It's hard for me to believe that Battle Picture Weekly first debuted almost 35 years ago. To me it still feels like something that happened, if not the other day, at least fairly recently. It wasn't until the early '80s that I became a regular reader after I rediscovered comics following a roughly seven year gap (although, as I've said many time before in these columns, I never really gave up because there was always some comic—Top Secret Picture Library, Starblazer, etc.—that I was buying). Battle I caught up with via a massive boot fair find and it was an incredible thrill to be reunited with some of my favourite artists doing some of the best work they'd ever done: Mike Western on "Darkie's Mob", "The Sarge" and "HMS Nightshade", Eric Bradbury on "Joe Two Beans" and "Crazy Keller", and Joe Colquhoun on "Johnny Red" and "Charley's War". And there was a ton of other stories that I found incredibly gripping as I read through episode after episode: the Mike Nelson stories ("Day of the Eagle", "Death's Head Dossier", etc.), "Major Eazy", "Fighting Mann", "Deathsquad", "Clash of the Guards", and many others. Gaps in the run were cursed soundly because I didn't want to miss a beat.
The Best of Battle selects 18 strips from Battle's heyday, the late 1970s. The format—extracting four or five episodes from strips that sometimes ran for years—can be a little frustrating, although at least with extracts of 12 to 15 pages you get more out of the stories than in the recent Best of Battle special released by Egmont. It's still only a sampler for the books we all actually want, but it's at least a substantial sample.
Favourites... that's a tricky one. I've already nailed my colours to the mast by telling you the names of some of my favourite artists and, inevitably, that colours my appreciation of some strips, but I don't think anyone is going to deny the quality of John Wagner's writing on "Darkie's Mob" or "Joe Two Beans", or Pat Mills's on "Charley's War". Eleven of the eighteen strips on display here were written by Gerry Finley-Day and Alan Hebden (with two more by Eric Hebden), which is an astonishing hit rate as there isn't a duff story on display here. I've always had a soft spot for the Mike Nelson yarns (beautifully drawn by Pat Wright) and I'd forgotten how good "Fighting Mann" was—and how good Cam Kennedy's black & white art was.
The simplified credits given in the book mean that one or two writers and artists don't get a mention: the first episode of "D-Day Dawson" was drawn by Annibale Casabianca, the second, third and fourth reprinted here were by Geoff Campion and only the fifth was drawn by the credited artist, Colin Page; three of the five were written by Wagner/Mills rather than the credited Gerry Finley-Day. But the occasional glitch is to be expected in any book.
Instead, let's concentrate on the positives: the reproduction is uniformly superb and the flexiback format means you can get over 280 pages for a knock-down £9.99. As a sampler of one of Britain's best war comics, you couldn't ask for better... except for full reprints, and some of those are definitely on the way.
The Best of Battle: Volume 1. Titan Books ISBN 978-1848560253, 25 September 2009.
(* Artwork © Egmont UK Ltd.)