We have Garth Ennis to thank for putting his name on the excellent new book Battle Classics from Titan Publishing, because, as he reveals in the afterword, the book probably wouldn’t have been published if he hadn’t. When I started reading the main attraction of this collection, H.M.S. Nightshade, I was at first underwhelmed by the story. The black & white artwork by Mike Western was certainly sharp, and richly detailed, but the narrative by Judge Dredd co-creator John Wagner seemed pedestrian out of the gate, but my mind would soon change. Each chapter is a succinctly crafted 4 page comic, and each chapter revolves around an old man named George Dunn telling his grandson about his harrowing experience during World War II as a crew member on a convoy escort ship named H.M.S. Nightshade. It took me a few chapters before I began to see the brilliance in H.M.S. Nightshade’s story. I think where I turned the corner as a reader was the closing scene of the Dunkirk operation, where Grandpa Dunn explains in great detail to his grandson the lasting impression seeing his captain’s lifeless body left on him as they moved on to their next mission.
The contrasting settings of a warm, happy home in the mid 1970s, and the cold, ruthless U-Boat filled waters of the Atlantic Ocean during World War II perfectly illustrates the false sense of security we often have as a society during “peace-time”. George Dunn’s grandson sits smiling, and finds his grandfather’s “tall tales” to be delightfully entertaining. I can’t help but think of the time period of the mid-late 1970s, and how kids were beginning to get hooked on video games, which would eventually evolve from Pac-Man to modern ultra-violent, graphic first person shooters like Call of Duty. The hardships, and grit exhibited by the veterans of World War II and other wars, as is deftly chronicled by the comic H.M.S. Nightshade, is not of this new cyber-auto-tuned-slacker-generation world, but reading these stories is a good reminder of the sacrifice that the so-called “greatest generation”made, so we can, today, sit on our butts & play X-Box.
The second major collection of war comics in this book is called The General Dies at Dawn, a “good Nazi” story based loosely off of the actual historical account of Third Reich hero Otto Von Margen, and how he was condemned to the firing squad in the final days of the war. Allen Hebden & John Cooper use a similar narrative device to H.M.S. Nightshade, as they flash forward and back to Otto telling his jailer in 1945, just hours before his planned execution, the saga of his decorated service during the war. Garth Ennis is poignant in his analysis of how, and why certain liberties were taken by the creators to make the story more accessible to the British readers at the time. For instance, he points out that although there was tension between the regular Nazi Germany military, and the SS, it wasn’t quite as overt, and didn’t typically lead to the sort of physical clashing you see represented in this story. The creators of this comic felt that they really needed to play up the notion of a “good” Nazi soldier since at the time of publication Battle could have been seen or read by many surviving World War II veterans, but as Garth points out, it doesn’t take away from the idea of telling a human story from the point of view of the other side.
To top off this 255 page tome of classic British war comics are 3 stand alone stories that were specially picked by Garth Ennis to be brought back to print for this collection. My favorite of the 3 was Private Loser, and I could see how a young, impressionable Garth would be influenced by this dark, macabre war tale. It takes place in Burma in 1942, and the story finds a group of British soldiers trying to escape the Japanese who are bearing right on their trail. Private 2474008 Hollis T. is the self-anointed Private Loser, and the tough decision has been made by his comrades to leave him behind, because he’s too injured to keep up with the others. What transpires after he is abandoned is pure “Tales From the Crypt” by way of Quentin Tarantino, which I’m sure delighted, and influenced the young Punk generation of British readers at the time.
Garth Ennis points out how influential these comics were to him, and how they formed his style as a writer, which is most obvious in his works War Stories & Battlefields. Other famous writers like Alan Moore have also referenced the war comics of Battle, and the creators behind them as an influence to his work. So, it’s not too much of a stretch to draw a line between the comics in this book and other highly influential works to our modern mainstream comics scene, like Watchmen, Preacher, etc.
The quality of the thick paper, and clean, clear printing of this book is top notch. I would say that the work collected here is vital for anyone who is a fan of gritty war comics, and even if your interest in this is coming solely from being a Garth Ennis fan, do not hesitate to pick this up! The notes, introductions, and afterword by Mr. Ennis is substantial. You can tell that he didn’t take putting his name on this book lightly, and he actually points out how he was mildly embarrassed to have his name above such great work that he did not create.
CT Score: 4.5/5 Mugs!