Monday, 4 September 2017

Stand by for Battle-Action!!

Let's take another trip back in time and review a single issue of an old British comic.

Previously I have looked at the humour comics which were my childhood favourites and a couple of girls' comics which were utterly alien to me until adulthood, now I'm looking at another genre I had little interest in before: Boys' comics. 

Though written and drawn by mostly the same people, British comics for boys were very different from those for girls. Where girls had stories of bullied children kept away from their ponies or indentured servants who want to be ballerinas, boys had war. Usually stories set in the Second World War. Big stories about menly men giving Jerry what for.

My choice here is the first issue of Battle-Action!
This is not actually a first issue, per se, it is the next issue of Battle, after Action was merged into it.

Battle was an IPC comic that ran from 1975 to 1988, originally called Battle Picture Weekly until a canny editor noticed that made it sound like a throwback to older "your dad's" comics. It had a more modern sensibility than other, similar comics on sale at the time, even absorbing the long-running Valiant (1962-1976) when that title started losing sales. 

After the merger with Action it went from strength to strength with a notable high point being Charley's War, a realistic and extremely well-researched journey the whole of the First World War told from the perspective of a young man (he is sixteen at the start) becoming increasingly disillusioned. It was written by comics legend Pat Mills and drawn by Joe Colquhoun (of Roy of the Rovers) and is available in a series of graphic novels by Titan.

Soon, however, problem started to set in. In 1983 the publisher struck a deal with Palitoy, the comany that owned GI Joe, and space was given over to reprint GI Joe comics.

Now GI Joe never took off in the UK for some reason, which is a shame as I know what a touchstone it is for American boys who grew up in the 80s. Over here the comics, the cartoons and the toys were renamed Action Force, maybe because "GI" was a specifically American term, maybe to make Brits associate them with Action Man, a popular toy line that was linked thematically if not legally.

The comic was renamed Battle Action Force until 1986 when Marvel UK got the rights to GI Joe and started publishing its own Action Force comic. Battle limped along with its own rip-off Storm Force until January 1988. 
As for Action.... Hoo boy, that's a story for another time.

Short version: two of the freelancers whose work on Battle had made it a best-seller (the afore-mentioned Pat Mills and future Dredd co-creator John Wagner) were hired to create a new boys' comic for the modern world and today's boys. The result was an exciting blend of tough guys, hyper-violence and killer sharks. Most stories were set firmly in the present, though some were still at war and some in dystopian futures.

The result: high sales, huge enjoyment and a tabloid "Ban this sick filth" backlash. A threat of boycott by WH Smith meant the editors were forced to pull back on what made it exciting in the first place and sales dropped so much that the title ended with some rescued strips carrying over to Battle. 

Or should I say Battle-Action? For that is where we start today!

As you can see from the contents page above, we are promised 7 powerful hard-hitting stories! So let's Jump in to Story 1: Major Eazy. 
Created for Battle from the start by writer Alan Hebden and aritist (and other co-creator of Dredd) Carlos Ezquerra, Eazy is a tough no-nonsense fighter who always went into battle in a chauffeur-driven Bentley. 

Above you can see him driving while his companion (at this point a Bedouin called Tewfik) mows down a bunch of Jerries with ease.

It's worth noting that in spite of Tewfik calling the Major "El Eazy" and "effendi" it is still refreshing to see an Arab character on the heroic side, even as a sidekick. This is historically acceptable too, as this story starts off in North Africa (date unknown but early in the war).

However we are about to move... 
Typical hothead hero who won't play the rules.

Hilariously he insists on taking his car with him. 
Shortly after docking in Greece, Eazy sees something suspicious beneath the water... 
Spotting two Italian scuba divers planting a bomb on the ship, he does the only thing he can with only one harpoon.... 
Got 'em! 

It's too late to stop the bomb, so Eazy makes sure the priority objective is achieved. Saving his car.

This 4-page strip was fun! It bodes well for the the rest of this issue.

Now, a paid message from Palitoy. 
The next 3-page strip is Johnny Red, by Tom Tully and the aforementioned Joe Culquhoun. The strip is surtitled "The pilot who can't fly for Britain!" His backstory (from previous issues of Battle) is that he was dishonourably discharged from the RAF and ended up in Russia with a stolen Hurricane, fighting Nazis from the other side.

This strip opens at one of history's greatest tragedies: Stalingrad. 
All right, keep it light...

A caption tells us it is May 1942 (and also calls it Leningrad)  and we see Johnny (known to the locals as "'Djavol' - The Red Devil!") saving some civilians from an aerial attack. 
Tales of his heroism do not sit well with him, however and he slips into uneasy dreams... 
A vision of death haunts him as he is called out to another mission...

To Be Continued... 
Next up, a message from the Airfix Modellers Club, and its Club President, the man with the sandpaper penis. 
On now to Hellman of Hammer Force. Or, more accurately, The Early Adventures of... Hellman of Hammer Force.

Hellman was created for Action by Gerry Finley-Day and Mike Dory and was unique (as far as I'm aware) in British war comics heroes because he was (drum roll) German! 

Even though the text make it clear he is not a Nazi and has no affiliation to the German war effort, it was still too confusing for some readers.

"How is it that a German can be a hero?" was the thought of one reader's letter. And the publicity blurbs in the comics themselves still referred to him as a "Squarehead" and a "Kraut".

This story, however, takes place years before the Action strips, giving us the Secret Origin of Hellman (heir to the mayonnaise fortune). 
Here "Hun" is not meant pejoratively, it is the name of the commander of the tank division, rolling into Poland in September 1939. They come across a Polish cavalry on horseback and all tanks are commanded to fire on them. Hellman disobeys because of how unfair it is and after the the Poles are obliterated he is disciplined.

That evening the soldiers have celebratory drinks in a stable in a nearby village to which Hellman and his crew are not invited.

Then... 
Mein Gott!

All of the tank division but Hellman's crew are wiped out and when an unarmed Hellman stumbles into the stable he takes whatever comes to hand as a weapon. Fortunately what comes to hand is a massive sledgehammer. 
Thwack!

With Hun dead, Hellman is promoted to Major and put in command of the division, which he now renames "Hammer Force". 

Now, have you ever imagined having Yogi Bear to tell you the time? Me too! 
Not going to lie, I would wear that Hong Kong Fooey watch today.

The centre pages are given over to part one of a giant 4-part poster featuring aircraft through the ages. The large image in the centre you can see on the cover at the top of the page, but I'll present the three World War II planes on this week's quarter in full for those who like that kind of thing: 
There's an ad for Cheeky on the next page (with what looks like Dicky Howett art)... 
...below which is this exciting ad for Airfix Eagles, a new kind of modelling from the company...
...and the page is completed with the rules to Spinball... 
Ah, yes, Spinball. Originally titled Death Game 1999, it was one of the strips in Action that caught the eye of the moral guardians. Essentially a rip-off of the movie Rollerball, with bits of Death Race 2000 thrown in, it tells of a future in which criminals are forced to play in a deadly team sport with motorbikes and huge steel balls for the entertainment of the masses. Some elements seem to prefigure The Running Man too.

Conceived by Geoff Kemp but written by Tom Tully, it was drawn by various artists (I can't say for sure who drew this issue's strip but I'm guessing Costa who seemed the closest thing to a regular artist it had).

The strip was renamed The Spinball Wars to appease the professionally outraged and on its arrival here in Battle-Action we get an introduction to this far off world of 2001. It's always funny seeing predictions of a future that is now our past, so let's have a chuckle at how wrong it is... 
"By the year 2001 the world had still to find a formula for total global peace. Rival dictatorships still clashed in short, isolated wars, and people still suffered and died for a thousand different causes... Border clashes
Guerilla conflict
Civil war
Terrorism"

Oh.

That was the world of 2001.

It's spot on.

How unbelievably depressing.

Anyway, we press on with a game already in progress. 
So, we're kicking off with violence. Lovely. 
A quick info dump on our protagonist before we're introduced to the whole team individually, my favourite is Steel. 
"In the 1970s, his left eye, and his left arm, would have been termed bionic..." but we're not saying that so don't sue us.

(Aside: Too many commas in the captions here)

But... 
A twist to the story up to now to show the strip is moving on as it moves house as the stadium explodes! But before anything can happen to the team, an SPV from Captain Scarlet arrives. 
*Edit* A reader points out that this vehicle is much closer in design to SHADO 2 from UFO and they are not wrong. It's copyright-infringingly close. Viddy:

They are whisked away and given a demonstration of some brand new equipment... 
But who are these benefactors and what do they want? And why? 
The above ad shares space with the following message for readers:
Ah, Captain Hurricane. By now, the only surviving character from Valiant, created in 1962 by Charles Roylance, his more whimsical adventures had been driven further and further out of place as war stories got grittier and so was relegated to the letters page when Battle absorbed Valiant.

Next up: Joe Two Beans!

Originally created for Battle by John Wagner and Eric Bradbury, he is introduced here as "Indian fighter Joe Two Beans" which took me a moment to parse. He doesn't fight Indians, he is an Indian who fights. He's not from India, he's a Native American (Blackfoot to be precise).

Apparently for the first eleven issues he didn't speak (I'm guessing because Wagner had just watched One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) but by now he's talking um heap big dialect. He's not exactly Little Plum but it's not much better. At the start of this week's strip he's in a company in New Guinea with his "blood brother" Sawdust Smith whom he is about to save from a snake! 
And Native Americans use the whole snake... 
However, when some Japanese fighters fly in out of nowhere, Joe is forced to use the snake as a makeshift lasso!  
Those sneaky Japanese are destroying aircraft carriers with "a fanatical suicide group known as kamikaze... or divine wind", the one pilot they capture alive does not stay that way for long ("Crazy Nip! He jest shot himself")

Joe is assigned a new partner to infiltrate an enemy base on Pointless favourite the Solomon Islands. 
Joe immediately takes against the new guy for racist reasons. 
To be continued...

I like that a lot, setting up stories to challenge prejudices. Also this story will now have both protagonists non-white. Which is very rare.

I didn't mention earlier but every story ends with an exciting strap line telling us how great Battle-Action is. I'll include the one from this page: 
See, a lot of the personnel from Battle and Action had recently collaborated on the brand new comic 2000AD which made a big deal out of its "Thrill Power!" 

Next up, another well-remembered Action hero: Dredger! I'm including the whole first page of his story, cos it's awesome. 
Oh yes, Britain's got Dredger! 

Dredger was James Bond as filtered through Dirty Harry. He was tough, no nonsense (yes, I know, it's the remit for a lot of these characters) and gave little boys of the 70s what they wanted. Created by Geoff Campion but written and drawn by many people (I don't have credits for this story).
Someone is targeting members of the agency to which Dredger belongs (DI6). In fact the explosion above has just taken out Breed, who, up till now, was Dredger's sidekick!

When his boss tells him to leave the case, he makes like Bond and goes rogue. 
Except Bond never punched out M and then hung him out of a window with tied-together sheets until he gave up his information! 
The whole thing ends on a cliffhanger as Dredger returns home to a booby trap... 
To be continued!

The strap line on this page might solve our Trident problem: 
Finally, we have The Sarge, a pipe-smoking Sergeant in North Africa (1942) who we keep being told is the best. 
This proved trickier to research (no, Google, I don't mean the WWE wrestler) but I think the art is by Mike Western.  
It is, however, the weakest story in the issue so it's a shame it's the last. Some nice depiction of mine-clearing machinery aside it had nothing to recommend it. 
So that was Battle-Action. A more fun read than I was expecting, to be honest. And I have the next few issues so will read on to find out what happens next!

I'll leave you with the back page ad, a reminder that once every few years, yo-yos come back into fashion. When I was at school they were "Coca-Cola Spinners" and in 1977 you could get a "Treborland Yo-yo and Trick Book" by saving up sweet wrappers. 


Sunday, 4 June 2017

If rain makes Britain great, then Manchester is Greater

I didn't want to write this.

Really.

My usual thing is picking up some old British comic and mocking it from my smug, high-minded, 21st century libtard perspective.

The last time I had to write about something serious it was because cartoonists were attacked. Which came within my purview.

Now, I know you don't need some idiot blogger telling you that terrorism is bad. Or even that you feel it more when it happens close to you. You are a human.

I mean, probably. I don't know. I could set a Captcha here to test you, but I'm willing to trust.

Anyway, the attack in Paris in January 2015 was specifically against artists. Which felt personal. 

Then on the 22nd of May 2017 a suicide bomber walked into a music venue in Manchester and killed 22 people.

Now that really felt personal.

I was born in Manchester and spent almost all of my life here. I love this city and have studied its amazing history.

Also: a friend of mine works at the Manchester Arena and was alarmingly close to the blast, escaping with nothing more than cuts.

I really like that guy. He makes awesome cosplay weapons.

So why not write about it?

Two things: This is a comics blog.
Should I crowbar in a link to the comics history of Manchester and say it's relevant? Seems a bit naff.

And everyone else wants to seem like they care. No, I mean it, really care. So what if I do?

However I do care. Enough to want to scream at people. And out of all the things I do, this is the platform with the largest audience.


(Brilliant 80s comic Oink! was conceived by people mostly from the Manchester area, including Marc Riley and Tony Husband)

On the day after the attack, here was my response on the Facebooks: 
Yep. I'm old enough that I primarily use Facebook. And I've now given you my real name. And left in the number of likes and shares, desperately hoping they'll impress you, internet stranger.

(Marc Riley created Harry the Head and Dr Mooney (he's completely looney) but is best known as a DJ for Radio 1 (as Lard,co-presenter with Mark Radcliffe) and now 6 Music and can be seen with Bowie and Viz here)

Manchester's history is truly impressive. 

(Tony Husband is probably best known for creating Yobs for Private Eye but was also responsible for Horace "Ugly Face" Watkins and the weekly cartoon in the free paper we used to get)

The character of this city is built on standing up to authority and protecting the weak.

(Current Beano artist Kev F Sutherland lives here and runs comic art masterclasses for schools. He also performs regularly as The Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre)

It's where Engels wrote his treatise on the conditions of the working class, Emmeline Pankhurst began the suffrage movement and Anthony Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange.
(The cartoonist Adam Caldwell recorded four years of his life here in his web comic "The Everyday". In at least one he drew himself in my regular comic shop, talking to my friends. The very shop where I bought the printed issues of The Everyday)

It's where the industrial revolution began. Something which changed the world forever. It's also where Rutherford split the atom and Babbage built the first computer. We're also quite proud of graphene.
(In the Marvel Universe, the Manchester Gods appeared in the Arthurian realm of Otherworld demanding that realm should change and modernize. Camelot and Avalon had remained stuck millennia behind the Britain it was meant to represent. They created various sites of mystical power across the UK, in Manchester it is at the Hacienda and in Northampton it's in Alan Moore's greenhouse)

During the American Civil War the people of Manchester stood opposed to slavery and in favour of emancipation, in spite of knowing that it would drive up the cost of cotton, the main resource on which the city depended. Abraham Lincoln himself wrote a letter to the people here which can be read on his statue in Lincoln Square today.

(In the DC Universe Manchester Black is a cocky little gobshite who is the leader of a superhero team called The Elite. Intended as a commentary on The Authority they stood opposed to Superman and his "old fashioned" method of superheroing.)

In 1819 fifteen people were killed and hundreds more injured at a political rally the became known as Peterloo. It inspired Shelley to write "The Masque of Anarchy" and cartoonist George Cruikshank to create a pamphlet called "The Political House That Jack Built".

(It sold over a hundred thousand copies and was created using a new printing technique which combined wood (used for printing images) and metal (for text) presses which saved costs and enabled a much wider distribution. For the first time in history words and pictures appeared on paper together)

1996 an IRA bomb took out a sizeable chunk of Manchester town centre without stopping us getting on with our lives. We got a much nicer Arndale Centre out of it. I still miss the Corn Exchange, mind. There's a plaque on this defiant post box.
(There was a Manchester-based artist working for DC comics at the time whose work on the latest issue of Robin was being posted back to New York (imagine a time when we relied on the postal service for such things!) and got delayed due to being in that post box. There was an editorial in DC comics of the time about it. However I can't find any record of it now and am cruelly separated from my 90s collection at the moment so can't look it up. If anyone knows who the artist was, please tell me in the comments)

A spirit of defiance is what binds this city. 
While the Bee has become the symbol associate with the recent tragedy - there's an amazing amount of beautiful graffiti art that's popped up around town incorporating it and everywhere I go I see tattoos and t-shirts - I prefer to stick with my choice of Manchester's patron saint: Maharajah to elephant.

Seen here in a painting by Heywood Hardy called "The Disputed Toll", Maharajah was walked from Edinburgh to Belle Vue zoo after an altercation on the train he was meant to ride there in.

I won't go through his whole story here but it is fascinating. Suffice to say stories of his journey became legendary, particularly what happened at that toll gate, and he was given a hero's welcome and declared Mancunian.
In 2015 the artist Oliver East recreated the walk Maharajah took and produced a graphic novel of his journey called "Take Me back to Manchester". I haven't read it yet because I've been working on my own version of the story. You can find his work here.

Thank you for everything Manchester. We love you.

I didn't even mention the music or the sport.