Whether it’s the dystopic super-powered beings in “The Boys,” the fan-favorite “PunisherMAX” or the critically acclaimed “Preacher,” Garth Ennis‘ work spans a vast array of genres and subjects, dealing with complicated themes and well-realized characters. One of the most complex subjects Ennis has tackled in his career is the concept of war — whether in Dynamite’s “Battlefields” or Marvel’s “War is Hell” limited series, Ennis has brought his longstanding love of war comics to the page for numerous publishers. Now, he lends his expertise to Titan’s “Battle Classics” collection, curating a number of stories from “Battle,” the British war comic published between 1975 and 1988.
“I was eight when I started reading ‘Battle,'” Ennis told CBR. “I think what drew me to it was the sheer intensity of the writing and art; the stories were considerably more exciting than anything else in the genre at the time. Other British war comics of the era, like ‘Warlord’ or ‘Victor,’ simply couldn’t compete on those terms — they had some decent artists, but the scripts lacked the influence of ‘Battle’s’ founders, Pat Mills and John Wagner. Those two were the quantum leap for British comics, they were our Lee and Kirby, really. Probably quite telling that they’re both writers.”
In March 1975, “Battle Picture Weekly” hit the stands in the United Kingdom. Published by IPC Magazines, the creative staff included Mills and Wagner, as well as “Rogue Trooper” creator Gerry Finley-Day and editors Dave Hunt and Doug Church. While most of the comic’s stories were set in World War II, it also featured other time periods, along with a letters page where readers were encouraged to share their relatives’ exploits in World War I and World War II. While the magazine went through a number of different titles throughout the years — including “Battle,” “Battle Action,” “Battle Action Force” and “Battle Storm Force” — the one constant was always “Battle,” a word that greatly characterized the content of the magazine throughout its lifetime until it ceased publication in January 1988. Unsurprisingly, “Battle” also had an influence on a young Garth Ennis wanting to become a writer.
“I suppose Battle’s influence on me becoming a writer would have been a long-term one; along with ‘2000AD’ it kept me interested in reading comics when I might otherwise have given up,” he said. “I stuck around just long enough for people like Alan Moore to start showing up, and that pretty much set things in stone. That’s ‘Battle’s’ significance across the board, really, it was such a vital step along the road of British comics’ development. Alan himself has talked about seeing Pat and John’s work and thinking there might be a place in comics for him.”
Indeed, Ennis’ desire to work specifically in the war comics genre came from his youth, reading stories in “Battle” and similar publications.
“Reading ‘Johnny Red’ as a kid, I discovered the Soviet women pilots known as the Night Witches, who until quite recently were the only female aviators ever to have seen combat,” Ennis said. “Once I began writing in the genre, I knew I wanted to write about them, which of course I did in the recent ‘Battlefields’ series. Likewise, reading ‘HMS Nightshade’ taught me about the horrors faced by British sailors on the Arctic convoy run to Murmansk in Russia — one of my first and best war stories was ‘Nightingale,’ about a British destroyer on the same trip. That might be the main appeal of war comics for me, or at least the best ones: when you clear away all the necessary hyperbolae, you find that much of the material is based on actual fact. People really did these things.”
In curating Titan’s collection of “Battle Classics,” Ennis went back through some of his favorite “Battle” stories, including “HMS Nightshade” (the collection will be the first time the story has been published in its entirety) and the never-before-reprinted “The General Dies At Dawn” — plus, some of the best representations of what “Battle” had to offer during its 13-year run.
“To me, ‘HMS Nightshade’ and ‘The General Dies At Dawn’ were the very best of the ‘Battle’ material still to be collected,” Ennis said. “Titan have done a great job with ‘Charley’s War,’ ‘Darkie’s Mob’ and ‘Johnny Red’ (although they could easily continue the latter for another couple of volumes), but I felt it was important to get the rest of the best back into print. Along with the aforementioned trio, ‘Nightshade’ and ‘The General’ represent ‘Battle’ at its strongest: an important moment in British comics’ history, when writers began to raise their game to tackle themes previously thought off-limits. I rounded out the collection with the three Cam Kennedy-drawn short stories because I wanted them to be something more than just filler — Cam’s artwork is simply stunning, and the third one — ‘Private Loser’ — is one of the best short stories I’ve ever read, in comics or anywhere else. Even today I find it quite haunting.”
Although the stories found in “Battle Classics” were published more than a quarter-century ago, many of them still have relevance in the modern era — both in terms of theme and storytelling. For example, “HMS Nightshade,” which Ennis says “represents a quite incredible story of man against the elements.”
“Long before the enemy showed up, the heroes of the story had to contend with quite nightmarish conditions — this was a battle fought at 50 degrees below zero, where flesh could fuse to iron and immersion in the Arctic waters could kill a man in seconds, and the sun was up for barely an hour a day,” he continued. “Then again, ‘The General’ is a clever, quite slyly told story of one man’s wartime experiences remembered in the last few hours of his life. In storytelling terms, I think both can hold their heads up with the best of modern comics — they represent the work of some great writers and artists at the top of their game.”
The writer further described “HMS Nightshade” as “a big, meaty epic that people can easily get their teeth into,” while “The General Dies At Dawn” is “quite a dark, brooding story told from a rather grim perspective, in a voice [readers] may not be familiar with” — but both are a great place to start for readers hoping to start their experience with war comics.
However, “Battle Classics” isn’t Ennis’ only project — he’s also got a highly anticipated return to The Punisher in the cards in an upcoming miniseries, as revealed in 2013.
“I finished it last summer,” he said. “I think [series artist] Goran Parlov is finishing up another story before he gets stuck in.”
And beyond his return to The Punisher, Ennis has quite a few other irons on the fire.
“[I’ve got the] Third and last series of ‘Dicks,’ new sci-fi miniseries called ‘Caliban,’ new ‘War Story’ series alongside reprints of the old Vertigo ones — all from Avatar,” he said. “[Also, a] Second series of ‘Red Team’ from Dynamite. Looking further ahead I’ve just finished 2015’s ‘Crossed’ story, and there’s a new horror project I can’t really talk about yet.”
“Battle Classics” hits stores January 28 from Titan Books.