War Papers: The Best of British War Comics

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As part of our ongoing spotlight this week on the British comics scene, Broken Frontier is providing a brief look at some of the collected editions of material, both vintage and contemporary, that deserve your discerning attention. Bored of the recycled storylines and themes of super-hero comics? Fed up with constant reboots of your favourite characters? Keen to try out something a little different next time you’re at the LCS? Then check in this week for a different spotlight each day on Brit comics material designed to expand your consciousness beyond the capes and cowls…

For four decades after the end of the Second World War, the shelves of British newsagents were replete with comics immersed in the drama of the wartime years. Opinions may be divided on whether such offerings were a healthy obsession or not, but there is no doubt that they have a hugely significant place in the heritage of the British comics scenes.

From all-war weeklies like Battle and Warlord, to the obligatory token war-based strips in the general anthology weeklies, that period of British history would understandably remain firmly engrained in the schoolboy national consciousness. Nearly 70 years later, DC Thomson’s Commando is still fighting the good fight as the last survivor of that bygone age. Today, as part of our BRITS ON TOP! event, Broken Frontier gives a quick rundown of some of the available collections of classic British war comics…

Titan Books have been releasing volumes of IPC’s war comics for some years now. Of particular note here are their repackaging of Charley’s War, from the ‘70s-‘80s Battle weekly, in handsome hardcover editions. Charley’s War tells the story of First World War soldier Charley Bourne and is memorable for its unflinching portrayals of the horrors of the trenches in the Great War. At a time when British war comics were full of Boy’s Own-style tales of sanitised wartime derring-do and stiff upper lips, Pat Mills’ uncompromising storylines, combined with the astonishing humanity of Joe Colquhoun’s art, were a revelation. Mills provides extensive annotations for each volume in the Titan range. Over thirty years after its debut, the power of Charley’s War still resonates, underlining that it is not just one of the greatest British war comics ever, not even just one of the greatest war comics ever… but simply one of the greatest comics ever. Full stop.


Titan have also released a number of other collections from the pages of Battle (later Battle Action). You can get a good flavour of the strips of the time in The Best of Battle which presents excerpts of the ongoing storylines of a number of regular features, with suitably evocative titles like Hellman of Hammer Force, Rat Pack and D-Day Dawson. The controversial Darkie’s Mob, with a thoughtful introduction from Garth Ennis, compiles the controversial John Wagner tale of a rogue group of British soldiers, led by the mysterious Captain Darkie, fighting a guerrilla war against the Japanese in the jungles of Burma in 1942. A tale with an intriguing mystery at its heart, the raw and honest depiction of the realities of wartime behaviour may not be to every reader’s taste, but this is a memorable story with a twisting narrative. Finally, Johnny Red: Falcon's First Flight is another fondly-remembered strip from Battle with an intriguing premise; a young disgraced soldier from Liverpool finds himself caught in the conflict in Russia in World War II and joins up with a bunch of local ragtag fighter pilots in a stolen Hurricane.


Over at DC Thomson a number of Commando trades are available via Carlton books. There are bumper collections of up to 12 issues of complete-in-one stories, or more affordable, smaller books with three stories at a time. These are generally split into themed volumes - war at sea, jungle stories, tales focusing on the ANZACs and so on. Commando reached an impressive fifty years of publication this year and you can find out more about the book in our interview with Commando editor Calum Laird, that ran earlier this week on Broken Frontier. In a similar vein there have been a number of compilations of titles from Fleetway’s War Picture Library, under the editorship of Steve Holland, from Prion.

And a final mention for a collection that is, perhaps, a little tangential, but still worthy of  your consideration. Fiends of the Eastern Front, illustrated by the great Carlos Ezquerra, was a serial from the early days of 2000AD that didn’t fit easily into the sci-fi vision of the comic, but remains an intensely popular feature to this day. A German soldier in the First World War realises there’s something inhuman about the Romanian soldiers he is fighting alongside. Allies becoming eventual enemies is disturbing enough; but when those allies are a pack of vampire soldiers it’s all the more terrifying...

A final thematic note that this Friday 19th August and Saturday 20th August sees Comics and Conflicts: War in Comics, Graphic Novels and Manga at the Imperial War Museum. This Comica event has a host of talks, viewings and special guests. For more information on booking check here and there’s also an article on Comics and Conflicts over at Paul Gravett’s site.

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  • Tony Ingram

    Tony Ingram Aug 19, 2011 at 8:15am

    I wasn't aware of some of these collections. Darkie's Mob is definitely on my must-have list...

  • Andy Oliver

    Andy Oliver Aug 19, 2011 at 8:35am

    I have served a purpose then sir! ;-) I believe RAT PACK is on the cards in the future as well (see John Freeman's STRIP MAGAZINE interview). Titan have done a fine job in re-presenting these stories.

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