A Brief History of British Comics: Part 4 – What is it good for?

So, I was going to make this next part about Roy of the Rovers and Misty. I’ve been swaying from light and fun football slice-of-life for boys to disturbing-as-hell spooky comics for girls for nearly a fortnight now, but I decided to go with my original original plan and discuss British War comics—specifically Battle Picture Weekly—from the 70s instead. Why?

Well… because Carlos Ezquerra passed away this week.

Carlos Ezquerra’s Influence on British Comics

It’s difficult for some to understand how important Ezquerra is to the perception of British comics. He’s a titan for many reasons. One such reason is that he defined not only Judge Dredd’s look but also the look of Mega City One. Scratch that, he defined the whole tone of that series to this day. Without him, John Wagner and their creations—arguably 2000 AD—may not have survived at all. That said, I’m still going to hold off on talking about 2000 AD and Dredd for a while.

Instead of discussing 2000 AD or Dredd, I’m going to focus on Ezquerra’s work in Battle Picture Weekly. It’s an anthology comic (they all are to be honest) comprised of different historical action stories set mostly in the two World Wars and various American conflicts. There’s a lot of Nazi punching and examination of the Nazis—how they rose to power and how they got as far as they did—alongside British soldiers doing war stuff (with its rival publication Warlord). Eventually, it merged with Valiant and Eagle (home of Dan Dare) in 1988  and ceased to be its own book.

Ezquerra’s Beginning

This is where Ezquerra started. It’s where he was ultimately recruited to 2000 AD (along with Pat Mills—another very important figure in British comics) and where his style flourished. His art is gritty, and I mean that in the literal sense as well as the figurative. His work has a mean, rough texture that lends itself well to war and dystopia. Its homemade, underground quality is part of a particular type of British comic book aesthetic. It is vital to the ‘grim dark’ end of the British comic book scale. Without Ezquerra, our national image, as far as comic books go, would be radically different.

Since I’m sure everyone and his aunt will be talking up his Dredd work, I think now’s a good time to look at Battle Picture Weekly, where he worked on Major Eazy, El Mestizo and Rat Pack. We’ll also look at the seminal work from Battle Picture Weekly (which incidentally changed its name frequently, in this case to Battle Action)—Charley’s War, written initially by Pat Mills, then by Scott Goodall, with art by Joe Colquhoun.

Weird About War

So, remember when I talked about Dan Dare and how it was basically jolly good chaps in space? Well, that’s a lull in the general cynicism about patriotism we are known for as a nation*. We’re not into waving flags, pledges of allegiance, and that kind of thing. Though, when a Royal Wedding or a Jubilee comes around, we will bring out the bunting, but only because we need an excuse to eat cake and slag off the hats of wealthy old money. And football. We get pretty gung-ho about football, but I’ll crack open that old chestnut when I get to Roy of the Rovers. When it comes to war, we’re weird about it. I can’t think of any other way to describe it.

We’ve got a strange, schizophrenic relationship with war and patriotism. Natural cynicism constantly bumps against a deep longing for when we had an Empire. We longed for the time when everything seemed simple because we didn’t have to listen to either the men who were being killed violently for that Empire or the people who were being disenfranchised, murdered and enslaved. There’s also a love of WW2 military history amongst boomers in both the US and UK. My Dad embodies this. He is a dye-in-the-wool leftie, but he loves WW2 era military tanks, planes, and ships. I think, in this case, it’s not for the love of Empire or patriotism. It’s purely because that was the first and last time we were in a war that was 100% justified.

Punching Nazis

That generation was young and angry in the seventies, and they ended up shaping British comics across the board—for adults anyway. You can see this in the war comics from that era. The work from Battle Picture Weekly is focused on Nazi hunters. Rat Pack is about a group of British criminals being made into a proto-suicide squad to fight Nazis, and Major Eazy is kind of Dirty Harry fights Nazis.

It’s pretty awesome. I’m not going to lie. I’m not going to get upset about Nazi punching. It’s a beautiful comic, highly recommended, and it contains some of Ezquerra’s crispest work. It’s a lot less pulpy than Dredd and oozes that Eastwood charm from every pore. Although, according to the Battle Page Weekly’s letter’s page at the time, he’s more inspired by James Coburn, but the influence—accidental or not—is undeniable.

As you can see, Rat Pack and Major Eazy had a cross-over event.

El Mestizo

El Mestizo is an interesting case. It’s about an ex-slave who becomes a mercenary, unaligned to either side of the American Civil War. I would be interested to know what an American thinks of a white British writer (son of an army major, who worked on Rat Pack and Major Eazy as well!) and a Spanish artist tackling this protagonist and this period in history!

 

None of this is exactly Hogan’s Heroes. There’s no cheerful heroics (we had those, as well, see ‘Allo ‘Allo and Dad’s Army), but it does have a kind of gritty, down to Earth, Clint Eastwood kind of vibe that was very ‘in’ at the time.  You’ll note there’s a lot of cinematic influence in these war comics too—in most post seventies British comics to be fair—but there’s a distinct Spaghetti Western-Django flavour to El Mestizo. Ezquerra excelled at it. Again, there’s a texture to his style that looks pretty pulpy, but at the same time, very tactile and tangible.

It’s interesting that a British comic by British writers seems to be happy about writing stories set in an event that had very little to do with us. There’s also John Two Beans, again, from Battle Picture Weekly, about a Native American Marine fighting Nazis. It’s pretty great for the most part… aside from the uncomfortable stereotyping about how Native Americans speak, but maybe that’s just me.

Non-White Characters

It’s worth noting at this point that this is one of the only times I’ve seen Black or any other protagonists of colour in British comics. Whatever else you can say about Battle Picture Weekly, it may well have been the first introduction British teenagers got to a sympathetic portrayal of groups of people who were not exactly treated well by the British Empire, and it was in a war comic. Like I said, it’s a deeply odd, cynical, yet distinctly proud approach to war and all it entails. The protagonists featured in Battle Weekly are all unconventional, unusual, and heroic in their own way.

Charley’s War

Then there’s Charley’s War, where the only heroics you get is surviving.

Charley’s War is the long, drawn out, and bloody story of how a young working class lad is traumatized and wasted in a pointless war. It’s downbeat and unbearably sad. The art is stark and unforgiving. I struggled to get through the first book, and there’s four more left. It reminded me of Barefoot Gen or Maus. There’s not much by way of down and dirty badassary; it’s a war drama. These aren’t Nazis. These are German men not much different from the young British men. You see the fear etched in every soldier’s face, along with the filth, the squalor and—best of all—the arrogance of the British upper class.

I’d like to point out at this juncture that Battle Picture Weekly was meant for kids—teenagers, specifically. I get the impression from the comments and Amazon reviews that these were formative for a lot of teenage boys. It makes sense really. At that time, the kids may not have heard this side of the story from school. By the nineties, there was a general acceptance that the first World War was a huge, costly, bloody mistake, and it was taught in schools. That may be because a lot of World War I veterans were still alive and just retiring from teaching in the schools of my Dad’s generation. They may not have been so keen to discuss it with the little ones in their care. I haven’t been able to dig up what they thought of Charley’s War.

Enlightenment from British War Comics

So, this has been enlightening for me. I had already been reading these comics, making a few notes here and there, but Ezquerra’s passing made me really go back and reexamine what I had thought. It’s honestly made me appreciate his work even more and given me a new perspective on this genre of comics. I’d been expecting dumb machismo, but what I got was thrilling action and thoughtful introspection. It’s nice when that happens.

I’m personally quite proud of this era of British comics, for all its faults and flawed perspectives; its a bold step. It was certainly a great showcase for just how iconic an artist Ezquerra was, along with a springboard for some of our most well-known writing talent. I will discuss his work on Judge Dredd when I finally get there, but for now, I’d recommend digging up some of the best work Battle Picture Weekly had to offer—specifically Charley’s War and El Mestizo.

Speak of which, here’s Carlos Ezquerra’s cover art for that series. It’s nothing short of cinematic.

So… farewell to a foundation figure in modern British comics. Now’s a good time to see the extent of this man’s phenomenal talent.

Next time: Misty and Roy.

Sources for this article:

Great News for All Readers! – A goldmine for British comics scans, day by day

British Comic Art – Another great place for scans and a touch of history

Major Eazy – Fan site with some invaluable info

*Please note I’m speaking from my own perspective, feel free to disagree.

I’m a thirty something British nerd-mum and wannabe author, fueled by tea, poor decision making and a need to be distracted. Cursed to watch favourite characters die and ships sink. Send help.

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