Pride of Baghdad

By Brian K Vaughan & Niko Henrichon (Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0314-6 (HB)                    978-1-4012-0315-3 (PB)

It would be far beyond crass to suggest that anything good at all ever came out of the monstrous debacle of the Iraq invasion, but trenchant-critique-masquerading-as-parable Pride of Baghdad at least offers a unique perspective on a small, cruel and utterly avoidable moment of that bloody mistake.

Brian K. Vaughan (Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina, Runaways, Paper Girls) and Niko Henrichon (Barnum!, Fables, Sandman, Spider-Man), combining the narrative tools of Walt Disney and George Orwell, reconstruct an anthropomorphised tale of a family of lions who are unwillingly liberated from the city zoo during the taking of Baghdad, and then left to run loose in the deadly streets until their tragic end. Throughout the entire debacle the beasts are scared, hungry, under attack and convinced that everything will be great now that they are free…

This is not a spoiler. It is a warning. This is a beautiful, uncompromising, powerful, tale with characters who you will swiftly come to love. And they die because of political fecklessness, commercial venality and human frailty. The seductively magical artwork makes the inevitable tragedy a confusing and wondrous experience and Vaughan’s script could make a stone, and perhaps even a Republican, cry.

Derived from a news item which told of the lions roaming the war-torn Baghdad streets, here we are made to see the invasion in terms other than those of commercial news-gatherers and government spin-doctors, and hopefully can use those different opinions to inform our own. This is a lovely, haunting, sad book: a modern masterpiece which shows why words and pictures have such power that they can terrify bigots and tyrants of all types.

Read this book. Maybe not to your kids, or not yet, but read it.
© 2006 Brian K Vaughan & Niko Henrichon. All Rights Reserved.

Hearts and Minds – A Vietnam Love Story

By Doug Murray & Russ Heath (Marvel/Epic Comics)
ISBN: 978-0-87135-699-4

I was deeply saddened to hear of the death of Russ Heath last week, so I’m repurposing an old review today to commemorate his astounding career and achievements. It’s an easy thing to do as his work was always amongst the rarefied top rank of illustrators to grace the American comics scene…

Russell Heath Jr. was born in New York City on September 29th 1926 and was raised in New Jersey. Influenced by cowboy artist Will James and others, Heath was self-taught and fiercely diligent, demanding authenticity of himself in all his work. This helped him break into the comicbook industry while still at High School (episodes of naval strip Hammerhead Hawley for Captain Aero Comics beginning with volume 2, #2 in September 1942).

Eager to serve, Heath left Montclair High School early in 1945 for the Air Force. Whilst in the military he contributed cartoons to the Camp newspaper before shipping out.

When peace broke out, he worked briefly as a gofer at an ad agency until in 1947 he landed a regular job with Timely Comics. Now married he soon started working from home, drawing Kid Colt and Two Gun Kid, offerings for the dwindling superhero market and sundry horror stories and covers.

He hit an early peak in the 1950s, with a wealth of western and horror features as well as co-creating Marvel Boy, working on crime and romance tales, Venus and the Human Torch during the abortive attempt to revive superheroes in 1953.

He branched out to other publishers: trying his hand on EC’s Mad and Frontline Combat, 3D comics for St. John’s and earned a reputation for gritty veracity in his war and adventure stories (such as Robin Hood and Golden Gladiator for DC’s The Brave and the Bold).

He began contributing to DC’s new war line in early 1954, with strips appearing in Our Army at War #23 and Star Spangled War Stories #22.

It was good fit and he spent the next decade and a half working with writer/editor Robert Kanigher, with whom he co-created The Haunted Tank, The Losers and Sea Devils. All along he remained a stalwart of anthological short war stories, guested on and eventually took over full time illustrating on the prestigious Sgt. Rock.

Infamously, many of his panels were co-opted by pop artist Roy Lichtenstein as the basis of his paintings (specifically Whaam!, Blam, Okay Hot-Shot, Okay!, and Brattata). Heath’s other contributions to American pop culture include iconic ads for toy soldiers and a stint on Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder’s ubiquitous Playboy satire strip Little Annie Fanny.

Eventually he moved into animation and out to the west coast, but remained in contact with his comics roots, providing occasional returns on titles such as Planet of the Vampires, Mister Miracle, Ka-Zar, The Punisher, Shadowmasters, G.I. Joe and. the Immortal Iron Fist among others.

Having been awarded almost every award going, Heath was in semi-retirement when he died on the 23rd August 2018.

At the end of the 1980s Marvel began extending the scope of the Original Graphic Novels line and this potent and uncompromising fable was the impressive result.

Hearts and Minds – A Vietnam Love Story tells of a half-caste French/Vietnamese peasant girl, whose husband is killed by proselytizing Viet Cong Guerrillas, but who finds a kind of love with a green American college drop-out trapped in The Draft and sent to kill Commies for Uncle Sam.

Of course, it doesn’t end well…

1965: Despite himself Lieutenant Jim Brett is fitting in. He has an aptitude for the soldier’s life and has found his One True Love in the Officers’ Brothel. The half-white Nhi is overjoyed to have been purchased by the handsome young Lieutenant and looks forward to her new life in America as Mrs. Brett. But when the Viet Cong stage a successful assault on the city of Hue she discovers that her first husband is still alive and now a fanatical Guerrilla leader. And then the frantic Brett bursts into the house…

The examination of the greater conflict through a doomed romance is both subtle and evocative, and the hyper-precise drawing and bright happy colours of the artwork savagely underpin the oppressive brutality and doomed futility of the tale. Hearts and Minds is an anti-war tale with all the punch and poignancy of an artillery round, favouring no side whilst counting the human cost and yet still managing to balance blazing action with passionate intensity.

Concerned parents should note that if this is a novel for adults with graphic nudity and violence.

Russ Heath is a name that should be household, but is sadly someone who will only probably be missed by those of us fortunate and broadminded enough to have roamed beyond the attention-grabbing superhero comics ghetto. He is also an immortal talent whose work will live on as long as we keep seeking hyper-real, ultra-precise, breathtakingly powerful narrative graphics.

Remember the name and look for it when buying your old comics and albums in future.
© 1990 Doug Murray & Russ Heath. All Rights Reserved.

The Boy Commandos by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby volume 2

By Joe Simon & Jack Kirby with various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-5817-7

Just as the Golden Age of comics was kicking off, two young men with big hopes met up and began a decades-long association that was always intensely creative, immensely productive and spectacularly in tune with popular tastes.

Joe Simon was a sharp-minded, talented gentleman with five years hard-earned experience in “real” publishing. He had worked from the bottom up to art director on a succession of small newspapers such as the Rochester Journal American, Syracuse Herald and Syracuse Journal American before moving to New York City and a life of freelancing as an illustrator and art/photo retoucher.

With comicbooks exploding onto every newsstand, Simon – with a recommendation from his boss – joined Lloyd Jacquet’s pioneering comics production “shop” Funnies Inc.: generating strips and characters for a number of publishing houses eager to cash in on the success of Action Comics and its groundbreaking star attraction Superman.

Within days Simon created The Fiery Mask for Martin Goodman of Timely (now Marvel) Comics and met young Jacob Kurtzberg, a cartoonist and animator just hitting his explosive, imaginative stride with The Blue Beetle for the Fox Feature Syndicate.

Together Simon & Kurtzberg (who went through a battalion of pen-names before settling on Jack Kirby) enjoyed stunning creative empathy and synergy which galvanized an already electric neo-industry with a vast catalogue of features and even genres.

At rocket-pace they produced the influential Blue Bolt, drew Captain Marvel Adventures #1 and, after Martin Goodman appointed Simon editor at Timely, invented a host of iconic characters such as Red Raven, Marvel Boy, Hurricane, The Vision, The Young Allies and a rather popular guy named Captain America.

When Goodman failed to make good on his financial obligations, Simon & Kirby promptly jumped ship to industry leader National/DC, who welcomed them with open arms and a mighty chequebook. Initially an uncomfortable fit and bursting with ideas the cautious company were not comfortable with, the pair were handed two failing strips to play with until they found their creative feet.

Soon after establishing themselves with The Sandman and Manhunter, the dynamic duo were left to their own devices and – returning to the “Kid Gang” genre they pioneered with Young Allies at Timely – drafted a unique juvenile Foreign Legion entitled The Boy Commandos.

The young warriors initially shared the spotlight with Batman in flagship publication Detective Comics but before long their solo title would frequently number amongst the company’s top three sellers…

Boy Commandos was such a soaring success – frequently cited as the biggest-selling American comicbook in the world at that time – that the editors, knowing the Draft was lurking, green-lighted the completion of a wealth of extra material to lay away for the dreadful moment their star creators were called up.

With their talented studio team, S&K produced so much four-colour magic in a such a phenomenally short time that Publisher Jack Liebowitz eventually suggested they retool some of it into adventures of a second kid gang… and thus was born The Newsboy Legion (and their super-heroic mentor The Guardian)…

Those guys we’ll get back to another time but today let’s applaud this splendidly sturdy second full-colour hardback (and eBook) compilation, re-presenting further exploits of the courageous and internationally diverse Young Lions from Detective Comics #74-83 and 85, World’s Finest Comics#10-13 and Boy Commandos #3-5.

Spanning April 1943 to March 1944, these tales comprise a superb salvo of stunning combat classics, bombastic blockbusters and cunning comedy capers that were at once fervently patriotic morale-boosters, rousing action-adventures and potent satirical swipes and jibes by creators who were never afraid to show that good and evil could never simply be just “Us & Them”…

We never learned how American Captain Rip Carter got to command a British Commando unit nor why he was allowed to take a quartet of war-orphans with him on a never-ending succession of deadly sorties into “Festung Europa”, North Africa, the Pacific or Indo-Chinese theatres of war. All we had to do was realise that cockney urchin Alfy Twidgett, French lad Andre Chavard (originally dubbed “Pierre” before being unobtrusively renamed), little Dutch boy Jan Haasen and rough, tough lout Brooklyn were fighting the battles we would, if we only adults had given us a chance…

Following a scholarly and incisive appraisal from publisher John Morrow in his Introduction ‘Don’t Sit Out This War!’, the vintage thrills and spills commence with a spectacular reintroduction to the team as only S & K could craft it: a masterpiece of patriotic fervour and frustration entitled ‘The Trial of Captain Carter’ from Detective Comics #74 April 1943.

A truly tense drama, it sees the bold Captain risk disgrace and worse to cover up for a soldier under his command in a tale packed with tension and spectacle after which the heroes then challenged prejudices with the tale of a pacifist Scots farmer and the extraordinary events that led to his becoming a ‘Double for Death’ (Detective #75).

An astoundingly popular hit combo, the kids were also a fixture in premier all-star anthology World’s Finest Comics too. From #10 (Summer 1943), ‘Message to Murmansk’ sees the juvenile terrors endure the hardships of convoy duty to Russia, and destroying a U-Boat base in Norway to prove to the Allies’ Red comrades hat they have not been forgotten…

The seemingly insatiable demand for fresh stories was partly assuaged by a quarterly solo title with Boy Commandos #3 (Summer 1943) offering a fabulous tranche of tales, beginning with ‘A Film from the Front …Uncensored’. Here, puny but fervent newsreel cameraman Spud Mattson goes far above and beyond his normal duties on a doomed mission to Greece…

From the start the yarns were strangely exotic and bizarrely multi-layered, adding a stratum of myth making and frequently sheer fantasy to the grim and grisly backdrop of a war fought from the underdog’s position. A perfect example is ‘War Album No. 1 – The Siege of Troy’ wherein the squad are transposed root and branch to the Trojan War where abducting scoundrel Paris is a dead ringer for Adolf Hitler. He suffers ignominious defeat there and then too…

Broad comedy leavens the turmoil of conflict in ‘Cyril Thwaites Rides Again, or, The Recruiting Sergeant Should Have Looked Twice!’ as a pompous and vainglorious weedy braggart is afforded the chance to change and determine the course of the war before a deadly faceless nemesis resurfaces in ‘The Return of Agent Axis’ only to be defeated and finally exposed by rip and the lads…

Detective Comics #76 (June 1943) afforded a guest-packed foray back to the USA as the Sandman & Sandy and the Newsboy Legion – with their masked Guardian – unite with a new gang of Kid Commandos to rescue Rip and Co. when they are kidnapped by Nazi spies planning ‘The Invasion of America’.

James Hilton’s Shangri-La is heavily referenced in ‘The Valley of Destiny’ (Detective #77) when super-advanced monks judge the worth and philosophy of the warring sides in the global conflict. The despicable but cunning Nazis seem to have the upper hand over the Boy Commandos but eventually everyone’s true nature is revealed…

Sheer dynamic bravado carries the tale from #78 as the team invade the heart of Europe to aid the German resistance and the broadcasters of ‘Freedom Station’

World’s Finest Comics #11 (Fall 1943) then find the globetrotting kids in Tunisia to winkle out diehard holdouts from Rommel’s defeated Afrika Korps in ‘Sand Dunes of Death!’ before Boy Commandos #4 (Fall 1943) offers a bold new kind of adventure in a book-length saga entitled ‘The Invasion of Europe!’.

‘Chapter One: Flames at Dawn!’ opens with the famous squad pre-empting D-Day in brutally prophetic fashion, blasting their way onto the beaches of France only to be separated from the main force and each other…

‘Chapter Two: Brooklyn Revere’s Ride!’ offers astounding drama and heartbreaking tragedy as the American warrior attempts to warn a French village and the Allied forces of a devasting German counter-offensive whilst ‘Chapter Three: The Madman of Mt. Cloud!’ finds Alfie sheltered by a brave matron before infiltrating a gothic asylum used by both the oppressors and the Resistance to extract secrets…

Apparently killed in a parachute drop, Dutch boy Jan links up with a trio of youthful freedom fighters led by a vengeful girl. ‘Chapter Four: Toinette the Terrible!’ sees them rescue the now-captured Boy Commandos before ‘Chapter Five: West Meets East’ drops into prose mode to detail the brief encounter between the kids and a very lost band of Russian aviators.

The ambitious and fanciful novel moves into finale mode for ‘Chapter Six: Bugle of the Brave!’ as the sacrifice of a true patriot unites his downtrodden countrymen in bloody rebellion against the Nazis before the stirring saga concludes with a speculative climax as ‘Chapter Seven: The Road to Berlin!’ carries the incensed and unstoppable forces of freedom to the gates of Berlin and a utopian future…

Over in Detective Comics #79 (September 1943) a short furlough ends when the boys find a dying Italian and learn of a scheme to murder all POWs. Before long a rescue is underway and when the team unite with ruthless Sicilian partisans ‘The Duce Gets a Hotfoot’

Scurrilous espionage at the heart of an English stately home reveals a shocking secret about ‘The Baronet of Bodkin Borders’ in Detective #80 whilst deadly vengeance informs a mission to Japanese-held Bataan in #81’s ‘Yankee Doodle Dynamite’. The mission is made the more memorable after Rip’s rascals meet a small band of American holdouts fighting a deadly guerrilla campaign behind the Tojo’s lines…

World’s Finest Comics #12 (Winter 1943-1944) finds the lads incognito in seemingly-neutral Switzerland to track down hidden Nazi loot but their ‘Golden Victory’ accidentally takes them all the way to Berlin and a most satisfactory face to face meeting with the Fuhrer…

Boy Commandos #5 (Winter 1943-1944) opens with ‘Assignment in Norway’ as Andre gets lost on a raid and meets two women pilots of the unsung Bomber Ferry Command. Together they expose a hidden base and inflict another crushing blow on the hard-pressed Boche.

Supernatural retribution infuses ‘A Town to Remember’ as a mysterious officer commandeers the team and guides them to Czechoslovakia and the razed area where the citizens of Lidice were exterminated. Is it merely to save the last desperate hostages or is there another reason for the ill-starred raid?

On leave in London, the lads encounter ‘The Mysterious Mr. Mulani’ and trail what they consider to be the most inept spy they’ve ever seen. What a surprise when the incredible truth is revealed…

In a compelling foreshadowing of their later supernatural mystery yarns, Simon & Kirby – and their unheralded team of assistants – then disclose the eerie antics of a deadly powerbroker whose bargains with numerous influential Germans all come due at the same time as the Boy Commandos close in in the chilling ‘Satan to See You!

A true treat for those in-the-know, Detective Comics #82 (December 1943) features ‘The Romance of Rip Carter’: the tale of an indomitable bomber that refused to be shot down until her mission was accomplished. The plane was the “Rosalind K” and Jack had been married to wife Roz since May 1942…

Detective #83 mixed laughs with action as the boys prowled London hunting nefarious spies and an escaped music hall ape which bore an uncomfortable resemblance to a certain American battle veteran. Sadly, when the curtain fell the villains’ downfall was ‘The Triumph of Cholly the Chimp’

World’s Finest Comics #12 (Winter 1943-1944) offered another Home Front saga as a stolen racehorse led the lads to a ruthless criminal gang, heartfelt tragedy and ‘A Wreath for Sir Edgar of Wimpledowne’, before Detective #85 (issue #84 being a non-S&K fill-in by Joe Samachson & Louis Cazeneuve and not included here) brings the memorable missions to a close with ‘Curtain Call for Action’. Here the insidious Agent Axis returns yet again, taking over a touring USO show for the troops and attempting to substitute a Gestapo doppelganger for the army’s top general until Rip and the boys get stuck in…

Although I’ve rightly concentrated on the named stars, it’s important to remember – especially in these more enlightened times still plagued with the genuine horror of children forcibly swept up in war they have no stake in – that the Boy Commandos, even in their most ferociously fabulous exploits, were symbols as much as combatants, usually augmented by huge teams of proper soldiers doing most of the actual killing.

It’s not much of a comfort but at least it showed Simon & Kirby were not simply caught up in a Big Idea without considering all the implications…

Bombastic, blockbusting and astoundingly appetising, these superb fantasies from the last “Good War” are a spectacular example of comics giants at their most creative. No true believer or dedicated comics aficionado should miss this classic collection.
© 1943, 1944, 2015 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Showcase Presents the Haunted Tank volume 2

By Robert Kanigher, Russ Heath, Irv Novick, Joe Kubert, Sam Glanzman, Ross Andru, Doug Wildey & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0789-8

Robert Kanigher (1915-2002) was one of the most distinctive authorial voices in American comics, blending rugged realism with fantastic fantasy in his signature war comics. He also exceled in horror stories, westerns and superhero titles such as Wonder Woman, Teen Titans, Hawkman, Metal Men, Batman and many others too numerous to cover here.

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

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

When mystery-men faded out at the end of the 1940s, Kanigher moved into westerns and war stories, becoming in 1952 writer/editor of the company’s combat titles: All-American War Stories, Star Spangled War Stories and Our Army at War.

He created Our Fighting Forces in 1954 and added G.I. Combat to his burgeoning portfolio after Quality Comics sold their line of titles to DC in 1956, all the while working on Wonder Woman, Johnny Thunder, Rex the Wonder Dog, Silent Knight, Sea Devils, Viking Prince and a host of others.

In 1956 he scripted ‘Mystery of the Human Thunderbolt’; the first story of the Silver Age which introduced Barry Allen as the new Flash to hero-hungry kids of the world.

Kanigher was a restlessly creative writer and frequently used his uncanny but formulaic adventure arenas as a testing ground for future series concepts. Among the many epochal war features he created were Sgt. Rock, Enemy Ace, The War that Time Forgot and The Losers as well as the irresistibly compelling “combat ghost stories” collected here in this second stupendously expansive war-journal.

This terrific monochrome tome re-presents more blockbusting exploits of boyhood friends Jeb Stuart Smith, Arch Asher, Slim Stryker and Rick Rawlins (from G.I. Combat #120-156, October/November 1966 to October/November 1972) from a period during which superheroes rose to astonishing global dominance before almost vanishing into comicbook Valhalla once more.

Apparently immune to such tenuous trendiness, the battle-hardened veterans of the M-3 Stuart Light Tank – named for the legendary Confederate Army General who was a genius of cavalry combat, and haunted by his restless spirit – soldiered on, battling threats mortal and frequently metaphysical on many fronts during World War II. The series became – after Sgt. Rock – DC’s most successful and long-lived combat feature.

The tales were generally narrated by Jeb as he manned the Commander’s spotter-position (head and torso sticking out of the top hatch and completely exposed to enemy fire whilst driver Slim, gunner Rick and loader Arch remained relatively safe inside), constantly conversing with his spectral namesake who offered philosophy, advice and prescient, if often obscurely veiled, warnings …

Throughout the early days Jeb’s comrades continually argued about what to do with him. Nobody believed in the ghost and they all doubted their commander’s sanity, but since he began seeing the General, Stuart Smith had become a tactical genius and his “gifts” were keeping them all alive against incredible odds…

This volume opens with G.I. Combat #120 ‘Pull a Tiger’s Tail!’ – illustrated by Irv Novick – detailing how, after accompanying both Sgt. Rock and Navajo fighter-pilot Johnny Cloud on sorties, Jeb defies orders to capture a giant Tiger tank his own way…

Another spiritually-sponsored warrior, Cloud regularly communed with a mounted Indian Brave dubbed Big-Brother-in-the Sky, galloping across the heavens during his own high-flying missions.

The inspirational Russ Heath illustrated #121’s ‘Battle of Two Wars!’ wherein, after rescuing a shell-shocked pigeon, the tankers are inexplicably drawn back to WWI to save Sgt Rock’s father. He then returns the favour once the Stuart returns to its proper time, whilst in ‘Who Dies Next?’ (#122, with art by Novick), the General issues a dire proclamation that one of their own will not last the day out – a forecast that comes true in a most shocking manner…

Heath returned to the art with #123’s ‘The Target of Terror!’ as guest star Mlle. Marie returned with news of a secret weapon to be destroyed at all costs. Sadly, the French Resistance leader has partial amnesia and doesn’t remember exactly what or where…

In follow-up ‘Scratch that Tank!’ the crew’s shiny new replacement vehicle is a cause of acute embarrassment until it finally gains a few praiseworthy combat scars…

G.I. Combat #125 decrees ‘Stay Alive… Until Dark!’ as Jeb’s sorely reduced battle-group attempts to hold too much ground with too few tanks, culminating in a Horatian last stand in the shattered, cloistered streets of a tiny French town, after which the crew endure deadly desert warfare in a desperate search for Panzers hidden by a cunning ‘Tank Umbrella!’

Novick illustrated the gritty ‘Mission – Sudden Death!!’ in #127 as Mlle. Marie leads the tank-jockeys far from their combat comfort zone on an infantry raid to rescue her captured father, after which Heath returned to limn ‘The Ghost of the Haunted Tank!’

This superbly evocative thriller reveals the crew finally cracking during a brutal massed Panzer assault and restraining their clearly delusional commander for his own good. However, when solid, no-nonsense Slim takes the observer’s spot he too starts seeing the spectral sentinel and is forced to act on the apparition’s strategic advice…

Issue #129 is pure Kanigher poesy as ‘Hold that Town for a Dead Man!’ depicts the tankers rolling past an American soldier expired at his post, and swearing to eradicate the foes who felled him…

When the blistering cat-and-mouse duel seems to go against the crew they are saved by an impossible burst of gunfire fired by a cold, stiff hand…

In the afterlife all great military commanders sponsor mortal combatants. General Stuart is stuck looking after a pack of “Damned Yankees”, but the other side also has phantom patrons. G.I. Combat #130 sees the return of savage shade Attila the Hun, who directly attacks his revenant rival in a deadly ‘Battle of the Generals!’ Jeb can only watch helplessly whilst trying to save his tank from mundane but just as murderous German panzer, artillery and air attacks, until…

Their next mission took the crew and a band of savage child-warriors into the heart of Paris to rescue Mlle. Marie from the Gestapo in #131’s ‘The Devil for Dinner!’ The short-lived and extremely controversial Kid Guerrillas of Unit 3 had debuted in the Sgt. Rock tale from Our Army at War #194, June 1968.

Mike Sekowsky & Joe Giella stepped in to illustrate the follow-up wherein the Belle of La Resistance leads Jeb and the boy-soldiers – bizarrely disguised as a circus troupe – against merciless SS leader ‘The Executioner!’

The artists stayed on for #133’s ‘Operation: Death Trap’ as the Haunted Tank and crew are parachuted into North Africa to liberate enslaved natives working in a German diamond mine, before – following a ‘Special Battle Pin-up’ of the tankers by Joe Kubert – Ross Andru & Mike Esposito signed up for a stint, beginning with ‘Desert Holocaust’ wherein the tankers deal out vengeance for the three MacBane brothers; sibling tank-commanders slaughtered by the Afrika Korps.

Continuity was never a big concern for Kanigher and stories would often occur in no logical or chronological order. In #135 the lads are suddenly back in France, battling paratroopers and air-lifted Panzers with only aged WWI survivors to aid them in ‘Death is the Joker’, whilst ‘Kill Now – Pay Later!’ pits Tank against U-Boat and Jeb against its driven doom-obsessed Kommander in an improbable duel, before Heath returned in #137 to illustrate the African adventure ‘We Can’t See!’ Here the Americans are all temporarily blinded but nevertheless succeed in destroying a poison gas cache thanks to aid of a little Arab boy.

Kanigher often used his stories as a testing ground for new series ideas. G.I. Combat #138 introduced one of his most successful in ‘The Losers!’, when the Armoured Cavalry unit encounter a sailor, two marines and old friend Johnny Cloud, all utterly demoralised after losing the men under their respective commands.

Inspired by Jeb and a desire for revenge, the crushed survivors regain a measure of respect and fighting spirit after surviving a certain suicide-mission and destroying a Nazi Radar tower…

The new team were formed by amalgamating three old war series together. Gunner and Sarge (latterly supplemented by Pooch, the Fighting Devil Dog) were Pacific-based Marines debuting in All-American Men of War #67, March 1959 and running for fifty issues in Our Fighting Forces (#45-94, May 1959-August 1965).

Captain Johnny Cloud was a native American fighter pilot who shot down his first bogie in All-American Men of War #82. The “Navaho Ace” flew solo until issue #115, (1966) whilst Captain Storm was a disabled PT Boat skipper who fought on despite having a wooden left leg in his own eponymous 18-issue series from 1964 to 1967. All three series were originally created by comics warlord Kanigher and The Losers swiftly returned as an elite unit of suicide-soldiers starring in Our Fighting Forces.

G.I. Combat #139 again saw the Haunted Tank parachuted into an Arabian nightmare when the crew interrupt a funeral and save the widow from being forced onto the pyre with her deceased husband. ‘Corner of Hell’ finds Jeb wedding and losing his bride to Nazi sympathizers and an ancient prophecy…

Issue #140 featured a reprint not included here – although the new Kubert introduction page is – before the graphic narratives resume with ‘Let me Live… Let me Die!’ wherein Kanigher & Heath confront the topics of race and discrimination in a powerful tale describing the plight of African-American soldiers who were used as porters, gravediggers and ammunition carriers, but forbidden from bearing or actually using arms.

When Jeb arrives at a recently decimated ammo dump, the sole survivor of the Segregated Negro unit demands to accompany the crew and be allowed to fight and die like a man. Rushing to reinforce Sgt. Rock’s Easy Company and despite the thinly veiled disdain of Slim, Arch and Rick, when Jeb is wounded the valiant tag-along finally gets his chance…

G.I. Combat #142 finds Jeb obsessed with the moment of his own death in ‘Checkpoint – Death!’ but when the General isn’t forthcoming soon forgets it as an unseasonal snowstorm turns the world into a frozen hell…

‘The Iron Horseman!’ sees a frustrated WWI tanker finally get a chance to be a hero when Panzers attack a convent and Jeb’s crew are ambushed. There follows an informational spread ‘Battle Album: General Stuart Light Tank M31A’ – by Kubert – before #144 reveals a retrofitted Heath-illustrated origin for the Haunted Tanker in ‘Every Man a Fort!’

Now with Jeb a Northern Yankee, the tale reveals how he has to win with his fists the respect of pure-bred Southerners Rick, Slim and Arch before they let him call himself Jeb Stuart, and cements that bond during their first foray under fire in North Africa…

The desert milieu continued in #145’s ‘Sun, Sand & Death!’ when a sandstorm forces the tank off-course and leads them to an abandoned B-25 bomber, giving the dying pilot a chance to redeem his lost honour, whilst #146 sees the M-3 and its crew endure debilitating hazards battling the Afrika Korps but still persevering when the General advises Jeb to ‘Move the World!’

For some Americans the wounds of the Civil War still festered, as Jeb discovers when he encounters the hostile commander of a ‘Rebel Tank’ in #147. Of course, the Germans are happy to remind the feudsters who is currently doing all the shooting, after which in #148 ‘The Gold-Plated General!’ (a thinly disguised analogue of George S. “Blood and Guts” Patton) demands a spit-and-polish war, but even under combat conditions leads by painful example…

American services discrimination was again confronted in G.I. Combat#149 when a Jewish soldier joins the division in ‘Leave the Fighting to Us!’ Many of the good guys have to eat their words when the tank group liberates a Nazi concentration camp…

A major visual change came in #150 with ‘The Death of the Haunted Tank!’ This saw the M-3 destroyed in combat and the crew jury-rigging a jigsaw replacement from the remnants of other scrapped and abandoned but, unsurprisingly, bigger, more powerful vehicles.

Proving again that men and not the machine are the heart of the partnership, the General sticks around and when the new Haunted Tankers passes through an alpine village they eerily relive a mediaeval battle against barbarian invaders in #151’s ‘A Strong Right Arm!’ before bringing a Nazi infiltrator aboard who turns their homemade rolling fortress into a deadly ‘Decoy Tank’ to lure Allied forces into an ambush…

Comics and animation legend Doug Wildey replaced Heath for #153 as sentimental fool Jeb adopts a lost piglet, orphan puppy and lame duckling before completing his tank’s transformation into ‘The Armored Ark!’ by packing in a homeless and displaced family. This all happens while tracking down and eradicating a hidden Nazi rocket silo, after which the series took on a far grittier and raw feel with the addition of a new regular artist.

With G.I. Combat #154 (June/July 1972), unsung master and battle-scarred veteran Sam Glanzman began his decades-long association with the feature, pencilling and inking the blistering improbable ‘Battle Prize!’ wherein Haunted Tank and crew are captured and paraded before Hitler in Berlin before busting loose and heading East.

Soon after being hijacked by Polish Resistance fighters, the Yanks are stranded in ice-bound, siege-locked Russia…

Shamefully, Sam Glanzman is one of the least highly-regarded creators in American comics, despite having one of the longest careers and certainly one of the most unique styles. His work, in genres from war to mystery, westerns, science fiction, sword & sorcery, horror, fantasy and even graphic autobiography is passionate, powerful, subtly engaging and irresistibly compelling.

With a solid, uniquely rough-hewn style he has worked since the 1940s on a variety of titles for many companies, mostly on anthology material for fantasy, mystery, war and adventure titles, but also on serial characters such Attu, Sgt. Rock, Jonah Hex, Hercules and Jungle Tales of Tarzan for Charlton, Kona and Voyage to the Deep for Dell/Gold Key: magnificent action sagas that fired the imagination and stirred the blood, selling copies and winning a legion of fans amongst his fellow artists if not from the small but over-vocal fan-press.

His most significant works are undoubtedly semi-autobiographical graphic novels A Sailor’s Story and Wind, Dreams and Dragons, although his Vietnam set ‘The Lonely War of Willie Schultz’ and the subtly beguiling U.S.S. Stevens are arguably as important and unmissable.

Glanzman, born in 1924, was still active today producing online strips until his death in July 2017.

G.I. Combat #155 undertook ‘The Long Journey’ as the Haunted Tank experienced the worst horrors of war whilst trekking across the embattled Eastern Front. Aided by Russian partisans, women, children and dotards, they fought off the fascists with every drop of their blood and sweat whilst making their way to a port and the normal war…

This second sterling tome ends with the crew back in Africa where the desert and the Wehrmacht vie for the privilege of destroying the beleaguered tankers as their frantic search for fuel and water drags them ‘Beyond Hell’

An added attraction for art fans and battle buffs are the breathtaking covers by Heath and Kubert…

These spectacular tales took the Haunted Tank through tumultuous times when America fervently questioned the very nature and necessity of war. Vietnam was progressively blighting the nation’s sensibilities, and in response DC’s war comics addressed the issue and also confronted the problems of race and gender roles in a most impressive and sensitive manner.

As always, they combine spooky chills with combat thrills and a fierce examination of both war and warriors but always offer a powerful human message that has never dated and may well rank this work amongst the very best war stories ever produced. Hopefully someday soon you’ll be able to experience them in respectable modern archival editions too.
© 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 2008, DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Milton Caniff’s America: Reflections of a Drawingboard Patriot

By Milton Caniff, edited by Shel Dorf (Eclipse Books)
ISBN: 978-0-913035-25-2

This little rarity (happily still available through assorted online vendors) is a delightful introduction to the old-fashioned world and magical artistry of possibly the greatest strip cartoonist of all time.

Milton Caniff wasn’t an overnight sensation. He worked long and hard before he achieved his stellar status in the comic strip firmament. Before Terry and the Pirates brought him fame, and Steve Canyon secured his fortune and reputation, the strip which brought him to the attention of legendary Press Baron “Captain” Joseph Patterson (in many ways the co-creator of Terry) was an unassuming daily feature about a little boy hungry for adventure.

Caniff was working for The Associated Press as a minor jobbing cartoonist when a gap opened in their strips department. AP was an organisation that devised and syndicated features for the thousands of local and small newspapers which could not afford to produce the cartoons, puzzles, recipes and other fillers that ran between the local headlines and the regional sports.

Over a weekend Caniff came up with Dickie Dare, a studious lad who would read a book and then fantasize himself into the story, taking his faithful little white dog Wags with him. The editors went for it and the strip launched on July 31st 1933. Caniff would write and draw the adventures for less than eighteen months before moving on, although his replacement Coulton Waugh steered the series until its conclusion two decades later.

As well as being one of the greatest comic-strip artists of all time, Caniff was an old-fashioned honest American Patriot, from the time when it wasn’t a dirty word or synonym for fanatic.

The greatest disappointment of his life was that he was never physically fit enough to fight. Instead, during World War II he not only continued the morale-boosting China Seas adventure epic Terry and the Pirates newspaper strip seven days a week, he also designed art, brochures and posters (all unpaid) for the War Department and made live appearances for soldiers and hospital residents. Even that wasn’t enough.

Again unpaid, he devised Male Cale: a strip to be printed in the thousands of local military magazines and papers around the world. Originally using established characters from Terry, Caniff swiftly switched (for reasons best explained in Robert C Harvey’s wonderful Meanwhile… a Biography of Milton Caniff) to a purpose built (and was she built!) svelte and sexy ingénue who would titillate, amuse but mostly belong to the lonely and homesick American fighting men away from home and under arms.

Funny, saucy, even racy but never lewd or salacious, breakout star Miss Lace spoke directly to the enlisted man – the “ordinary Joe” – as entertainer, confidante and trophy date. She built morale and gave brief surcease from terror, loneliness or boredom. Although comparisons abound with our own Jane, the rationales behind each combat glamour girl were poles apart.

Created by Norman Pett in 1932, Jane ran in The Daily Mirror until 1959. She was infamously reputed to lose her clothes whenever the war effort needed a boost – always resulting in huge Allied successes.

Miss Lace was different. She spoke to and with the soldiers, and she wasn’t in normal papers. She was simply and totally theirs and theirs alone.

After leaving the incredibly successful, world-renowned Terry, Caniff created another iconic comic hero in demobbed WWII pilot Steve Canyon. The reasons for the move were basically rights and creative control, but it’s also easy to see another reason. Terry, set in a fabled Orient, even with the contemporary realism the author so captivatingly imparted, is a young man’s strip and limited by locale.

The worldly, if not war-weary, Canyon was a mature adventurer who could be sent literally anywhere and would appeal to the older, wiser readers of Atom-Age America, now a fully active, if perhaps reluctant, player on the world stage.

Canyon also reflects an older creator who has seen so much more of human nature and frailty than even the mysterious East could provide. Put another way, William Shakespeare could write Romeo and Juliet as a young man, but needed experience more than passion and genius to produce King Lear or The Tempest.

Milton Caniff’s America: Reflections of a Drawingboard Patriot was released in the mid-1980s when Caniff’s brand of patriotism was slowly giving way to a far more intolerant and infinitely crueller brand of paranoid nationalism. In many ways, it’s more valid now than ever before since these sublime excerpts from his vast body of graphic work forcefully remind the reader of a purer, more idealistic, welcoming and aspirational land of Freedom and Opportunity.

Here fans can delight in the chance to see some of the creator’s early reportage and portraiture, plus editorial cartooning and landmark strips such as the episode of Terry and the Pirates that was read into the Congressional Record. Also collected are Caniff’s public service drawings; a Steve Canyon sequence (from 1982) entitled ‘What is Patriotism?’ and many strips dedicated to departed comrades.

Of most moving consequence are the collected Armed Forces Day strips and every Steve Canyon Christmas Day episode (an unbroken string of graphic ruminations on the lot and role of the military everyman) spanning 1947 to 1987.

Stirring, gripping, heartfelt, these evocations from a master of his craft are the best tribute from, to and by an honest plain-dealer from an America we all long to see again. Simply Wonderful.
Artwork © 1987 Milton Caniff. © 2007 Ester Parsons Caniff Estate. Text features © their respective authors. All Rights Reserved

Darkie’s Mob: The Secret War of Joe Darkie

By John Wagner & Mike Weston (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-84856-442-8

Britain has always had a solid tradition for top-notch comic strips about the Second World War but the material produced by one radically different publication in the 1970s and 1980s surpassed all previous efforts and has been acknowledged as having transformed the entire art form.

Battle was one of the last great British weekly anthologies: a combat-themed anthology comic which began as Battle Picture Weekly on 8th March 1975 and, through absorption, merger and re-branding became Battle Picture Weekly & Valiant, Battle Action, Battle, Battle Action Force and ultimately Battle Storm Force before itself being combined with the too-prestigious-to-cancel Eagle on January 23rd 1988.

Over 673 gore-soaked, epithet-stuffed, adrenaline-drenched issues, the contents of the blistering periodical gouged its way into the bloodthirsty hearts of a generation, consequently producing some of the best and most influential war stories ever. These include Major Eazy, D-Day Dawson, The Bootneck Boy, Johnny Red, HMS Nightshade, Rat Pack, Fighter from the Sky, Hold Hill 109, Fighting Mann, Death Squad!, Panzer G-Man, Joe Two Beans, The Sarge (star-artist Mike Western’s other best work ever), Hellman of Hammer Force and the stunning and iconic Charley’s War among many others.

The list of talented contributors was equally impressive: writers Pat Mills, John Wagner, Steve McManus, Mark Andrew, Gerry Finley-Day, Tom Tully, Eric & Alan Hebden, with art from Colin Page, Pat Wright, Giralt, Carlos Ezquerra, Geoff Campion, Jim Watson, Mike Western, Joe Colquhoun, Carlos Pino, John Cooper, Mike Dorey, Cam Kennedy and more.

One of the most harrowing and memorable series during that reign of blood and honour was an innovative saga of group obsession and personal vengeance set in the green hell of Burma in the months following the Japanese invasion and rout of the entrenched British Empire in Spring 1942.

As delivered by John Wagner & Mike Western, Darkie’s Mob is a phenomenally – and deservedly – well-regarded classic of the genre, wherein a mysterious maniac adopts and subverts a lost, broken, demoralised and doomed squad of British soldiers. His intent is to on use them to punish the Japanese in ways no normal man could imagine…

This glorious oversized monochrome hardback compilation collects the entire uncompromising saga – which originally ran from 14th August 1976 to 18th June 1977 – in a deluxe edition which also contains a comprehensive cover gallery and ‘Dead Men Walking’: an effusive introduction by unabashed fan and occasional war-writer Garth Ennis.

The tale opens as a frenetically fast-paced mystery-thriller beginning in 1946 when Allied troops discover the blood-soaked combat journal of Private Richard Shortland, reported missing along with the rest of his platoon during the frantic retreat from the all-conquering Japanese.

The first entry and the opening initial episode are dated May 30th 1942 and describe a slow descent into the very heart of darkness…

Beaten and ready to die, the rag-tag remnants of the British Army are rescued from certain death by the uncompromising, unconventional and terrifyingly pitiless Captain Joe Darkie who strides out of the hostile Burmese verdure and instantly asserts an almost preternatural command over the weary warriors. The men are appalled by Darkie’s physical and emotional abuse of them and his terrifying treatment of an enemy patrol he encounters whilst leading them out of their predicament.

They’re even more shocked when they discover that he’s not heading for the safety of their lines but guiding them deeper into Japanese-held territory…

Thus begins a guerrilla war like no other, as Darkie moulds the soldiers – through brutal bullying and all manner of psychological ploys – into fanatics with only one purpose: hunting and killing the enemy.

In rapid snatches of events culled from Shortland’s account we discover that Darkie is a near-mythical night-terror to the invaders, a Kukri-wielding, poison-spitting demon happy to betray, exploit and expend his own men to slaughter his hated foes. He is equally well-known to the enslaved natives and ruthlessly at home in the alien world of the Burma jungles and swamps. What kind of experiences could transform a British Officer into such a ravening horror?

An answer of sorts quickly comes after Shortland intercepts a radio communication and discovers that the Army has no record of any soldier named Joe Darkie, but the dutiful diarist has no explanation of his own reasons for keeping the psycho-killer’s secret to himself…

For over a year the hellish crusade continued with the Mob striking everywhere like bloody ghosts; freeing prisoners, sabotaging Japanese bases, destroying engineering works and always killing in the most spectacular manner possible. Eventually after murdering generals, blowing up bridges and casually invading the most secure cities in the country, the Mob become the Empires’ most wanted men as both Britain and Japan hunt the rogue unit with equal vehemence and ferocity.

Darkie wants to kill and not even Allied orders will stop him…

The mob are gradually whittled away by death, insanity and fatigue as Darkie infects them with his hatred and nihilistic madness until all the once-human soldiers are nothing more than Jap-hating killing machines ready and willing to die just as long as they can take another son of Nippon to hell with them…

The descent culminates but doesn’t end with the shocking revelations of Darkie’s origins and secret in Shortland’s incredible entry for October 30th 1943, after which the inevitable end inexorably drew near…

This complete chronicle also includes a heavily illustrated prose tale from the 1990 Battle Holiday Special and I’m spoiling nobody’s fun by advising you all to read this bonus feature long before you arrive at the staggering conclusion…

A mention should be made of the language used here. Although a children’s comic – or perhaps because it was – the speech and interactions of the characters contains a strongly disparaging and colourful racial element.

Some of these terms are liable to cause offence to modern readers – but not nearly as much as any post-watershed TV show or your average school playground – so please try and remember the vintage and authorial directives in place when the stories were first released.

Battle exploded forever the cosy, safely nostalgic “we’ll all be alright in the end” tradition of British comics; ushering an ultra-realistic, class-savvy, gritty awareness of the true horror of military service and conflict, pounding home the message War is Hell.

With Darkie’s Mob Wagner and Western successfully and so horrifyingly showed us its truly ugly face and inescapable consequences.
Darkie’s Mob © 2011 Egmont UK Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Dead Men Walking © 2011 Garth Ennis.

The Golden Years of Adventure Stories

By various (DC Thomson & Co., Ltd.)
ISBN: 978-0851165271

Here’s a wonderful compilation commemorating the truly unique DC Thomson comic experience, concentrating on their many action and adventure serials. The Dundee based company has long been a mainstay of British popular reading and the strong editorial stance has informed a huge number of household names over the decades.

The main tenet of the Thomson adventure philosophy is a traditional, humanistic sense of decency. Runner Alf Tupper‘The Tough of the Track’ – might be a poor, rough, working class lad, competing in a world of privileged “Toffee-Nosed Swells”, but he excels for the sheer joy of sportsmanship, not for gain or glory.

There are no anti-heroes in the Thomson heroic stable, almost in direct opposition to the iconic, anarchic, mischief-makers of their humour comics.

British spy Bill Sampson may be the dreaded ‘Wolf of Kabul’ to the Afghan tribesmen he encounters with devoted assistant Chung (who will live forever as the wielder of the deadly “Clicky Ba” – that’s a cricket bat to you and me), but he’s still just an ordinary chap at heart, as are all the other characters spotlighted here. They’re just the sort of people ordinary kids should want to grow up into.

Heroes like Samson actually predate the company’s conversion of prose adventure fiction into comic strips – generally accepted as 1961, when the proliferation of TV sets among the perceived audience dictated the switch from words to pictures.

For many years previously, what children bought were boys’ or girls’ “papers”, packed with well-written text stories and the odd illustration and features page. Thomson held these over in titles such as Adventure until the end of the 1950s, but eventually succumbed to the inevitable, converting their pulp-stars into pictorial idols.

Wolf of Kabul, for instance, began in 1922, but was easily and successfully translated into a comic strip in the 1960s.

In this compendium are both prose stories and strips featuring some of Britain’s best loved and longest running heroes subdivided into categories that mirror the average schoolboy’s interests.

So thrill again, or catch the bug with such Schooldays sagas as The Red Circle School (1940s) and Kingsley Comp (1980s); the sporting triumphs of The Tough of the Track (1949-onwards), Wilson the mysterious Man in Black (The Truth About Wilson: 1943-onwards), or Gorgeous Gus (a millionaire – even before he became a footballer – who didn’t like to run but had an infallible shot).

You might prefer to peruse Cast, Hook and Strike, the story of Joe Dodd: an exceptional angler from the 1970s (yes, a fishing strip, and don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it).

Or perhaps your fancy will be caught by the War stories I Flew with Braddock, Code-name Warlord, and V for Vengeance, or the outrageous heroics of Morgyn the Mighty (Strongest Man in Africa), The Laughing Pirate, or The Hairy Sheriff (a cowboy ape).

And, as ever, Wolf of Kabul will capture your fancy and fulfil that desire to sample simpler times.

These tales, taken from the classic periodical publications Adventure, The Skipper, The Wizard and Rover, latterly supplemented by material from Hornet, Hotspur, Victor and Warlord, are accompanied and augmented by numerous glorious cover reproductions and feature pages, loaded with fun and shiny with nostalgia.

I only wish I could name all the creators responsible, but Thomson’s long-standing policy of creative anonymity means I’d be guessing too many times. I can only hope that future collected celebrations will include some belated acknowledgement of all the talented individuals who between them shaped the popular consciousness of generations, and made childhoods joyful, wondrous and thrilling.
© 1991 DC Thomson & Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Battler Britton

By Garth Ennis & Colin Wilson (WildStorm)
ISBN: 978-1-84576-560-6

Today marks the centenary of the Royal Air Force. Weather permitting – it’s Wimbledon fortnight after all – there will be a magnificent flypast of craft modern and vintage over London and many other events all over the place to celebrate.

Sadly, we comics folk don’t venerate our own past achievements nearly as much, so instead of a fabulous Paddy Payne collection, Biggles Archive or any of dozens of other British comics Fly Boys we ought to be commemorating here, I’m re-recommending something a bit modern. At least it’s still a bloody good show…

Garth Ennis is the best writer of war comic books in America today. In fact, if you disregard the marvellous Commando Picture Library series published by DC Thomson (which you shouldn’t – but even now no one admits to reading them in my current circle), he may well be the only creator working in the genre in the entire English Language.

His credentials are well established now and illustrator Colin Wilson has long been lauded for his superb illustration, so it’s no surprise that this re-visitation with one of British comics’ most gallant warriors is an absolute delight.

Battler Britton was first seen in January 1956. “The fighting ace of Land, Sea and Air” debuted in The Sun (back when it was actually a proper comic and before the title was appropriated for the tabloid red top screed joke it is today); the feisty brainchild of Mike Butterworth and the astounding Geoff Campion.

The doughty pilot graduated to the front cover and lead spot in 1958 and took over completely in 1959 when the periodical briefly became Battler Britton’s Own Weekly.

When the title merged with Lion, Britton carried on until 1967 and even transferred to sister title Knockout during 1960-1961.

He also became a key returning feature in the publisher’s range of complete digest series, such as Thriller Picture Library, Air Ace Picture Library and War Picture Library, illustrated by such astounding luminaries as Francisco Solano Lopez, Pat Nicolle, Graham Coton, Ian Kennedy and Hugo Pratt.

He was also a regular standby – in reformatted reprint form – in numerous Fleetway Christmas Annual for years after his comics sorties ended. Why there has never been a concerted effort to restore this treasure trove of comics glory in some kind of archival format is utterly beyond me, but at least he’s with us in this bold adventure which first saw print as a 5-issue miniseries in 2006…

North Africa, October 1942: The dark days before Montgomery’s big push against the seemingly invincible Afrika Korps. Wing Commander Robert “Battler” Britton and his Flight are sent to train an inexperienced group of American pilots hidden behind German lines as a harrying force.

Tensions between smug Brits and pushy Yanks are high and at first it’s doubtful whether the allies or the enemy pose the biggest threat, but in tried-and-true tradition a growing mutual respect eventually leads to successful outcomes.

In spirit, ‘Bloody Good Show’ is one of Ennis’ most faithfully traditional war strips. His love and reverence to the source material is obvious and there’s less of the writer’s signature gallows humour on view than you’d expect, but don’t think that this is watered down in any way.

The dark, ironic madness of battle and disgust with the chinless, smug officialdom that instigates it without getting personally involved is present and potent. Idiots and worse make wars and then send decent people to fight and die in them.

This is a rare thing, here, a reworking of a nostalgia icon that will appeal to the greater part of audiences contemporary and ancient. That it’s a ripping good yarn also means that anybody could read and enjoy it. So you should.

Compilation © 2006, 2007 DC Comics and IPC Media Limited. All Rights Reserved.
Battler Britton and all characters used are ™ & © IPC Media Limited & DC Comics.

The Beast is Dead: World War II Among the Animals

By Edmond-François Calvo, Victor Dancette & Jacques Zimmerman (Abi Melzer Productions)
ISBN: 978-1-40766-637-2

As the European phase of World War II staggered to its bloody and inevitable conclusion, the enslaved nations began to reclaim their homelands and rebuild various national prides in a glorious wave of liberation.

All over the Old World, long suppressed stories and accounts – true or otherwise – began to be shared. During France’s occupation publishing was strictly controlled – even comics – but the Nazis couldn’t suppress creative spirit and many conquered citizens resisted in the only ways they safely could.

For sculptor, artist, caricaturist and social satirist Edmond-François Calvo (26th August 1892 – 11th October1958) that was by drawing. Watched by his adoring apprentice-artist Albert (Asterix) Uderzo and inspired by the Gallic graphic giant Daumier, the venerable creator of such joyous anthropomorphic classics as ‘Patamousse’, ‘Anatomies Atomiques’, ‘Les Aventures de Rosalie’, ‘Monsieur Royal Présente’, ‘Grandeur et Décadente du Royaume des Bêtes’ and ‘Cricri, Souris d’Appartement’ worked quietly and determinedly on his own devastating secret weapon for the war-effort.

In later years he specialised in sparkling, socially aware and beautiful family-friendly strips such as ‘Moustache et Trottinette’, ‘Femmes d’Aujourd’hui’, ‘Coquin le Petit Cocker’ and a host of fairy tale adaptations for Le Journal de Tintin, Baby Journal, Cricri Journal, Coq Hardi, Bravo!, Pierrot Âmes Vaillantes and Coeurs Vaillants.

Beginning as a caricaturist for Le Canard Enchaîné in 1938, Calvo eventually moved into strip stories, but also had to moonlight with “real” jobs such as woodcarver and innkeeper. By the time France fell to the Germans in June 1940 he was working for Offenstadt/S.P.E. press group, contributing ‘Le Chevalier Chantecler’, ‘D’Artagnan’, ‘Les Grandes Aventures’, ‘Robin des Bois’, ‘Les Voyages de Gulliver’ and the initial three chapters of ‘Patamouche’ to Fillette, L’Épatant, L’As and Junior plus‘La Croisière Fantastique’, ‘Croquemulot’ and ‘Un Chasseur Sachant Chasser’ to Éditions Sépia.

Most of this anodyne material was produced under the stern scrutiny of the all-conquering censors – much like his comics contemporary Hergé in Belgium – but Calvo somehow found time to produce material far less placatory or safe.

With both Editor Victor Dancette and writer Jacques Zimmermann providing scripts, and beginning as early as 1941, Calvo began translating the history of the conflict as seen from the sharp end into a staggeringly beautiful and passionately vehement dark fable, outlining the betrayal of the European nations by literal Wolves in the Fold.

After years of patient creation – and presumably limited dissemination amongst trusted confreres – the first part of La Bete est Mort!‘When the Beast is raging’ was published in 1944, followed a year later with the concluding ‘When the Animal is Struck Down’. Both were colossal hits even before the war ended and the volumes were continually reprinted until 1948 when the public apparently decided to move on with their lives and look forward rather than back…

The saga is related in epic full-page painted spreads and captivating, luscious strip instalments with the smooth, slick glamour of Walt Disney’s production style co-opted to present the list of outrages to be addressed and a warning to the future, with each nation being categorised by a national totem.

The French were rabbits, the Italians hyenas and the Japanese monkeys. Britain was populated by bulldogs, Belgium by lions, Russia by polar bears and America by vast herds of buffalo…

Hitler’s inner circle of monsters got special attention: such as Goering the Pig and Himmler the Skunk, but so did the good guys: General de Gaulle was depicted as a magnificent Stork…

A fiercely unrepentant but compellingly lovely polemic by a bloody but unbowed winning side, The Beast is Dead was forgotten until republished in 1977 by Futuropolis. This particular English-language, oversized (225 x 300mm or 9 inches x 12) hardback edition was released in 1985 and includes the introduction from a contemporaneous Dutch edition plus a dedication from Uderzo and a monochrome selection of Calvo’s wartime and post-war cartoons.

With the current political scene as fractious and volatile as it is, how this epic remains unreprinted totally bewilders me. Magnificent, compelling radiant, hugely influential (without this there would never have been Maus), astoundingly affecting and just plain gorgeous, this modern horror tale of organised inhumanity is out of print but still available if you look hard or speak languages other than English.
© 1944-1945 Éditions G.P. © 1977 Éditions Futuropolis. © 1984 Abi Melzer Productions.

Peach Slices

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

The Desert Peach is the supremely self-assured and eminently efficient gay brother of Erwin Rommel, the legendary German soldier universally hailed as “the Desert Fox”.

Set mostly in Africa during World War II, this priceless gem of a series effortlessly combines hilarity, absurdity, profound sensitivity and glittering spontaneity, with stories describing the dalliances and daily tribulations of Oberst Manfred Pfirsich Marie Rommel. This younger sibling also served, albeit as an unwilling but dutiful cog in the iniquitous German War Machine, yet one determined to remain a civilised gentleman under the most adverse and unkind conditions.

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

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

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

The romantic fool is also passionately in love with and engaged to Rosen Kavalier: handsome Aryan warrior and wildly manly Luftwaffe Ace, but arguably the real star of these fabulous frothy epics is the Peach’s long-suffering, unkempt, crafty, ill-mannered, bilious and lazily scrofulous orderly Udo Schmidt.

This is a man (we’re at least assured of that!) of many secrets whose one redeeming virtue is his uncompromising loyalty and devotion to the only decent man and tolerable officer in the entire German army.

This eccentric aggregation of extras, excerpts and exotica was first released in 1993, re-presenting extraneous material from a variety of sources and covering the period 1987-1993: as much an affectionate art-book as delicious dose of non- or mis-canonical hi-jinks.

The entire package was subsequently re-released in 2006 in a Director’s Cut edition which added issue #25’s WWI Transylvanian Hammer-Horror pastiche ‘Beautiful’ to the mix and includes reminiscences, background commentary and creator-kibitzing regarding all the esoteric tales and titbits.

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

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

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

Bits ‘n’ Pieces was a short-lived self-published magazine the indefatigable author used to disseminate assorted works which never made it into the regular, normal-length Desert Peach title.

‘The Veteran’ comes from the first issue in 1991, returning focus to the motley cast of the hapless 469th for a deliciously philosophical foray starring a most peculiar and innocent warrior named Thommi, whilst, following a frolicsome Desert Peach pinup from the 1989 Amazing Heroes Swimsuit Special, ‘Hindsight’ (Bits ‘n’ Pieces #1 1991) dabbles into personal politics before ‘Reflections’ from #3 offers a few New Year’s observations on the cast and stars from Barr herself.

The 1991 San Diego Comic-Con booklet provided another beguiling Pinup before ‘Udo and the Phoenix’ (from Xenophon #1, 1992) relates another tale of the spirited Arab horse accidentally owned by Udo and cared for by the equally magnificent Pfirsich.

Next ‘Reluctant Affections’ (from Bits ‘n’ Pieces #1 1991, before being redrawn as ‘Pigeonholed’ for Gay Comics #16) explores a tender, fragile moment and adorable chink in the macho armour of uber-Mensch Rosen…

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

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

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

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

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

Illustrated in Barr’s fluidly seductive wood-cut and loose-line style, this book is another must-have item for lovers of wit, slapstick, high drama and belly-laughs as well as grown-up comics in general.

All the collections are pretty hard to find these days but if you have any facility with the digital world they can still be found. You might want to start with these addresses: or and if you just have to own your own Peach product offers a huge double collection that also comes as economical loadable files and The Desert Peach (plus Stinz and Bosom Enemies) are all re-printed with colour extras at at marvellously economical rates.

So you should do all that, Macho Schnell, before the month is out!
© 1987-1993 Donna Barr. All rights reserved. The Desert Peach is ™ Donna Barr.