley, Ginger and poor shell-shocked Lonely are captured.

As they await their fate the traumatised veteran at last reveals the horrific events of the previous Christmas and why he wants to die. Moreover the root cause of that atrocity was the same Snell who now commands their own unit…

Through Charley’s dumb luck they escape the Boche, only to blunder into a gas attack and rescue by British Cavalry. The mounted men then gallop off to meet stern German resistance (resulting in some of the most upsetting scenes ever seen in comics) whilst Bourne and Co. are miraculously reunited with their comrades.

The combat carnage has not ceased however and the hard-pressed British are desperate to get a vital message to HQ. Charley volunteers: pushing his luck as the “thirteenth runner”…

To Be Continued…

This stunning first volume – happily still readily available – concludes with a heavily illustrated ‘Strip Commentary’ with Mills’ wonderfully informative chapter notes and commentary revealing background detail and production secrets and a historical feature by Steve White on ‘The Battle of the Somme: Putting Charley’s War in Context’.

Charley’s War closely followed actual events of the war, but this s not the strip’s only innovation. The highly detailed research concentrated more on the characters than the fighting – although there was still plenty of appalling action – and declared to the readership (which at the time of original publication were categorically assumed to be boys between ages 9-13) that “our side” could be as monstrous as the “bad guys”.

Mills also fully exercised his own political and creative agendas on the series and was always amazed at what he got away with and what seeming trivialities his editors pulled him up on.

There is no (anti) war story as gripping, engaging and engrossing, and certainly no strip which so successfully transcends its mass-market, popular culture roots to become a landmark of fictive brilliance. We can only thank our lucky stars that no Hollywood hack has made it a blockbuster which would certainly undercut the tangibility of the “heroes” whilst debasing the message.

There is nothing quite like it and you are diminished by not reading it.

Charley’s War is a true highpoint in the narrative examination of War through any artistic medium: a timeless classic of the art form and now let’s unite to make sure that it’s NOT all over by Christmas…
© 2004 Egmont Magazines Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Goddamn This War!


By Tardi & Jean-Pierre Verney, translated by Helga Dascher (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-582-2

For years I’ve been declaring that Charley’s War was the best story about the Great War ever created and, while I’m still convinced of that fact, there’s a strong contender for the title in the astonishing award-winning conception C’était la guerre des tranchées by cartoonist Jacques Tardi which was first published in France in 1993 and released as an English edition by Fantagraphics in 2010.

And now It Was the War of the Trenches! has been supplemented by an even more impressive and heart-rending notional sequel…

Credited with creating a new style of expressionistic illustration dubbed “the New Realism”, Tardi is one of the greatest comics creators in the world, blessed with a singular vision and adamantine ideals, even apparently refusing his country’s greatest honour through his wish to be completely free to say and create what he wants.

He was born in the Commune of Valence, Drôme in August 1946 and subsequently studied at École Nationale des Beaux-Arts de Lyon and the prestigious Parisian École Nationale Supérieure des arts Décoratifs before launching his career in comics in 1969 at the home of modern French comics: Pilote.

From illustrating stories by Jean Giraud, Serge de Beketch and Pierre Christian, he moved on to Westerns, crime tales and satirical works in magazines such as Record, Libération, Charlie Mensuel and L’Écho des Savanes whilst graduating into adapting prose novels by Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Léo Malet.

The latter’s detective hero Nestor Burma became the subject of all-new albums written and drawn by Tardi once the established literary canon was exhausted and led in 1976 to the creation of Polonius in Métal Hurlant and the legendary Les Aventures Extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc-Sec – an epic ongoing period fantasy adventure series which ran in the daily Sud-Ouest. The series numbers ten volumes thus far and is still being added to.

The passionate creator has also crafted many crushingly anti-war books and stories (Adieu Brindavoine, C’était la guerre des tranchées, Le trou d’obus and more) dealing with the plight of the common soldier, written novels, created radio series, worked in movies, and co-created (with writer Jean Vautrin) Le Cri du Peuple – a quartet of albums about the Parisienne revolt of the Communards.

Whilst his WWI creations are loosely inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, his 2012 graphic novel Moi René Tardi, prisonnier de guerre au Stalag IIB reveals the experiences of his father, a POW in the second conflict to ravage France in a century.

Far too few of this master’s creations are available in English (barely a dozen out of more than fifty) but, thanks to NBM, iBooks and Fantagraphics, we’re quickly catching up…

A lavish and subtle hardback in full colour and moody, evocative tonal sequences (originally released as six newspaper-format pamphlets as Putain de Guerre! then collected in two albums), Goddamn This War! traces the course of the conflict through the experiences of an anonymous French “grunt” lucky, devious and cynically suspicious enough to survive; relating the horrific, boring, scary, disgusting and just plain stupid course of an industrialised war managed by privileged, inbred idiots who think they’re playing games and restaging Napoleon’s cavalry campaigns, as seen from the perspective of the poor sods actually being gassed and bombed and shot at…

Divided into five chapter-years running from ‘1914’ to ‘1919’ (the global killing didn’t stop just because the Germans signed an Armistice in 1918 – just ask the Turks, Armenians, Russians and other Balkan nations forgotten when the shooting officially stopped), the narration is stuffed with the kind of facts and trivia you won’t find in history books as our frustrated and disillusioned protagonist staggers from campaign to furlough to what his bosses call victory, noting no credible differences between himself and the “Boche” on the other side of the wire, but huge gulfs between the men with rifles and the toffs in brass on both sides…

Moreover this staggeringly emotional testament is backed up and supplemented by a reproduction of ‘The Song of Craonne’ – a ditty so seditious that French soldiers were executed for singing it – and a capacious, revelatory year-by-year photo-essay by historian, photographer and collector Jean-Pierre Verney. His World War I: an Illustrated Chronology chillingly shows the true faces and forces of war and is alone worth the price of admission…
Goddamn This War! (Putain de Guerre!) © 2013 Editions Casterman. This edition © 2013 Fantagraphics Books.