Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Best of Battle

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The Best of Battle (Titan, 2009)

Battle Picture Weekly was, of course, one of the best and most important comics ever published. It wasn't just a simply entertaining, well-written and drawn collection of great war stories, it was a critical building block in the development of modern comics. Since without it, you'd never have had a 2000 AD, I've always been interested in it, and any chance to see these terrific stories is one worth taking.

The series and serials in BPW were drawn by some of the best artists working in Britain at the time, including Eric Bradbury, Joe Colquhoun, Carlos Ezquerra, Cam Kennedy and Mike Western. Many of the stories were devised by Pat Mills and John Wagner, and while they only scripted a few themselves, they assigned others to the likes of Gerry Finley-Day and Alan Hebden. They all developed storylines, sometimes sharply different from each other in tone, with vulnerable anti-heroes, radically different from the indestructible leads in American war comics. Reading just one issue of BPW after an identikit Robert Kanigher DC adventure is the greatest breath of fresh air in the medium.

Titan Books, which has been collecting Battle's most lauded strip, Charley's War, for several years now, landed the reprint rights to several old IPC properties what seemed like an eternity ago, and late last year finally released the first of their new Battle collections. The Best of Battle is similar in feel to their two Roy of the Rovers samplers, three hundred pages of reprints in a slightly oversized format with a paperback cover. The book contains the first 3-5 episodes of eighteen different series. Each comes with an introductory page and a short blurb written by either Mills or BPW's one-time editor, Dave Hunt.

I think the format is a good one, as far as samplers go, but it looks to me like Titan was a draft or two shy of assembling something really special. The most aggravating example is Hold Hill 109, a six-part serial by Steve MacManus and Jim Watson. Four of the six episodes are included in this book, which is nice, but what are the odds that Hold Hill 109 will ever be reprinted anywhere else? Between Charley's War, Johnny Red and Darkie's Mob, there are 12-13 episodes which are either already available in Titan collections or are due for release within a few months. Couldn't eight of those pages be given up to see all of Hold Hill 109?

I'm also a little surprised that Battle Action Force isn't even mentioned in the book. Admittedly, even with the nice artwork by John Cooper, the toy line tie-in, sort of a parallel antecedent to Hasbro's G.I. Joe line of the 1980s, was the sign that the comic's brightest moments had passed, but it still has a huge number of fans. Evidently there's some rights issues at work, as Palitoy still owns those characters like Baron Buckethead or whoever it was they were fighting prior to Cobra Commander, but considering just how important the Action Force was to Battle's later days - Johnny Red and Charley's War wouldn't have made it to their ends without Action Force sales propping up the comic - I think it should have been mentioned.

If readers would forgive the regular quibbling of a Monday morning quarterback, the book is truly a fine introduction to Battle, and one which will certainly get new readers excited about the other material Titan has planned. Six volumes of Charley's War are already out, the first collection of Johnny Red should be with us by the end of the month, and a complete Darkie's Mob - all 44 episodes - is solicited in the current Previews for later in the spring. The book also promises that collections of two of my favorite Battle series, Major Eazy and Rat Pack, are on the horizon.

The only other quibble that I have is that getting accurate shipping dates and advance plans from Titan is really like pulling teeth. Most of their books seem subject to interminable delays - where the devil is the third volume of Jeff Hawke, guys?! - and so it's impossible to guess exactly when we'll get the follow-up volumes that I've been craving. It's simply bad business to serve up an appetizer as tasty as this and shy away from the main course!

(Excerpted from Reprint This!)

1 comment:

Lee McKnight Jr. said...

Thanks for the review Grant, I've been interested from afar in this but hadn't seen a review of any substance. Along with my recent submersion into all things 2000 AD, this sounds like it will make a nice addition. And I love a good war comic.