Cinebook Recounts the Battle of Britain


By Bernard Asso, illustrated by Francis Bergése with colours by Frédéric Bergése: translated by Luke Spear(Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-84918-025-2 (Album PB)

Originally titled Le Bataille d’Angleterre and first seen here as Biggles and The Battle Of Britain, the material in this album sprang out of the continent’s decades-long love affair with the plucky British aviator.

Biggles is huge all over Europe, particularly in Holland, Germany, Belgium and France, which makes it doubly galling that apart from a big run of translations in India, only a short-lived Swedish interpretation of his comicbook exploits (see W.E. Johns’ Biggles and the Golden Bird) and a paltry few from the Franco-Belgian iteration licensed by British outfit Red Fox in the mid-1990s – which included this very volume – have ever made the move back to Blighty…

Hopefully some enterprising publisher will be willing to brave the Intellectual Property rights minefield involved and bring us all more of his superb graphic adventures one day…

Happily, as this tome is more of a documentary than a drama and the Air Ace doesn’t feature, publisher Cinebook have twice released this fine and visually erudite mini epic by historian Bernard Asso and the utterly compelling Francis Bergése.

Like so many artists involved in aviation stories, Bergése (born in 1941) started young with both drawing and flying. He qualified as a pilot whilst still a teenager, enlisted in the French Army and was a reconnaissance flyer by his twenties. At age 23 he began selling strips to L’Étoile and JT Jeunes (1963-1966) after which he produced his first air strip Jacques Renne for Zorro. This was soon followed by Amigo, Ajax, Cap 7, Les 3 Cascadeurs, Les 3 A, Michel dans la Course and many others.

Bergése worked as a jobbing artist on comedies, pastiches and WWII strips until 1983 when he was offered the plum job of illustrating venerable, globally syndicated Buck Danny. In the 1990s the seemingly indefatigable Bergése split his time, producing Danny dramas and Biggles books. He retired in 2008.

In this double-barrelled dossier delight from 1983, his splendidly understated, matter-of-fact strip illustration is used to cleverly synthesise the events following the defeat at Dunkirk to the Battle of Britain (1940) and the eventual turnaround in May 1941. Combining and counterpointing the works of famous figures like Churchill, Hitler, Douglas Bader and Goering with key tactical players such as Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, Galland and Mölders and relating actual tales of individual valour in the skies, the fact-packed narrative tracks the actions and experiences of specious winged warriors Leutnant Otto Werner and True Brit Flight Lieutenant James Colby as they struggle to survive in the skies over England.

The saga deals with the early days of terrifying air duels, later Blitz bombings, Albion’s logistical trials and eventual triumphs with factual expertise, but also affords a human face on each side of the conflict…

The latter half of the book then switches time and focus as Asso & Bergése detail The Bombing of Germany (1943-1945)paying especial attention to Air Chief Marshal Harris’ controversial tactic of “Terror Bombing” and its effects on allies and enemies – and innocents.

Here Colby has transferred to Britain’s Bomber Command, trading Hurricanes and Spitfire for Lancasters, Halifaxes and B-17 Flying Fortresses. Major Werner is there too, as the Allies’ campaign slowly destroys the Nazi War Machine and the embattled Ace graduates from prop-powered Fockers and Messerschmitts to the first jet-planes – but too late…

Cunningly converting dry dusty history into stellar entertainment, Asso & Bergése brilliantly transform statistical accounts and solid detail into powerful evocative terms on a human scale that most children will easily understand, whilst never forgetting the war had two sides, but no “us” or “them”…

Whilst perhaps not as diligent or accurate as a school text, Cinebook Recounts: Battle of Britain (part of a graphic history strand that also includes The Falklands War and The Wright Brothers making distant events come alive) offers a captivating and memorable introduction to the events that no parent or teacher can afford to miss, and no kid can fail to enjoy.
© Editions du Lombard (Dargaud- Lombard SA), 2003 by Marazano & Ponzio. English translation © 2007 Cinebook Ltd.

Showcase Presents Weird War Tales volume 1


By Robert Kanigher, Bob Haney, Bill Finger, Sheldon Mayer, Jack Oleck, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Joe Kubert, Carmine Infantino, Dennis O’Neil, Russ Heath, Mort Drucker, Frank Thorne, Alex Toth, Reed Crandall, Sam Glanzman, John Severin, Howard Chaykin, Ed Davis, Frank Robbins, Nestor Redondo, George Evans, Alex Niño, Russ Heath, Neal Adams & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3694-6 (TPB)

American comicbooks just idled along rather slowly until the invention of Superman provided a flamboyant new genre for heroes and subsequently unleashed a torrent of creative imitation and imaginative generation for a suddenly thriving and voracious new entertainment model.

Implacably vested in World War II, these gaudily-attired mystery men swept all before them until the troops came home, but as the decade closed more traditional themes and heroes began to resurface and eventually supplant the Fights ‘n’ Tights crowd.

Even as a new generation of kids began buying and collecting, many of the first fans who had retained their four-colour habit increasingly sought more mature themes in their pictorial reading matter. The war years and post-war paranoia had irrevocably altered the psychological landscape of the readership and as a more world-weary, cynical young public came to see that all the fighting and dying hadn’t really changed anything.Their chosen forms of entertainment (film, theatre and prose as well as comics) increasingly reflected this.

To balance the return of Western, War, Crime and imminent Atomic Armageddon-fuelled Science Fiction, comics created new genres. Celebrity tie-ins, madcap escapist or teen-oriented comedy and anthropomorphic funny animal features sprang up, but gradually another of the cyclical revivals of spiritualism and a public fascination with the arcane led to a wave of impressive, evocative and shockingly addictive horror comics.

There had been grisly, gory and supernatural stars before, including a pantheon of ghosts, monsters and wizards draped in superhero trappings but these had usually been victims of circumstance: The Unknown as a power source for super-heroics. Now focus shifted to ordinary mortals thrown into a world beyond their ken with the intention of unsettling, not vicariously empowering the reader.

Almost every publisher jumped on an increasingly popular bandwagon, with B & I (which became the magical one-man-band Richard E. Hughes’ American Comics Group) launching the first regularly published horror comic in the Autumn of 1948, although their Adventures Into the Unknown was technically pipped by Avon. The book and comics publisher had released an impressive single issue entitled Eerie in January 1947 but didn’t follow-up with a regular series until 1951.

Classics Illustrated had already secured the literary end of the medium with child-friendly comics adaptations of The Headless Horseman, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (both 1943), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1944) and Frankenstein (1945) among others.

If we’re keeping score this was also the period in which Joe Simon & Jack Kirby identified another “mature market” gap and invented Romance comics (Young Romance #1, September 1947) but they too saw the sales potential for spooky material, resulting in the seminal Black Magic (launched in 1950) and boldly obscure psychological drama anthology Strange World of Your Dreams (1952).

The company which would become DC Comics bowed to the inevitable and launched a comparatively straight-laced anthology that nevertheless became one of their longest-running and most influential titles with the December 1951/January 1952 launch of The House of Mystery.

After the hysterical censorship debate which led to witch-hunting Senate hearings in the early 1950s was curtailed by the industry adopting a castrating straitjacket of self-regulation, titles produced under the aegis of the Comics Code Authority were sanitised, anodyne affairs in terms of Shock and Gore, but the audience’s appetite for suspense was still high and in 1956 National introduced sister titles Tales of the Unexpected and House of Secrets.

Stories were dialled back from uncanny spooky yarns to always marvellously illustrated, rationalistic fantasy-adventure vehicles and, eventually, straight monster-busting Sci Fi tales which dominated the market into the 1960s. That’s when super-heroes – which had gradually enjoyed their own visionary revival after Julius Schwartz reintroduced the Flash in Showcase #4 – finally overtook them.

Green Lantern, Hawkman, the Atom and a growing coterie of costumed cavorters generated a gaudy global bubble of masked mavens which forced previously staunchly uncompromising anthology suspense titles to transform into super-character books. Even ACG slipped tights and masks onto its spooky stars.

When the caped crusader craziness peaked and popped, superheroes began dropping like Kryptonite-gassed flies. However, nothing combats censorship better than falling profits and, at the end of the 1960s with the cape-and-cowl boom over and some of the industry’s most prestigious series circling the drain, the surviving publishers of the field agreed to revise the Comics Code, loosening their self-imposed restraints against crime and horror comics.

Nobody much cared about gangster titles but, as the liberalisation coincided with yet another bump in public interest concerning supernatural themes, the resurrection of scary stories was a foregone conclusion and obvious “no-brainer.”

Even ultra-wholesome Archie Comics re-entered the field with their rather tasty line of Red Circle Chillers…

Thus, with absolutely no fanfare at all, horror comics came back and quickly dominated the American market for more the next half decade. DC led the pack: converting House of Mystery and Tales of the Unexpected into supernatural suspense anthologies in 1968 and resurrecting House of Secrets a year later.

Such was not the case with war comics. Tales of ordinary guys in combat began with the industry itself and although mostly sidelined during the capes-&-cowls war years, quickly began to assert themselves again once the actual fighting stopped.

National/DC were one of the last publishers to get in on the combat act, converting superhero/fantasy adventure anthology Star Spangled Comics into Star Spangled War Stories the same month it launched Our Army at War (both cover-dated August 1952). They repurposed All-American Comics into All-American Men of War a month later as the “police action” in Korea escalated.

They grew the division slowly but steadily, adding Our Fighting Forces #1 (November 1954) – just as EC’s groundbreaking combat comics were vanishing – and in 1957 added GI Combat to their portfolio when Quality Comics got out of the funnybook business.

As the 1950s closed however, the two-fisted anthologies all began incorporating recurring characters such as Gunner and Sarge – and latterly Pooch – from Our Fighting Forces #45 on, (May 1959), Sgt Rock (Our Army at War #83 (June 1959) and The Haunted Tank (G.I. Combat #87, April/May 1961). Soon all DC war titles had a lead star or feature to hold the fickle readers’ attention.

The drive to produce superior material never wavered however, hugely aided by the diligent and meticulous ministrations of writer/editor Robert Kanigher.

In America after the demise of EC Comics in the mid-1950’s and prior to the game-changing Blazing Combat, the only certain place to find controversial, challenging and entertaining American war comics was DC. In fact, even whilst Archie Goodwin’s stunning but tragically mis-marketed quartet of classics were waking up a new generation of readers in the 1960s, the home of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman was a veritable cornucopia of gritty, intriguing and beautifully illustrated battle tales presenting warfare on a variety of fronts and from many differing points of view.

Whilst the Vietnam War escalated, 1960s America increasingly endured a Homefront death-struggle pitting deeply-ingrained Establishment social attitudes against a youth-oriented generation with a radical new sensibility. In response the military-themed comicbooks from National Periodical Publishing, as it then was, became even more bold and innovative…

However, the sudden downturn in superheroes led to some serious rethinking here and although the war titles maintained and even built sales, they beefed up the anthological elements.

Thus in 1971 a title combining supernatural horror stories with bombastic battle yarns in an anthological setting seemed a forgone conclusion and sure thing to both publishers and readers alike and this economically epic monochrome tome collects the contents of Weird War Stories #1-21 (cover-dated September/October 1971 to January 1974), offering a broad blend of genre mash-ups for readers with a taste for the dark and uncanny to relish.

The series launched in a 52-page format combining new material with adapted reprints featuring a veritable Who’s Who of top flight creative talent – both seasoned veterans and stars in waiting – and #1 saw Editor Joe Kubert writing and illustrating an eerie linking story entitled ‘Let Me Tell You of the Things I’ve Seen’ as a lost GI meets the personification of Death (the title’s long-term narrator in various blood-stained uniforms) who tells him a few stories…

The reaper begins with ‘Fort Which Did Not Return!’ by Kanigher & Russ Heath, as originally seen in GI Combat #86, detailing how a bomber continues its mission even after the crew bail out, following up with all-new ‘The Story behind the Cover’ wherein Kubert reveals how a shunned German soldier carried on his duties after death…

From Star Spangled War Stories #71 (July 1958) Bob Haney & Kubert revealed ‘The End of the Sea Wolf!’ as a sadistic U-Boat captain is sunk by one of his own earlier victims, whilst SSWS #116 (August/September 1964) originally debuted France Herron & Irv Novick’s ‘Baker’s Dozen’, with a fresh-faced replacement to a super-superstitious platoon battling to prove he’s not their unlucky thirteenth man…

The issue ends with that lost GI realising just who has been telling tales in Kubert’s ‘You Must Go!’

The reprints included in these early issues were all taken from a time when supernatural themes were proscribed by the Comics Code Authority, but even so they all held fast to eerie aura of sinister uncertainty – the merest hint of the strange and uncanny to leaven the usual blood and thunder of battle books…

In Weird War Tales #2 Kubert reprised his bridging vehicle as ‘Look… and Listen…’ sees a crashed Stuka pilot meeting a ghastly stranger at a battle-torn desert oasis before ‘Reef of No Return’ (Haney & Mort Drucker from Our Fighting Forces #43, March 1959) details a determined frogman’s most dangerous mission before Kanigher & Frank Thorne’s new WWI silent saga ‘The Moon is the Murderer’ proves that overwhelming firepower isn’t everything…

Kubert’s ‘Behind the Cover’ features a prophetic dream and terrifying telegram after which ‘A Promise to Joe!’ (Kanigher & Novick, G.I. Combat #97 (December 1962-January 1963) sees a dead gunner seemingly save his friend from beyond the grave after which the superb ‘Monsieur Gravedigger’ – by Jerry DeFuccio & the legendary Reed Crandall – follows the follies of a sadistic Foreign Legionnaire who pushes his comrades too far…

Cartoonist John Costanza delivers some gag-filled ‘Military Madness’ and Kubert & Sam Glanzman offer a fact-packed ‘Sgt. Rock’s Battle Stations’ about ‘The Grenadier’ before Bill Finger, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito examine a young recruit’s rite of passage and development of ‘The Face of a Fighter’ (Our Fighting Forces #25, September 1957) before ‘Oasis’ concludes the sorry saga of that downed Aryan airman…

American Naval Aviators ditching at sea were the unwilling audience for Death’s stories as WWT #3 opens with Kubert’s ‘Listen…’

The roster starts with ‘Been Here Before!’ (Finger, Andru & Esposito, G.I. Combat #44 January 1957) as a soldier under fire turns his mind back to boyhood games to save the day, after which we see an aerial battle and parachute drop from the perspective of ‘The Cloud That Went to War!’ (Our Fighting Forces #17, January 1957) courtesy of Dave Wood, Andru & Esposito).

More Costanza comedy from ‘The Kreepy Korps!’ precedes an early tale by relative newcomers Len Wein & Marv Wolfman, ably illustrated by Heath as both cave tribes and modern soldiers battle to possess ‘The Pool’, before the artists’ earlier collaboration with Bob Haney reveals how ‘Combat Size!’ is all a matter of mental attitude in a tale first seen in Our Army at War #66 (January 1958).

Glanzman’s ‘Battle Album’ explains ‘Flying Guns’, after which a finny friend helps a US submarine sink an aircraft carrier in Finger & Drucker’s ‘Pilot for a Sub!’ (Our Army at War #68, March 1958) and the issue ends as Kubert sends a ‘Lifeboat’ for those tragic aviators…

The fourth issue opens with Kubert’s final linking tale as a ‘Gypsy Girl’ and her family find wounded soldier Tony after his buddy runs off to get a medic. They kindly offer to pass time with him, sharing stories such as ‘Ghost Ship of Two Wars’ (Kanigher & Novick from All-American Men of War #81, September 1960) wherein an obsessed WWI pilot seemingly slips into 1944 while pursuing of his unbeatable arch-enemy the Black Ace.

‘Time Warp’ by Kanigher & Gene Colan originally appeared as ‘The Dinosaur Who Ate Torpedoes!’’ in Star Spangled War Stories #123 (October/November 1965 and part of the uniquely bizarre War That Time Forgot series), pitting US frogmen against colossal sea-going saurians, after which ‘The Unknown Sentinel’ (by author unknown & Mort Meskin from House of Mystery #55, October 1956) saves the lives of two soldiers lost on manoeuvres on America’s most famous battlefield.

Glanzman then offers one of his magnificently engaging autobiographical USS Stevens vignettes with the all-new, elegiac ‘Prelude’ before Kubert wraps up his chilling drama as ‘I Know Them to be True’ sees medics arriving to find Tony a much-changed man, leaving Costanza to close things down with a laugh and some ‘Military Madness’

Weird War Tales #5 opens with Haney & Alex Toth providing the book-end tale of ‘The Prisoner’ held by Nazis in Italy. Seeking a way out, he recalls tales of escape such as ‘The Toy Jet!’ (Haney & Heath from All-American Men of War#78, March/April 1960), a chilling psychological thriller about an interned pilot in North Korea, and ‘Human Trigger’(Herron, Andru & Esposito, Star Spangled War Stories #18, February 1954) which shows how a soldier lying on a mine deftly saves his own life…

Herron & Carmine Infantino then reveal how an American spy is forced to ‘Face a Firing Squad!’ (SSWS #14, November 1953) and Norman Maurer instructs with the history of ‘Medal of Honour: Corporal Gerry Kisters’ while Willi Franz & Heath detail the victory of a ‘Slave’ in Roman times before Haney & Toth offer a final release in ‘This Is It!’

Issue #6 saw Weird War drop to a standard 36-page package and take a step into tomorrow with Haney & Toth’s battlefield test of ‘Robots’. Wolfman & Frank Thorne expanded the theme in ‘Pawns’ as humans and mechanoids finally decide who works for whom whilst ‘Goliath of the Western Front!’ (Herron, Andru & Esposito from SSWS #93 (October/November 1960) features a giant mechanical Nazi and an American David who finally does for him, before Haney & Toth settle all debate with the conclusive ‘Robot Fightin’ Men’

Wolfman & Kubert combined to provide thematic bookends for issue #7, beginning with ‘Out of Action’ and wounded GIs awaiting the worst and trading tales like William Woolfolk, Jerry Grandenetti & Joe Giella’s ‘Flying Blind’ (Our Army at War #12 July 1953) as a wounded pilot is forced to trust someone else for the first time in his life if he wants to land his burning jet. Kanigher & Kubert’s ‘The 50-50 War!’ (All-American Men of War #41, January 1957) finds sporting rivals forced to help each other after both suffer injuries on an alpine mission, with Costanza adding more welcome levity through his ‘Military Hall of Fame’

‘The Three GIs’ (Finger & Heath, SSWS #62, October 1957) riffs smartly on those monkeys who respectively can’t see, hear and speak and the Purple Heart yarns end with Wolfman & Kubert’s chilling ‘I Can’t See’

From #8, editorial control switched to the mystery division under the control of Joe Orlando and with it the reprints were shelved in favour of all-original material as publication frequency graduated from six times a year to monthly.

This all German-focused issue begins with a gruesome ‘Guide to No-Man’s Land’ (probably written by assistant editor E. Nelson Bridwell and illustrated by Tony DeZuñiga) before moving on to ‘The Avenging Grave’ by Kanigher & DeZuniga with SS officers learning too late the folly of desecrating the dead of WWI. Anonymously scripted ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill!’– with art by Steve Harper & Neal Adams – then sees more gloating Nazis facing a vengeful golem…

Kanigher & DeZuñiga return to reveal the fate of an arrogant 1916 air ace in the skies over No-Man’s Land in ‘Duel of the Dead’ before the artist’s ‘Epilogue’ wraps things up…

Weird War Tales #9 invites us to ‘Enter the Portals of War’ in an introduction drawn by Howard Chaykin, swiftly followed by a trio of Kanigher yarns illustrated by the cream of DC’s Filipino artists.

‘The Promise’ was limned by Alfredo P. Alcala, telling a tale in two eras as both Teutonic knights in 1242 and German tankers seven centuries later fail to cross frozen Lake Chud, whilst Gerry Talaoc renders the disastrous end of deathly, determined ‘Blood Brothers! during the American Civil War and incomparable Alex Niño details ‘The Last Battle’between East and West before Chaykin pops back to declare ‘Death, the Ultimate Winner’.

Sheldon Mayer & Toth open WWT #10 with a deliciously whimsical ghostly love story in ‘Who is Haunting the Haunted Chateau?’ before Raymond Marais & Quico Redondo change the tone as a Death-Camp commandant returns after the war to salvage his ill-gotten gains from ‘The Room that Remembered’, whilst Wein & Walter Simonson – on the artist’s pro comics debut – reveal why invading Nazis shouldn’t abuse the town idiot, incurring the wrath of ‘Cyrano’s Army’

Always experimental, the creative team of Mayer, DeZuñiga, Alcala, Talaoc & Niño tried their hand at a time-twisting complete adventure for issue #11. Occurring on ‘October 30’ over 99 years beginning in 1918, the tale compares the progress of an ambitious German General granted a wish for glory by a treacherous spirit of war with three ghostly Americans determined to fix a long-standing mistake whatever the cost…

DeZuñiga draws the introduction to #12, featuring tales of ‘Egypt’ starting with Kanigher & Talaoc’s tale of an ancient warlord who learned to regret spitting on the ‘God of Vengeance’, whilst ‘Hand of Hell’ (Kanigher & DeZuniga) sees Anubis similarly deal with one of Rommel’s least reputable and most sadistic deputies. Arnold Drake & Don Perlin then switch locales to Roman Britain where a centurion takes an accidental time-trip and ultimately overthrows the Druids in ‘The Warrior and the Witch-Doctors!’

Weird War Tales #13 opens with ‘The Die-Hards’ by Oleck & Nestor Redondo, with Nazis realising there are even worse killers than they haunting their latest conquered village, before Drake & Niño determine that ‘Old Samurai Never Die’ when a would-be shogun offends the patron spirit of Bushido. ‘Loser’s Luck’ – by Michael J. Pellowski, George Kashdan & DeZuñiga – details the harsh choices facing the unfortunate winners of the next, last war…

Mayer, DeZuñiga & Alcala reunite in #14 to tell an eerie tale of doomed love and military injustice from the days before Pearl Harbor which begins with a ‘Dream of Disaster’, incorporates a deadly flight with a ‘Phantom for a Co-Pilot’ and marines who arrive ‘Too Late for the Death March!’ before finally meetingThe Ghost of McBride’s Woman’ and vindicating an unsung hero…

A little boy enamoured of war’s glory learns a lesson in WWT # 15 when his dead grandfather takes him back to WWI to see how ‘“Ace” King Just Flew in from Hell’ (Drake & Perlin) before Oleck & Talaoc reveal the doom of ‘The Survivor’of a Viking raid which offends a sorceress, and Oleck & Alcala detail the shocking fate of a fanatical crusader who succumbs to ‘The Ultimate Weapon’ of a Saracen wise man…

Drake & Alcala describe transplant science gone mad in #16’s ‘More Dead than Alive!’, whilst the first of a Niño double bill sees him delineate ‘The Conquerors’ (scripted by Oleck) who eradicate humanity – but not the things that predate on them – before Drake’s ‘Evil Eye’ sees a little boy inflict hell’s wrath on both Allies and Axis alike…

In #17, Kanigher & George Evans disclose how a dishonourable French Air Ace is punished by ‘Dead Man’s Hands’before Pellowski, E. Nelson Bridwell & Ernie Chan reveal how a murdered soldier is avenged by ‘A Gun Named Marie!

WWT #18 has Drake & DeZuñiga sketch the brief career of ‘Captain Dracula!’ as he marauds through (mostly) German forces in Sicily before Mayer & Talaoc return for the cautionary tale of a greedy German sergeant in France whose avarice makes him easy prey for the ‘Whim of a Phantom!’

Drake & Talaoc start #19 with the full-length story of the agent who infiltrates the Nazi terror weapon known as ‘The Platoon That Wouldn’t Die!’, whilst #20 reverts to short stories with Oleck & Perlin’s ‘Death Watch’ of a doomed coward who should have waited one more day before deserting, Drake & Alcala’s period saga of a witchcraft vendetta in ‘Operation: Voodoo!’ and their Battle of Britain chiller wherein a burned-out fighter pilot learns ‘Death is a Green Man’

This blockbusting blend of military mayhem, magical melee and martial madness concludes with Weird War Tales #21 and ‘One Hour to Kill!’ by Drake & Frank Robbins, wherein an American soldier is ordered to go back in time to assassinate Leonardo Da Vinci and prevent the invention of automatic weapons. Mayer & Bernard Baily then detail just how a foul-up GI becomes an unstoppable hero ‘When Death Took a Hand’

Classily chilling, emotionally intense, superbly illustrated, insanely addictive and Just Plain Fun, this is a deliciously guilty pleasure that will astound and delight any lover of fantasy fiction and comics that work on plot invention rather than character compulsion.
© 1971, 1972, 1973, 2012 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Light and Darkness War


By Tom Veitch & Cam Kennedy (Titan Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-78276-180-8 (HB)

During the 1980s, the American comics scene enjoyed an astounding proliferation of new titles and companies in the wake of the creation of the Direct Sales Market. With publishers able to firm-sale straight to retail outlets rather than overprint and accept returned copies from non-specialised vendors, the industry was able to support less generic titles and creators could experiment without losing their shirts.

In response, Marvel Comics developed a line of creator-owned properties at the height of the subsequent publishing explosion, launching a number of idiosyncratic, impressive series in a variety of formats under the watchful, canny eye of Editor Archie Goodwin. The delightfully disparate line was dubbed Epic Comics and the results reshaped the industry.

These days, that font of independence and creativity is threatened by the major publishers’ timidity in the face of COVID19 and just the general costs of doing business. The medium you love is under threat again. If you can support your local comic shop – even through online sales – please do so. If that’s too late, then just buy more stuff in digital form. At least then smaller publishers can keep going and we won’t lose comics as a form altogether…

Now, back to your irregularly scheduled reading recommendation…

One of the most evocative Epic releases was a darkly compelling war/fantasy/science fiction serial with a beautifully simple core concept: Valhalla is real and forever…

Conceived and created by author, poet and comics scribe Tom Veitch (Legion of Charlies, Antlers in the Treetops, Animal Man, Star Wars: Dark Empire) and Scottish national treasure Cam Kennedy (Fighting Mann, Judge Dredd, Batman, Star Wars: Dark Empire), The Light and Darkness War originally ran from October 1988 to September 1989, just as that period of exuberant creative freedom was giving way to a marketplace dominated by reductive exploitation led by speculators.

Because of that downturn, this fantastic saga of martial pride and redemption through valiant service in the Great Beyond never really got the popular acclaim it deserved, hopefully something this glorious hardback or eBook retrospective compilation from Titan Comics can belatedly address…

Following heartfelt reminiscences and an appreciation in the ‘Foreword by Commander Mike Beidler, USN Retired’, the astounding fable introduces paraplegic Vietnam war veteran Lazarus Jones, a broken, troubled warrior for whom the fighting never ended.

Home when he should have died with his inseparable friends, plagued with red-hot memories of beloved comrades lost when their Huey went down, by 1978 the wheelchair-bound wreck of a man is in a most parlous state.

Shattered by what will one day be designated Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Laz cannot help making life hell for his devoted wife Chris. His miserable existence takes an even darker turn when Jones begins seeing visions of long-gone Huff, Slaw and Engle, all calling him to join them.

A little later when Chris’ car crashes, Laz is severely hurt and left in a coma he might never awake from…

Elsewhere on the other side of Eternity, a shadowy shape speaks to Lazarus offering a choice: he can go back or he can join his long-departed brothers …

Thus begins a fantastic adventure as the half-man is restored to perfect health and reunited with those who know him best. The catch is that this afterlife is like nothing any holy book ever promised. It’s a vast cosmos of painful, unrelenting physicality where strange alien species commingle and Earth’s dead continue much as they had before.

Pilots steer gunships – albeit flying ones made of stone and levitated by little blue aliens called “menteps” – Leonardo da Vinci carries on inventing weapons for powerful lords, and soldiers from every era have one more chance to serve and die…

Miraculously and joyously restored, Laz eagerly rejoins Engle, Slaw and Huff in the only thing he was ever good at. Manning a flying boat armed with light-powered weapons he becomes part of a vast force perpetually defying an unimaginable wave of invading evil from the Outer Darkness.

It’s a war with no overall plan or envisaged endgame, just eternal conflict, but recently a dark lord named Na has risen to the foremost rank of the “Deadsiders” and the legions of night seem to be gaining an advantage in the never-ending conflict fought on a million planets and a billion fronts…

For five hundred years however, the genius da Vinci has created weapons that have checked the rapid advance and held the invaders to a tenuous stalemate, but Deadsiders are tirelessly patient and resort to inexorably taking worlds one at a time.

But now a novel event has taken place. Although Lazarus has happily enlisted in the army of Light comprised of those who died in battle on Earth, on the other side of the sky his body is still alive…

Stationed on besieged world Black Gate, Laz and the “Light Gang” are unable to prevent libidinous Lord Na from infiltrating and overcoming the planetary defences, but at least they save Governor Nethon’s daughter Lasha from becoming the conqueror’s latest power-supplying plaything.

Although gradually winning the war for the dark, Na is impatient for a faster outcome. To achieve that end he has his necromancers rediscover an ancient, long-forgotten way to contact the Earth realm and dupes millionaire arms-dealer and devout Satanist Niles Odom into creating a device to physically bridge the dimensions.

Na’s wishes are simple; he wants earthly particle weapons, rail guns, atom bombs…

The unwitting dupe building Odom’s bridge is Nicky Tesla, a brilliant physicist whose intellect rivals that of his dead uncle Nikola, the wizard of electricity who once astounded the world.

With his clairvoyant girlfriend Delpha, little Nicky has used uncle’s old researches to complete an inter-realm gate for crazy-rich Odom, but when an army of zombies come through it and abduct him and Delpha nobody is prepared for what follows.

As the scientists are dragged across into an impossible world where Uncle Nikola is alive again, Laz and the Light Gang – following in Na’s wake – explosively head the other way…

They soon find themselves trapped on their birth-world, just as whole and hale as the day they died… and where Jones still languishes somewhere in a hospital bed.

With all the Afterworlds at stake, they have no choice but to fight their way back to the War again…

Also embellishing this gloriously fulsome chronicle is a sketch-&-developmental art ‘Background Briefing’ by Veitch & Kennedy, discussing the Underground Comic origins and antecedents of the story as well as the history, physics and metaphysics of The Light and Darkness War plus a potent overview and personal recollection from Stephen R. Bissette, ‘Endless War: The Life, Loss and Afterlife of Lazarus Jones’.

Fast paced, suspenseful, astonishingly imaginative and utterly beautiful to behold, the complex tale of Laz’s team and their struggle, how two generations of Tesla reshape a war that has been waged forever, and how in the end only love and devotion can battle overwhelming evil is a masterpiece of graphic endeavour and one no lover of fantasy fiction should miss.
The Light and Darkness War is ™ and © 2015 Tom Veitch & Cam Kennedy. All rights reserved.

Showcase Presents the Unknown Soldier volume 2


By David Michelinie, Bob Haney, Robert Kanigher, Gerry Conway, Gerry Talaoc, Dick Ayers, Joe Kubert, Romeo Tanghal & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-4081-3 (TPB)

Whereas the Britain comics scene has never relinquished its fascination with war stories, in America after the demise of EC Comics in the mid-1950’s and prior to the game-changing Blazing Combat, the only certain place to find controversial, challenging and entertaining American combat comics was DC.

In fact, even whilst Archie Goodwin’s stunning but tragically mis-marketed quartet of classics were waking up a small section of the current generation, the home of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman was a veritable cornucopia of gritty, intriguing and beautifully illustrated battle tales exploring combat on a variety of fronts and from many differing points of view.

Whilst the Vietnam War escalated, 1960s America increasingly endured a Home Front death-struggle pitting deeply-ingrained Establishment social attitudes against a youth-oriented generation with a radical new sensibility. In response, DC’s (or rather National Periodical Publishing, as it then was) military-themed comicbooks became even more bold and innovative…

That stellar and challenging creative period came to an end as all strip trends do, but a few of the more impressive and popular features (Sgt. Rock, Haunted Tank, The Losers) survived well into the second superhero revival. One of the most engaging wartime wonders was a compelling espionage thriller starring a faceless, nameless hero perpetually in the right place at the right time, ready, willing and so very able to turn the tide one battle at a time…

This second moody monochrome paperback compendium (still criminally unavailable in digital formats, as are far too many non- superhero, horror or sci fi tales) collects the lead feature from issues #189-204 of the truly venerable Star-Spangled War Stories anthology mag (July 1975-March 1977) and thereafter #205-226 (May 1977-April 1979) of the abruptly re-titled Unknown Soldier from when the “Immortal G.I.” finally took over the book in name as well as fact.

One of the very best concepts ever devised for a war comic, The Unknown Soldier was actually a spin-off – having first appeared as a walk-on in a Sgt. Rock yarn from Our Army at War #168 (June 1966, by Robert Kanigher & Joe Kubert).

By 1970, the top flight illustrator had become group editor of DC’s war titles and was looking for a new cover/lead character to follow the critically acclaimed Enemy Ace who had been summarily bounced to the back of the book after issue #150.

The new series featured a faceless super-spy and master-of-disguise whose forebears had proudly fought and died in every American conflict since the birth of the nation…

As previously stated, the strip grew to be one of DC’s most popular and long-lived. With issue #205 in 1977, Star-Spangled became Unknown Soldier and the comic only folded in 1982 (issue #268) when sales of traditional comicbooks were in harsh decline.

Since then the character has resurfaced a number of times (12 issue miniseries in 1988-9, a 4-part Vertigo tale in 1997 followed by a rebooted ongoing series in 2008, and again in 2011 as part of the company’s “New 52” mega reboot): each iteration moving further and further way from the originating concept.

One intriguing factor of the initial tales is that there is very little internal chronology: for most of the run individual adventures take place anytime and anywhere between the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the surrenders of Germany and Japan. This picaresque approach adds a powerful sense of both timelessness and infallible, unflinching continuity. The Unknown Soldier has always and will always be where he is needed most…

As seen in the previous Showcase volume, his full origin was revealed in Star-Spangled War Stories #154’s ‘I’ll Never Die!’: recounting how two inseparable brothers enlisted in the days before America was attacked and were posted together to the Philippines just as the Japanese began their seemingly unstoppable Pacific Campaign.

Overwhelmed by a tidal wave of enemy soldiers one night, the brothers held their jungle posts to the last. When relief came only one had survived, his face a tattered mess of raw flesh and bone…

As US forces retreated from the islands the indomitable survivor was evacuated to a state-side hospital. Refusing medals, honours or retirement, the recuperating warrior dedicated his remaining years to his lost brother Harry and determinedly retrained as a one man-army intelligence unit.

His unsalvageable face swathed in bandages, the nameless fighter learned the arts of make-up, disguise and mimicry, perfected a broad arsenal of fighting skills before offering himself to the State Department as an expendable resource who could go anywhere and do anything…

After a long run of spectacular stories by numerous stellar creators, shifting fashions eventually provoked a shift in emphasis. Relative neophytes David Michelinie & Gerry Talaoc came aboard with Star-Spangled War Stories #183, resulting in an evocative change of direction.

The horror boom in comics was at its peak in 1974 and new editor Joe Orlando capitalised on that fascination with a few startling modifications – the most controversial being to reveal the Soldier’s grotesque, scar-ravaged face – presumably to draw in monster-hungry fear fans…

Here the military/macabre mood resumes with Michelinie & Talaoc on fine form and well dug-in as the Unknown Soldier is despatched to discover the secret of the ‘The Cadaver Gap Massacres’ (SSWS #189).

What he finds as Nazi officer Major Wollheim is a death camp where prisoners are guinea pigs for making monsters and experimental atrocity weapons. Before long he falls foul of a repentant, guilt-riddled scientist whose loyalties ultimately are only to money. The ghastly discoveries of ‘Project: Omega’ lead to a cataclysmic clash with uncontrollable beast-men and the salvation of the only true innocent in the capacious modern hellscape…

Issue #191 offered ‘Decision at Volstadt’ as the fleeing superspy encounters rabid resistance fighters, merciless Hitler Youth zealots and fanatical Lt. Strada, who has already lost far too much to the Immortal G.I. Captured by his Italian nemesis, the rival soldiers’ ‘Vendetta’ ends the only way it could in SSWS #192…

Gerry Conway scripted ‘Save the Children!’ in #193, detailing how a mission to blow up a train carrying generals directing the war on the Eastern Front goes horribly wrong after the phantom fighter finds his targets’ families have come along for the ride, after which Michelinie returns to investigate ‘The Survival Syndrome’ wherein penetration of a high-tech Nazi communications complex hidden in a French village shows the wary warrior the true cost of a having a quisling in the family…

Star-Spangled War Stories #195 introduced ‘The Deathmasters’ as the Unknown Soldier infiltrates a Nazi assassination school and find himself assigned to murder one of the Allies’ greatest assets in war-torn Odessa in #196’s ‘Target Red’.

Conning everyone into thinking he’s succeeded, the Soldier then returns to Germany to scotch a scheme to replace key Allied personnel with Nazi doppelgangers. All it costs to quash the project is the life of an innocent girl and a little bit more of his soul…

The war in North Africa is almost over in #197 but the master of disguise is nevertheless dispatched to destroy German anti-tank airplane prototypes in ‘The Henschel Gambit’. Typically however, he is intercepted by Arab raiders led by a US Senator’s maverick daughter and is again forced to choose between his mission and innocent lives…

Thereafter, thanks to Nazi counter-intelligence manoeuvrings, the Immortal G.I. is tricked into killing the Allies’ top strategist in ‘Traitor!’ Court Martialled and sentenced to death, he is forced to escape and retrace his steps, seeking a witness to his innocence in #199’s ‘The Crime of Sgt. Schepke’.

En route, he encounters Maquis legend Mlle Marie but events spiral completely out of control and has no choice but to sacrifice her entire resistance unit to destroy a new super-weapon in the concluding ‘Deathride’ Although Marie honours her promise and clears his name, she also swears to kill him for expending her comrades like pawns…

The scene switches to New York City in SSWS #201 as the Soldier engages in ‘The Back-Alley War’: infiltrating a gang of German-American anti-war isolationists in search of saboteurs and spies.

He’s in Italy for #202 where an outbreak of typhus is holding up the war. His task is to find a downed US plane carrying an experimental counter serum but his infiltration of a Nazi hospital seems to indicate that neither side has found ‘The Cure’

Issue #203 sees the master-spy reduced to teaching arrogant, unstable English aristocrat (with royal connections) Richard Ebbington all the tricks of his deadly craft, only to be subsequently ordered by the top brass to stop his unstable pupil from fulfilling his first murder mission.

Somebody up top forgot to tell somebody in the middle that Ebbington’s target is a German general planning to assassinate Hitler, so the Unknown Soldier is forced to stop his protégé’s ‘Curtain Call’

After 36 years of gloriously variegated publication, Star-Spangled War Stories ended with #204 as prior scripter Bob Haney and veteran war artist Dick Ayers joined Talaoc for ‘The Unknown Soldier Must Die!’, wherein old ally Chat Noir(an African-American sergeant who got fed up of institutionalised racism and deserted the US Army to join the French Resistance) is captured by the Nazis and brainwashed into becoming their secret weapon against the Immortal G.I.…

Cover-dated May 1977 the first Unknown Soldier (#205) places history’s lynchpin at the Battle of the Bulge in winter 1944. Whilst expanding on his origins ‘Legends Never Die!’ also proves once more that the right man in the right place at the right time can change the course of destiny…

‘Glory Gambit!’ begins an extended campaign as Adolf Hitler himself unleashes the Wehrmacht’s answer to the Unknown Soldier. His Black Knight is Count Klaus von Stauffen: the chess-obsessed SS officer who captured and brainwashed Chat Noir. The fascist fanatic is now making his way into the heart of England with but one mission…

The hunt for the merciless master of disguise and doom continues throughout London in #207’s ‘Kill the King!’, before the scene again shifts, dumping the Soldier in North Africa in 1942 to rehabilitate a trio of deserters in ‘Coward, Take my Hand!’

US #209 takes us to the Pacific in 1945 and a personal duel with a Japanese prison camp torturer whose attempts to break the scarred superspy result in defeat, death and ‘Tattered Glory!’ on blood-drenched rock called Iwo Jima…

In #210 the Man of Many Faces invades a Nazi fortress by impersonating a specialist interrogator. He has been ordered to rescue or kill America’s most important agent in ‘Sparrows Can’t Sing!’, after which issue #211 reprints a classic Haney & Kubert tale from Star-Spangled War Stories #159 wherein George S. Patton became the thinly-veiled basis for ‘Man of War’ with the Unknown Soldier dispatched to investigate a charismatic general who had pushed his own troops to the brink of mutiny…

An experimental surgical operation traps the G.I. behind the wrong face on the wrong side of the German lines in #212, where he encounters Hitler’s fanatical schoolboy “Werewolf” killer-elite and becomes in turn ‘The Traitor in Wolf’s Clothing!’

The shocking theme was further explored in #213 as Unknown Soldier has to extract from the Fatherland the son of a scientist vital to the war effort. Sadly, ‘The Ten-Year-Old Secret Weapon!’ has embraced every facet of life in the Hitler Youth and fights his would-be rescuer every step of the way…

Kanigher wrote and Romeo Tanghal inked the Ayers illustrated ‘Deadly Reunion!’ in #214 as of the Soldier – in the guise of an elderly Jew – allows himself to be taken to a death camp to spring Mlle. Marie. She isn’t at all grateful…

Haney, Ayers &Talaoc reunite in #215 as the faceless fury replaces a sailor in the merchant marine to expose a traitor selling out convoy freighters to U-boats haunting ‘The Savage Sea!’, after which ‘Taps at Arlington!’ (art by Ayers & Tanghal) sees Chat Noir confront American racism whilst the Soldier exposes a spy painting a bullseye on the backs of troops in Italy…

In #217 the Man Without a Face becomes Hermann Goering’s chief supplier of stolen paintings in ‘Dictators Never Sleep!’ The plan is to give the infamous art lover a Rembrandt primed to explode when Hitler is in front of it… and it would have worked if Klaus von Stauffen hadn’t been present…

With the Black Knight hot on his heels, the frustrated phantom is harried across Europe in ‘The Unknown Soldier Must Die!’, only stopping briefly to destroy a V2 base and have another shot at the Fuehrer before experiencing ‘Slaughter in Hell!’ (inked by Tanghal) when von Stauffen turns the tables by impersonating his arch enemy in a bid to murder Winston Churchill and General Dwight D. Eisenhower.

He would have succeeded if not for the Immortal G.I.’s strategic cunning…

Issue #220 by Haney, Ayers &Talaoc sees the Soldier organise a band of maverick warriors from many Nazi-conquered countries into a daring-but-doomed foreign legion dubbed ‘The Rubber Band Heroes’, after which ‘Sunset for a Samurai!’finds him on a suicide mission to the heart of Japan to save an undercover agent crucial to the American forces…

Unknown Soldier #222 promised ‘No Exit from Stalag 19!’ when the unsung hero is ordered to rescue a military boffin from the heart of Fortress Europa (in a wry and trenchant riff on The Bridge on the River Kwai) whilst in #223, ‘Mission: Incredible!’ (Ayers &Tanghal) details the convoluted course of a plan to destroy a Heavy Water plant in the snow-capped mountains of Norway.

The Soldier and Chat Noir reunite in #224 to investigate a dead zone where Allied bombers vanish without trace, only to find barbaric military madness running wild in ‘Welcome to Valhalla!’ after which the Immortal G.I. is forced to arrest a charismatic general for treason in ‘Four Stars to Armageddon!’ (Ayers & Talaoc) before uncovering the astounding truth behind his supposed betrayals.

The military madness lurches to a bloody halt with #226 as Chat Noir and his faceless comrade do what entire flotillas of Navy vessels could not: using guile and subterfuge to board the Nazi’s unbeatable dreadnaught and ‘Sink the Kronhorst!’

Dark, powerful, moving and overwhelmingly ingenious, The Unknown Soldier is a magnificent addition to the ranks of extraordinary mortal warriors in an industry far too heavy with implausible and incredible heroes. These tales will appeal to not just comics readers but all fans of adventure fiction.
© 1975-1979, 2014 DC Comics. All rights reserved.

The Bluecoats volume 3: The Skyriders


By Willy Lambil & Raoul Cauvin, translated by Erica Jeffrey (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-014-6 (Album PB)

The glamour of the American Experience has fascinated Europeans virtually since the actual days of owlhoots and gunfighters. Hergé was a devotee, and the spectrum of memorable comics ranges from Italy’s Tex Willer to such French and Belgian classics as Blueberry and Comanche, and even rarefied, seldom seen colonial dramas such as Pioneers of the New World or Milo Manara and Hugo Pratt’s Indian Summer.

Les Tuniques Bleues or The Bluecoats began at the end of the 1960s, created by Louis “Salvé” Salvérius & Raoul Colvin – who has written every best-selling volume since. The strip was created to replace Lucky Luke when the laconic gunslinger defected from weekly anthology Le Journal de Spirou to rival comic Pilote, and his replacement swiftly became one of the most popular bande dessinée series on the Continent.

Salvé was a cartoonist of the Gallic big-foot/big-nose humour style, and when he died suddenly in 1972, his replacement Willy “Lambil” Lambillotte slowly introduced a more realistic – although still visually comedic – illustrative manner. Lambil is Belgian, born in 1936 who, after studying Fine Art in college, joined publishing giant Dupuis as a letterer in 1952.

Born in 1938, scripter Raoul Cauvin is also Belgian, and before joining Dupuis’ animation department in 1960 studied Lithography. He soon discovered his true calling – comedy writing – beginning his glittering and prolific career at Spirou.

In addition to Bluecoats he has written dozens of other long-running, award winning series including Cédric (which translates, funnily enough, into English as Cedric), Les Femmes en Blanc and Agent 212: more than 240 separate albums. The 62 current volumes of Les Tuniques Bleues alone has sold in excess of 15 million copies.

The sorry protagonists of the series are Sergeant Cornelius Chesterfield and Corporal Blutch: a brace of worthy fools in the manner of Laurel and Hardy, two hapless, ill-starred US cavalrymen posted to the wild frontier and various key points of mythic America.

The original format was single-page gags about an Indian-plagued Wild West fort, but with the second volume Du Nord au Sud (North and South) the sad-sack soldiers went back East to fight in the American Civil War (a tale rewritten in the 18th album Blue retro to describe how the chumps were drafted into the military during the war).

All subsequent adventures, although ranging far beyond America and taking in a lot of genuine and thoroughly researched history, are set within the timeframe of the Secession conflict.

Blutch is your average whinging little-man-in-the street: work-shy, mouthy, devious and exceptionally critical of the army and its inept commanders. Ducking, diving, even deserting whenever he can, he’s you or me – except sometimes he’s quite smart and heroic if no other easier option is available.

Chesterfield is a big burly man; a career soldier who has passionately bought into all the patriotism and esprit-de-corps of the Military. He is brave, never shirks his duty and wants to be a hero. He also loves his cynical little pal. They quarrel like a married couple, fight like brothers but simply cannot agree on the point and purpose of the horrendous war they are trapped in…

The Skyriders was the third album of the translated Cinebook series (chronologically the eighth French volume Les cavaliers du ciel when released in 1976) and opens with Chesterfield dashing to see his severely wounded pal. However, when he finds out Blutch has bribed a surgeon to declare him unfit for duty, the doughty sergeant goes through the roof…

Dragging the scurvy dodger back to the Front lines, the sergeant is just in time to be ordered by frankly quite mad Captain Stark to join him in another heroic cavalry charge against the massed Rebel infantry. However, as the division has suffered a few losses recently, this unstoppable wave of valiant Union horsemen will number exactly three…

The assault naturally fails and the deranged officer is captured, with Blutch and the deeply-shaken Chesterfield making it back to their own lines more by luck than skill.

The Union generals are in a bit of a tizzy. They have plenty of artillery and ground troops but are being worn down by the swift-moving Confederate cavalry’s harrying tactics. What they need is some method of observing the enemy’s position. Also, with news of Stark’s capture comes the apprehension of his revealing key positions, so the strategists are forced into trying something new. All they need are a big gasbag and a couple of expendable idiots…

The first observation flight is a huge success, so much so that the generals go up themselves after the principle is proved. Sadly, the Brass are far better fed than Blutch and Chesterfield and the wicker basket they crowd into proves painfully insufficient to their needs…

Broken and battered, the big bosses choose to keep their bandaged feet on the ground from then on and our Bluecoats remain the army’s only airborne soldiery, enduring shot and shell as they spy on the enemy from above…

Stark, meanwhile, has not talked and the Confederates are beginning to lose traction in the battle. Correctly blaming the balloon for their reversals of fortune, the Gray commanders determine to destroy their aerostatic nemesis at all costs and a daring sortie on the observation post enables them to cut the balloon free from its moorings…

Adrift in the sky, the hapless duo try everything to get down safely – consequently causing great consternation to the Rebel forces – before finally crashing to earth on top of their own already balloon-damaged commanding officers.

Ordered to rescue Captain Stark or face a firing squad, Chesterfield then devises an audaciously suicidal plan: using the balloon at night, he and Blutch will infiltrate the Confederate camp and bust their mad boss out.

What could possibly go wrong?

As always, their manic midnight misadventures result in pain, humiliation and not a few explosions but – incredibly – also victory and success… of a sort…

This is another hugely amusing anti-war saga targeting younger, less cynical audiences: historically authentic, and always in good taste despite its uncompromising portrayal of violence. The attitudes expressed by the down-to-earth pair never make battle anything but arrant folly and, like the hilarious yet insanely tragic war-memoirs of Spike Milligan, these are comedic tales whose very humour makes the occasional moments of shocking verity doubly powerful and hard-hitting.

Fun, informative, beautifully realised and eminently readable, Bluecoats is the kind of war-story that appeals to the best, not worst, of the human spirit…
© Dupuis 1976 by Lambil & Cauvin. English translation © 2009 Cinebook Ltd. All rights reserved.

London’s Dark


By James Robinson & Paul Johnson (Escape/Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-85286-157-5 (Album PB)

In this time of crisis, when every species of chancer and opportunist feels free to invoke a mythical and seldom accurate “Spirit of the Blitz” to silence debate and buoy up their own particular agenda, I thought it might be interesting to recall a cruelly-neglected early graphic novel that, whilst a mere flight of fancy crafted 45 years after the fact, still manages to capture the feel and the truth of what that period meant. And yes, I include myself here, but at least I’m not responsible for people’s lives and trying to sell an ideology often as callous, vicious and pernicious as the Great Foe back then. And no, I wasn’t there either. I did, however, have parents who experienced the war first hand on both sides and lost close family to both Nazi and Allied fire. It made for some truly memorable weddings, funerals and family gatherings in my own childhood…

When London’s Dark was first released in 1989 many people remarked that it was great to see a graphic narrative that didn’t easily fall into a well-worn industry pigeon-hole. Many more hoped the blend of the traditional and the innovative would lead to a grand new age of great graphic novels. Things have indeed grown and blossomed for readers of sequential narrative in the interim, and whilst we still aren’t done yet, this slim monochrome paperback volume nonetheless still stands out as a superb piece of story-telling well worth your attention.

It is the height of the Blitz and the Capital of the British Empire is being pounded and burned by the despised Luftwaffe. Still, even incendiary hell and random destruction from above cannot deter criminals with a quick profit in mind.

When a Black Marketeer has second thoughts in the commission of looting and is murdered for them, the deed results in an unlikely romance between Air Raid Warden Jack Brookes and professional Medium Sophie Heath.

Good-natured Jack thinks he’s simply testing and stopping a swindler, but soon he is head over heels in love with the exotic and fearfully convincing spiritualist. She, in turn, is genuinely in contact with the unquiet ghost of the murdered man. Eventually, Jack’s inept but well-meaning investigation turns over a few of the right rocks, blithely forgetting that the murderers are still out there…

Moodily atmospheric art and a light touch with period dialogue make this a surprisingly engaging read (despite the admitted fact from the creators that they were learning their craft on the job) and the blend of war-story, murder-mystery and true romance with supernatural overtones is one that has even greater resonance today. This is a book in dire need of re-release – especially in digital formats – and should be on every filmmaker and TV producer’s “must option” list…
© 1989, 2002 James Robinson and Paul Johnson. All Rights Reserved.

Showcase Presents The Unknown Soldier volume 1


By Joe Kubert, Bob Haney, Robert Kanigher, Archie Goodwin, Frank Robbins, David Michelinie, Irv Novick, Dan Spiegle, Doug Wildey, Jack Sparling, Gerry Talaoc & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1090-2 (TPB)

Digital comics are a welcome miracle these days, but still painfully uninspired and under provided for as regards certain genres. I’m not sure if it’s the platforms or the publishers who are at fault, but I do know that an incredible wealth of superb comics material – most of it in proven genres such as war or humour – remains locked in paper when it could be reaching new audiences at the push of a button. Here’s an absolute gem from DC’s venerable combat annals that can still be readily acquired in its physical form at least…

After the death of EC Comics in the mid-1950’s and prior to the game-changing Blazing Combat, the only guaranteed place to find powerful, controversial, challenging and entertaining American war comics was DC. In fact, even whilst Archie Goodwin’s stunning but tragically mis-marketed quartet of classics were waking up a generation, the home of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman was a veritable cornucopia of gritty, intriguing and beautifully illustrated battle tales presenting war on a variety of fronts and from many differing points of view.

When the Vietnam War escalated, 1960’s America entered a home front death-struggle pitting deeply-ingrained establishment social attitudes against a youth-oriented generation with a radical new sensibility. In response DC’s (or rather National Periodical Publishing, as it then was) battle books became even more bold and innovative…

This stunning monochrome compendium – collecting the lead feature from issues #151-188 (June-July 1970 to June 1975) of the veteran Star-Spangled War Stories anthology features one of the very best concepts ever devised for a war comic: a faceless, nameless hero perpetually in the right place at the right time, ready, willing and oh, so able to turn the tide…

The Unknown Soldier was actually a spin-off: having first appeared as a one-off in a Sgt. Rock story in Our Army at War #168 (June 1966, by Robert Kanigher & Joe Kubert).

In 1970, the artist had become editor of the company’s war division and was looking for a new (American) cover/lead character to follow the critically acclaimed “Enemy Ace” tales of a WWI German fighter pilot. Hans von Hammer had been summarily bounced to the back of the book after issue #150 and as Superheroes faded in popularity in favour of more traditional genres, Kubert wanted a striking new hero to front one of DC’s oldest war titles.

Written and drawn by Kubert ‘They Came Back from Shangri-La!’ introduced a faceless super-spy and master-of-disguise whose forebears had fought and died in every American conflict since the birth of the nation. Set in 1942 here, he took on the identity of B-25 pilot Capt. Shales as he participated in vital, morale-building retaliatory bombing raids on Japanese cities. When their plane is shot down over occupied China, “Shales” leads his crew through enemy-infested territory to the safety of the Chinese resistance…

From this no-nonsense start, the feature grew to be one of DC’s most popular and long-lived: with issue #205 Star-Spangled became The Unknown Soldier in 1977 and the comic only folded in 1982 with issue #268.

One intriguing factor in these tales is that there is very little internal chronology: the individual adventures take place anytime and anywhere between the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the surrender of Germany and Japan. This picaresque approach adds a powerful sense of both timelessness and infallible, unflinching continuity. The invisible man known only as The Unknown Soldier has always and will always be where he is most needed…

His second adventure ‘Instant Glory!’ finds a US patrol captured by the SS as they enter a German city in 1944. An excoriating examination of brutality, heroism and philosophy, this story sets the hard-bitten, bitter-edged tone for the rest of the series.

Always economy-conscious and clever with scissors and glue, DC reformatted a number of old stories at this time, particularly old westerns and mystery stories so it should be no surprise that they would try the same thing with their newest star.

‘Everybody Dies’ was retooled into a new offering via a framing sequence drawn by Kubert, but the body of the tale was originally seen as ‘A GI Passed Here’ (illustrated by Irv Novick in Star-Spangled War Stories #36). In its revamped form, the saga recounts a grim 24 hours in the life of anonymous Eddie Gray as he survives just one more day in the deserts of Nazi-held Africa.

The Unknown Soldier got a full origin in #154’s ‘I’ll Never Die!’, recounting how two inseparable brothers join up in the days before America was attacked and are posted to the Philippines just as the Japanese begin their seemingly unstoppable Pacific Campaign. Overwhelmed by a tidal wave of enemy soldiers, the brothers hold their jungle posts to the last and when relief comes only one has survived. His face is a tattered mess of raw flesh and bone…

As the US forces retreat from the islands, the indomitable survivor is evacuated to a stateside hospital. Refusing medals, honours and retirement, the recuperating warrior dedicates his remaining years to his lost brother Harry and determinedly retrains as a one man-army intelligence unit. His unsalvageable face swathed in bandages, the nameless fighter learns the arts of make-up, disguise and mimicry before offering himself to the State Department as an expendable resource that can go anywhere and do anything…

All DC’s titles were actively tackling the issue of race at this time and #155’s ‘Invasion Game!’ (written by Bob Haney) sees the Soldier parachuted into France in Spring 1944 to connect with the Underground’s mysterious leader “Chat Noir”. Sent to finalise the plans for D-Day, he is horrified to discover the enigmatic commander is a disgraced black US Army sergeant with a grudge against his old country. Chat Noir was too good a character to waste and became a semi-regular cast member…

Haney was on top form for the next epic too. ‘Assassination’ details the Immortal G.I.’s boldest mission and greatest failure as he impersonates but cannot destroy Hitler himself, after which that aforementioned Sgt. Rock classic by Kanigher & Kubert is recycled as an untitled but deeply moving yarn for Star-Spangled War Stories #157. Haney & Kubert then reunited for ‘Totentanz!’ as the faceless warrior breaks into a top security concentration camp to rescue a captured resistance leader.

General George S. Patton is the thinly-veiled subject of ‘Man of War’ as Unknown Soldier is dispatched to investigate a charismatic general who has pushed his own troops to the brink of mutiny, before ‘Blood is the Code!’ finds him captured and tortured by a Japanese Colonel until he snaps: revealing every secret America wants the enemy to know…

Doug Wildey illustrated Haney’s superb ‘The Long Jump’ as the Soldier infiltrates occupied Holland, only to meet more resistance from a stubborn, misguided Dutchman than all the Nazis hunting for the faceless spy, after which ‘Take My Coward’s Hand’ recycles 1960 Sgt. Rock story ‘No Answer from Sarge’ (by Kanigher & Kubert from Our Army at War #91) and ‘Kill the General!’ – by Haney & Dan Spiegle – pits the Man of a Thousand Faces against Nazi infiltrators determined to assassinate General Eisenhower at the height of the Battle of the Bulge.

‘Remittance Man!’ in #164 has the anonymous warrior replace a legendary spotter on an occupied Pacific island, directing Allied attacks on Japanese strongholds, after which Jack Sparling came aboard as artist in ‘Witness for a Coward’. Here, a US tank commander sentenced to death for desertion is saved by the testimony of a Nazi Officer – but only after he is abducted from his HQ by the Immortal G.I., after which a debt of honour has to be repaid…

Bill Mauldin’s legendary wartime dogfaces “Willie and Joe” (see assorted Up Front collections for further details) pay an unannounced visit in #166’s ‘The True Glory’ when the Unknown Soldier travels to Italy to find out what is holding up the advance in Haney’s last offering…

Archie Goodwin steps in to script ‘Three Targets for the Viper!’ wherein the faceless man hunts an assassin set on killing Churchill, Roosevelt and De Gaulle during a conference in 1943 Morocco. We jump to France in 1944 next, and a close encounter with an American officer determined to make a name for himself at any cost in ‘The Glory Hound!’

Goodwin’s tenure saw a stronger concentration on espionage drama, as with issue #169’s ‘Destroy the Devil’s Broomstick!’ which finds the Immortal G.I. infiltrating a compound where Hitler’s latest secret weapon is being built, after which the Soldier stands in for an irreplaceable Marine Major and captures an impregnable island fortress in ‘Legends Don’t Die!’

‘Appointment in Prague!’ offers a rare and tragic glimpse into the Unknown Soldier’s past as he follows the aged actor who taught him mastery of make-up and impersonation into Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia to rescue a grandson thought long dead, after which scripter Frank Robbins took over, moving the action to the Eastern Front in ‘A Cocktail For Molotov!’ wherein Nazis pull out all the stops to destroy Russia’s charismatic foreign Minister before he concludes a treaty with the Allies.

Star-Spangled War Stories #173 finds the G.I. infiltrating a Japanese Submarine base disguised as a Nazi wrestler invited to an exhibition match against a Sumo master. ‘No Holds Barred!’ proves that,, although allies, Japanese and Germans weren’t exactly friends…

‘Operation Snafu!’ begins an extended storyline as it found him impersonating a German tank-commander and forced to sacrifice his own Resistance allies in order to complete a mission vital to the Allied advance, whilst ‘A Slow Burn… From Both Ends!’ offers him the chance to make amends and #176’s ‘Target: The Unknown Soldier!’ ramps up the tension as the Nazis discover a way to identify the faceless warrior no matter how he is disguised…

With Von Sturm – his deadly Nazi counterpart – on his trail, the Unknown Soldier stirs up ‘The Hornet’s Nest!’ and is hunted and hounded towards a concentration camp where inmates work as slaves to construct V1 rockets. Trapped, with the net closing around him, he replaces one of the jailers but Von Sturm is determined to deliver ‘The Sting of Death!’ in a spectacular climactic duel to the death…

Star-Spangled War Stories #179 focuses on the aftermath of his close escape when the Soldier stumbles into ‘A Town Called Hate!’ where racial tensions between white and black G.I.s has devolved into tit-for-tat murders. Unfortunately, whilst disguised as a member of an SS infiltration squad, he can only exacerbate the situation. With the Germans about to deliver a devastating counter-attack, it’s a good thing the long-missing Chat Noir is also on hand…

‘The Doomsday Heroes!’ despatches the anonymous agent to the Leyte Gulf where Japanese suicide attacks have halted the US advance. However, before he can begin his mission, he is shot down and forced to work with a failed Kamikaze pilot to survive the cruel Pacific seas…

After that tragedy of honour the mission continues with ‘One Guy in the Right Place…’ as the Soldier links up with natives fighting Japanese invaders. Disturbingly, they are led by an unseen American who sounds like the brother he lost in the first days of the war. Can Harry have survived all these years…?

Robbins and Sparling bowed out with a classy mini-classic in Star-Spangled War Stories #182. Set in Tunisia, ‘A Thirst for Death!’ sees the Soldier and a crew of veterans on the sandy trail of Rommel’s hidden petrol reserves, after which new kids David Michelinie & Gerry Talaoc herald a change of direction with ‘8,000 to One’.

The horror boom in comics was at its peak in 1974 and new editor Joe Orlando capitalised on that trend with a few startling changes – the most controversial being to regularly reveal the Unknown Soldier’s grotesque, scar-ravaged face – presumably to draw in monster-hungry fear fans…

The story itself harks back to the Immortal G.I.’s earliest days as an American agent; sent to Denmark to rescue a ship full of Danish Jews destined for Hitler’s death camps. Disguised as SS Captain Max Shreik, the Soldier is forced to make an unconscionable choice to safeguard his mission. The degree and manner of graphic violence also exponentially increases to accommodate a perceived more mature readership as the Soldier takes a very personal revenge…

‘A Sense of Obligation’ places the cold, remorseless warrior in France, tasked with infiltrating a Special Kommando Training Centre and destroying it from within. However, as with all undercover work, the risk of going too deep and making friends who you might have to kill later inevitably leads to another tragic life or death decision for the increasingly grim and soulless Soldier, whilst ‘The Hero’ finds the faceless man invading neutral Switzerland to kidnap a British scientist held by Nazis. This time, his lethal final judgement costs him no sleep at all…

In ‘Man of God… Man of War’ (#186) a Catholic Priest duped into working with the Nazis in Italy becomes the Soldier’s latest target, but the plan is forestalled and a shocking situation revealed and rectified after ‘A Death in the Chapel’.

This imposing, impressive and thoroughly entertaining first volume concludes with Star-Spangled War Stories #188 and ‘Encounter’ as the Unknown Soldier strives to prevent the scuttling of a hospital ship by Nazis, unaware that his only ally is in love with the enemy commander…

Dark, powerful, moving and overwhelmingly ingenious, The Unknown Soldier is a magnificent addition to the ranks of extraordinary mortal warriors in an industry far too heavy with implausible and incredible heroes. These tales will appeal to not just comics readers but all fans of action fiction, and one day will make it to TV or movies and blow us all away all over again…
© 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975, 2006 DC Comics. All rights reserved.

Jack Kirby’s The Losers


By Jack Kirby with D. Bruce Berry & Mike Royer (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-184856-194-6 (HB)

There’s a glorious profusion of Jack Kirby material around these days but much of the best and rarest stuff is still – unforgivably – somehow hard to access. This astounding collection of his too-brief run on DC war comic Our Fighting Forces is, for far too many, an unknown delight. You can still find it in the original 2009 hardback edition, but as far as I know, there’s neither digital or even an English-language trade paperback edition to satisfy the desires of fans lacking an infinite bank balance…

Famed for his larger than life characters and gigantic, cosmic imaginings, the King was a decent, spiritual man from another generation, and one who had experienced human horror and bravery as an ordinary grunt during World War II. Whether in the world-weary verité of his 1950s collaborations with Joe Simon or the flamboyant bravado of his Marvel creation Sgt. Fury, Kirby’ combat comics always looked and felt real: grimy, tired, battered yet indomitable.

In 1974, with his newest creations inexplicably not setting any sales records at DC, and while he tentatively pondered a return to Marvel, Jack took over the creative chores on a well-established and compelling but always floundering series that had run in Our Fighting Forces since 1970.

The Losers were an elite unit of American warriors cobbled together by amalgamating three pre-existing war series that had reached the end of their solo star roads. Gunner and Sarge (supplemented by “the Fighting Devil Dog” Pooch) were Pacific-based Marines; debuting in All-American Men of War #67, (March 1959) and running for 50 issues in Our Fighting Forces (#45-94, May 1959 to August 1965), whilst Captain Johnny Cloud – Navaho Ace and native American fighter pilot – shot down his first bogie in All-American Men of War #82 (December 1960). He flew solo until issue #115 (1966).

The final component of the Land/Air/Sea team was filled by Captain Storm, a disabled PT Boat commander (he had a wooden leg) who had his own 18-issue title from 1964 to 1967. All three series were created by comics warlord Robert Kanigher.

The characters had all pretty much passed their sell-by dates when they teamed-up as guest-stars in a Haunted Tank tale in 1969 (G.I. Combat #138 October), but these “Losers” found a new resonance together in the relevant, disillusioned, cynical Vietnam years (and beyond) when their somewhat nihilistic, doom-laden anti-hero group adventures took the lead spot in Our Fighting Forces #123 (January/February 1970). Once again written primarily by Kanigher, the episodes were graced with art from such giants as Ken Barr, Russ Heath, Sam Glanzman, John Severin, Ross Andru and Joe Kubert.

With the tagline “even when they win, they lose” the team saw action all over the globe, winning critical acclaim and a far-too-small, passionate following. In an inexplicable dose of company politics, the discontented Kirby was abruptly given complete control of the series with #151 (November 1974).

His radically different approach was highly controversial at the time but the passage of years has allowed a fairer appraisal and whilst never really in tune with the aesthetic of DC’s other war-books, the King’s run was a spectacular and singularly intriguing examination of the human condition under the worst of all possible situations.

The combat frenzy kicks off in ‘Kill Me with Wagner’ as the Losers infiltrate a French village to rescue a concert pianist before the Nazis can capture her. The hapless propaganda pawn has one tremendous advantage… nobody knows what she looks like.

As with most of this series, a feeling of inevitable, onrushing Gotterdammerung permeates the tale: a sense that worlds are ending and new one’s a-coming. The action culminates in a catastrophic wave of destruction that is pure Kirby magic…

Most of DC’s war titles sported Kubert covers, but #152 featured the first in a startling sequence of hypnotic Kirby illustrations, almost abstract in delivery, to introduce the team to the no-hope proposition of ‘A Small Place in Hell!’ as they find themselves the advance guard for an Allied push, but dropped in the wrong town: one that has not been cleared…

The spectacular action here is augmented by a potent 2-page Kirby fact feature: Sub-machine guns of WWII, and it should be noted and commended that this collection is also peppered with un-inked Kirby pencilled pages and roughs.

Our Fighting Forces #153 is one of those stories that made traditionalists squeak. Behind another Kirby cover, the story of ‘Devastator vs. Big Max’ veers dangerously close to science fiction, but the admittedly eccentric plan to destroy a giant German rail-mounted super-cannon isn’t any stranger than many schemes actual Boffins dreamed up to disinform the enemy during the actual conflict, actually…

That yarn – with two beautiful info-pages on military uniforms and insignia – is followed by a superb parable about personal honour. A bombastic Kirby cover segues into the team’s deployment to the Pacific to remove a Japanese officer whose devotion to ‘Bushido’ has inspired superhuman loyalty and resistance to surrender among his men. The means used to remove him are far from clean or creditable…

Bracketed by 2 pages on war vehicles plus a wonderful pencil cover-rough, and two more on artillery pieces and the pencils for the cover to that issue, ‘The Partisans!’ (OFF #155) takes the Losers into very dark territory indeed, before the team return to America for ‘Good-bye Broadway… Hello Death!’, wherein the lads experience the home-front joys of New York whilst hunting for a notorious U-Boat commander. Naturally there’s more to the story than first appears…

This fast-paced thriller is complemented by a history of battle headgear and another pencilled rough. Issues #157 and 158 comprise a 2-part saga concerning theft, black marketeering and espionage featuring truly unique personage ‘Panama Fattie!’ Her criminal activities almost alter the course of the war; and conclude in the highly charged ‘Bombing Out on the Panama Canal’ with accompanying pages on ships, subs and Nazi super-planes.

Behind the last Kirby cover (#159), ‘Mile-a-Minute Jones!’ details a smaller-scaled duel between a black runner who embarrassed the Nazis at the 1936 Olympics and the Nazi ubermensch he defeated, reigniting on the battlefield with the Losers relegated to subordinate roles.

Kubert and Ernie Chan handled the three remaining covers of this run, an indication that Kirby’s attentions were being diverted elsewhere, but the stories remain powerful and deeply personal explorations of combat. In ‘Ivan’ (OFF #160) the Losers go undercover, impersonating German soldiers on the Eastern Front, and have an unpleasant encounter with Russian Nazi sympathizers whose appetite for atrocity surpasses anything they have ever seen before (supplemented by a 2-page tanks feature) whilst the hellish jungles of the Burma campaign prove an unholy backdrop for traumatic combat shocker ‘The Major’s Dream.’

The volume and Kirby’s DC war work ends with a sly tribute to his 1942 co-creation the Boy Commandos. ‘Gung-Ho!’sees young Gunner training a band of war orphans in Marine tactics only to find fun turn to dire necessity when Germans overrun their “safe” position. This is an optimistic, all-out action romp ending on a note of hope and anticipation, even as the King made his departure for pastures not-so-new. From issue #163 Kanigher resumed the story reins, with artists like Jack Lehti, Ric Estrada and George Evans illustrating, and the Losers returned to their pre-Kirby style and status, with readers hardly acknowledging the detour into another kind of war.

Jack Kirby is unique and uncompromising. If you’re not a fan or simply not prepared to see for yourself what all the fuss has been about then no words of mine will change your mind. That doesn’t alter the fact that his work from 1939 onwards shaped the entire American comics scene, affected the lives of billions of readers and thousands of creators in all areas of artistic endeavour around the world for generations, and which still garners new fans and apostles from the young and naive to the most cerebral of intellectuals. Jack’s work is instantly accessible, irresistibly visceral and deceptively deep whilst being simultaneously mythic and human.

These tales of purely mortal heroism are in many ways the most revealing, honest and insightful of Jack’s incredibly vast accumulated works, and even the true devotee often forgets their very existence. As Neil Gaiman’s introduction succinctly declaims, “they are classic Kirby… and even if you don’t like war comics, you may be in for a surprise…”

You really don’t want to miss that, do you?
© 2009 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Civil War Adventure volume 1


By Chuck Dixon & Gary Kwapisz with Esteve Polls, Enrique Villagran, Silvestre & Erik Burnham and various (Dover Comics & Graphic Novels)
ISBN: 978-0-48679-509-6 (TPB)

From its earliest inception, cartooning and graphic narrative has been used to inform. In newspapers, magazines and especially comic books the sheer impact of pictorial storytelling – with its ability to distil technical recreations of time, place and personage whilst creating deep emotional affinities to past or imagined events – has been used to forge unforgettable images and characters within us. When such stories affect the lives of generations of readers, the force they can apply in a commercial, social, political or especially educational arena is almost irresistible…

Thus, the compelling power of graphic narrative to efficiently, potently and evocatively disseminate vast amounts of information and seductively advocate complex issues with great conviction through layered levels has always been most effectively used in works with a political, social or historical component.

Comics have brought the past to life since they began. Superb examples of a broad view include such triumphs as Jack Jaxon’s Los Tejanos and Comanche Moon or Of Dust and Blood by Jim Berry & Val Mayerik, but the medium is equally adept in crafting more personal biographs such as Terry Eisele & Jonathon Riddle’s With Only Five Plums and others…

And that brings us to another superb re-release from Dover Comics & Graphic Novels (available in trade paperback and digital formats) designed to bring “The War Between the States” to life for younger readers.

Originally published by History Graphics Press in 2009 as Civil War Adventure 1: Real History Stories of the War that Divided America, this marvellous monochrome tome – crafted primarily by comics veterans Chuck Dixon and Gary Kwapisz – switches between actual historical events – with handy maps, diagrams and found writings – and a fictionalised thread of tales depicting how the conflict affected one poor Southern family.

The graphic re-enactments are preceded by a ‘Map of the United States’ detailing the division of the States in 1860 and a‘Civil War Timeline’ which marks key moments and battles (sensibly linking them directly to the stories which follow), after which ‘Choice of Targets’ by Dixon and Esteve Polls offers a text vignette explaining the development of snipers and sharpshooters.

That’s counterpointed by a pithy moment during the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 when opposing marksmen find themselves in a life-or-death duel…

‘Berdan’s Sharpshooters’ is a short cartoon lesson on the inspired Union soldier who invented the concept of snipers, and is promptly followed by a chilling and heartrending incident of battlefield misfortune in Dixon & Kwapisz’s ‘Home Again’ plus an illustrated info-&-glossary page which reproduces an actual letter from a Confederate lad the night before he fell…

All-Kwapisz affair ‘Mosby Bags a General’ combines a potted history of the South’s most successful raider with a compelling strip revealing how bold Lieutenant John Mosby infiltrated far behind Union lines to capture 58 horses, thirty prisoners and their captain, plus sleeping General Stoughton, all in one night…

‘Tempered in Blood’ (Dixon & Kwapisz) then introduces the narrative strand as the modest Campbell clan are torn apart when, after heated family discussion, both father and first son Tybalt sneak off from the farm to enlist in the Spring of 1861. Each confidently assures themselves that all the shooting will all be over long before harvest as they unknowingly individually abandon Mrs. Campbell and the little sisters to link up with overconfident volunteers massing for what everybody believes will be one fast knockout blow…

After barely surviving the brutal training that turns hunters, croppers and ploughmen into real soldiers, the Southern heroes finally learn what warfare means at Bull Run…

More contemporary terms, facts and historical insight are offered in ‘The War is Joined!’ before ‘The Devil’s Due’(Kwapisz) delves into the atrocity of total warfare as a Bluecoat patrol diligently follows its bald orders to “turn the South into a wasteland”…

A fact-feature page on ‘John Singleton Mosby’ leads to a feature on rising star and flamboyant self-aggrandiser George Armstrong Custer whose rash adventuring leads ‘The Boy General’ (Dixon & Enrique Villagran) into desperate straits against overwhelming rebel opposition… resulting in Custer’s First Stand…

Data pages on the devastating ‘Sharps Rifle’ and double-pronged naval blockade of the Mississippi River spins off into an account of the duel between ironclad vessels and the brilliant countermeasure devised by Colonel Charles Ellet in ‘Ram Squadron’ (Dixon & Silvestre), capped off by a Kwapisz segment detailing ‘Hell on the Mississippi’, as a Union flotilla horrifically fails to sneak past the naval guns established above Vicksburg…

‘Tempered in Blood II’ returns to the troubled Campbell Clan as Ty wakes in the bloody aftermath of battle to discover his best friend Seth has had enough and absconded. However, by the time he’s found and brought back Seth, Ty discovers his own father has similarly fled.

The elder is not running from bloody death but heading home to save his farm from ruin and family from fever, but that won’t make any difference if he’s picked up by ruthless and remorseless Confederate Picquets…

The tragic true tale of ‘Colonel Cocke’ and his unseemly death gives way to the ribald eccentricity of ‘Darnel Dingus is a…’ which reveals the insane and impecunious ends to which some States descended to ensure their manpower obligations were met. The tale is couched in the story of famous war artist Winslow Homer and a practical joking jackass who learns the hard way that war isn’t funny: appended by a grim examination of ‘The Ultimate Punishment’ for desertion under fire and other – even worse – infringements…

The strip section closes with a sobering and ironic tale of comeuppance in ‘The Letter’ (by Erik Burnham & Kwapisz) wherein a burned-out sawbones steals a missive from one of his less-lucky patients and chases a dream to a woman he’s fallen for based solely on her handwriting and prose…

Following one last Kwapisz-illustrated info page – on ‘Battle Field Surgery’ – this stunning introduction to the birth of modern warfare ends with a comparative list of ‘Further Reading’ and a moving notification of how to learn more in ‘If the Valley Was Lost’.

Similar in tone and style to the best of Harvey Kurtzman’s magnificent anti-war classics from Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat, this is a rousing, evocative, potently instructive collection amalgamating history and horrific entertainment – and not a little grim wit and actual belly-laughs – to bring a pivotal time to vivid life.
© 2009 Chuck Dixon & Gary Kwapisz. All other material © 2015 its respective creators.

The Bluecoats volume 2: The Navy Blues


By Willy Lambil & Raoul Cauvin, translated by Erica Jeffrey (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-905460-82-3 (Album PB)

The mythology of the American West has never been better loved or more honourably treated than by Europeans. Hergé was a passionate devotee, and the range of incredible comics material from Tex Willer to Blueberry, Yakari to Lucky Luke to Camanche display over and over again our fascination with all aspects of that legendary time and place.

Les Tuniques Bleues or Bluecoats began at the end of the 1960s, visually devised by Louis “Salvé” Salvérius with scripts by Raoul Colvin – who has also written the succeeding 63 volumes of this much-loved Belgian comedy western series. The strip was created on the fly to replace the aforementioned Lucky Luke when the great gunslinger defected from prominent weekly anthology Le Journal de Spirou to rival comic Pilote, and became another one of the most popular series on the Continent.

After its initial run, Bluecoats graduated to the collected album format (published by French publishing powerhouse Dupuis) that we’re all so familiar with in Un chariot dans l’OuestA Wagon in the West – in 1972.

Salvé was proficient in the Gallic style of big-foot/big-nose humour cartooning, and when he died suddenly in 1972 his artistic replacement Willy “Lambil” Lambillotte gradually leavened the previous broad style with a more realistic – but still crucially comedic – illustrative manner. Lambil is Belgian, born in 1936, and after studying Fine Art, joined Dupuis as a letterer in 1952.

In 1959 he created Sandy – about an Australian teen and a kangaroo – later self-parodying it and himself with Hobby and Koala and Panty et son kangaroo as well as creating the comics industry satire ‘Pauvre Lampil’.

Belgian writer Raoul Cauvin was born in 1938 and, after studying Lithography, joined Dupuis’ animation department in 1960. His glittering and prolific writing career began soon after. Almost exclusively a humourist and always for Le Journal de Spirou, other than Bluecoats he has written more than 20 long-running and award-winning series – more than 240 separate albums. Bluecoats alone has sold in the region of 23 million copies.

The protagonists are Sergeant Cornelius Chesterfield and Corporal Blutch, a hopeless double act of buffoons in the manner of Laurel and Hardy, perhaps Abbot & Costello or our own Morecambe & Wise: two hapless and ill-starred cavalrymen posted to the wilds of the arid frontier.

The first strips were single-page gags based around an Indian-plagued Wild West fort but with second volume Du Nord au Sud (North and South) the sorry soldiers went back East to fight in the American Civil War (this scenario was retconned in the 18th album Blue retro which described how the everyman chumps were first drafted into the military). All subsequent adventures, although ranging all over the planet and taking in a lot of genuine and thoroughly researched history, are set within that tragic conflict.

Blutch is your average little man in the street: work-shy, reluctant and ever-critical of the army – especially his inept commanders. Ducking, diving, deserting when he can, he’s you or me – except sometimes he’s quite smart and heroic if no other easier option is available. Chesterfield is a big man, a career soldier, who has bought into all the patriotism and esprit de corps. He is brave, never shirks his duty and wants to be a hero. He also loves his cynical little pal. They quarrel like a married couple, fight like brothers and simply cannot agree on the point and purpose of the horrendous war they are trapped in…

The Navy Blues, second book in this translated series, is actually the 7th French volume ‘Les Bleus de la marine’, and finds the lads as usual in the midst of a terrible battle. However, when Blutch is wounded, his cavalry commanders prefer to save his horse rather than aid a fallen soldier, and Chesterfield finds all his cherished dreams of camaraderie and loyalty ebbing away.

Disillusioned, he demands a transfer to the infantry and with the never-happy Blutch beside him tries to adapt to his lowered status. Sadly, Chesterfield discovers officers are the same everywhere and stupidity and cupidity are rife throughout the armed forces. A progression of calamitous transfers eventually lands the pair in the Union Navy at a time of intriguing technological advancement, playing an unfortunately ill-omened part in the development of both Submarines and armoured battleships. As always, their misadventures result in pain, humiliation and not a few explosions…

The secret of Les Tuniques Bleues success…? This is a hugely amusing anti-war saga targeting younger less cynical audiences. Historically authentic, always in good taste despite its uncompromising portrayal of violence, the attitudes expressed by the down-to-earth pair never make battle anything but arrant folly and, like the hilarious yet insanely tragic war-memoirs of Spike Milligan, these are comedic tales whose very humour makes the occasional moments of shocking verity doubly powerful and hard-hitting.

Fun, informative, beautifully realised and eminently readable, Bluecoats is the sort of war-story that appeals to the best, not worst, of the human spirit.
© Dupuis 1975 by Lambil & Cauvin. English edition © 2008 Cinebook Ltd. All Rights Reserved.