Sunday, November 05, 2006

Battler Britton

I've been wallowing in nostalgia the past couple of days. Ten to fifteen years ago I read an awful lot of American comics because, back in the early Nineties I was editing Comic World. I was reading pretty much everything that came out and enjoying most of it: on the good side there was event publishing like 'The Death of Superman'... and on the opposite side the comics 'boom' led by the launch of Image and a lot of lousy comics. Fast forward to a year or so ago and I was down to a handful of titles: the ABC line from Wildstorm and Daredevil. I was never a Marvelite but I was (and am) a big fan of Brian Michael Bendis.

I've kept up with events reading news columns rather than through buying comics -- frankly, I didn't had the money to keep up with a lot of series I would have liked to have read.

Then came the Albion line of titles, which I've been picking up as they've been coming out. I'll skip over Albion and Thunderbolt Jaxon because I want to chat about Battler Britton.

Written by Garth Ennis with art by Colin Wilson and covers by Garry Leach. I've not read any of Garth's recent work but I was a huge fan from the moment his stories started appearing in Crisis back in 1989. I met Garth that year -- I'm pretty sure it was that year -- at UKCAC which he was attending with John McCrea and Hilary Robinson who performed the introductions. Nice boys. A bit shy (yes, really). I think it was their first convention. The only thing I had against his writing was that in everything he took over, the main character would turn up in an Irish pub in episode 2. John Constantine I could maybe understand... but Judge Dredd?

That niggle aside, I thought his dialogue was superb -- funny, dirty, just plain nasty at times -- and that carried any talking head episodes of the stories he was writing. I loved Preacher and enjoyed The Hitman. But by the late 1990s I was cutting back on comics so I've missed a lot that he's written over the years.

Which brings me back to Battler Britton. A classic British character and Garth has stepped in and turned out a minor classic of its type -- its type being the old-style war comic. No philosophising over the rights and wrongs of war because this is World War 2, the last honourable war. Yes, there were grey areas but there was an enemy everyone could recognise and the allies won a clearcut victory. It was something that the nation could be proud of and hasn't stopped celebrating these past sixty years.

Battler Britton was created in 1955 by Mike Butterworth; Leonard Matthews came up with the name but it was Mike who turned him into a hero as he had so successfully done with a dozen historical characters beforehand, including Robin Hood, Billy the Kid and others. Battler was the first major star he created (rather than re-created) but not the last -- he would later write the adventures of Jet-Ace Logan and the Trigan Empire as well as carving himself a very successful editorial career, creating Valentine (the pop-romance comic) and Honey (the first Fleetway magazine for teenage girls) before quitting IPC to write some very good novels.

Battler debuted in Sun in January 1956, first drawn by Geoff Campion who was often called upon to fashion new characters into granite-jawed, fist-swinging heroes; Campion was the master. Battler was the ultimate air ace, a fearless leader who wasn't afraid to put himself in danger for the benefit of his squadron and his country; he'd face overwhealming odds with a shit-kicking grin and win the day thanks to a mixture of skill -- nobody could handle a plane better -- and sheer British pluck of the old Boy's Own Paper variety.

And I think Garth captures that spirit in his story. It has the gusto of a story that could have appeared in Sun or Thriller Picture Library or Air Ace; there are moments when you gasp at the audacity of certain incidents -- one in particular in issue two had me in fits because it was so idiotically outrageous but so typical of the old Battler yarns which never let reality get in the way of a good tale.

I wonder if American readers have appreciated the series? At first it comes over as British pluck vs. American gung-ho, although both sides shine through in the end. Sales slipped over the first three issues quite dramatically: ICv2 were reporting sales of 14,843 for #1, 12,631 for #2 and 9,985 for #3, drops of 15% and 21% respectively between issues. Not as bad as Thunderbolt Jaxon (which was very poor indeed, even for a novelty act) but not brilliant.

I've barely mentioned the artwork. Superb. I love Colin Wilson's work (2000AD, Young Blueberry, Rael) and he captures the essence of those of those old Air Ace libraries wonderfully.

Battler Britton is a real throwback and I hope DC will keep Battler going for a few more adventures. Reviews of the first issue were quite positive and maybe the trade edition will pick up the slack in the sales. I'm certainly keeping my fingers crossed.

One of the reasons I feel so positive about Battler is that it didn't let me down. I wanted it to be slightly old fashioned. I wanted to feel nostalgic and not cheesed off that the character had been changed out of all recognition.

Part of that was because I've also been reading The Saga of Hawkwind. I have been a huge fan of the band for years, starting around 1978/79 when I was 15/16. I saw them live (Ipswich Gaumont) in 1979, the tour that spawned Live '79 but I'd already picked up quite a few of their earlier albums -- In Search of Space, Space Ritual, Warrior on the Edge of Time -- because I'd heard they were a science fiction band and I was heavily into science fiction.

I knew Hawkwind had had a troubled past, but reading this new biography of the band has been a depressing experience. It's 548 pages of bitch, bitch, bitch as various past and present members of the band lay into each other. There are occasional passages where you actually learn something about the band's history and the philosophy of the group and the three dozen or so people who have been band members over the years, but mostly its just bitching.

I can't help being reminded of the late and much lamented Douglas Adams and the story of the Great Circling poets of Arium who would break into songs of extraordinary beauty and even more extraordinary length. To quote:
The first part of each song would tell how there once went forth from the City of Vassillian a party of five sage princes with four horses. The princes, who are of course brave, noble and wise, travel widely in distant lands, fight giant ogres, pursue exotic philosophies, take tea with weird gods and rescue beautiful monsters from ravening princesses before finally announcing that they have achieved enlightenment and that their wanderings are therefore accomplished.

The second, and much longer, part of each song would then tell of all their bickering about which one of them is going to have to walk back.
And that's Hawkwind according to this book. Five princes with four horses and a lot of bickering. It wouldn't be such a frustrating tomb if any of the situations described were actually resolved in the text by printing copies of contracts or accounts. As it is, its just bitch, counter-bitch and someone trying to get in the last word. It won't stop me listening to the music but I can't say the book has added anything to my enjoyment of the band and I shall now always think of Hawkwind not as Psychedelic Warlords or Sonic Assassins but as poets, endlessly circling each other.


  1. Steve

    Since you enjoyed Battler Britton so much, you'd probably enjoy Ennis' two volumes of War Stories, originally published as eight individual comics. Four 56-page long stories per volume drawn by such artists as David Lloyd Cam Kennedy and Carlos Ezquerra, they reek of the old War, Air Ace, etc libraries. A bit darker maybe, with a bit more sex and swearing, but solid stories.

    David Simpson

  2. Thanks, David. I shall try to dig them out from my local comic shop. It was a series I heard about when they were appearing but that was during a period when I was suffering from lightness of the wallet. Now I'm a little more stable financially, I think I've got a lot of catching up to do.




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