Garth Ennis’ BATTLE/ACTION Comprehensive Review

Sometimes, if us comic fans pray REALLY hard to the spirits of Lee, Eisner and Ezquerra, the planets align and we get exactly what we have always wanted, just didn’t know it until it was wrested from a jealous postman’s grasp. My own copy is a beautiful 96 page hardback, just like an annual of old except without the reprints and stories deemed not good enough for the weeklies.

‘Battle Action’ is the war comic/annual that will bring tears of delight to anyone who enjoyed the old comics of the same name, plus anyone who has ever been justifiably thrilled by the war comics of Garth Ennis, arguably the best writer working in the genre today. Ennis, being a big fan of UK weeklies from the good ol’ days, has taken seven stories from back when the most dreaded phrase in comics was ‘Great News For All Readers Inside!’ and written a new chapter of each, aided and abetted by some of the best artists the UK has produced. Yes, this is very grovelling and all that, but just flicking through it for the first time gave me serious goosebumps.

So… what is inside?

First up is ‘Johnny Red Vs Skreamer Of The Stukas’. Now I’ll admit that Nazi flying wanker Otto Skreamer is a new one on me, but he had a short lived WW2 strip that makes him fair game for a showdown with Johnny Red, the plucky Scouser who flies a Hurricane with a Russian air squadron. Ennis is no stranger to the character, and artist Keith Burns is an existing collaborator on him, too. It’s a great story, and whilst the characters don’t actually meet, the battle of tactics is a clever one, combined with some brilliant ariel action and Ennis’ usual lessons on old planes that are always interesting. All beautifully illustrated by Burns, this is a great start to the book.

Colour art turns to black & white next, as Ennis’ take on Gerry Finley-Day’s ‘The Sarge’ is a more straightforward history lesson than anything else, as the section led by Sgt Jim Masters tries to crawl their way up Italy without being killed. Main members of the section are sketched out masterfully, allowing the reader a small insight into these men, focusing on them rather than the titular Sarge. It works well, and regular war story collaborator PJ Holden typically doesn’t put a foot wrong on art duties. A sombre piece with a few lighter moments, it’s a typical Ennis entertaining lecture.

The war theme continues with ‘Crazy Keller’, but this time it’s a lighter affair, dealing with a Yank Captain who’s main aim is to survive WW2 with more money than he went in with. He and his sidekick are basically blackmailed into abducting a German scientist held by the Russians,so he can work for the Allies. Cue near escapes, daredevil stunts (in his awesome jeep) and banter that by the end even manages to show Keller’s moral side as well. Think Kelly out of ‘Kelly’s Heroes’ and you’re most of the way there, with Ennis’ crackling script well illustrated by Chris Burnham.

It’s not all about war, though, and ‘Dredger’ was a typical Seventies strip that borrowed liberally from what was popular at the time – hard assed British cop dramas like ‘The Sweeney’. Dredger, who was kicked out of the Marines for brutality (‘Which I think you’ll agree is quite an achievement’), sorts shit out for the Government and that’s really all you need to know here. This one is Ennis let off the leash and allowed to crap in the flower beds, with over the top violence all over the shop as he combines Gene Hunt and The Punisher to give us the ultimate Dredger tale. John Higgins handles the art and is a perfect match, always a dab hand with violence and the like. It’s not big or particularly clever, but bloody hell it sure is a lot if fun.

It’s back to WW2 and black and white art again with ‘Hellman Vs Glory Rider’. Major Kurt Hellman’s adventures were a big draw in the weekly, as he’s a German tank commander with a very strong moral code, whilst Jeb Rider was his American opposite, a cowardly commander happy to let his men die so he could get the glory, hence the name. The strip puts Rider on the back seat and concerns the sergeant that knows exactly what he’s up to, Steve Hilts. Hilts and his tankies are up against Hellman’s Hammer Force in Africa, and it ain’t pretty. Hellman is, as ever, a wonderful creation who always has great dialogue, and he and Hilts go well together as main characters. This is all brilliantly illustrated by industry and war comic veteran Mike Dorey, a definite match made in Heaven with Ennis if ever there was one.

Perhaps the most notorious strip of the Seventies was ‘Kids Rule OK!’, which was partly responsible for Action getting noticed by the moral minority as a bit of a violent comic, thanks to a Carlos Ezquerra cover that seemed to depict a young lad attacking a policeman with a heavy chain. You know, kids stuff! In the strip a plague has killed off most people over twenty, probably, with feral kids running amok. The first thing to say about this is that the artist is none other than Kevin O’Neil, who hasn’t piked up his art supplies for a few years now. The second thing is Ennis’ very clever framing device, in which he has inserted four colour pages (first, last and two in between) featuring a single panel surrounded by voices that represent the publisher’s employees debating the comic and story. It’s all very Meta but also very effective. The story itself follows on from that legendary cover and is pretty engaging, with O’Neill bringing his unique style very effectively in sharp black & white. Overall, the best bits to read are the framing pages, but the whole thing works very well.

Finally, we return to WW2 with ‘Nina Petrova & The Angels Of Death’, a strip that never existed! Well, sort of, as Nine Petrova was a character in ‘Johnny Red’ occasionally, with her squadron of ‘Nigh Wiches’ who would fly old biplanes on bombing runs against the Germans under the cover of darkness. Indeed, Ennis has written about them in his own ‘War Stories’ series, and I never realized this was their comic origin until today. The very real squadron are treated with the utmost respect by Ennis as the go on a bombing run that connects the story nicely to the ‘Johnny Red’ opener, and it’s an emotional, raw piece of work that naturally benefits from the stunning art of Patrick Goddard (plus striking colours from Jason Wordie), one of the best out there for my money.

So that’s yer lot, though you can add in a one page intro to each story by Ennis, where you can learn more about the characters and history which is VERY useful to new readers. Spoiled? Yes, we have been.

The Battle/Action volume is one of the most complete publications I have ever read, with every story well written and illustrated, paying due respect to the originals whilst being perfectly accessible to new readers and old alike. A true labour of love for old fan Ennis, this is absolutely faultless, so make sure you get one.

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By the way, many of the creators will be at the Enniskillen Comic Fest this Saturday (18th June) so if you’re going you have NO EXCUSE for not getting one all signed and stuff.

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