Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Reprint This! Update on Battle Picture Weekly

Battle Picture Weekly was, of course, one of the best and most important comics ever published. It wasn't just a simply entertaining, well-written and drawn collection of great war stories, it was a critical building block in the development of modern comics. Since without it, you'd never have had a 2000 AD, I've always been interested in it, and any chance to see these terrific stories is one worth taking.

The series and serials in BPW were drawn by some of the best artists working in Britain at the time, including Eric Bradbury, Joe Colquhoun, Carlos Ezquerra, Cam Kennedy and Mike Western. Many of the stories were devised by Pat Mills and John Wagner, and while they only scripted a few themselves, they assigned others to the likes of Gerry Finley-Day and Alan Hebden. They all developed storylines, sometimes sharply different from each other in tone, with vulnerable anti-heroes, radically different from the indestructible leads in American war comics. Reading just one issue of BPW after an identikit Robert Kanigher DC adventure is the greatest breath of fresh air in the medium.

Titan Books, which has been collecting Battle's most lauded strip, Charley's War, for several years now, landed the reprint rights to several old IPC properties what seemed like an eternity ago, and late last year finally released the first of their new Battle collections. The Best of Battle is similar in feel to their two Roy of the Rovers samplers, three hundred pages of reprints in a slightly oversized format with a paperback cover. The book contains the first 3-5 episodes of eighteen different series. Each comes with an introductory page and a short blurb written by either Mills or BPW's one-time editor, Dave Hunt.

I think the format is a good one, as far as samplers go, but it looks to me like Titan was a draft or two shy of assembling something really special. The most aggravating example is Hold Hill 109, a six-part serial by Steve MacManus and Jim Watson. Four of the six episodes are included in this book, which is nice, but what are the odds that Hold Hill 109 will ever be reprinted anywhere else? Between Charley's War, Johnny Red and Darkie's Mob, there are 12-13 episodes which are either already available in Titan collections or are due for release within a few months. Couldn't eight of those pages be given up to see all of Hold Hill 109?

I'm also a little surprised that Battle Action Force isn't even mentioned in the book. Admittedly, even with the nice artwork by John Cooper, the toy line tie-in, sort of a parallel antecedent to Hasbro's G.I. Joe line of the 1980s, was the sign that the comic's brightest moments had passed, but it still has a huge number of fans. Evidently there's some rights issues at work, as Palitoy still owns those characters like Baron Buckethead or whoever it was they were fighting prior to Cobra Commander, but considering just how important the Action Force was to Battle's later days - Johnny Red and Charley's War wouldn't have made it to their ends without Action Force sales propping up the comic - I think it should have been mentioned.

If readers would forgive the regular quibbling of a Monday morning quarterback, the book is truly a fine introduction to Battle, and one which will certainly get new readers excited about the other material Titan has planned. Six volumes of Charley's War are already out, the first collection of Johnny Red should be with us by the end of the month, and a complete Darkie's Mob - all 44 episodes - is solicited in the current Previews for later in the spring. The book also promises that collections of two of my favorite Battle series, Major Eazy and Rat Pack, are on the horizon.

The only other quibble that I have is that getting accurate shipping dates and advance plans from Titan is really like pulling teeth. Most of their books seem subject to interminable delays - where the devil is the third volume of Jeff Hawke, guys?! - and so it's impossible to guess exactly when we'll get the follow-up volumes that I've been craving. It's simply bad business to serve up an appetizer as tasty as this and shy away from the main course!

Read more of what I've written about Battle Picture Weekly at A Journal of Zarjaz Things.

Read other reviews of The Best of Battle:

Steve Holland at Bear Alley
Bart Croonenborghs at Broken Frontier
John Freeman at Down the Tubes

In other news, artist Steve Lieber was nice enough to drop me a line about his Image Comics series Underground, written by Jeff Parker. It's a five-part series about a park ranger in Kentucky trying to save a fragile cave system from developers in a town which badly needs the tourist business, leading to an ugly cat-and-mouse game. Underground doesn't seem to have shown up on many bloggers' radars, but it's a fine adventure with sympathetic characters and some really nice artwork. Image is releasing a collected edition of the miniseries on April 21.

Over at Dark Horse, underground pioneer Denis Kitchen is the subject of a forthcoming retrospective. The Oddly Compelling Art of Denis Kitchen is a 200-page hardcover collection with an introduction by Neil Gaiman. Apparently, Kitchen was planning a similar project back when he was running the late, lamented Kitchen Sink Press in the early nineties, but it never came to fruition. The book's sure to be anticipated by fans of underground comix and goes on sale June 23rd.

There is some big news, equally confusing and wonderful, from Rebellion, publishers of the Galaxy's Greatest Comic, 2000 AD. Seems they have signed a new deal with Simon & Schuster to distribute their line of graphic novels in the US. This deal looks like it's meant to target American mass market retailers - and not the direct market - with two collections every month, starting in the summer.

To be honest, there's little in the line to excite longtime 2000 AD fans like me, who've bought this material in multiple editions already, but putting the material out there for new readers to finally sample at every bookstore in America sounds like a very good thing indeed. The exception to that sentence is Harry Twenty on the High Rock, a 1983 serial written by Gerry Finley-Day (and an uncredited Alan Grant) with art by Alan Davis, who's contributing a new cover to the book. While it's been dusted off for magazine reprints, this serial has never been collected in book form before, and should be out in August.

Rebellion is also continuing their long-running line of collections which are available to British booksellers and, occasionally, to the American direct market via Diamond. August will see the release of the classic Harlem Heroes by Tom Tully, Dave Gibbons and Massimo Belardinelli, perhaps also including the sequel series, Inferno, along with the sixteenth in the series of Judge Dredd Case Files.

On that note, I would like to thank readers for reading Reprint This!, and hope you'll understand that I've decided against continuing in the present format. I really seem to have exhausted the supply of good feature ideas for reprints that I would be genuinely excited to see and purchase at this time, and I've kind of been noticing that the "reprint news" summary like this one has been feeling more like work. I will continue using this blog to spotlight news and announcements that appeal to me, and have no intention of abandoning it, but I am removing the "deadline" element of it, so that I can continue sharing exciting news when it's fresh, rather than having a chore. Thanks for reading!

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