When I was nine years old, I had a discussion with a boy called Richard about which is better; Marvel Superhero or war comics. I was a slavish Marvel reader at the time. Richard’s joker card was the heroes in war comics didn’t always win. In fact, they rarely did. I might not have had a wide vocabulary back then, but I understood this to be a good thing, although I should have pointed out that, although Marvel Superheroes nearly always defeated the villain there was usually a price for them to pay in private.
In The Best of Battle from Titan Books, a selection of the most memorable strips from the weekly are collected. To me, never having been a reader of Battle, apart from Charley’s War, this is like a glimpse into an alternative world. So this is what creators like Gerry Finley-Day, Alan Hebden and Cam Kennedy did when they weren’t working for 2000 AD. I always suspected that Richard was right and The Best of Battle nearly proves it.
There are some revelations to me in this book. The first is the quantity of strips written and created by Gerry Finley-Day. During my 2000 AD Prog Slog, I wondered if he was underrated in comparison with his peers of the time and his work here makes me wonder again. All of his strips, D Day Dawson, Panzer G-Man, Hellman of Hammer Force (three examples selected at random), are great. I suspect he’s had a greater influence on today’s creators than we might otherwise think.
The other revelation is the quality of the artwork. Many of the artists go on to produce work for 2000 AD, but here their art often looks even stronger. For example, Eric Bradbury isn’t an artist whose 2000 AD work I always liked particularly but his war art is dirty and inky and filled with emotion and momentum. The same is true of Mike Western, John Cooper and even Carlos Ezquerra. It’s as if some comic creators are more disposed to producing work inspired by the real world rather than the comfort of fantasy.
Titan has done a good job on the production of this book. It’s a soft-back, but it looks to me like they have attempted to recreate the production values used by those door step sized Commando collections, so the book has a hardback sturdiness to it just the same. The artwork is reproduced smaller than originally. It means, unfortunately, because of the type-lettering used by many of the strips that they are occasionally difficult to read. Perhaps Titan would consider re-lettering them in future collections. It should also be noted that only the opening episodes of the strips are printed and stories are rarely concluded so this book is best viewed as a taster.
Unlike in 2000 AD, episodes in Battle rarely run for more than three pages and never more than four. Pages are divided up into four tiers meaning that it’s not uncommon for there to be twelve frames. It means that a single episode of Johnny Red feels as if it contains more story and action and character development than a single twenty-two paged issue of Green Lantern. Every story in Battle is relentlessly brutal and working class. Even those starring privileged German protagonists feel shaped by cruel circumstances beyond the characters’ control.
It seems to me that the relationship between Battle and its young readers was an honest one. While I was reading rolling superhero soap operas, Richard was investing himself in situations he knew already by when they would be over. Richard was interested in his Granddad whereas I was only interested in myself. It strikes me that if Battle were around today it would be racked on the top shelf next to Clint and not on the bottom with The Beano as it used to be. Are today’s kids so mollycoddled that they can’t take a glimpse at what their great grandfathers experienced or do they get their war exposure these days from characterless and clean Xbox games?
Cost: I bought The Best of Battle for £3.99 (original retail price being £9.99) from The Works, a chain of discount book shops. The Works can be a great source of affordable graphic novels and I always visit my local branch every time I go to the city centre as sometimes books can have a fleeting availability. In my local shop, this book was only there for one visit, so I was very lucky to get a copy.