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.

Showcase Presents Sgt. Rock volume 2


By Robert Kanigher, Joe Kubert, Bob Haney, Ross Andru & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1984-0

Sgt Rock and the “combat-happy Joes” of Easy Company are one of the great and enduring creations of the American comic-book industry. The gritty meta-realism of Robert Kanigher’s ordinary guys in life-or-death situations captured the imaginations of generations of readers, young and old. So pervasive is this icon of comicbook combat that’s it’s hard to grasp that Rock is not an immortal industry prototype like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman – with us since the earliest moments of the industry – but is in fact a late addition to and child of the Silver Age of Comics: debuting as just another tale in war anthology G.I. Combat (#68, January 1959, by Kanigher & Joe Kubert).

The archetypal sergeant was an anonymous boxer who wasn’t particularly skilled but simply refused to be beaten, absorbing any and all the punishment dealt out to him.

When ‘The Rock!’ enlisted in the US Army, however, that same Horatian quality attained mythic proportions as he held back an overwhelming Nazi attack by sheer grit and determination, remaining bloody but unbowed on a field littered with dead and broken men.

The tale inspired an instant sequel or two before, in Our Army at War #83 (June 1959), the story really began…

This second titanic tour of duty collects in stark and stunning monochrome the groundbreaking tales which made Sgt. Rock a comics legend. These grim and gritty, epically poetic war stories are taken from the then still-anthological Our Army at War #118-148, bracketing May 1962 to November 1964, a period when American comics were undergoing a renaissance in style, theme and quality.

Scripted throughout by Editor Kanigher, the terse episodes herein begin with ‘The Tank vs. the Tin Soldier!’ illustrated by the brilliant Russ Heath as movie idol Randy Booth mustered in to Easy Company and spent all his snobbish energy trying to get out again. By the time he learned how to be a real soldier, his moment in the limelight had turned from cinematic melodrama to Greek tragedy…

The artist most closely associated with Rock, Joe Kubert illustrated #119’s memorable fable ‘A Bazooka for Babyface!’ wherein a kid who’d lied about his age made it to the Front, but didn’t fool the indomitable topkick. Of course, by the time the fighting died down enough to send him back, the Babyface was a seasoned combat veteran…

Kubert superbly limned the majority of stories in this volume, such as #120’s ‘Battle Tags for Easy Co.!’, which used brief vignettes to illustrate how squad stalwarts Ice Cream Soldier, Wild Man and Bulldozer earned their nicknames, before showing the latest Green Apple recruit why the Sarge was called Rock, after which ‘New Boy in Easy!’ in #121 introduced a chess-obsessed replacement who took a lot of convincing that war was no hobby and men weren’t just pawns…

This narrative device of incorporating brief past-action episodes into a baptism of fire scenario played over and over again in Sgt. Rock and never got old.

OAAW #122 featured ‘Battle of the Pyjama Commandoes!’ comprising more portmanteau tales as a number of Easy Joes recuperated in a field hospital, until the Germans broke through and the wounded had to pick up their weapons again…

High-energy stylist Jerry Grandenetti illustrated ‘Battle Brass Ring!’ in #123 as a pushy new replacement antagonised the entire unit until he learned to his cost the value of teamwork and the price of command, after which Kubert returned for ‘Target – Sgt. Rock!’

When the indomitable warrior was captured and brainwashed by a Nazi tank commander into leading an attack on Easy, Bulldozer had to balance Rock’s life against his beloved sergeant’s unflinching standing orders…

More moral dilemmas punished the valiant warriors in #125 (illustrated by Heath) as the unit was cut off from the main Allied force and ordered to ‘Hold – At All Costs!’, whilst ‘The End of Easy Company!’ (#126 and illustrated by Kubert) pitted the unstoppable dogfaces against impassable fortifications and a veritable mountain of Germans who severely underestimated the sheer stubbornness of tired, angry Americans…

With Kubert settling in for the long haul as regular artist on the strip, issue #127 offered an epic 25-page blitz of stories-within-a-story as a quartet of combat-happy Joes related personal tales of their unbeatable boss in ‘4 Faces of Sgt. Rock’.

OAAW #128 featured ‘The Battle of the Sergeants!’ as Rock met his Nazi counterpart in the deserts of Africa, after which #129 revealed that ‘Heroes Need Cowards!’ by exploring Rock’s earliest days in the Army, and ‘No Hill for Easy!’ in #130 saw the battered band of brothers go above and beyond to placate a shell-shocked Major and finish the suicide mission of a deranged last man standing…

In #131 ‘One Pair of Dogtags … For Sale’ saw Easy meet a woman warrior every inch their equal who literally spilled her own blood to keep Rock alive, whilst in ‘Young Soldiers Never Cry!’ the sergeant became a combat babysitter after rescuing a toddler on the battlefield of Normandy.

‘Yesterday’s Hero!’ in #133 saw a decorated veteran join Easy to a rapturous welcome, but flounder, unable to escape the shocking circumstances that made him an unwilling example of both heroism and cowardice, whilst in ‘The T.N.T. Book’ another replacement insisted on playing the odds in war as he had on the track… until he learned the true stakes of battle…

Our Army at War #135 pitted Rock against a German non-com who was in almost every way his ‘Battlefield Double!’, whilst in #136 a desperately frightened new kid arrived begging the indomitable topkick to ‘Make Me a Hero!’, and #137 saw a cavalry holdover from WWI finally achieve his long-delayed charge to glory in ‘Too Many Sergeants!’

When a close skirmish separated Rock from his greenest new replacement in #138, the weary warrior went through combat hell to find ‘Easy’s Lost Sparrow!’, before the next mission resulted in capture for four of the unit’s best and a ‘A Firing Squad for Easy!’ at a German Submarine dock. Happily the team of Frogmen they’d been protecting returned the favour…

OAAW #140 was another full-length thriller – with cameos from fellow comicbook combatant Captain Johnny Cloud and French Resistance fighter Mademoiselle Marie – which revealed the wry story of how Rock kept winning deserved but wholly unwelcome battlefield promotions. His dilemma as a ‘Brass Sergeant!’ was only resolved after reuniting a misunderstood son with his “spit-and-polish” General father under exceptional circumstances…

An timid old school friend turned up in #141, still needing Rock’s protection until “Shaker” finally pulled the ‘Dead Man’s Trigger!’, whilst in the next issue Kanigher pushed the envelope with the tale of a boy who held the sergeant to ransom and became ‘Easy’s New Topkick!’ in order to finish his dead Maquis comrades’ last mission. This stirring saga inspired the creation of Unit 3 – a French Resistance squad of battle-hardened children who appeared sporadically in later issues.

In #143 the US soldiers were back in the desert where embattled dogfaces honoured fallen comrade Farmer Boy by planting ‘Easy’s T.N.T. Crop!’ and harvested a victory built on sand, after which ‘The Sparrow and the Tiger!’ saw Rock at last succumb to battle fatigue and the constant loss of his “kids” until a scared replacement showed him the true value of persistence and grace under fire…

Our Army at War #145 offered the back-story on the squad’s Native American rifleman in ‘A Feather for Little Sure-Shot!’, whilst in #146 imagination ran wild as ‘The Fighting Guns of Easy!’ compared stories about the men who fired them.

This second savage selection of combat actions concludes with a rare 2-part yarn, beginning in #147 as ‘Generals Don’t Die! Book One’ found the hands-on topkick the envy of all his commanding officers. However, after helping desk-jockey General Bentley die in glorious battle, Rock was saddled with fulfilling a promise to a dying man and forced to impersonate Bentley.

Things got even trickier when the impostor had to lead the troops in breaking a stalled advance, a classic conundrum spectacularly resolved in the blockbuster conclusion ‘Generals Don’t Die! Book Two: Generals are Sergeants with Stars!’ as Rock kept the dead man’s secret and maintained Bentley family honour until he could pass on those unearned Brass Stars to the next Bentley generation…

Robert Kanigher at his worst was a declarative, heavy-handed and formulaic writer, but when writing his best stuff – as here – his work was imaginative, evocative, iconoclastic and heart-rending. He was a unique reporter and observer of the warrior’s way and the unchanging condition of the dedicated and so very human ordinary foot-slogging G.I.

With superb combat covers from Kubert, Grandenetti, and Heath fronting each episode, this battle-book is a visually perfect compendium and a certain delight for any jaded comics fan looking for something more than flash and dazzle.

A perfect example of true Shock and Awe; these are stories every comics fan and combat collector should see.
© 1963, 1964, 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos


By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Dick Ayers, George Roussos, Frank Giacoia, Steve Ditko & Chic Stone (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-6395-4

Grizzled super-spy Nick Fury debuted in Fantastic Four #21 (December 1963): a grizzled and cunning CIA Colonel at the periphery of big adventures, craftily manipulating the First Family of Marvel superheroes just as the 1960s espionage vogue was taking off, inspired by the James Bond films and TV shows like Danger Man.

What was odd about that? Well, the gruffly capable everyman was already the star of the little company’s only war comic, set twenty years earlier in (depending on whether you were American or European…) the middle or beginning of World War II.

Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, an improbable, decidedly over-the-top and raucous combat comics series, similar in tone to later movies such as The Magnificent Seven, Wild Bunch or The Dirty Dozen, had launched in May of that year and although Fury’s later self became a big-name star when espionage stories went global in the wake of TV shows like The Man from U.N.C.L.E., the elder iteration was given a second series beginning in Strange Tales #135 (August 1965).

Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. combined Cold War tensions with sinister schemes of World Conquest by subversive all-encompassing hidden, enemy-organisation Hydra: all with captivating Kirby-designed super-science gadgetry and, later, iconic imagineering from Jim Steranko whose visually groundbreaking graphic narratives took the art form to a whole new level.

For all that time, however, the wartime version soldiered on (sorry: puns are my weapon of choice) combining a uniquely flamboyant house-bravado style and often ludicrous, implausible, historically inaccurate, all-action bombast with moments of genuine heartbreak, unbridled passion and seething emotion.

Sgt. Fury seems to be a pure Jack Kirby creation. As with all his various combat comics, The King made everything look harsh and real and appalling: the people and places all grimy, tired, battered but indomitable.

The artist had served in some of the worst battles of the war and never forgot the horrific and heroic things he saw – and more graphically expressed in his efforts during the 1950s genre boom at a number of different companies – but even at kid-friendly, Comics Code-sanitised Marvel, those experiences perpetually leaked through onto his powerfully gripping pages.

This first massive monochrome compendium features the contents of Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #1-23 (from May 1963 to 1965) plus the new material from the largely reprint Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos King Size Annual #1 from 1965, opening as you’d expect with the blistering premier issue introducing ‘Sgt. Fury, and his Howling Commandoes’ (that’s how they speled it in the stoary-title – but knot ennyware else) by Lee, Kirby & inker Dick Ayers. Bursting with full page panels the tale was interrupted by ‘Meet the Howling Commandos’ – a double-page starring the seven members of First Attack Squad; Able Company, namely Fury himself, former circus strongman/Corporal “Dum-Dum” Dugan and Privates Robert “Rebel” Ralston (a jockey), young student Jonathan “Junior” Juniper, jazz trumpeter Gabriel Jones, mechanic Izzy Cohen and glamorous movie star Dino Manelli.

Controversially – even in the 1960s – this combat Rat Pack was an integrated unit with Jewish and Negro members as well as Catholics, Southern Baptists andNew Yorkwhite guys all merrily serving together. The Howling Commandos pushed envelopes and busted taboos from the very start…

The first mission was a non-stop action romp putting the squad through their various paces as the ragged band of indomitable warriors put paid to hordes of square-necked Nazis as they saved D-Day by rescuing a French resistance fighter carrying vital plans of the invasion, and they even brought back a high-ranking “kraut” prisoner. The epic issue even included a Kirby fact-page comparing six different side-arms of the period in ‘Weapons of War’

Issue #2 found the‘7 Doomed Men!’ up to their torn shirts in Germans as they first  infiltrated a French coastal town to blow up a U-Boat base and got back to England just in time to be sent on a suicide mission. This time it was to destroy a secret facility at Heinemund in the heart of the Fatherland where Nazi scientists were doing something nefarious with “hard water”…

These overblown fustian thrillers always played fast and loose with history and logic, so if you crave veracity above all I’d steer clear, but if you can swallow a heaping helping of creative anachronism there’s always great fun to be had here – especially since nobody drew atomic explosions like The King…

The drama was then topped off with more fact pages as ‘The Enemy That Was!’ explored the capabilities of German Infantryman whilst ‘Weapons of War: “Chatter Guns” of World War II’ tells everything you need to know about submachine guns…

Rough and ready gallows humour and broad comedy became increasingly important to the series from #3 onwards with home base rivalries and wry comradely sparring leavening the outrageous non-stop action of the missions. ‘Midnight on Massacre Mountain!’ found the squad explosively invading Italy to rescue a US army division caught in a Nazi trap. Along the way they met a brilliant OSS officer training partisan troops, and Fury thought that young Reed Richards would go far…

This issue was supplemented by a fascinating feature revealing what ordnance and hardware cost in ‘America’s World War II Shopping List!’

‘Lord Ha-Ha’s Last Laugh!’ in #4 began a long stint of embellishment by George Bell (AKA old Kirby studio-mate George “Inky” Roussos) and introduced a love interest for the Sarge when he met Red Cross volunteer Lady Pamela Hawley during an air raid in London. How strange and tragic was fate then, that the Howlers’ very next mission took them toBerlin to kidnap a young British nobleman with the same name, acting as a crucial propaganda mouthpiece for the Wehrmacht…

The mission was a double disaster. Not only did Pamela’s ignoble brother perish but the debacle also cost the life of the youngest Howler…

‘Weapons of War: Combat Rifles of World War II’ then ended this shocking, surprisingly grim and low-key melodrama…

Fury’s appearance in FF#21 – not included here – was released between that issue and #5, but no mention was made of it when the dark and cunning yarn introduced one of Marvel’s greatest villains. ‘At the Mercy of Baron Strucker’ saw Fury humiliated and defeated in personal combat against an Aryan nobleman and filmed footage used as a propaganda tool of the Nazis, until Dino pointed out how the nonplussed noncom had fallen for the oldest trick in Hollywood’s playbook…

The riotous rematch went rather better after which ‘Weapons of War: Light Machine Guns of World War II’ ended things in a graphically educational manner, whilst ‘The Fangs of the Desert Fox!’ in #6 dumped the Squad in the desert to tackle the hordes of General Rommel in a mission foredoomed to fail…

‘The Court-Martial of Sergeant Fury’ provided a glimpse at the hard-bitten hero’s past and offered insights into his tempestuous relationship with his immediate superior Captain Samuel “Happy Sam” Sawyer. Of course to get that information we had to watch Fury endure a dramatic trial after seemingly sabotaging a mission and striking a commanding officer…

Although he continued to draw the magnificent eye-catching covers, Kirby left the title with this issue. His astounding abilities were more profitably employed in the superhero titles, even as Lee began consolidating the ever expanding Marvel Universe by utilising more WWII iterations of contemporary characters.

‘The Death Ray of Baron Zemo!’ in #8 pitted the Howlers against a Captain America villain recently debuted in The Avengers as Ayers & Roussos ably depicted the team’s attempts to capture the Nazi scientist and a weapon that could shape the outcome of the entire war. The tale also introduced Junior Juniper’s replacement: a rather fruity caricature of a Brit named Percival Pinkerton, who sported horn-rimmed specs, pencil moustache, Fuschia beret and impossibly utilitarian umbrella…

In #9 the impossible ‘Mission: Capture Adolf Hitler!’ went awry when the Howlers’ invasion of Berlin again brought Fury face-to-face with Wolfgang von Strucker; leading to temporary capture and an astounding escape whilst ‘On to Okinawa!’ in #10 saw them achieve greater success when despatched to the Pacific to rescue a captured US colonel from the Japanese.

This tale also saw the debut of a bearded bombastic submarine commander who would become a series regular before eventually winning his own series (Captain Savage and his Leatherneck Raiders) in 1967.

The pace had certainly slowed and melodrama and subplots increased by #11 and ‘The Crackdown of Capt. Flint!’ saw Happy Sam briefly replaced by a spit-and-polish officer who soon learned the limitations of his ways, whilst in #12 a raid on a V1 factory prompted Dino to join the Nazis ‘When a Howler Turns Traitor!’ It was just a trick though, but nobody told the American commander who stuck the star in front of a firing squad…

This issue also included a Marvel Masterwork Pin-up of Fury by Ayers.

Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #13 is arguably the best issue of the entire 167 issue run and the title says why. ‘Fighting Side-by-Side with… Captain America and Bucky!’ reunited Lee, Kirby & Ayers in a blistering battle yarn as the Howlers crossed paths with the masked Sentinels of Liberty after both teams stumble across a top secret Nazi operation to build an invasion tunnel under the channel to England. To resort to the terms of the times: “Wah-Hoo!”…

Ayers & Bell were back in artistic control in #14 as harassed Adolf Hitler ordered the creation of a Nazi answer to Fury’s elite attack force. All ‘The Blitzkrieg Squad of Baron Strucker!’ had to do was lure the Howlers to a V2 rocket base and spring their trap… Yeah, that was all…

Weapons of War: also returned here with all the gen on the ‘B-26 Martin Marauder’ whilst in #15 Steve Ditko stepped in to ink Ayers in ‘Too Small to Fight, Too Young to Die’ wherein a mission in Holland to destroy the dykes and flood the occupation forces went drastically wrong. The Howlers “fled” back to Britain with nothing but a broken-hearted boy named Hans Rooten – who had no idea that his quisling father was in fact the Allies’ top spy in the region…

The boy became the men’s mascot but couldn’t come with them when they flew to Africain #16 to eradicate yet more Nazi super-weapons in ‘A Fortress in the Desert Stands!’ (illustrated by Ayers & Frank Giacoia using the pseudonym Frankie Ray), after which it was only a short camel-ride south until they encountered natives and Nazis engaged in a battle of Hearts and Minds ‘While the Jungle Sleeps!’ (by Ayers & Colletta).

All this time the chalk-and-cheese relationship between Nick and Pam Hawley had been developing to the point where he was ready to propose. That all ended in #18 when, whilst the unit was busy sinking a German battleship in a Norwegian port, she was ‘Killed in Action!’ (Ayers & Chic Stone).

Crushed and crazy, Fury went AWOL in the next issue, ruthlessly hunting down the leader of the bomber flight which had targeted the hospital she worked in before extracting ‘An Eye for an Eye!’ in a satisfyingly shocking story sensitively rendered by Ayers & Giacoia.

A far grimmer Fury was still in the mood for cathartic carnage in #20, so when ‘The Blitz Squad Strikes!’ found the German Kommandos invading a Scottish castle filled with imprisoned Nazi airmen, he and Howlers were happy to lead the mission to retake it.

In the next issue a long running rivalry with First Attack Squad; Baker Company again resulted in fisticuffs before being interrupted by another rescue mission ‘To Free a Hostage!’ (inked by Golden Age legend Carl Hubbell, as was the next issue).

However, even after scientist and daughter were reunited, the beef with B Company didn’t diminish and when both units were dispatched to sabotage the oil refinery at Ploesti the defending forces captured everybody. When the gloating Nazis tried to get Fury and his opposite number to kill each they quickly learned ‘Don’t Turn Your Back on Bull McGiveney!’ and even Strucker’s Blitz Squad couldn’t stem the devastating destruction that followed…

The final WWII exploit herein is the Giacoia-inked saga of ‘The Man Who Failed!’ as a trip to Burma to rescue nuns and orphans resulted in the shameful revelation of True Brit Percy Pinkerton’s past, also offering a close insight into why our upper lips are so stiff…

This combat compendium concludes with the 15 page lead story from Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos King Size Annual #1 (1965) as the Howlers were called up and mustered to the 38th Parallel to defend democracy from Communist aggression. This particular escapade found them rescuing Colonel Sam Sawyer and resulted in Fury winning a ‘Commission in Korea!’ and at last becoming a Lieutenant in a stirring story by Lee, Ayers & Giacoia before pictorial features ‘A Re-introduction to the Howlers’, ‘A Birds Eye View of HQ, Able Company – Fury’s Base in Britain’, ‘Combat Arm and Hand Signals’ and a 2-page ad feature for the hero’s super-spy iteration as ‘Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ wraps everything up in Marvel’s military fashion.

Whereas close rival DC increasingly abandoned the Death or Glory bombast at this time in favour of humanistic, almost anti-war explorations of war and soldiering, Marvel’s take always favoured action-entertainment and fantasy over soul-searching for ultimate truths. On that level at least, these early epics are stunningly effective and galvanically powerful exhibitions of the genre. Just don’t use them for history homework.
© 1963, 1964, 1965, 2011 Marvel Characters Inc. All rights reserved.

Peach Slices


By Donna Barr (Aeon/Mu)
No ISBN:                    2006 edition: 978-1-89225-325-5

The Desert Peach is the supremely self-assured and eminently efficient gay brother of Erwin Rommel, the legendary German soldier universally hailed as “the Desert Fox”. Set – usually – in Africa during World War II, this priceless gem of a series effortlessly combines hilarity, absurdity, profound sensitivity and glittering spontaneity, with stories describing the dalliances and daily tribulations of Oberst Manfred Pfirsich Marie Rommel; dutiful albeit unwilling cog in the iniquitous German War Machine, yet one determined to remain a civilised gentleman under the most adverse and unkind conditions.

However, although in his own ways as formidable as his beloved elder sibling, the caring, gracious and genteel Peach is a man who loathes causing harm or giving offence. Thus he spends his service commanding the dregs of the military in the ghastly misshapes of the 469th Halftrack, Gravedigging & Support Unit of the Afrika Korps, daily endeavouring to remain stylish, elegant, civil and ever so patient with and to the assorted waifs, wastrels and warriors on both sides of the unfortunate global conflict.

It’s a thankless, endless task: the 469th houses the worst the Wehrmacht has ever conscripted, from malingerers and malcontents to useless wounded, shiftless conmen, screw-ups and outright maniacs.

Pfirsich unilaterally applies the same decorous courtesies to the sundry natives inhabiting the area and the rather tiresome British and Anzac forces – not all of whom are party to a clandestine non-aggression pact Pfirsich has agreed with his opposite numbers in the amassed Allied Forces. In fact the only people to truly annoy the peace-loving Peach are boors, bigots, bullies and card-carrying Blackshirts…

The romantic fool is also passionately in love with and engaged to Rosen Kavalier: handsome Aryan warrior and wildly manly Luftwaffe Ace, but arguably the real star of these fabulous frothy epics is the Peach’s long-suffering, unkempt, crafty, ill-mannered, bilious and lazily scrofulous orderly Udo Schmidt, a man of many secrets whose one redeeming virtue is his uncompromising loyalty and devotion to the only decent man and tolerable officer in the entire German army.

This eccentric aggregation of extras, excerpts and exotica was first released in 1993, gathering extraneous material from a variety of sources and covering the period 1987-1993: as much an affectionate art-book as delicious dose of non-or mis-canonical hi-jinx. The entire package was subsequently re-released in 2006 in a Directors Cut edition which added issue #25’s WWI Transylvanian Hammer-Horror pastiche ‘Beautiful’ to the mix and included reminiscences, background commentary and creator kibitzing regarding all the esoteric tales and titbits.

The gloriously visual treat begins with an Unused Pin Design and a splendid Badge Design from the San Diego Comic-Con 1989 after which a quartet of stunning and bizarre Beer Labels (for ales created by micro brewer Wendell Joost in 1988) precedes ‘Peach on Earth’ from A Very Mu Christmas 1992 – one of the very best Christmas stories ever produced in the notoriously twee and sentimental comics field.

Set in the harsh December of 1945, it follows the demobbed and repatriated Pfirsich as he wanders through his broken and occupied homeland, avoiding trouble and American troops but not the gnawing starvation and freezing snows which would kill so many returning, defeated German soldiers. On the verge of despair and death the Peach is brusquely adopted by a strange, brittle and utterly fearless little boy who has only known the Fatherland in the throes of decline, but still looks eagerly to a brighter tomorrow…

This is followed by a rather risqué Rosen Kavalier pinup from Paper Phantasies (1991) and an unused strip originally commissioned by Rip Off Press whilst ‘Whipping Boy’ is a full-on adult escapade of the unconventional lovers as is ‘I Am What I Am… (I Think)’ a “Desert Peach Pitt Stop” that also languished unpublished until this collection preserved it.

Bits ‘n’ Pieces was a short-lived self-published magazine the indefatigable author used to disseminate assorted works which never made it into the regular, normal-length Desert Peach title. ‘The Veteran’ comes from the first issue in 1991 and returned focus to the motley cast of the hapless 469th for adeliciously philosophical foray that starred a most peculiar and innocent warrior named Thommi, whilst, after a frolicsome Desert Peach pinup from the 1989 Amazing Heroes Swimsuit Special, ‘Hindsight’ (Bits ‘n’ Pieces #1 1991) dabbles into personal politics before ‘Reflections’ from #3 offered a few New Year’s observations on the cast and stars from Barr herself.

The 1991 San Diego Comic-Con booklet provided another beguiling pinup before ‘Udo and the Phoenix’ (from Xenophon #1, 1992) related another tale of the spirited Arab horse accidentally owned by Udo and cared for by the equally magnificent Pfirsich, whilst ‘Reluctant Affections’ (from Bits ‘n’ Pieces #1 1991, before being redrawn as ‘Pigeonholed’ for Gay Comics #16) explored a tender, fragile moment and adorable chink in the macho armour of uber-Mensch Rosen…

‘The More Things Change’ from benefit book Choices in 1992 debates the abortion issue with characteristic abrasive aplomb after which ‘Sweet Delusions’ (Wimmin’s Comix #16 1991) gets down to the eye-watering nitty-gritty of Rosen & Pfirsich’s love life and ‘Wet Dream’ (Bits ‘n’ Pieces #3 1991) follows up with more of the same in a hilariously wry maritime moment.

Barr’s creations are never far from always internally consistent flights of extreme fantasy as seen in glorious diversion ‘The Oasis’ (Centaurs Gatherum 1990) with Pfirsich and brother Erwin finding a militarily priceless waterhole with a fantastic secret and forced to spend a truly outrageous time trapped as hybrid half horses…

This captivating chronicle concludes with a selection of ‘Peach Pits’ miscellanea: illustrations, roughs and small press items culled from the Desert Peach Musical books, t-shirts and posters. There’s some fascinating rough layouts from the aforementioned ‘Peach on Earth’, an unused page from DP #17 (the superb ‘Culture Shock’ as seen in The Desert Peach: Marriage & Mayhem) and assorted stuff from Zine Zone #13, 1992, covers from Germanophilic Amateur Press Association magazine ‘Krauts’ and shirt designs before the whole outrageous affair ends well with an implausibly “true tail” starring half-horse Stinz Löwhard, Pfirsich and Erwin in a ‘Character Revolt’ from 1987’s Fan’toons 19.

Desert Peach adventures are always bawdy, raucous, satirical, authentically madcap and immensely engaging; bizarre (anti) war stories which rank amongst the very best comics of the 1990s. Even now they still pack a shattering comedic kick and – if you’re not quite ready – poignantly emotional charge.

The Desert Peach ran for 32 intermittent issues via a number of publishers and was subsequently collected as eight graphic novel collections (1988-2005). A prose novel, Bread and Swans, a musical, and an invitational collection by other artists entitled Ersatz Peach were also created during the strip’s heyday. A larger compendium, Seven Peaches, collected issues #1-7 and Pfirsich’s further exploits continue as part of the Modern Tales webcomics collective…

Illustrated in Barr’s fluidly seductive wood-cut and loose-line style, this book is another must-have item for lovers of wit, slapstick, high drama and belly-laughs and grown-up comics in general. All the collections are pretty hard to find these days but if you have a Kindle, Robot Comics released individual comicbook issues, and for anybody with internet access and refined tastes there’s always the webcomic to fall back on…

© 1987-1993 Donna Barr. All rights reserved. The Desert Peach is ™ Donna Barr.

 

Christmas miracle moment: Just as we were preparing to post this, the multi-talented Mirth-Meister herself dropped us an update on availability and I’m not mean enough to keep the contents to myself in this season of sharing.

So to see Peach magic for yourself check out websites http://www.donnabarr.com or http://thedesertpeach.com and if you just have to own your own Peach product http://www.lulu.com/desertpeach, offers a huge double collection that also comes as economical loadable files and The Desert Peach (plus Stinz and Bosom Enemies) are all re-printed with colour extras at http://www.Indyplanet.com at marvellously economical rates.

Enjoy!

Monkeywanger – the Crimes of Oscar Dirlewanger (Special Edition)


By Peeler Watt Ph.D., illustrated by MIND, Jahn Fermindoza & Red Ink studios
ISBN: 978-1-47928-230-2

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 – gathering the first three books of an epic historical exposé of one of humanity’s greatest monsters – shows just why, as it spectacularly blends harsh fact with high drama to reveal a mere smattering of the atrocities perpetrated by macabre madman Oskar Paul Dirlewanger, one of the most infamous and deviant of villains to find purpose, outlet and sanction under the Nazis…

This ambitiously oversized (280x216mm) mostly blood-red-and-monochrome horror story by historian Peeler Watt (not his real name) and animator/illustrator Mike Ian Noble Dobson (augmented and supplemented by Jahn Fermindoza and Filipino studio Red Ink Animation: Van Winkle Amaranto, Silvan Amante, Mikaela and Sharon Amaranto, Clewin Mars & Flor Villa) introduces fictionalised antagonist Untersturmfuhrer Otto Voge (an amalgam of actual people caught up in Dirlewanger’s sphere of unholy influence), a dedicated, passionate patriotic German cop with a secret who volunteered for active duty with the SS and lived to regret it…

The tale begins, after a brief and brutal comic strip précis of the political, social and religious background, with Voge arriving in the Nazi controlled Jewish ghetto of Lublin in August 1941 and seeing first-hand the atrocities perpetrated by Penal Battalion Oranieburg - an SS division personally founded by Dirlewanger from criminal scum too debased for the regular army.

Due to a clerical error Voge was assigned to the appalling dreg unit rather than a decent and proper army division on active service and soon realises that the soldiers have their commanding officer’s full approval to loot, brutalise and torture the subjugated Poles – Jewish or otherwise.

The deviant Captain is nonetheless very impressed with his new subordinate’s obvious martial prowess. After savage skirmishes in the devastated city the Captain puts Voge forward for an Iron Cross, impressing the young leutnant with his obvious craving for real combat on the Russian Front rather than glorified guard duty in the ghetto.

Dirlewanger is an odd character, a spit-and-polish martinet with terrifying self-composure: ruthlessly cruel, fiercely passionate in his prejudices but utterly devoted to the pet monkey “Moses” which is never far from his side…

Voge’s fellow officers are little better than the conscripted men, but they would all be horrified if they knew their comrade’s dark secret: Voge is a Soviet sleeper agent who has been reporting to his Communist paymasters since his days as a peace-time policeman…

When Dirlewanger sends his men on another raid to rob and torment the subjugated Jews, Voge tries to curb their worst excesses but, as partisan’s attack the soldiers, the Leutnant is again forced to display his talent for combat, further cementing his commander’s favourable impressions. As Jewish women and children are rounded up Voge pushes his luck and manages to save one mother and her mentally deficient child from the fate of the others…

As the days pass Voge learns more about his outcast fellows and their reprehensible chief. Dirlewanger was a decorated hero in WWI and the Spanish Civil War, but also a psychopathic killer, and child-molester (according to some historians he was also a sadist and necrophiliac and given the dubious distinction of being “the most evil man in the SS”) …but certainly no fool.

Voge finds it increasingly impossible to stay uninvolved and concentrate on either his ostensible duties or covert mission and soon is deeply embroiled in the criminal machinations of the Battalion whilst simultaneously secretly working with Jewish Partisans. His only concern is to save innocent civilians from his debauched and murderous German comrades, but finds that they are equally endangered by their own ruthlessly driven and fanatical Resistance fighters and Voge’s increasingly impatient Russian spymasters…

The day is swiftly approaching when the mounting, conflicting pressures will surely cause a fatal misstep, but when Dirlewanger gets word from a Jewish informant of a Catholic convent hiding Hebrew girls that should be spicing up the Nazi’s private brothel,  it soon becomes clear that Voge’s own morality might be his actual undoing.

Painfully aware that his now suspicious commander was playing with him, Voge moves too late to save the girls and, after another ferocious clash between partisans and battalion soldiers, realises a final confrontation is now unavoidable…

Dark, brooding, painfully oppressive and grimly adult in nature, Monkeywanger is a powerful story of war, obsession and duty that will certainly impress fans of war stories, history buffs and devotees of fine storytelling, and there’s even the prospect of more to come …

No Trademark invoked so I’m assuming © 2012 Peeler Watt. All rights reserved.
For more information and to obtain your own copy check out http://www.monkeywanger.com

Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories by Harvey Kurtzman


By Harvey Kurtzman & others (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-545-7

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: War is Hell – but never looked better or taught us more… 9/10

EC Comics began in 1944 when comicbook pioneer Max Gaines sold the superhero properties of his All-American Comics company to half-sister National/DC, retaining only Pictures Stories from the Bible. His plan was to produce a line of Educational Comics with schools and church groups as the major target market.

He augmented his core title with Picture Stories from American History, Picture Stories from Science and Picture Stories from World History but the worthy project was already struggling when he died in a boating accident in 1947.

As detailed in the final comprehensive essay in this superb graphic collection, his son William was dragged into the family business and, with much support and encouragement from unsung hero Sol Cohen – who held the company together until the initially unwilling Bill Gaines abandoned his dreams of a career in chemistry – transformed the ailing enterprise into Entertaining Comics

After a few tentative false starts and abortive experiments, Gaines and his multi-talented associate Al Feldstein settled into a bold and impressive publishing strategy, utilising the most gifted illustrators in the field to tell a “New Trend” of stories aimed at an older and more discerning readership.

From 1950 to 1954 EC was the most innovative and influential publisher in America, dominating the genres of crime, horror, war and science fiction and, under the auspices of writer, artist and editor Harvey Kurtzman, the inventor of an entirely new beast: the satirical comicbook…

Kurtzman was hired to supplement the workforce on the horror titles but wasn’t keen on the genre and suggested a new action-adventure title. The result was Two-Fisted Tales which began with issue #18 at the end of 1959 as an anthology of rip-snorting, he-man suspense dramas. However, withAmerica embroiled in a military “police action” inKorea, the title soon became primarily a war comic and was soon augmented by another.

Frontline Combat was also written and edited by Kurtzman, who also assiduously laid-out and meticulously designed every story – which made for great entertainment but was frequently a cause of friction with many artists…

Moreover, in keeping with the New Trend spirit, these war stories were not bombastic, jingoistic fantasies for glory-hungry little boys, but rather subtly subversive examinations of the cost of conflict which highlighted the madness, futility and senseless, pointless waste of it all…

Kurtzman was a cartoon genius and probably the most important cartoonist of the last half of the 20th century. His early triumphs in the fledgling field of comicbooks (especially the groundbreaking Mad magazine) would be enough for most creators to lean back on but Kurtzman was a force in newspaper strips (See Flash Gordon Complete Daily Strips 1951-1953) and a restless innovator, a commentator and social explorer who kept on looking at folk and their doings: a man with exacting standards who just couldn’t stop creating.

He invented a whole new format and gave America Popular Satire when he converted his highly successful full-colour baby Mad into a black and white magazine, safely distancing the outrageously brilliant comedic publication from the fall-out caused by the 1950s socio-political witch-hunt which eventually killed all EC’s other titles.

He pursued his unique brand of thoughtfully outré comedy and social satire further with the magazines Trump, Humbug and Help!, all the while still conceiving challenging and powerfully effective funny strips such as Little Annie Fannie (for Playboy), The Jungle Book, Nutz, Goodman Beaver, Betsy and her Buddies and many more. He died far too early in 1993.

This first volume of the Fantagraphics EC Library gathers a stunning selection of Kurtzman stories in a lavish monochrome hardcover edition, packed with supplementary interviews, features and dissertations, beginning with ‘The Truth’ by cartoonist and historian R.C. Harvey, who describes in stark detail the history of Kurtzman’s EC days.

Then follows a raft of stirring sagas solely from the master’s hand, beginning with ‘Conquest’ from Two-Fisted Tales #18, which with acerbic aplomb relates the rise and fall of Spanish conquistador Juan Alvorado, whose rapacious hunger for Aztec gold led inexorably to the downfall and doom of his entire expedition. Jivaro Death’ (#19) deals with modern-day greed as two duplicitous Yankees search for diamonds in the heart of the Amazon jungle whilst T-FT #20 revealed the fate of an amnesiac buccaneer who returned from certain death to obsessively reclaim his ‘Pirate Gold’ from the men who betrayed him.

From issue #21 comes ‘Search!’ which ironically combined an Italian-American’s search for family with the devastating US assault on Anzio in 1943, after which the first selection from Frontline Combat produces an uncharacteristically patriotic clash with the North Korean aggressors in ‘Contact!’ (#2, September 1951).

‘Kill’ from T-FT #23 also takes place in Korea and details a squalid encounter between a blood-thirsty knife-wielding G.I. psycho and his soulless Commie antithesis, whilst ‘Prisoner of War!’ (FC #3) highlights the numbing, inhuman brutality of combat when American POWs attempt an escape…

‘Rubble!’ (T-FT #24) boldly stepped into the “enemy” shoes by highlighting the war’s casual cost to simple Korean civilians whilst ‘Air Burst!’ in FC #4 goes even further by featuring the Communist soldiers’ side of the conflict.

The eponymous ‘Corpse on the Imjin!’ (T-FT #25) is one of the most memorable, moving and respected tales of the genre: a genuine anti-war story which elegiacally traces a body’s motion down the river and exposes the ruminations of the doomed observers who see it. The sentiment is further explored in ‘Big ‘If’!’ (FC #5) as G.I. Paul Maynard sits in a shell hole and ponders what might have been…

Kurtzman’s unique display of cartooning and craftsmanship is followed by the essay ‘Combat Duty’ wherein Jared Gardner discusses the background and usage of the other artists who worked on the author’s Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat scripts, after which ‘Marines Retreat!’ drawn by John Severin (and inked by Kurtzman from FC #1, July/August 1951) describes in microcosm the shocking American forced withdrawal from the Changjin Reservoir in December 1950 – an event which stunned and terrified the folks at home and shook forever the cherished belief in the US Marines’ invincibility – all told through the eyes of a soldier who understood too late the values he was supposed to be fighting for…

Kurtzman’s relationship with his artists could be fraught. Alex Toth, a tempestuous individualist who only drew three tales from his editor’s incredibly detailed lay-outs, famously produced some of his very best work at EC under such creative duress. The first and least was ‘Dying City!’ (T-FT #22) which found an aged Korean grandfather berating his dying descendent for the death and destruction he had brought upon his family and nation,

‘O.P.!’ was drawn by hyper-realist Russ Heath (FC #1) and once more ladled on the bleak, black irony during an annihilating trench encounter during WWI. After which Toth’s astounding aerial imagination produced in ‘Thunderjet!’ (FC #8) one of the most thrilling and evocative dogfight dramas in comics history.

This tale was an alarm-call to complacentAmericaas aUSpilot was forced to concede that his winged weapon was inferior to the ever-present Communist MIGs…

‘Fire Mission!’ (T-FT #29) was drawn by Dave Berg – an artist far better regarded for his comedy work – and lent his facility with expressions to a rather standard tale of courage discovered under fire in Korea, after which Gene Colan delineated the rift between military and civilians in the hours before the attack on Pearl Harbor in ‘Wake!’ from T-FT #30.

From the same issue ‘Bunker!’ was the first strip illustrated by Ric Estrada and described rivalry and tension between American units during a Korean offensive. Oddly enough for the times, the fact that one was comprised of Negro soldiers was not mentioned at all…

The Cuban artist then drew a chillingly macabre tale of Teddy Roosevelt and the Spanish American war of 1898 in ‘Rough Riders!’ (FC #11) after which master of comics noir Johnny Craig detailed the fate of a ‘Lost Battalion!’ in WWI (T-FT #32, March/April 1953).

‘Tide!’ was an EC debut tale for the already-legendary Joe Kubert from the same issue, and detailed a D-Day debacle and its insignificance in the grand scheme of things after which Toth’s magnificent Kurtzman-scripted swansong ‘F-86 Sabre Jet!’ (FC #12) revisited and even surpassed his Thunderjet job with a potent and beguiling reductionist minimalism that perfectly captured the disorienting hell of war in the air.

Due to illness and the increasing workload caused by Mad, Kurtzman’s involvement with war titles was gradually diminishing. Frontline Combat #14, (October 1953) provides his last collaboration with Kubert in ‘Bonhomme Richard!’, a shocking personalised account of American nautical legend John Paul Jones’ devastating duel with the British warship Serapis – as told by one of the hundreds of ordinary sailors who didn’t survive…

This master-class in sequential excellence concludes with a salutary tale from the Civil War special Two-Fisted Tales #35 (October 1953), illustrated by Reed Crandall.  ‘Memphis!’ blends the destructive horror of the Union’s River Fleet of Ironclad’s as they inexorably took control of the Mississippi with the irrepressible excitement of Southern kids who simply couldn’t understand what was happening to their parents and families…

Even with the comics extravaganza ended, there’s still more to enjoy as underground cartooning legend Frank Stack discusses the techniques and impact of Kurtzman’s astonishing covers for Two-Fisted Tales and Two-Fisted Tales in ‘Respect for Simplicity – the War Covers of Harvey Kurtzman’ which is superbly supplemented by a full-colour section representing all of them, even the seldom-seen Two-Fisted Annual 1952.

Also adding to the value is‘A Conversation with Harvey Kurtzman’  by John Benson, E.B. Boatner & Jay Kinney which transcribes two interviews from 1979 and 1982, as well as a full appreciation of the great man’s career in ‘Harvey Kurtzman’ by S.C. Ringgenberg.

Rounding everything off is ‘Behind the Panels: Creator Biographies’ a comprehensive run-down of all involved by Bill Mason and others, and a general heads-up on the entire EC phenomenon in ‘The Ups and Downs of EC Comics: A Short History’ by author, editor, critic and comics fan Ted White.

The short, sweet but severely limited output of EC has been reprinted ad infinitum in the decades since the company died. These astounding stories and art have changed not just comics but also infected the larger world through film and television and via the millions of dedicated devotees still addicted to New Trend tales. However, as far as I can recall nobody has produced collections faithfully focussing on the contributions of individual creators, and even though the likes of me know these timeless classics intimately, this simple innovation has somehow added a new dimension to the readers’ enjoyment.

I eagerly anticipate the advent of the other volumes in this superb series and strongly suggest that whether you are an aged EC Fan-Addict or nervous newbie, this is a book no comics aficionado can afford to miss…

This edition © 2012 Fantagraphics Books, Inc. All comics stories © 2012 William M. Gaines Agent, Inc., reprinted with permission. All other material © 2012 the respective creators and owners.