Monday, July 04, 2022

Battle Action

Since it was announced, I have been clinging to the edge of my seat waiting for Battle Action, a celebration of all that was brilliant about the weekly that helped shake up comics back in the mid-Seventies. It's here and, I'm punch-drunk happy to say, it doesn't disappoint.

Having Garth Ennis lord over this body-strewn battlefield might be the key to why the book works so well. Comics based on old Fleetway characters have had a mixed reception, not least from me. You have to be in your fifties to have any nostalgic memories of the majority of these old stories, older still to remember the delights of mid-Sixties Valiant and its weird and wonderful weekly line-up.

Bringing together dozens of characters into one storyline in the hope of creating a cohesive universe just doesn't work. You need the long term approach of the MCU, introducing individuals and establishing them before teaming them up. Otherwise you don't establish anyone, you spend half your running time trying (and usually failing) to tell the audience why they should give a shit about this or that person, and then wonder why people shrug and never bother to go back.

That's not the case here, but having a single author — the guy who did what was arguably the most successful revival of any Fleetway character in years in the shape of the Johnny Red mini-series — gives the volume a cohesion it might not otherwise have had. Garth Ennis is the perfect choice to bring all these characters back to life as he is both a brilliant writer and has a fondness for the old comic characters he is writing about. He's also  a master of writing tales that are just far enough over the top that they're fun without being ridiculous. (They were masters of this back in the Fifties and Sixties when the likes of Battler Britton would pull flying stunts that were just this side of believable.)

Re-teamed with Keith Burns, the volumes starts with a bang as Johnny Red has to outsmart Captain Von Jurgen of the German Eagle Squadron, who thinks he is one step ahead when he teams up with Otto Skreamer ('Skreamer of the Stukas'). Next up, The Sarge, drawn by PJ Holden, and here's what I mean when I say having the one author write all the stories has helped. The story dials down the wild heroics and action-packed aerial combat of its predecessor to reintroduce a whole squad of characters, weaving each member into a story that examines the gruelling combat engaged in by the tommies on the road to Berlin that relied on closely-knit bonds to get the men through extraordinarily horrific battlefields.

The action picks up in the next two stories featuring 'Crazy Keller' (art by Chris Burnham) and 'Dredger' (art by John Higgins), both dialing up the violence but in an entertaining way and both featuring a twist in the tail. By comparison, Hellman of Hammer Force being pitched against Jeb 'Glory' Rider takes an unexpected philosophical turn as Hellman and Rider's frustrated Sergeant, Steve Hilts, find themselves sheltering from tank fire together. It's one of my favourite stories in the volume, drawn by a returning (and very welcome) Mike Dorey, who drew Hellman back in the days  of Action.

Ennis breaks the fourth wall with 'Kids Rule O.K.!', with Kev O'Neill depicting what happened in the strip behind the infamous Carlos Ezquerra cover (a chain-wielding lout about to slam a fallen policeman)... what was the reaction to the immediate violence on the streets?... what justice was ever served for the fallen officer?... was he even a policeman?

The books wraps up with 'Nina Petrova and the Angels of Death', brought back from the pages of Johnny Red's adventures and tying up the earlier story in a neat little bow, illustrated by Patrick Goddard, who, if Nina doesn't get her own strip, has just become my number one choice should Rebellion ever revive Black Max.

For fans of the original papers, this has the balance of nostalgia and good storytelling just right, and each story is pitched to just the right level. There isn't a single duff note in the whole volume.

Battle Action by Garth Ennis and various artists.
Rebellion ISBN 9780178618673-7, June 2022, 96pp, £19.99 / $24.99. Available via Amazon.

No comments:

Post a Comment


Click on the above pic to visit our sister site Bear Alley Books