FRIDAY FEATURE: War Comics: Britains Lost Genre?

war comics battle comic coverWhen I was a kid, the comics I read didn’t feature superheroes, racing around in costumes fighting crime and super-villainy. I wasn’t even that aware of them. They were occasionally on television and of course Superman was a big fixture after the success of the films, but in terms of comic books they didn’t really get a look in. Back then, I didn’t buy comics from a comic store, I bought them from my local newsagent. They had a whole shelf of them, between the stacks of newspapers on the bottom and glossy magazines in the middle shelves and they featured very different heroes from the ones we are familiar with today.

Because back in seventies Britain, it seemed that War Comics for boys was king. Yet there is scant trace of it today.

War stories have always played a big part in fiction, and it is fairly easy to see the attraction. Conflict narratives make for easy definition of “goodies” and “baddies” even if we wince a little at is as adults. Heroism and life and death tension are natural and unforced when your setting is a battlefield. You can dial it up to tell gritty, almost horrific stories of survival in the face of certain death and dial it down to tell action/adventure stories where no-one really gets hurt apart from an easily “othered” set of uniforms on the other side. War Comics pretty much had the whole spread covered.

War Comics Commando Comic Cover

Commando and Starblazer

Probably the natural place to start when examining  War Comics  is Commando. First published by DC Thompson in 1961, Commando was produced as a series of pocket-sized black and white story books and is still in print today, although with a circulation well shy of its peak of a staggering 750,000 issues sold. There always seemed to be a new Commando on the shelves, with a painted front cover and dramatic title. Each story was a one-shot with new characters and new situations, which meant a certain amount of jeopardy for any given character.

Its rapid publishing schedule, and one-shot nature did lead to a certain amount of plot repetition, but also meant that in the drive to keep things diverse it covered a lot more than the “usual” Second World War stories of North Africa, D-Day and the Battle of Britain, so young minds got stories set in Burma, or the Atlantic Convoys, which were often overlooked in sweeping popular narratives of the war. The comic also featured stories from other wars, including the Napoleonic, Boer and the Roman era amongst others. Even rarer were stories from fictitious wars, and a purely Science Fiction sister magazine entitled “Starblazer” was published as a spin-off. This magazine ran for two-hundred and sixteen issues.

frenchairforce1

The Victor

DC Thomson also published The Victor in 1961. This war comic featured a recurring roster of wartime heroes. Its front cover always featured a story of valour, usually a true story of a medal being won in combat by British or Commonwealth forces. Other stories featured included tales of “Joe Bones the Human Fly”: a working class lad who could climb anything and was sent on Commando Raids and the adventures of “Cadman”, a cowardly officer saved constantly by his long suffering batman. As you can probably tell The Victor’s tales were heavily on the “pulp” side of war stories and certainly held strong to that good old-fashioned British obsession with class-based stereotypes.

 

Warlord and Battle

Probably the prime era for British War Comics is the nineteen-seventies and early nineteen-eighties (during which Commando reached those huge circulation figures). Commando and The Victor were joined on the newsstands by another DC Thomson publication, Warlord, and it’s IPC rival Battle. The fact that this is when my generation – children for whom the war was a story told by their grandparents – started buying comics probably isn’t a co-incidence. War was something exciting yet distant, a narrative easily broken into good guys and bad guys, and a world away from the struggling, recession-hit Britain of the age.

Whereas Victor included some non-war stories such as “Tough of the Track” (working class lad runs fast) , Warlord, launched in 1974, was a pure war-story comic. It further distinguished itself from its stable mate with a wider scope of conflicts (although most strips were still World War Two based) including a German-character led strip and a couple set around British soldiers attached to American-led theatres such as the Pacific Island campaigns. Battle, launched in response in 1975, was helmed by Pat Mills and John Wagner, and went onto produce one of the greatest british war comics ever written – Charley’s War.

War Comics Charleys War

Charley’s War

Starting in 1979, Pat Mills (writer) and Joe Colquhoun (artist) produced Charley’s War, detailing World War One through the eyes of sixteen year old infantryman Charley Bourne. The first story arc is the build-up to, and experience of, the notorious First Battle of the Somme and it is striking in its brutal depiction of the horrors of war. Readers will have been used to characters dying in war comics – they are about war, after all – but the scale and senselessness depicted throughout the series gives it a powerful anti-war message that isn’t always reflected in its more “gung-ho” contemporaries.

What Charley’s War does share though is a keen eye for detail. The series cuts away several times to focus on Charley’s friends or relatives engaged in other parts of the conflict, including the Battle of the Falklands and the early Royal Flying Corps. It has a keen eye for British social division of the period (yes, we’re back to Class again!), as well as a good sense of the wry, dark humour of trench life. Charley Bourne served his country right through the Great War, then spent time in the Russian Civil War before heading back to Blighty to get on with life outside the army. Mills left the comic in 1985, following which the story briefly took in the Battle of France in 1940, and eventually Colquhoun’s ill health (he died in 1987) led the strip being finished for good.

Hard Times for War Comics

By the nineteen-eighties, home grown British comics were on the decline. Warlord and Victor amalgamated in 1986 and Battle merged with the re-launched Eagle in 1988. Both struggled on into the early nineteen-nineties, but as shadows of their former selves. Their contents became increasingly dominated by reprints of previous stories. Today, only Commando survives. The only comic book of my youth I can find in a local newsagents is that battle-hardened survivor of the British Comics scene, 2000AD, which had its own SF war story, Rogue Trooper, published in 1981, at the height of the genre’s popularity.

War Comics 2000ad-rogue-trooper-strip

The Present Decade

I’d like to think that at least in part the decline of war comics, with their obsession with the perceived heroics of the Second World War, mirrors a change in Britain from a country looking back at a faltering Imperial Past to a country more at ease with itself than it was in the turbulence of the seventies and eighties. In addition, the nineties were a fascinating time for superheroes, with the genre being torn down and reconstructed. New imprints like DC’s Vertigo soaked up British Talent to tell tales of all sorts of avant-garde weirdness. In terms of capturing the imagination of the British youth, the United States was suddenly where it was at and the same old stories from the same old titles just didn’t seem like it was enough.

However, In 2001 and 2003, Vertigo printed War Stories, from Garth Ennis, a British Writer of my generation, someone who must have grown up with the same sort of reading material that I did.

Looking back it’s odd to think that such a dominant genre could vanish nearly without a trace, a victim of changing reading habits, and it’s own stagnation. It is not so much that War Stories themselves have gone – fashions change, after all – but they seem to have taken with them a mass comics industry in the UK that hangs on only in places. Too often we think of comics as an American form and look at the current vibrant UK indie scene as something creatively exciting (which it is) but rarely do we question why home grown comics aren’t commercially bigger. Well once they were; giant lumbering dinosaurs of steel, petrol and cordite, and like the dinosaurs, they are all now extinct.

Commando Comics can still be purchased in collected editions in book stores and also online at http://www.commandocomics.com/. The site is nicely divided into different eras and the comics can also be searched by the nationality of the protagonists or by the type of service featured in the service. For anyone interested in comics, war or the combination there-of, it is highly recommended that Commando be looked into.

 

Originally featured in the GS Magazine.

 

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Source: Originally featured in the GS Magazine.

 

Reporter: Matt Farr

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One comment

  1. SilverFox /

    “Mein Gott, Ruki Vverkh,Achtung and Ayyeeehhhh!!!” Halcyon Days… Bring back Union Jack Jackson, I say!

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