As the writer of both Preacher and The Boys, two of the most popular properties in comics, Garth Ennis might seem an odd choice to revive Battle Action, a long-cancelled British weekly popular with boys whose grandads had fought in World War Two. Battle Action however is indeed back, with Ennis writing all seven stories in this new hardback collection.
Writer: Garth Ennis
Price: £19.99 in Hardback or £9.99 Digital from the 2000AD Shop
Battle Picture Weekly, as it was originally called, was packed full of stories of gruff, manly heroes generally set in the First and Second World War. With the cancellation of the controversial Action comic, there was “Great news for all readers” as both titles merged in the November of 1977. It’s this iteration of Battle that this new collection celebrates here. In 2020 both Battle and Action received one-off specials in a year of celebrating the rich history of British comics, courtesy of 2000AD’s current publisher Rebellion. Ennis was part of that revival too, writing The Rat Pack along with a host of the cream of the British comics’ crop including Dan Abnett, Alan Grant and Alex De Campi. Does an all-Ennis special improve the formula or dilute it?
The 2020 Battle Special mixed classic strips for the comics past with new ones including War Child from Abnett and Jimmy Broxton, set in the present day and the Vietnam-set Bravo, Black Lion from De Campi and Glenn Fabry. The latest collection is very much a “greatest hits” of Battle Action. Inside you’ll find Hellman, Dredger, Johnny Red and a host of familiar faces. Battle Action was very much a comic of its time. How does a comic that took glee in the gunning down of enemy soldiers casually referred to as “the Hun” or “Fritz” re-invent itself for a contemporary audience?
In some ways it doesn’t try to. Strips like Hellman versus Glory Rider feel as if they’ve fallen through a hole in time, complete with black and white art from Mike Dorey, perhaps best known for his work on early 2000AD epic Invasion. For others Ennis take a page of his The Boys playbook where the characters, situations and violence are exaggerated to such extremes that they are on the verge of parody. German soldiers are shot in the head with such force in one memorable image that all that’s left of him is a mutilated jawbone flying through the air.
Without a doubt the stand-out of the collection is Kids Rule, OK? the ultra-violent strip about vicious street gangs that raised the ire of the nation’s press and the BBC, causing “the nation’s uncle” Frank Bough to tear up a copy on live tv. Ennis manages to have his cake and eat it here with a meta tale vividly illustrated by the great Kevin O’Neill. The story starts off with the creative team of the offending issues of Action asking themselves what all the fuss was about (“Well how were we supposed to know what too far was?”). The writers and artists imagine different scenarios leading off from the notorious cover image of a teen about to strike a policeman over the head with a metal chain, from the officer’s grizzly death to an alternative take where no policeman was killed. The creative team argue that the strip isn’t celebrating violence but rather its an attack on the violence and prejudice ingrained in the establishment. There’s a lot of tongue-in-cheek humour here but some serious points about satire and freedom of expression too.
As with most anthologies, Battle Action is a mixed bag, very similar in overall tone to the recent Blazer comic from The 77 team. Both titles are a celebration of Seventies “Boys’ comics” and are anthologies from a single writer (Steve MacMannus in Blazer’s case) that both celebrate and send-up a bygone era. If war comics are not your thing then this might not be the book for you but it’s always interesting, beautifully illustrated by some great artists including O’Neill, John Higgins and PJ Holden and certainly worth investigating.