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Garth Ennis Talks BATTLE CLASSICS, War Comics and More

When it comes to comic books, many people tend to first think of the largely American creations of companies like Marvel and DC Comics. Having helped spearhead the popular comics movement as we know it today, their global popularity is commensurate to their impact on the industry as a whole. Yet, while comic books have a rich history in the United States, they are also a global medium, and in the case of the British comics industry, two anthology-style magazines stand out from the crowd thanks to the sheer creativity, groundbreaking storytelling, and effect they’ve had on a generation of British writers: 2000 AD and Battle.

Many of you are likely familiar with the former, as it has given us memorable titles like Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog, and ABC Warriors, but equally important is a little book called Battle Picture Weekly, a weekly war comics anthology published from 1975 to 1988. Better known to fans as Battle, the magazine consisted of World War II-era war comics like HMS Nightshade, Darkie’s Mob, Johnny Red, and Rat Pack, and a letters section that encouraged readers to send in tales of their relatives’ WWI and WWII exploits. More importantly, it caught the eye of a young Northern Irishman named Garth Ennis and inspired him to pursue his passion for writing professionally, and now Ennis is curating a collection of the very best of Battle in the Titan Comics collection, Garth Ennis Presents – Battle Classics.

Per the official description:

New York Times bestselling writer Garth Ennis, writer of The Boys, Preacher and Battlefields, selects his favourite stories from the seminal 1970s British boys’ comic Battle. Included in this fantastic volume for the very first time is the complete HMS Nightshade, and the never-before-reprinted The General Dies At Dawn. With insights and introductions by Ennis himself, this collection of war comic rarities is not to be missed!

Recently, I caught up with Ennis over e-mail where he talked about everything from his lifelong passion for military history, the hallmarks of a “good” war story, the impact Battle had on a generation of British comic writers, and much more. At ease, soldiers, and read on to find out what Ennis had to say…

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Nerdist: You clearly have a lifelong passion for war stories and military comics. What about them, in particular, speaks to you and ensnares your imagination?

Garth Ennis: Partly, it’s the effect of war on our world, the legacies that nations have to live with years after the event — no better example here than World War Two. Partly it’s the hardware, in which I have more than a passing interest — again, the period 1939-45 would be the most interesting for me here. But beyond all this, it’s the fact that when you remove all the necessary hyperbole of fiction, the best war stories are based on things that actually happened. People really did this stuff. Out on the very edge of human experience there are degrees of courage, despair, depravity and even kindness that beggar belief: reading military history, I’m constantly struck by how utterly bizarre life gets under such extreme conditions, when things happen that you simply couldn’t make up.

N: Loaded question, but what are the hallmarks of a “good” war story? Are there any good war stories on store shelves nowadays, or is it something of a relic, genre-wise?

GE: Right now, the best war stories available are Titan Books’ reprints of Johnny Red, Darkie’s Mob and — of course — Charley’s War, which I believe is the best story ever to appear in comics. There are also collections available of the old Picture Libraries and Commando comics, which feature a lot of fine work. Beyond comics, I’d single out British novelist Derek Robinson, who writes about combat with a degree of precision and imagination I’ve rarely encountered elsewhere. He also has a streak of black humour in his work a mile wide: his masterpiece is called Piece of Cake, but a good place to start is another one, Goshawk Squadron, which almost won the Booker Prize in 1970.

I’m starting to think that a good war story is one that doesn’t involve fantasy elements, which tend to trivialize a far more worthwhile subject. I’ve written this stuff myself from time to time, most recently in The Shadow, and I’m sort of wishing I hadn’t. Nothing spoils a good war story faster than some tit in a cape; whenever I see pictures of Captain America or whoever fighting Nazis, I immediately think of the line I gave Butcher in The Boys: “You never fought in the war, you cunt. And you’re a fucking insult to the lads that did.”

N: What sort of influence did Battle have on you as a writer? In a larger sense, how did it affect or influence the British comics community?

GE: Its influence was obviously long term; it kept me reading comics after I might otherwise have given up, long enough for people like Alan Moore to start appearing. More directly, it made me want to write war comics of my own — I read about British Camships and Russian women pilots in Johnny Red, and the Arctic convoy run in HMS Nightshade, and having researched the subjects, I then produced my own take on them (in Archangel, The Night Witches and Nightingale, respectively).

Battle gave writers and artists a chance to raise their game, to tell stories and explore themes that had been off-limits up to that point — along with 2000 AD it represented a turning point for British comics, largely thanks to the influence of writers Pat Mills and John Wagner (who are pretty much our Lee and Kirby). There was a sense that something was changing, something was coming down the line — stories were getting more exciting, more intense. Not long afterwards, Mr. Moore showed up.

N: Curating a massive 250+ page tome like this is no small task. How did you make your selections? Were there any that you wanted to include, but couldn’t? What made you want to curate this collection in the first place?

GE: My abiding motivation for the book was to get the last of the very best Battle material into print. With HMS Nightshade and The General Dies at Dawn now available alongside Charley’s War, Johnny Red and Darkie’s Mob, I would contend that Battle‘s finest stories are now back in print where they belong. I rounded out the collection with three short stories drawn by Cam Kennedy — I wanted these to be more than simply filler, and Cam’s superb art elevates them far beyond that. Also, the third one — Private Loser  — is one of the best short stories I’ve ever read.

In terms of other material, I’d say Titan’s next priority should be to collect a couple more years’ worth of Johnny Red: the stories from 1979-80, when John Cooper took over the art from Joe Colquhoun, are as good as anything in the earlier era. Beyond that, there’s plenty of good stuff — Crazy Keller, Fighting Mann, Death Squad, the first series of The Sarge, the last series of Rat Pack, Hellman and The Eagle

I do notice a lot of people talking about how they’d like to see their favourite strips reprinted, but what I’d encourage them to do is go back and actually read them, either in Battle issues or on Moose Harris’s superb site, Best of Battle. Titan have to be quite careful deciding what they’ll go with in these books, purely in commercial terms, and a lot of that stuff just doesn’t stand the test of time. The Bootneck Boy and D-Day Dawson both get frequent mentions, but if you check them out you might realise there’s not much to them, generally good concepts that immediately fall victim to repetitive storytelling. Likewise, despite numerous voices being raised to the contrary, the Charley’s War episodes that appeared after Pat Mills stopped writing the strip are not worthy of appearing alongside his.

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N: Last, but not least — and because my editors have a gun to my head — any insight or news you can give us about the rumored AMC Preacher adaptation?

GE: Nothing new since the announcement.

Garth Ennis Presents – Battle Classics is available from Titan Comics at your local comic book shop this Wednesday, January 28th.

Are you picking up the combat compendium? Let us know in the comments below or tell me your marching orders on Twitter.

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