Battle was one of the most ground-breaking of a whole raft of British war comics, but it’s now been more than 30 years since it was on the shelves.
All that changes with the publication of the Battle of Britain Special from the Treasury of British Comics on 16 September!
But more importantly, it’s also been 80 years since the Battle of Britain, hence the title for this new Rebellion & Treasury of British Comics special. The Battle of Britian Special is definitely a celebration of the classic British war comics, yet also a chance to reflect on those we’ve lost.
Leading off the Special is The Tough Way Out, a Rat Pack tale by Garth Ennis and Keith Burns, who previously worked together on the revival of Johnny Red for Titan Books. We caught up with the gents to talk about the worst group of soldiers WWII ever saw…
For those who don’t know anything about Rat Pack or Battle, how would you describe the strip and the comic for them?
GARTH ENNIS: Rat Pack are a WWII British special forces unit consisting of their leader, Major Taggart, and the four men he pulled out of military prison to form the team: Matthew Dancer, marksman and knife expert, Ian Rogan, athlete, Ronald Weasel, safecracker and comms man, and Kabul Hassan- a huge ex-Cyprus Rifles thug known as Turk. They take on the jobs others won’t, utilizing their criminal skills to get the job done. All four of the commandos hate Taggart for various reasons, and rarely miss an opportunity to betray him- but he tends to stay one jump ahead.
And as far as your Rat Pack tale, The Tough Way Out, what can we expect this group of reprobates to get up to?
GE: The Tough Way Out sees the Pack attempting to rescue an American General from a German prison. It’s told largely in flashback; the General has a complaint or two about his “rescue” and a court of enquiry has had to be convened.
It’s got all the feel of the classic strip – all of that anti-authoritarian tone, the pompous American General moaning about his ‘rescue’ by Rat Pack at the court of enquiry, the wonderful come back of Major Taggart – ‘You say Tomayto’.
All there not just to make us smile, but to set up the two opposing sides in all this – and I’m not really talking the Rat Pack vs the Germans, it’s more the Rat Pack against the establishment military.
How much fun was it to write and draw for the pair of you – I do hope it was, as I had a huge smile on my face all the way through reading it.
GE: I thoroughly enjoyed myself writing Rat Pack. I have a great deal of fondness for the characters from reading the old strips in Battle, but even beyond that they’re great fun. A nice mixture of rogues, ne’er-do-wells and thoroughgoing vermin that I’d happily go back to. Generally I’m less interested in special forces stories than in regular tales from the battlefield nowadays, but by their very nature the Pack are one step further away from reality in that regard- and so I’m happy to enjoy them in the same way that I do slightly dafter war movie fare like Where Eagles Dare or Kelly’s Heroes.
Garth, I imagine you read Battle the first time round as a young lad? What was it about Battle that made it so different and ground-breaking for you – or was it just the lure of the excitement of war?
GE: I started reading Battle aged eight- it was really the first war comic I’d read for any length of time. I enjoyed the Picture Libraries and Commando, but because each story in those was self-contained, you couldn’t really get into them in the way you could the serials in Battle. It might have been that there was something more vital about reality-based war stories than what I was reading in 2000AD, or maybe it just stood up well to the war movies I was enjoying around that time- The Battle of Britain, The Guns of Navarone, A Bridge Too Far, et al. But whatever the reason, I loved Battle – and still do.
Anyway, back to Rat Pack, it was created by Gerry Finley-Day and Carlos Ezquerra, but I know you have a particular fondness for the era in ’79 with Alan Hebden (who’s in the Battle Special alongside you with El Mestizo) and Eric Bradbury.
GE: Yes, I think that last series in 1979 brings everything together for Rat Pack. The Hebden/Bradbury team is a match made in heaven (see also Crazy Keller and Death Squad, two of Battle’s best strips), and the consistency of script and art seems to make the characters and stories come alive and gel in a way they haven’t before. Alan Hebden’s laid-back wit is a pleasant accompaniment to Bradbury’s expertly-drawn carnage.
And, of course, you’ve already collaborated with Keith on the Titan Comics version of Johnny Red, as well as the Hellman of Hammer Force strip earlier this year with Mike Dorey. Just what is it that seems to always draw you back to war tales, especially in a comics market that doesn’t seem all that set up to deal with much beyond the norm?
GE: As for war stories, I’m interested in the grand strategy, the politics, the tactics and the hardware, but what keeps me coming back is the human element- the things that people do in the most extreme circumstances of all. Ultimately, stories based on reality are going to hold my attention that bit longer than fantasy- it’s the stuff you can’t make up that fascinates me, and keeps me coming back for more.
Keith, I see that you’re hideously young (anyone younger than Garth or myself is officially hideously young), which makes it slightly more unusual for you to become one of the recognised masters of aviation and wartime artwork.
How did you get into aviation and wartime artwork?
KEITH BURNS: Well, I’ve had an interest in aviation and comics for years but it took a while to bring them together.
I started on comics in 2007 and worked on bits and bobs eventually finding my way to working on The Boys with Garth and John McCrea. I got to do a few WWII flashbacks in that story which lead to Garth and I working on the WWII aviation titles we’ve worked on since.
During that time I joined the Guild of Aviation Artists to improve my painting. This eventually led to an exhibition at the RAF Club in London which lead to the Ladybird books I am currently working on. I attended airshows for exposure and started picking up commissions and commercial work. I recently signed up with Aces High Gallery and am painting a lot more.
And what memories of Battle did you have when you came to drawing this fondly remembered strip?
KB: I was a bit young to read Battle when it was out originally, some older boys had it but I didn’t get into comics till later on starting with 2000 AD. I discovered Battle through the reprints was delighted to discover it was right up my street. The art is still stunning – so many classic artists. And of course, I got to work on Johnny Red from Battle with Garth – that was a dream job for me and we hope to do another.
Keith, one thing that’s always good to do with these interviews is to chat about the process you use. It’s especially fascinating with you, as your day-in, day-out work is more painterly.
KB: I started in comics and that’s where I learnt everything I use in painting. Working in black and white made me concentrate on tone and recession. Working in brush and ink improved my brushwork for painting immensely and also makes you describe everything clearly, you can’t really suggest things with inks the way you can with painting, which makes it much more difficult.
There’s no better training than comics for figuring out composition, you have to compose thousands of panels and as you go you figure out what makes them look interesting. Completely unique to comics is the fact that you have to lead the reader’s eye from panel to panel through the page, you don’t have to do this in paintings or single illustrations, yes, you have to lead the eye around the image but not out to the next image or wonder about how it will fit in the whole page full of other images.
Then there’s capturing the physical movement and kinetic energy which again I figured out in comics. In comics you have to draw the most amazing made up scenes and make them look convincing. Aircraft have to look like they’re flying and that takes time to figure out, again I figured this out in comics first by making them look like they weren’t flying. Finally, I always cram some storytelling into my paintings, this is the most important aspect in comics in my opinion and the part I find the most enjoyable.
Compared to comics I find painting a doddle and am lucky to be able to still do both. Comics are easily the toughest art job out there!
So, can you take us through what you do to go from script to finished page?
As for my process in comics I usually print out the script and doodle small thumbnails on it as I read it.
KB: After thumbnails are all set, I’ll pencil out some more detailed layouts about A4 size to work out the storytelling and page flow.
Once these are done I can figure out what reference I need… in the case of the cover for the Battle Special I had to build a model of the RAF Whirlwind. I use whatever kits I can get my hands on – Airfix, Tamiya, etc. I’ve built up a sizeable library of models over the years so luckily I had a model of the Me110, the truck and the flak gun. By building a model you study it intensely and develop a great understanding of it’s shape and form which is invaluable when you to come to draw it. I’m fascinated by things that move, especially old things and haven’t yet got bored of making them look like they’re moving.
As for the future – would you both be up for more work with the Rat Pack, or more work with the properties now part of the Treasury of British Comics?
GE: I’d happily write more Rat Pack, and I’m sure I could come up with more Hellman if Mike Dorey was interested. And I do have another Johnny Red story in mind, just to properly round out one of my all-time favourite comic strips.
One more thing when it comes to this Rat Pack tale – I read in your interview with Karl Stock in Judge Dredd Megazine 424 that you’d pinched the title from an Action Man novel by Mike Brogan. Again, for those reading too young or too American, what were these and what do they mean to you?
GE: I still have all the Mike Brogan books and can highly recommend them to anyone who’s interested. The covers alone are worth a quick Google. Nice interior line drawings by someone vaguely reminiscent of City of the Damned’s Kim Raymond- but I don’t think it’s him.
GE: The Action Man novels are wonderful, absolutely perfect for the average 1970s bloodthirsty seven or eight-year old. How can you go wrong with titles like Snow, Ice and Bullets or indeed, The Tough Way Out? The best one is called “The Taking of Monte Carrillo”, and just to give you a taste of what these things are like, the plot consists of Action Man and his fellow maniacs painting the word WASSER on the side of a couple of petrol tankers- then driving them into a subterranean German fortress. The Germans, convinced that the vehicles contain water and not gasoline, are perfectly happy to let our heroes detonate these giant Molotov cocktails and piss off before the pyrotechnics begin in earnest.
Garth, you’re older than me by a year, so did you also spend many wonderful childhood days playing with your Action Man toys alongside reading the books? I remember getting hold of a couple of those novels as well and they were so wonderful, such escapist thrills, so fast-paced.
GE: I did indeed enjoy playing with Action Man as a kid; I don’t recall any boy my age who didn’t around the mid-seventies. Americans know Action Man as GI Joe, but it’s essentially the same thing- in the novels they’re two separate characters, but they’re just transatlantic versions of the one archetype – which is to say a good-natured combat junkie who likes killing everything in sight.
And finally, before we let you go – Garth – there was an interview a while back with Forbidden Planet where you you confirmed you were working on more material for Battle but that you’ve also got something coming with Tharg that’s unconnected to the Treasury, saying that it’s something that’s, ‘that’s going to surprise a few people’. So, are you bringing back Harlem Heroes, Big Dave, Brit-Cit Babes? Go on, you can tell us!
GE: Well, it’s not really for Tharg, and I’m really not supposed to tell anyone yet.
Curses! Foiled again. Oh well, I tried – and I’ll be sure to let you know as soon as we’re all allowed to tell!
Thanks so much to Garth for talking to us about all things Rat Pack. It’s genuinely a perfectly done little strip, absolutely capturing the spirit of the original – you should really check it out!
The Battle of Britain Special comes out on 16 September – get hold of your copy through the web shop and get the gorgeous Keith Burns web exclusive cover!
Finally, Keith was good enough to send us way, way more images than we had space to use, but we thought you’d like to see this page, all the way through from pencils, inks, to final page – and that magnificent line from Garth – ‘Unwell at both ends‘ – just some of the great lines, the great art you’re going to see in this new Rat Pack.