The Battle Action Special is out right now, featuring seven brand new stories written by Garth Ennis – the mind behind The Boys, Preacher, and war comics such as The Stringbags and Sara – the 96-page hardcover anthology captures the spirit and action of the merger of the groundbreaking Battle and Action comics in the 1970s.
Behind the cover by Andy Clarke and Dylan Teague (and a web-exclusive cover version from John Higgins), Ennis is joined by artists Mike Dorey (Ro-Busters), John Higgins (Watchmen), Keith Burns (Ladybird Expert series), PJ Holden (The Stringbags), Patrick Goddard (Judge Dredd), Chris Burnham (Batman) and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen artist Kevin O’Neill.
The new Battle Action Special celebrates both Battle Picture Weekly and Action, one of Brit Comics’ most infamous comic anthologies, the precursor to 2000 AD, packed with cutting-edge strips, violent and hard-hitting, something that would later lead to Action’s downfall once the Brit tabloid press, bless ’em, caught wind of the violent nature of what the kids were reading – and loving.
For the release, we sat down to chat to Garth Ennis, writer of all the strips in the Special, to talk about the lasting influence of Battle Action and what it means to him to be bringing the title back here in the Battle Action Special.
Garth, this year has been something of a passion project year for you – and we’re only halfway through it! First there was Hawk The Slayer with Henry Flint and now there’s this all-new Battle Action Special, packed full of stories written by you and drawn by a bevy of rather excellent artists, all bringing back some of the classic strips from both Battle Picture Weekly and the infamous Action.
I suppose the best way to begin is to ask you what the Battle Action Special is all about and what it means to you to be marshaling it into existence?
GARTH ENNIS: I pitched the special to Rebellion. I’d enjoyed writing for the Battle (of Britain) and Action specials in 2020, and me writing the whole thing seemed the easiest way to get something else going in the same vein.
As the special came together, I realized it was an excellent opportunity to celebrate the best and most creative period in Battle’s history, as well as the work of the guys who made it so: Tom Tully, Gerry Finley-Day, Alan Hebden, Eric Bradbury, Joe Colquhoun, John Cooper, Mike Dorey, Mike Western, many more.
One fascinating strip in here, very different from all around it, is Kids Rule OK!, the strip that directly led to Action‘s cancellation, it’s subsequent toning down, and the later merging with Battle to give us the Battle Action comic.
From what I’ve seen already, it’s part continuation of Kids Rule Ok! and part a commentary on the events that led to the media outcry and what happened after it, focusing on the infamous Aggro! cover by Carlos Ezquerra.
Whilst the original was written by Jack Adrian with art by Mike White, this new version sees you partnering with the legendary (and man whose retirement from comics seems wonderfully misreported) Kevin O’Neill.
Did you have a hand in getting Kevin onto the strip or was that from Rebellion?
GE: I hadn’t heard that Kevin had retired until [editor] Oliver Pickles told me so, and in fact it turned out not to be the case. You have Oliver to thank for asking Kevin- and bloody well done that man.
Absolutely fantastic work from one of the true masters- and a treat for me, having had my mind melted by Nemesis, Ro-Busters, Metalzoic and the rest all those years ago.
How did you go about picking which of the various strips from Action and Battle made it into here? Was it a case of personal preference or was there also the desire to bring back some of what are now seen as the most important and influential strips?
GE: I thought it should be a mixture of the better and less known, and of the finest from both Battle and Action– with the strips from the latter being the ones that made it over to Battle in the merger. Johnny Red was an obvious choice, my favourite Battle strip and the subject of the revival Keith Burns and I did a few years back. The Sarge is one I was always fond of; I learned a lot from Gerry Finley-Day’s handling of group dynamics in that strip. Crazy Keller is an unsung hero and another favourite, Alan Hebden’s second (and in my opinion more successful) go at an archetype he first explored with Major Eazy.
GE: Dredger was too much fun not to do, he’s probably the biggest bastard in either comic. Hellman was a no-brainer, the strip from Action that was made for Battle – original co-creator Mike Dorey being available was the icing on the cake, particularly after the Hellman story we did for the Action special in 2020. Kids Rule OK is the exception, for the reasons you mentioned earlier. And as probably the most important supporting character in Johnny Red, and a big step forward for the portrayal of women in boys’ comics, I figured Nina Petrova deserved her own strip after 40+ years.
I think the original writers are reasonably well represented here: two for Tom Tully, one for Alan Hebden, two for Gerry Finley-Day (plus two more for the latter, if you include the cameos for Skreamer of the Stukas and Glory Rider in the Johnny Red and Hellman strips respectively- Skreamer and Rider were characters I always liked, but who aren’t really strong enough for more than cameos).
And have you got any particular favourites in the list of strips you’ve written?
GE: I can’t pick a favourite, I love them all. But if we do another special, you’ll see there are some characters I’m happy to turn over to other writers and some I want to keep writing myself. That’s no reflection on the strips I wrote for this special, or the artists who worked on them- it’s just how I feel about the original characters themselves.
You’ve made no secret in the past that this era of British comics was hugely influential on you as both reader and as a writer. But what was it about the strips that really set young Garth on the path you chose? Were you a child of Action and Battle Picture Weekly or did your love affair with the comics come later with Battle Action?
GE: I read Battle as a kid but not Action – I was too late for the latter, coming to what was then called Battle-Action in the summer of ’78 (that’s one of the reasons the special is titled as such; the comic I read as a kid was called Battle-Action for 3+ years, even though overall it’s now remembered as Battle). There’s no doubt that reading war stories at such an early age – along with things like Commando, the Picture Libraries and seeing various movies – gave me an interest in military history, which I eventually translated into writing my own war comics.
I’ve always thought it was something to do with realizing that the stories I was reading were based on things that real people had done in real life; that was enough to banish fantasy to the sidelines for me (or would have been, if 2000 AD wasn’t so massively overloaded with talent at the time).
Action was certainly incendiary and hard-hitting, pushing boundaries until they broke. But taking another tack, Battle could/should be considered more of a success because it pushed just enough to make its point whereas Action was a comic that pushed too far, too quick, too hard, and ended up emasculating/destroying it. And the success of Battle and failure (in getting cancelled) of Action influenced 2000 AD, with the writers/editors having to be cleverer in being able to get things in without having the fallout that Action did.
GE: Three thoughts here: 2000 AD is an institution and Action has been living on its bad boy reputation for all these years, but Battle is important because it’s where all this began: Pat Mills and John Wagner created an anti-establishment, high energy formula of action, humour, strong characterization and well-written dialogue that ran right through all three comics. No Battle, no Action – no Action, no 2000 AD – no 2000 AD, no revolution in British comics and all that followed from it. Battle is where all that began.
In terms of actual quality, Action didn’t survive long enough to produce any truly excellent stories- it had fantastic characters and concepts, but it got killed off before any of them could develop into anything really special, on the same level as Darkie’s Mob, say. To me that strip represented Battle turning a corner in terms of quality, going beyond good ideas to something of genuine worth, and paving the way for Charley’s War, HMS Nightshade, The General Dies At Dawn, the better end of Johnny Red etc. People trying that bit harder, transcending what comics had done up ’til then.
And was Battle Action the comic that should never have happened? Meaning ideally, shouldn’t Battle and Action have survived and developed separately over many years? Or was Battle Action always going to happen? After all, if you have a comic like Action designed to push the boundaries, aren’t you going to run into serious trouble sooner or later- and therefore, one way or another, end up being folded into Battle as the most obvious companion title in the line?
Obviously, the final question has to be is this it now for Battle Action? Or have you plans to keep going with some of the characters for future specials here at Rebellion?
GE: I would very much like to do more, as would a number of other writers. Cross your fingers now.
Our thanks to Garth for taking the time to chat – the Battle Action Special is out right now, available from the 2000 AD and Treasury of British Comics webs shops with either the standard edition with a cover by Andy Clarke and Dylan Teague (Madi) or the webshop exclusive edition featuring a brand new Dredger cover by John Higgins.