Of all the strips in the new Action 2020 Special, none are perhaps more exciting than Hellman Of Hammer Force… and now acclaimed writer Garth Ennis (Preacher) and the definitive Hellman artist and co-creator, Mike Dorey, have brought the tank commander back in The Twilight Of The Reich.
Originally created by writer Gerry Finley-Day and Mike Dorey, Hellman was one of those classic examples of turning expectations around, making the enemy the unconventional hero, in this case, a German Panzer major. It was part of what made Action a 1970s phenomenon, terrifying the likes of The Sun (which called it “the sevenpenny nightmare”) and Mary Whitehouse and her National Viewers and Listeners Association, which campaigned to “protect” the kids who absolutely loved the comic!
And now Hellman is back as part of the Action Special 2020, alongside the return of other favourites, Hookjaw, Dredger, and Kids Rule OK, as well as the brand-new all-action tale of Hell Machine. It all kicks-off this week in newsagents and comic book shops, as well as the Treasury of British Comics webshop and the 2000 AD app.
I suppose the first thing we should ask is exactly what the story is about this time – is it a return to a specific time in Hammer Force’s history, in which case are we looking at Europe, Africa, the Russian Front?
Garth Ennis: The story fits into my favourite Hellman run, when Hammer Force was no more and Hellman was falling back under the relentless Russian advance in 1945, along with his last surviving tank crew- Big Max, Dekker, Heiler and Kessel.
Those episodes – actually in Battle rather than Action – had a real feeling of doom descending on the whole German nation, as the vengeful Soviets killed everyone in their path, soldiers and civvies alike. At the same time, the strip didn’t flinch from revealing the worst excesses of the Nazis – at one point I recall our heroes running across a death camp, whose inmates had only just been liquidated.
And without giving the story away, what can we expect from the return of Hammer Force?
GE: So we join our ragged little band and their Panther tank as they struggle to stay one step ahead of the Red hordes, falling back on Berlin along with the rest of the German army. A chance encounter with a little group of civilians sees the tank men battling for their lives, and some nasty secrets coming out of the woodwork. The story’s title is The Twilight of the Reich, which I think sums things up quite neatly.
How did the project come about for both of you? Garth, it’s been a long time since we’ve seen you in the pages of anything from Rebellion and Mike, as far as I can find out, you’ve been largely absent from comics for a long while.
Mike Dorey: The first I heard about Rebellion publishing the Action Special was when Garth emailed and asked if I would like to illustrate a 10 page Hellman story. Of course, I said I’d love to.
GE: Rob Williams gave me the heads-up about the new line of specials, and I got in touch with editor Keith Richardson to offer my services.
Garth, obviously your love of telling war stories is well-known, with such titles as War Stories, Rifle Brigade, Battlefields, Johnny Red, and World Of Tanks. But I imagine that something like Hellman of Hammer Force is a bit of a dream project, especially getting to work with the original series artist?
GE: By a complete coincidence, another friend of mine put me in touch with Mike, who he’d met at a con the week before, and I wasted no time asking him if he’d like to draw Hellman again.
Obviously I leapt at the chance to work with the strip’s original artist, who both began it in Action in 1976 and ended in it in Battle two years later. I’ve always been a big Mike Dorey fan; his work is dynamic, dark and brutal, but at the same time there’s a wonderfully subtle sense of character in there.
What was it that really attracted you to war stories, especially given that, unfortunately, it’s a genre of comics that has fallen foul to the dominance of superhero work? I know you’re not exactly a fan of superheroes and your career has been one of finding other genres to work in or, when you do touch on superheroes, mercilessly subverting the supers genre. Because after all, it is just a genre of comics, one that’s dominated for far too long, to the detriment of the art itself.
GE: Agree completely. I read war comics as a kid – Battle, Warlord, Commando and the various Picture Libraries – and I suppose I have the same affection for them that everyone else has for superhero comics (were it not for a quirk of distribution in the part of Northern Ireland I grew up in I’d have been reading superheroes too, so obviously I dodged a bullet there- I’d have nothing really different to offer and would just be one more guy writing the X-Men!)
But the war comics I read led me to one crucial little insight, which was that – allowing for the hyperbole involved in comics at the time – they were based on reality, on things that people had actually done. To me, this has always given war stories a vitality that no fantasy story can ever possess.
Garth, you’re of a similar age to me, and I never saw Action the first time around. Was it the same for you, and if so, what was your first exposure to it?
GE: The funny thing was that I always used to think I’d read Action as a kid, but it wasn’t until I got a look at a full run as an adult that I realized that this was one of those tricks that memory plays on you. I’d seen a few issues back then, and I was familiar with the characters- Hookjaw was hard to miss, and Hellman, Dredger and Spinball Wars were all running in Battle when I started that in 1978.
But in fact, I hadn’t really read Action itself. I was a bit young for it; my first real encounter with the great British comics of the ‘70s was 2000 AD. So working on Hellman now is more about the character and stories I knew from Battle – having read them all now, I think that those stories are actually superior to the Hellman material in Action. Certainly, the Action art is just as good, but the writing towards the end of the Battle run is streets ahead.
Mike, over the years, we’ve seen a few reprints of the material, yet nothing comprehensive. I imagine I’d be right to think you’d love, as would we all, to see your Hellman work back in print from the Treasury of British Comics and Rebellion at some point?
MD: Yes, I would love to see a book of Hellman stories. Rebellion sent me copies of books featuring my work on Invasion, Ro-Busters, and Rogue Trooper which I thought worked well.
GE: On that note, it would be fantastic to see a complete collection of Hellman from the strip’s run in both comics- great stories, and all that fantastic art by Mike Dorey and Pat Wright.
Going back to your work on the original Action, Mike, did you have any idea at the time that it was going to be so incendiary? After all, Hellman was really the first strip to attempt to show the war from the enemy point of view in comics and, back in the 70s, it was definitely a difficult subject to tackle, just three decades on from the end of WWII.
MD: For the first few episodes of Action I worked in the same room as Pat Mills and it was obvious that he relished the prospect of launching such a ‘hard-core’ comic – MORE BLOOD, MORE GORE! we loved it!
Having drawn so many war stories featuring British heroes it was quite a treat to draw a German one – especially as I had recently been reading some of Sven Hassel’s books. It was after this that DCT decided that they too should have some German heroes and so I drew for them Iron Annie, Kampfgruppe Falken, Big Willi, and The Fighting Condor.
Your work on the original was in wonderfully stark b&w. And quite rightly, it’s coming back as a b&w strip. But was there ever a question about adding colour to it and how would you have felt about that?
MD: As the story concerns action on the Eastern Front it works best, I think, in b&w. One always thinks of how cold, miserable and grim it must have been – unlike, for instance, battle in a tropical area which would be better in colour.
As regards working in colour I remember that a story I drew in Eagle, Computer Warrior, went from b&w to colour and was much improved. So I never had a problem with doing the colouring.
Mike, you brought a wonderful style, full of great textures, to your comics work, whether it was the war strips such as Hellman, Cadman, Big Willi, Iron Annie or Sergeant Rayker, or the strips, including Ro-Busters, M.A.C.H. Zero and Rogue Trooper in 2000 AD.
As I said earlier, you’ve been away from comics for the longest time, was it something you ever thought you’d come back to?
MD: Having been out of comics for close on 30 years it came as a complete surprise that people were interested in the work I did so long ago. I only found out about this when my wife and I were on holiday and just happened to come across The Lakes International Com Con.
But now I have been a guest at a few comic cons and they have whetted my appetite to get back into drawing some strips – so I was especially pleased to do the Hellman story.
Mike, it’s wonderful to hear that you’re finding out what we all knew – that there are so many fans of your work out there! So now that you’ve come back into the fold, can we expect/hope to see more from you soon? Maybe more Action and more Hellman?
MD: Yes! If the chance comes to some Hellman or some other story from the distant past – let me at it!
Garth, are the ideas for more strips already percolating around your head?
GE: As far as new material goes, I’m talking to Rebellion about a couple of projects and I’d certainly like to try my hand at other Battle characters- writing Johnny Red a few years back was a dream come true. Regarding Hellman in particular, I have no specific ideas right now- but if Mike was available for another Action Special you can bet I’d come up with something to suit him.
I should point out that PJ Holden and I have a new graphic novel out in May from Dead Reckoning, The Stringbags, based on the exploits of the Royal Navy’s Swordfish torpedo-bomber crews in WW2.
Now that definitely sounds like it’s a date with Garth for the Battle Special that you’ll see later this year!
Make sure you pick up your copy of the Action 2020 Special on Wednesday 23rd March. There’s also te special edition, only available from the 2000 AD and Treasury of British Comics webshops, which comes bagged with a reproduction of the ‘banned’ issue of Action from October 1976!