Battle Stations – War Picture Library

By Hugo Pratt & Don Avenell (Rebellion Studios)
ISBN: 978-1-78108-752-7 (HB/Digital Edition)

Born in Rimini, Ugo Eugenio Prat, AKA Hugo Pratt (June 15th 1927 – August 20th 1995) was wandered the world in his early life, whilst becoming one of its paramount comics creators. His enthralling graphic inventions since Ace of Spades (whilst still a student at the Venice Academy of Fine Arts in 1945) were many and varied. His signature character – based in large part on his own exotic formative years – is mercurial soldier (perhaps sailor is more accurate) of fortune Corto Maltese.

Pratt was a consummate story-teller with a unique voice and a stark graphic style that should not work, but so wonderfully does: combining pared-down, relentlessly modernistic narrative style with memorable characters, always complex whilst still bordering on the archetypical. By placing a modern, morally ambivalent anti-hero in a period where old world responsibilities should make him a scoundrel and villain, yet keeping him true to an utterly personal but iron-clad ethical integrity that goes beyond considerations of race, class or gender, he has created a yard-stick with which we cannot help but measure all heroes. As empires fade and colonies fall Corto Maltese deals with and is moved by people, not concepts or traditions. He is also a whimsical man of action and a faithful humanist with a talent for being in the wrong place at the right time. We’ll return to him another time…

After working in both Argentinean and – from 1959 – on English comics like top gun Battler Briton, plus combat stories for extremely popular digest novels in assorted series such as War Picture Library, Battle Picture Library, War at Sea Picture Library and others – Pratt returned to and settled in Italy and later France in the 1960s. In 1967 with Florenzo Ivaldi he produced a number of series for monthly comic Sgt. Kirk.

In addition to the Western lead star, he created pirate strip Capitan Cormorand, detective feature Lucky Star O’Hara, and a moody South Seas adventure called Una Ballata del Mare Salato (A Ballad of the Salty Sea). When it folded in 1970, Pratt took one of Una Ballata’s characters to French weekly, Pif Gadget before eventually settling in with legendary Belgian periodical Le Journal de Tintin. Corto Maltese proved as much a Wild Rover in reality as in his historic and eventful career…

In Britain the ubiquitous delights of the mini-books also included Super Picture Library, Air Ace Picture Library, Action Picture Library and Thriller Picture Library: uniformly half-sized, 64-page monochrome booklets with glossy soft-paper covers and presenting complete stories in 1-3 panels per page, with yarns that were regularly recycled and reformatted. The story featured here was printed twice – as War at Sea #34, June 1963 and in War Picture Library #1078, June 1975 – with the painted covers and fascinating, well-annotated features on art changes as inflicted on the tale with each iteration making a compelling fact-feature at the end. Rebellion boss Ben Smith even offers an informative Introduction to launch the whole affair…

During his sojourn in British comics Pratt crafted all unheralded a number of mini-masterpieces like this one. Rescued and suitably repackaged by Rebellion Studios in their Treasury of British Comics imprint, Battle Stations was written by national hero and unsung legend Donne Avenell, who began his own strips career before WWII in the editorial department of Amalgamated Press – which evolved into Fleetway and eventually IPC. Avenell’s starter was anthological household name Radio Fun.

Born in Croydon in 1925, he served with the Royal Navy during the war, before returning to publishing: editing an AP architectural magazine whilst pursuing writing for radio dramas and romances under a slew of pseudonyms. He returned to comics in the 1950s, with many contributions to childhood icons like War Picture Library and Lion, directing the sagas of The Spider, The Phantom Viking, Oddball Oates, Adam Eterno and more. He co-wrote major international features like Buffalo Bill, Helgonet (The Saint) and The Phantom for Swedish publisher Semic, and devised the strip Django and Angel whilst also toiling on assorted licensed Disney strips.

In 1975, with Norman Worker, he co-wrote Nigeria’s Powerman comic which helped launch the careers of Brian Bolland and Dave Gibbons. Avenell was equally at home on newspaper strips such as Axa (1978-1986, drawn by Enrique Romero), Tiffany Jones and Eartha (illustrated by John M. Burns). He also worked in television, writing series like The Saint and their subsequent novelisations. He died in 1996.

This story concerns just another small battle lost in the bigger war as three sailors on convoy escort duty in June 1942 endure the sinking of their anti-sub trawler off the coast of the USA. When the vessel they were guarding goes down too, their shipmates and the merchant marine survivors are all machined gunned in the water at the command of the German U-boat captain, and an implacable bond of undying hatred grips Stoker First Class Scully, Lieutenant Rayner and Leading Seaman Ford

Months later, rescued, recuperated and reassigned to Light Cruiser H.M.S. Vengeful, the trio are looking for payback and clearly suffering what we today know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder when their ship again encounters the ruthless enemy. A savage battle then leaves all ships gone and sailors stuck in a drifting lifeboat. Scully, Rayner and Ford are still alive, but due to the exigencies of combat they’re lost in the Atlantic with an equal number of despised Germans in the lifeboat…

What happens next is powerful, shocking and not at all what you’d expect from a kid’s comic crafted to sell in the heyday of UK war films commemorating the conflict their parents lived through.

A powerful psychological thriller that beaks the rules of comics combat, Battle Stations is

subtly subversive, straightforwardly told and startlingly compelling, far from the bread & butter war stories that sustained British comics readers for decades; and few have ever looked so good doing it. If you’re a connoisseur of graphic thrills and dramatic tension, don’t miss these salty sagas.
© 1963, 2019 Rebellion Publishing IP Ltd. All rights reserved.