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Graphic Novel Collection: Darkie’s Mob: The Secret War of Joe Darkie by John Wagner and Mike Western

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A hard-edged British war comic developed by the co-creator of Judge Dredd, “Darkie’s Mob” ran in the pages of the black-and-white comics mag Battle Picture Weekly from 1976 to ’77. Set in Burma, 1942, the strips depicted the wartime adventures of a battered group of soldiers stranded behind enemy lines in the jungle. Their commanding officer dead and their numbers depleted down to 20, the demoralized Britishers are reconciled to death until a mysterious figure calling himself Captain Joe Darkie steps out of the undergrowth. Taking command with brutish authority, the thuggish Darkie rouses the band into guerilla action against the enemy. “If you stay with me, I’m going to give you hell,” Darkie pronounces at the end of the introductory episode. “You’ll curse me and hate me! But I promise you one thing… you’ll kill Japs!”

Darkie is a right bastard, alright, in the tradition of other Wagner hard-case quasi-heroes like Joe Dredd. The story of his mob is told through a small bloodstained notebook “found at the scene of a brutal jungle,” its writer nowhere to be found, so we know at the start that the story of Darkie and his crew will not end with the cast happily returning home to receive their medals of commendation. Instead, we get to see the mob take on the Japanese in three- and four-page episodes, their own numbers dwindling as the series progresses. The notebook’s author, nice-guy Private Shortland, makes it to the end of the series, of course: our primary lens, he also is the first to realize that the self-proclaimed Captain Darkie is not what he claims to be.

Darkie’s past proves a minor mystery that by and large gets shoved to the side until the last two episodes: the emphasis is on short, quick skirmishes with what seems like an inexhaustible amount of ammunition until midway into the series when our mob is provided a cache of old British weapons by some grateful Burmese villagers. Occasionally, we get a few panels where one of the gang bridles at Darkie’s harshness, but these mini-rebellions don‘t last long. On the one hand, it’s clear that Darkie is their only hope of surviving the Burmese jungle, even if he does have a propensity for pushing them into dire mortal combat. Over the series’ run, we also see more than one character — the hulking Sergeant Samson, most notably — adapt to Darkie’s vicious ways. Only Private Shortland has his doubts.

Wagner’s ultra-rough-and-tumble storytelling is ably supported by artist Mike Western, also know for handling the art on the soccer comic “Roy of the Rovers.” He’s particularly strong in capturing the brutal nature of one-on-one combat, and if occasionally his renderings of Japanese soldiers comes close to WWII era caricature, it’s not as if he’s all that sparing with his Englishmen either. In Wagner and Western’s hands, war is a dehumanizing experience for both sides. Those who might be offended by wartime racial epithets are advised to skip this new hardcover collection of the complete run, though it’s also worth noting that when we finally learn the title lead’s story, he himself has experienced life-changing racism.

A dark and rousingly violent series, “Darkie’s Mob” proves to be more psychologically ambiguous than you might expect from a mid-seventies British lad’s war comic: an undeserved obscurity that hopefully will find a larger audience today through Titan Books’ hardbound resurrection.

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.