Prepare yourself for a shock, comic fans: We are now further away from the last issue of Battle Picture Weekly than its first issue was from the end of World War II.
Battle, to use its street name, is arguably one of the most important and influential British comics of all time. Of course, that’s true for every British comic, because any opinion is arguable, particularly if you discard annoying conversational speedbumps and potholes like facts and logic. But in this case I do have facts and logic to shore up the already-sturdy foundations of my opinion, and I intend to present them within this feature.
Battle Picture Weekly was IPC’s response to their rival DC Thomson’s Warlord, which was an instant hit on its launch on 28 September 1974.
Compared to most of its predecessors — including stablemates such as The Victor and The Hotspur — Warlord‘s war stories felt more action-packed, gritty, and modern. Indestructible, unchanging characters like Captain Hurricane and Cadman from The Coward of the Fighting 43rd were looking a bit old-hat: kids wanted a greater semblance of realism, or at least they wanted their comics to more closely match the then-current war movies. To a degree, they got that with Warlord, particularly Union Jack Jackson and the title strip, Codename: Warlord.
The powers that be in IPC looked upon Warlord‘s success and thought, “Gosh darn it, we can do better.” They hired upcoming young hot-shot freelance writers Pat Mills and John Wagner and tasked them with creating a comic capable of beating Warlord at its own game. Wagner and Mills subsequently brought in fellow writer Gerry Finley-Day, and together with editor Dave Hunt and art editor Doug Church they threw away the rule-book and created the sort of comic they knew the kids wanted to read.
Y’see, before Warlord, war stories in British comics were all, “Keep a stiff upper lip, there’s a good chap,” and “Do it for ol’ Blighty, men! Charge!” Warlord introduced a much-needed element of, “Crikey! That was a bit close, eh, Alfie? Best get clear before… Alfie? Alfie! Oh crumbs.”
But Wagner, Mills and co. knew that the readers wanted stories closer to, “We’re gonna make him pay even if it means we have to butcher every Nazi from here to Berlin!” and “The captain’s on a bleedin’ death-mission an’ he don’t care that he’s takin’ us all wiv ‘im!”
Somewhere along the way, the title Battle Picture Weekly was chosen. Now, “Battle” is a great title for a war comic, but why add “Picture Weekly”? It made no sense to us kids back in 1975. We knew it was weekly, because all proper comics were weekly, and we knew it had pictures because we could see them.
It was many years before I realised that it had been so named in order to imply a connection with IPC’s digest-sized Battle Picture Library, which had been running since January 1961 (BPL eventually bought the farm after an impressive 1706 issues over twenty-four years).
I still reckon that the weekly should have just been called Battle, but then I guess we ought to consider ourselves lucky that they didn’t decide to call it Battle Picture Weekly Story-Paper Library of War for Boys (But Not Girls).
The creators pulled out the stops and refused to let anything hold them back. From the very start, Battle Picture Weekly didn’t just match Warlord: in terms of gripping stories, cracking art and general attitude, it absolutely trounced it.
The first issue hit the streets early in March 1975, and many of the stories that appeared within are still fondly remembered even now in the future Space Year of 2019…
Sergeant Steve Dawson is wounded on D-Day: a bullet is lodged close to his heart and can’t be removed. He knows it’s going to kill him eventually — within a year — but he’s not ready to quit fighting yet. One of my favourite things ever when I was nine!
Lofty’s One-Man Luftwaffe
British pilot “Lofty” Banks escapes from a Stalag Luft in 1943 and in the process kills an ace German pilot, Major Ranke. Desperate to get out of Germany, Lofty passes himself off as Ranke at a nearby airfield, and his ruse is so successful that he realises he can do more damage to the enemy by posing as one of them than he’d be able to do otherwise. Why has no one ever made a movie of this?
Boys at War
An occasional one-page text article recounting true stories of youthful heroism.
The Flight of the Golden Hinde
A fully-working replica of Captain Francis Drake’s ship The Golden Hind — constructed by the British navy some years before WWII broke out — becomes an unlikely asset in the naval battle in the Indian ocean. (There have been several replicas of Drake’s ship in real life: like the fictional one in this tale, the one that was built in 1973 also spelled its name “Hinde” instead of “Hind.”) I liked the idea of this story, but it strayed a little too close to fantasy compared with the rest of the strips and it didn’t stick around very long.
A series of standalone true stories. This sort of strip was pretty much a staple feature of British war comics of the era. I don’t recall any of the individual stories.
Day of the Eagle
1943: British secret agent Mike Nelson is tasked with the most dangerous mission of his career — the assassination of Adolf Hitler! The movie version of Frederick Forsyth’s best-selling novel The Day of the Jackal was a huge hit in 1973, and was undoubtedly an inspiration for this strip. Cracking good stuff, from what I remember.
The Bootneck Boy
Danny Budd is the young orphaned son of a Royal Marine and wants to sign up, but he’s rejected as too young and too puny. However, the recruiting sergeant later sees Danny defending himself against three much older and larger bullies and changes his mind: Danny might just have what it takes after all. I loved this strip! Sure, at its core it was standard orphaned-kid-does-well-against-great-odds fare, but it really worked for me.
A bunch of hardened convicts are offered clemency if they agree to work for tough-as-old-nails Major Taggart. This is clearly The Dirty Dozen, only dirtier and in comic form. The first episode was allocated six pages in issue #1, a sure sign that the editors knew they had a hit on their hands. The earliest strips were drawn by Carlos Ezquerra and thus are pure gold as far as I’m concerned.
The Terror Behind the Bamboo Curtain
Inmates of a Japanese Prison camp in Burma are subject to increasing horrors from the camp’s merciless and sadistic Commander Sado… as well as the horrors of the mysterious Bamboo Curtain, a dense bamboo forest liberally sprinkled with booby traps. Of all the stories that appeared in the launch issue, this one has aged the worst. Its portrayal of the Japanese soldiers is… not commensurate with current attitudes. Or shockingly racist, to put it more honestly. Different times, folks.
This Amazing War
A one-page occasional feature: facts and figures about World War II.
Looking back at the first issue now, seeing it not as an eager child but with my experienced, jaded, myopic (yet still adorable) fifty-three-year-old eyes … it’s aged well. Far better than most comics of its era.
The only thing that really dates the comic is that the lettering was typeset — which was standard practice at the time — rather than hand-drawn. (Of course, these days all comics have typeset lettering thanks to “computers” but it still looks hand-drawn.) Take this example from the first episode of The Bootneck Boy:
Even ignoring the spaces preceding the exclamation marks (a crime so heinous I can’t conjure up a punishment nasty enough), the lettering looks impersonal and ugly, and very much feels as though it’s an afterthought. Hand-drawn lettering, properly added by a skilled letterer, becomes part of the artwork and helps guide the reader’s eyes through the tale.
The curse of the comic-book letterer is that if the job is done well, the reader won’t notice it. If they do notice the lettering, that might destroy the suspension of disbelief and take them out of the story.
Years later, for a collected edition of Charley’s War (the classic strip by Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun, probably Battle‘s finest hour), the lettering was completely revised by top letterer Jim Campbell and it makes a huge difference, as you can see from the examples here:
Anyway… Let’s take a closer look at the comic and how it presented itself to the public over its thirteen-year lifespan. Long-term Battle fans should start angrily sharpening their complaining-pencils now because this will not be a comprehensive study, and that means I might brush past — or completely ignore — elements of the comic that they hold to be sacred.
#1 (8 Mar 1975) to #85 (16 Oct 1976)
I’ve already listed the line-up of the first issue, and what a line-up it was! Some cracking good stuff in there. Some of the strips certainly made an impact: Day of the Eagle commanded the centre-pages colour-spread, and opens with the hero shooting a German soldier in the back. You didn’t get that in The Victor.
The logo is simple but very eye-catching. From issue #8 the red part of “Battle” gained an occasional black outline. The “Picture Weekly” part was moved to the side from issue #58, and thereafter tended to jump around a bit depending on the needs of the cover illustration.
As with all anthology comics, old stories were occasionally dropped (sometimes permanently) to make room for as new strips. Among those introduced in this era were Major Eazy, Darkie’s Mob, Fighter from the Sky and Operation Shark.
The initial cover price of 6p is increased by a penny with issue #44 (3 Jan 1976), no doubt to take advantage of the readers’ Christmas money.
#86 (23 Oct 1976) to #135 (1 Oct 1977)
Valiant was a long-running action-strip comic that had occasional one-page cartoons. It was launched in October 1962 and clocked up 714 issues before Battle came along and decided to gormandise it. Valiant‘s war stories tended to be more light-hearted than Battle‘s, such as the aforementioned Captain Hurricane, and The Steel Commando (which it had inherited from Thunder, via Lion).
But Valiant had also been the home of One-Eyed Jack, a tough New York Cop strip by John Wagner and John Cooper: that one fit a lot better into Battle, but only after Jack was given a new job as a secret agent. Jack sticks around for thirty-two issues, which is twice as long as the other strips inherited from Valiant: The Black Crow and Soldier Sharp.
For the first two issues of the merger, “Valiant” is just about the same size as “Battle” on the logo, but it very soon goes the way of the logos of all absorbed comics and starts to shrink. By issue #100 (29 Jan 1977) it’s just kind of tucked away in the corner like an aged relative whose connection to the family is not quite understood so everyone just kind of works around them.
New stories introduced include Panzer G-man, Joe Two Beans, Johnny Red, The Sarge and El Mestizo. The price jumps to 8p with issue #97, cover-dated Jan 8 1977. Hmm. I was kidding with that “Christmas money” comment the last time, but now I’m starting to wonder.
#136 (8 Oct 1977) to #141 (12 Nov 1977)
A short era this one, only a few weeks. The old logo is reinstated in preparation for the coming merger with Action. The “Picture Weekly” part of the logo still isn’t consistent and changes font and size as well as position.
Still 8p per issue, but not for long!
#142 (19 Nov 1977) to #175 (8 Jul 1978)
Battle Picture Weekly absorbs Action, the comic that was effectively its younger sibling. Battle‘s success was so great that Pat Mills was given the task of doing it again, this time with an all-genre comic, and he created the most shockingly violent, over-the-top and — let’s be honest — awesome British comic seen to that point.
However, Action went a little too far at times, and drew the ire of the press. This was in the days before they had video nasties and violent computer games to blame for the perceived corruption of the country’s youth. Launched in February 1976, Action was pulled off the shelves after a mere 36 weeks (Mills by this stage had already moved on, and was developing 2000AD), and given an overhaul: some stories were dropped, others were toned way down to make it more palatable to discerning older folks who didn’t read it anyway. When Action returned at the end of November 1976, it was but a ghost of a shadow of its former self. Still head-and-shoulders above a lot of other comics, though. It carried on for a further year before Battle came a-knocking.
The cover price starts at 8p for the first merged issue of Battle-Action, but then jumps to 9p the very next week. Action brought with it Spinball Wars (a revised version of Spinball, itself a toned-down version of the ultra-violent Death Game 2000), Hellman of Hammer Force and Dredger, all of which had a decent run in their new home.
One nice thing about the merger is that combining the comics’ titles inadvertently created the sort of title Battle should have had from the start! Don’t believe me? well, take a gander below. From left to right: the American Battle Action (Atlas, 30 issues from 1952 to 1957), Australian Battle Action (Horwitz, 78 issues, 1954 to 1965), another Australian Battle Action (K. G. Murray, 9 issues, 1975 to 1976).
#176 (15 Jul 1978) to #270 (5 Jul 1980)
Ah, now I liked this incarnation of the comic because the new logo meant that they couldn’t easily just shrink the “Action” part and start to bury it like they did with Valiant. It’s not as “gritty” a logo as the predecessor, but it’s nice and solid. And dangerous, too: look at those sharp corners — they could have your eye out.
New strips include Crazy Keller, HMS Nightshade, Charley’s War and Glory Rider.
The price climbs to 10p from issue #195 (25 November 1978), then leaps to 12p from #239 (6 October 1979). This era also plays host to the mysterious “outages” of the sort that trip up comic collectors: gaps in the publishing schedule that were usually down to industrial action. A missing week after issue #199 (23 December 1978), four weeks after #253 (12 Jan 1980) and another four after #266 (10 May 1980).
#271 (12 Jul 1980) to #325 (25 Jul 1981)
Back to the original logo, and with “Action” immediately shrunk down to almost nothing. Shame! But I do still like the original Battle logo so, at the same time, yay! This era’s biggest change, though, was that stories began on the front cover, alternating between the most popular strips, Johnny Red and Charley’s War (with one episode of Fighting Mann at the very beginning). This freed up a page inside and gave us some cracking colour splash-images for those episodes. This feature continued beyond the complete dropping of “Action” in #326, right up to #355 (27 February 1982).
Among the new stories of this era are Death Squad, Fighting Mann, The Wilde Bunch and The Commando They Didn’t Want.
The price increases to 14p with #276 (16 August 1980), then 15p with #296 (3 January 1981 — plundering the Christmas money again!).
#326 (1 Aug 1981) to #439 (1 Oct 1983)
Ah, now the title is just what it should have been from the start! Simple and clear. As mentioned above, we’re still alternating between Johnny Red and Charley’s War on the cover until issue #355 (27 February 1982).
This era plants the seeds of what was to be a very big change down the line: tie-in strips with Palitoy’s Action Force line of toys. The four-week strip began in issue #422 (4 June 1983) and proved to be very popular, leading to a series of mini Action Force comics given free with a number of IPC titles over the following months. This culminated in the ominous “Explosive News Inside for Every Reader!” in issue #439.
Other new strips include Sailor Small, Clash of the Guards, The Hunters, The Fists of Jimmy Chang, Truck Turpin, Fight for the Falklands, Jetblade and Invasion 1984.
The price starts at 15p for this run but jumps up a further penny the very next issue, #327 (8 August 1981). It increases again to 18p from #374 (3 July 1982), and to 20p from #414 (9 April 1983).
Below: issue #431 (6 August 1983) reused Carlos Ezquerra’s classic image of Major Eazy from the cover of #85 (16 October 1976), but with added colour. You’ll note that Eazy’s cigar has been excised: by this stage IPC’s Powers That Be had decreed that their comics’ heroes shouldn’t smoke, because smoking is bad for you (guns are actually even more dangerous than cigars, but they tend to be bad for the other guy, so they’re allowed).
#440 (8 Oct 1983) to #492 (6 Oct 1984)
And so it begins, the fabled Action Force era. Got to be honest: I have no memories of these toys at all. But then by 1983 I was seventeen, and that was back in the days when it was widely believed that seventeen was too old for toys. These days we know better: they’re not toys, they’re collectibles.
By now, Battle has been going for eight and a half years and the shine has worn off. It’s been tamed quite a bit, and definitely left behind by its science fiction stablemate 2000AD. Don’t get me wrong: it’s still a pretty good comic, but it no longer has the weight it once carried.
Cover prices start at 20p and jump to 22p with issue #464 (24 March 1984).
#493 (13 Oct 1984) to #562 (8 Feb 1986)
Uh-oh… The “Battle” part of the logo has been reducified! That’s rarely a good sign. For the past few months there’s been a much greater emphasis on the Action Force content than the home-grown material… there’s no doubt now that Battle has been domesticated. The artwork on the cover is generally cleaner, prettier… and less realistic. This is now mostly a comic about toys.
Lots of new strips in this era, but most of them are only a few episodes long. The only substantial new strip is The Nightmare. Prices increase to 24p from #509 (2 February 1985).
#563 (15 Feb 1986) to #604 (29 Nov 1986)
Ah, but what’s this? Hope on the horizon! “Battle” gets all nice and dominant again! Could this mean a return to form? Sadly, no. The product-placement is still strong with the comic. But then readers are still buying it, so between the toy ads masquerading as comic strips at least they’re exposed to reprints of Charley’s War and Johnny Red.
Again, I should stress that the Action Force material wasn’t bad at all, but this just wasn’t the Battle I grew up with.
The price increases to 26p from #570 (5 April 1986).
#605 (6 Dec 1986) to #611 (17 Jan 1987)
Palitoy lost the Action Force licence (Marvel UK nabbed it), which meant that they could no longer sub-licence the adaptation rights to IPC, and the comic was forced to revert to the title Battle. Hooray! But boo also because they didn’t use the cool original logo and chose this rather pedestrian one instead. Luckily, it only lasts for seven issues. Unluckily, its replacement is a lot worse.
#612 (24 Jan 1987) to #664 (23 Jan 1988)
Told you the logo was rubbish. Storm Force was… I have no idea, other than that it was a toyless replacement for Action Force. By now a good deal of the comic’s content was reprint material, plundered from its own archives. I own zero copies of Battle from this era, and I’m in no rush to rectify that.
The price was raised to 28p on 4 April 1987, the final increase.
After 4704 days (or 12 years, 10 months and 15 days) an armistice was called in January 1988, and Battle was demobbed. Or discharged with honours, if you prefer.
Well, not really. The truth is that it was chopped up and its juiciest morsels were fed to Eagle. The strips chosen to survive the transition were Johnny Red, Charley’s War and Storm Force, although the latter had already been running in Eagle for a few weeks prior to the merger (which is the comics equivalent of finding a cheaper supermarket down the road but you still also go to the old one for a while out of a sense of guilt — or in case they’re spying on you, which you secretly know they are).
More info on the Battle and Eagle merger can be found in the Eagle Family Tree.
As is now traditional in these articles, here’s a handy timeline of Battle‘s logos for you to print out and put on your wall:
So, what interesting stats can we glean from this sadly-but-necessarily scant traipse through the barbed-wire-draped, shell-hole-pocked fields of Battle‘s past?
- The longest-lasting logo is the unadorned “Battle,” 114 issues from #326 to #439 — this makes me happy because that’s what the comic should have been called in the first place.
- Even better, that part of the logo appears in various forms on 345 covers out of 664, or 51.96%.
- If you bought every issue as it was published for the cover price, you would have spent £105.72, which is a lot less than a complete collection would cost you these days. That total divided by the number of issues tells us that the average cover price is a tad under 16p.
Despite its comparatively lacklustre latter years, Battle‘s legacy is very strong. Aside from paving the way for Action and then 2000AD, and nursing the careers of some of Britain’s brightest and best comic-book creators, many of its strips stand the test of time.
Charley’s War has often been cited as one of the most important war stories ever written regardless of the medium in which it was presented. Major Eazy was effectively and very successfully reincarnated as Cursed Earth Koburn in Judge Dredd Megazine, with original artist Carlos Ezquerra on art duties, and in 2015 Garth Ennis — a huge Battle fan in his youth — revived Johnny Red for an acclaimed eight-episode series published by Titan.
Back at the start, Battle was a bold experiment, and quite a risk to take, but it paid off. It was the spark that lit the candle that burned through the string that was holding aloft the hammer that hit the lever that started the engine that launched 2000AD, one of the few British comics to survive the 80s and 90s intact.
So… Good job, soldier. You’ve done fine work here, son. Fine work. But now your war is over. Now you can rest.