The British war comic, Commando, has been published continuously since 1961, currently producing eight titles — four reprints and four of new material — every month, and selling 70,000 units every month as recently as last year. Issue number 4,000 was released in 2007, evidence of the comic’s loyal, enduring audience.
In 1975, well-established Commando was challenged by a new weekly anthology title, Battle Pictures Weekly, which endeavored to present a more realistic depiction of several eras of warfare. The Best of Battle collection from Titan Books brings together 18 serial stories, most set during the Second World War, from the title’s seven-year run.
Outside of Great Britain, the existence of a 300-page anthology of black and white war comics from the 1970s and '80s may be inexplicable. In the U.S., tales of World War II, the focus of most of this anthology’s strips, are rarely told outside of the movies, and war comics are an extreme rarity. Even audiences inured by the unflinching depiction of war in Saving Private Ryan may be shocked by the blunt brutality of the trench warfare shown in “Charley’s War,” included here.
That strip — one of two here that center on boys who lie about their ages to join the military at war — was written by Battle co-editor, Pat Mills, and is “described by many as the greatest British war comic strip ever created.” Mills, who has used his superhero parody, Marshall Law, to comment on the futility of war, imbued “Charley’s War” with a subtle, but effective anti-war message, a surprising tone amid gung-ho adventures such as “D-Day Dawson.”
Equally unexpected is the depiction of honorable, even sympathetic German soldiers in strips like “Fighter from the Sky,” “Panzer G-Man,” and “Hellman of Hammer Force.” These characters are also used to illuminate the moral ambiguity at the heart of warfare. The “Death Squad,” a “Rat Pack”-like team of German army rejects is shown as equally at odds with the Allies and the Wehrmacht Punishment Squad. In one of the book’s most startling sequences, the squad is shown looting gold from the teeth of corpses. Also breaking from the common WWII scenario, “Fighting Mann” is set in 1967 Vietnam and chronicles the bloody quest of a retired U.S. Marine searching for his M.I.A. son.