As Garth Ennis points out in his afterword to this collection of stories, originally printed in weekly British war comic Battle, he didn’t write any of them. However, sticking his name on the front isn’t entirely gratuitous, as these are his picks of the best Battle stories (discounting those already published in separate collections of Charley’s War, Darkie’s Mob and Johnny Red). As a curator of a collection like this he’s supremely qualified, having grown up with the stories, maintained a lifelong fascination with war, and even writing several war series of his own.
This is a big book, beautifully presented, as we’ve come accustomed to with Titan’s reverent reprinting of classic British comics. This is no floppy-covered phone directory, but a solid chunk of history with crisp printing. It makes the comics look like they were drawn yesterday.
What’s most surprising is that the bulk of the book is handed over to a single series, HMS Nightshade, originally published in 1979. The story of a plucky little corvette, escorting supply convoys from Western Europe to Arctic Russia, under constant threat of bomber raids and U-boat attack, is an extraordinary epic. The close confines of the boat and its small crew make for some amazing human stories, of normal men staring over the precipice of doom, forcing them to become heroes, cowards and cold-bloodied killers.
The danger and horror of life at sea is at the forefront of the story. Nothing but grit, determination and luck can keep the Nightshade afloat, and in the frozen Arctic waters, luck is very hard to come by. John Wagner’s research is as meticulous as his story crafting and, as usual, no quarter is given to the fact that his target reader is a young boy. War is hell for everyone involved, and this story won’t let you forget it.
Following it is another series, The General Dies at Dawn. This is shorter but just as hard- hitting, taking the viewpoint of an honest German officer, as heroic and honourable as any allied commander. After demonstrating his ability to command a Panzer tank division, he rolls around Europe’s battles, trouncing the allies and winning medals. However, he doesn’t approve of the SS and their unpleasant tactics, and eventually ends up in prison, despite his heroics, facing his last night before execution. Interesting for being from the perspective of the Germans, this doesn’t carry the gravitas of Nightshade, but is still a great piece of storytelling.
The final three shorts are illustrated by Cam Kennedy and look as fresh and sophisticated as ever. These shocking little tales of death and glory are as perfect as you could hope for. Next to Nightshade they look like filler, but what else can a three-page story be next to such a sweeping epic?