Mike Western is perhaps best remembered for his war comics but he was equally at home drawing sport and adventure. Mike was born in Southampton in 1925 and, after military service, became a clean-up artist for GB Animation. His early comics work included strips for Knock-Out and TV Express and he started contributing to Buster in 1962. From 1976 to 1985, he worked on a strip with which he would become synonymous – The Leopard from Lime Street, which featured schoolboy Billy Farmer who had
developed special powers after being scratched by a Leopard! Mike drew the pencils for the story with Eric Bradbury providing the inks.
After working on Valiant, Mike moved to the title for which he is arguably best known – Battle. Perhaps his most celebrated strip was Darkie’s Mob (1976-77), a hard-hitting World War Two story written by John Wagner which told the tale of Captain Joe Darkie who led a rag-tag group of British soldiers behind Japanese lines in Burma. Certain aspects of the story are dated by today’s standards (with Wagner feeling that he would tone down some of the jingoist language if he was writing it today) but it remains a bona fide classic. Mike himself would comment: ‘Darkies Mob… was my favourite yarn… It had a sort of gritty honesty.’
Other Western classics included The Sarge (the story of Sgt Jim Masters who has to shepherd a rookie platoon in World War Two, out this month from Rebellion) and HMS Nightshade, the tale of a Royal Navy corvette.
Mike would also demonstrate a flair for sport-related stories. He drew Billy’s Boots for Scorcher, Golden Boy for Tiger and Roy of the Rovers for the Daily Star. In the 1980s, he showed a penchant for action and adventure when much of his time was spent working on the new incarnation of Eagle.
Amongst the readers of Eagle was Graeme Neil Reid, now an artist himself: ‘My first proper exposure to Mike’s art would have been strips like Computer Warrior and The Avenger. Thankfully the release of collections featuring his art has brought a lot the stories I missed first time around to my attention with art that makes any illustrator sit up and pay attention to its construction and pace. Bearing in mind that a lot of these strips were two and half to three pages long each week, aside from the skill of the writer, the art was solid, full of action and pulled no punches. You knew what was happening from panel to panel and you’d never see a dip in quality. Never were there any signs of an artist skipping the hard bits or if a panel was more fun to draw than the next you’d never see a lowering of the standards, each page was solid. His inking defined hardware just as easily as it highlighted nature and the human form in action. With pages often having around nine panels or more he didn’t skimp on backgrounds either but also excelled in the classic ‘floating’ group of heads caught in conversation. It says something of an artist that you can produce work that is easily read and entertains its audience and yet can keep the fans pouring over the line work for hours soaking in every detail.’
Barrie Tomlinson, Editor and Group Editor of titles such as Tiger and Eagle, has his own memories: ‘For many years, I looked at Mike’s artwork with great envy as he wasn’t working for my group. It was a moment of triumph when he began working for one of my titles. His work on Battle stories such as Darkie’s Mob, HMS Nightshade and The Sarge was absolutely top class. When artist Yvonne Hutton died as a result of a car crash, Mike stepped in and illustrated Roy of the Rovers for the Daily Star. His football work on Billy’s Boots is also a classic to be remembered. Above all, he was a true gentleman. Always a pleasure to talk to and be with. I treasure a Christmas card he sent me, drawn by Mike of he and his wife. He drew a story called Meet the Horrors for Scream. This never appeared in the comic but recently I was able to present the three pages of Mike’s artwork to the Cartoon Museum. One of the last things he drew for me was a story for a comic I was producing for DanAir. It never saw the light of day, which was
unfortunate, as the artwork was brilliant.’
In the early 2000s, I produced a comics fanzine called Eagle Flies Again (with John Freeman) which focused mainly on the New Eagle but also featured other British comics of the 1980s. Mike was a true friend to the ‘zine and we corresponded for several years.
Mike died in 2008 aged 83, having suffered a stroke followed by a heart attack. Steve Holland of the Bear Alley website was amongst those who paid tribute: ‘One of the giants of British comics has laid down his pen for the last time,’ wrote Steve.
Mike’s legacy lives on. Titan have reprinted the likes of Darkie’s Mob and HMS Nightshade. The Leopard from Lime Street has been reprinted by Rebellion and the recent The Vigilant comic featured an updated version of the character. A compilation of Billy’s Boots is also available.
Mike remains one of Britain’s most fondly remembered comics artist and the cannon of work he created will be appreciated for many years to come.
Author Ian Wheeler
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