REVIEW: Garth Ennis curates important piece of British comics history in ‘Battle Classics’

(Titan Comics)

Using a writer of Garth Ennis’s calibre to present some of the greatest works of British comic history presumably lends the idea that past writers like John Wagner or Alan Hebden were as good as him. However, in all truth, the opposite message actually reveals itself: through their influence, he is as good as them, meaning that their writing set the standards for good storytelling that Ennis became influenced by. Battle was an amazing comic and Ennis chooses stories like “H.M.S. Nightshade” and “The General Dies at Dawn” as sterling examples of its features.

Garth Ennis is a masterful talent, clear and simple, but he is also a legacy of the English comic writing tradition – the same tradition that birthed writers like Alan Moore, Pat Mills and Dan Abnett. But, I love Ennis’ s work: Preacher, the British influence he brought to DC with his mastery of John Constantine in Hellblazer, and then there is the absolute horror and brutality in his run of Crossed.

I also personally identify with the connection to the heritage of British comics that I share with him. Ennis’s stories realize events on a gritty, relatedly human level. The four colour stories of super-hero fiction are not his lot, though when his writing borders on the super human, it is a rare treat. He’s a success story that that I have kept a close eye on and I’m very happy to see him get credit for his works and the honour to introduce these seminal stories of British comic fiction.

It’s fascinating to see to see the comparisons in the writing styles though. British comics in the 70’s and 80’s have traditionally demonstrated a definitive and uncensored inclusion of violence. There is also a brutality in which comic characters are eliminated from the story to ensure a more structured and rewarding adventure, regardless of the reader’s attachment to them.

(Titan Comics)

There is no more appropriate milieu to see this demonstrated than in a war comic. War comics have acted like a crucible in which an entire generation of British writers have honed their talents. It’s also a medium that resonates strongly with British tradition and national character. They permeated young readers’ choices of literature and created a strong sense of history in their cultural foundation. In Britain, kids grew up reading these stories able to tell you the technical differences between a Hawker Hurricane and a Supermarine Spitfire – vehicles that flew in the skies almost forty years before their births. But these stories also taught kids about the fragility of life in war and that people died – even the hero of the stories.

The two main stories this volume focuses on are “H.M.S. Nightshade”, written by John Wagner and drawn by Mike Western; along with “The General Dies at Dawn” by Alan Hebden and John Cooper. Ennis points out the similarity between the two stories in his foreword: both of the main subjects in each story are fated to end by the tales’ conclusions. They are also both narratives presented in the form of memories in the purest form of storytelling.

“H.M.S. Nightshade” is a perfect British story. Not only does it shine a spotlight on one of the best expressions of British pride – the Royal Navy, but it also revolves around a veteran grandfather telling his grandson about his experiences on board a corvette escorting convoys across the Atlantic, the H.M.S. Nightshade. It begins at the site of the Nightshade’s wreck, just off the coast, close to old George Dunn’s village.

The men that served on escort duty were heroes, every one of them. Churchill declared the Arctic Run to Murmansk as the “worst journey in the world”, and with U-Boat attacks, sub-arctic temperatures and the constant weather to contend with, who could argue? My own grandfather was one of these men who survived the entire war crossing the globe on Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships. This comic not only resonated with me, but with thousands of other readers from my generation who grew up hearing about what their grandfathers did or the valour of Britain’s historic first line of defense – the Royal Navy. This story is, as Ennis says, a fine tribute to their courage.

Nightshade is sunk after action with a U-Boat. Her wreckage lies at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, luckily remarkably close to the country she defended. Many other ships didn’t get that reward. But it is remarkable to note that her eventual death is clearly announced at the beginning of the story and that only one of her crew survives to tell the tale. What remarkable storytelling.

(Titan Comics)

“The General Dies at Dawn” is an example of a trend that emerged in post-war academic studies – the notion of the “good” German soldier. These are Wehrmacht soldiers who do not subscribe to the notions of their SS counterparts, but are critical of their officers’ ideologically-driven orders and simply fight to defend their country. Though they fight when ordered by these men, they still retain their consciences and this story is an insight into the mind of the German soldier in his struggle to try to retain his humanity.

General Margen is one of these soldiers. A superb officer and accomplished victor of many battles in service of the Reich, he is tried and found guilty by a military court on charges by the Gestapo for dereliction of duty. He relates his tale to his jailer about how he earned the enmity of the SS and the Gestapo and despite his many victories, was eventually sentenced to death at dawn. The entire story arc takes place overnight before dawn … and his firing squad.

It’s a difficult perspective for a World War II story to maintain, not to mention in which to portray a hero. Still, it’s an amazing read and given that in the days of a Cold War, the Germans would be on the front lines, though armed with American equipment. It was necessary to see the German soldier in this way. It also re-affirmed the theme of universal humanity in which we see General Margen break into a Gestapo prison to rescue a young Yugoslavian boy mistakenly identified as a spy, only to release him back into the nation Germany was invading. The boy’s confusion is apparent, but Margen’s sense of right and wrong is affirmed in his statement that the Wehrmacht does not declare war on boys.

For all his heroism, Margen is killed. But he is killed as a soldier – in combat defending the prison that held him captive. There was hope that the attacking Americans would take him as a prisoner of war, but he is heroic to the end, identified by his loyal sergeant who is left alive to bear witness to the general’s nobility. A tragic hero, no doubt, and a mesmerizing character who demands our attention.

Later on, Ennis also introduces us to three one-shot stories drawn by the great Cam Kennedy. These are also snippets of the British war experience on the Pacific and European fronts. Moreover, given that they are only five or six pages long, also represent masterful craft in Kennedy’s drawing but also amazing storytelling from Dave Hunt.

Battle was an amazing part of the comic landscape of Britain. It shaped thousands of young readers and made them aware of their nation’s history and heritage while teaching them about the hard life-lessons of war. It had the additional benefit of creating writers like Ennis.

Ennis is a military history enthusiast. This stuff is right up his alley, but at the same time, we can’t forget the amazing talent that he is privileged to introduce. More importantly, this is the stuff he grew up reading. It is a strong thread in his literature heritage and also a recognizable influence on his own writing. I couldn’t think of anyone else who would not only be able to lend credibility to this book, but also enjoy the prospect of introducing it.

Go look for this. Garth Ennis presents Battle Classics isn’t just a book that can entertain you, but it’s one that you can learn from.

About Captain John K. Kirk

Captain John K. Kirk
John Kirk is an English and History teacher and librarian in Toronto, Canada. In addition to the traditional curriculum, John tries to teach his students to make sense of geek culture. And with the name "J. Kirk," it's hard for him to not inject "Star Trek" into his lessons. Comics, RPGs and the usual fanboy gear make up his classroom resources.

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