I was born in 1970 and I loved the Second World War. In 2018, the UK has largely shaken off its obsession with World War 2, arguably the last ‘good’ war in which the country has taken part, but it’s fair to say that my childhood was dominated by a conflict that left the UK without its Empire, in horrendous levels of debt to the US, in need of national re-building and yet somehow one whose result could reasonably be seen as a ‘victory’. Perhaps because of that strange dichotomy between patriotic satisfaction at a job well done and the real geopolitical and economic consequences of that endeavour, UK pop culture was positively saturated with World War 2. Airfix models of planes, tanks and soldiers; TV shows like Dad’s Army, Colditz and Secret Army (and latterly its far more successful parody ‘Allo, ‘Allo); the novels of Alastair MacLean and Sven Hassel; Biggles; comics like Commando and Battle Picture Library: as a boy growing up in the 70s, it was impossible to escape the war. And that’s not including the personal reminiscences of my grandparents (my dad’s father, not fit enough to fight on the frontlines, nevertheless helped man an AA battery on the North West coast of England that one night downed a Junkers 88 bomber on its way to bomb Liverpool) or the various documentaries about the war which regularly appeared on our black and white (and eventually colour) TV screens.
But this is a comics blog and it’s comics that interest me here. Not that I knew it at the time, but the comic industry in the UK during the 70s and 80s was dominated by two publishers: Fleetway/IPC who published Battle and 2000AD amongst others, and DC Thomson who published The Beano and the subject of this review, Warlord. After TV Comic stopped carrying ‘Doctor Who’ strips, it was to Warlord that I turned for my comic fix. As was the case with all British comics at the time, each issue featured five or six serialized comic strips featuring heroic looking men doing heroic looking things with tanks, planes, boats and a variety of weapons. Issue 383 (cover-dated 23rd January 1982) was no exception.
Written by Alan Hemus with art by (probably) Luis Collado Coch, the cover story is Kampfgruppe Falken, which follows a German army punishment battalion attempting to stop or at least slow the advance of the Russian army on Berlin in 1945. At the start of the strip, Falken and his men are providing covering fire for a German engineer about to blow a bridge and, having realized that two of his men have failed to report in, Falken goes back for them, running over the bridge that’s about to be destroyed and towards the enemy. He finds the two men trapped in a partially collapsed building; one of them, the Finn Hanko, is trying to keep part of a wall from crushing the second man Potacki, a Pole. What follows is fairly typical fare for war comics of the period. Having freed Potacki, Falken and the two other men face off against a Soviet tank which bursts through the wall and into the house in which the three have taken refuge. The tank appears to have Falken dead to rights before the floor, unable to bear its weight, gives way and the tank plunges to the floor below where it inexplicably explodes. The grim comradeship of the three men is emphasized throughout with the final line of the three-page strip belonging to Falken himself and evincing a rather weak but sardonic humour.
It’s admittedly difficult to judge a series from a single three-page installment, but a number of things are noteworthy: the punishment battalion aspect of the story is downplayed and seems to exist only to provide a reason for the three men from different countries to be together; given the grim situation and the backgrounds of the characters, the dialogue could be a lot darker but, perhaps understandably for a comic aimed at children, is relatively good-natured and quite tame; the Russian threat is muted, consisting of a single tank, which is dealt with very fortuitously; not a single enemy soldier is seen, but instead the Soviet threat is portrayed as a remorseless inhuman juggernaut that is ultimately destroyed by its own ponderous weight and plot convenience. It’s difficult not to see real-world politics (in which West Germany was an ally and the Soviet Union was seen as a remorseless inhuman juggernaut) playing some role in this portrayal. The art is a bit muddy but generally effective. Given that it’s only three pages long, the story is rather impressively economical and self-contained.
Roback’s Raiders highlights the British Long Range Desert Group, who, during the North Africa campaign, drove jeeps into enemy territory and performed hit and run raids on German and Italian installations. The Roback of the title is a keffiyeh-wearing Major who displays a typically British mix of stiff upper lip stoicism and reckless derring-do. This three-page strip opens with a dramatic raid on a German-occupied desert fort, the Bofors gun mounted on Roback’s truck making short work of the gates before the group’s other two vehicles join in and drive the Germans off into the desert. (Where presumably they’ll die a horrible death from dehydration, but absolutely no one cares about that.) In the detritus of the German command centre is found a report referring to a German airfield set up by a nearby oasis. Pooh-poohing the idea of informing the RAF about the base so they can bomb it, Roback decides to attack the base himself and the three jeeps do precisely that. Two of the Stuka airplanes manage to get off the ground, however, and they attack Roback’s jeep. The major manages to destroy one of them with the Bofors (which was originally an anti-aircraft gun, to be fair) but the second one gets through and the jeep suffers a near miss which – perhaps through the blast or perhaps through shrapnel – appears to have killed Roback. You’ll have to wait till the next issue to have the question “Is Roback Really Dead?” answered, but I suspect that at that point the question will turn out to be purely rhetorical.
What’s interesting about this strip is that it features a staple plot device in war stories – the demoted subordinate officer and the outspoken, apparently reckless commanding officer. Roback’s truck is driven by a man called Blamire who was the unit’s lieutenant before being demoted to private (ouch!) by Roback in an earlier installment. It’s not revealed here why he was demoted but his animosity towards Roback which surfaces at the end of the strip (Blamire calls Roback a “big head” before begrudgingly admitting – albeit in a thought bubble – that Roback’s “a big head” but also “a real soldier”) would appear to be centred around Roback’s leadership style. It’s tempting to suggest that with Roback (with its tough-sounding last consonant) and Blamire (which has a French, slightly effete association) the writer might be indulging in a bit of nominative determinism, but I should probably resist that temptation. As with the first strip, there’s a lot happening here. It’s not as self-contained, though, the writer instead opting for a tried and trusted cliffhanger ending. Not only does the question of Roback’s final fate demand an answer, but the question of whether Roback has been the instrument of his own demise lingers faintly in the air too. Is Blamire right? Has Roback’s ‘bigheadedness’ got himself killed and put his men in danger? If only I had issue 384 and I could tell you…
Weirdly enough for a war comic, the horrors of war are only really addressed in the letters section. The letters to Warlord were addressed to and answered by Warlord himself, Lord Peter Flint (more of him in a moment) and the names of respondents were printed in code. Readers were encouraged to join the Warlord Club by sending off a coupon along with a 40p postal order, for which they would receive a decoder set, which would enable them to decipher the names of the letter writers and a range of other secret messages hidden in the letters pages. This week’s letter of the week is a kid essentially bragging about his parents’ war memorabilia. Personally, I’d have given the title ‘letter of the week’ to the second letter which describes the writer’s great grandad getting shot in the forehead during the First World War and having a pencil inserted into the resulting hole in order to stop the bleeding. “As they were transporting him back from the front, a shell exploded and he got shrapnel in his leg.” The final sentence’s statement that “despite all that, he survived and lived until he was 85” positively begs an additional “Can any of your readers top that?” but perhaps I’ve been reading too many Viz comics lately. Who knows?
The next strip, Holocaust Squadron, seems almost tailor-made for my younger self. Set in a near-future war between ASBLOC (the Association of Asian Bloc States) and WESFED (the Western Federation) whose territory the former has invaded, the strip follows the fortunes of a ‘loyalist’ Harrier Squadron pitted against a ‘traitor’ squadron led by Wing Commander Hurd and his villainous nephew Nigel. Given that we’re essentially talking World War III here, this focus seems a touch parochial to me, but I suppose it does provide precisely the kind of personal conflict that, I presume, the editors decided was necessary to hold the attention of pre-pubescent boys. Personally, I’d be happier with seeing mushroom clouds blooming across the continent, while vast hordes of tanks, planes and men clash somewhere in central Europe but perhaps that’s just me.
Central to the story is the Harrier fighter jet, a plane that was to feature heavily in the Falklands War later that year. Both the strip’s hero Hob Hogget and his nemesis Nigel Hurd fly one and this issue’s installment opens with a large panel of a squadron of Harriers shooting up what looks to be an enemy supply convoy on a motorway. The nearby caption box handily informs us that Hogget’s squadron, the “Holocaust Squadron” of the strip’s title, is supporting WESFED forces as they fight their way south through the country from Scotland. In a comic which mostly features stories set in the milieu of the Second World War, the sight of Harriers shooting up a motorway is rather jarring. Even more jarring is seeing Hurd’s uncle, having survived his encounter with a landmine on the road to a charming fictional village called Chartonworth, order the village to be razed to the ground. By an amazing coincidence, Chartonworth is where Hogget comes from and the treatment meted out to it by those cowardly ASBLOC pilots means that things become terribly personal. Hogget drops a challenge to Hurd during a bombing raid, but Hurd refuses the challenge and, with ASBLOC in retreat and many of their squadrons being deployed to the continent, it looks as if Hogget won’t get his revenge.
And do we care? I don’t really know. Of the strips I’ve read so far, this one might be the least successful. With something like a foreign invasion of Britain set in the present day, the challenge is to demonstrate the scale of the crisis while keeping some kind of human focus to make the story work. Holocaust Squadron does the latter but fails miserably at the former. Chartonworth is a largely anonymous picture-postcard English village complete with ornately decorated church and village green; the potential to deliver some impact by portraying the war in a fully contemporary setting is largely lost. We do get some nice Harrier art, mind you, but Hob Hogget is a bland and, considering he’s just seen his home village destroyed by the enemy, not especially sympathetic character. A bit of a disappointment.
It’s probably an oversimplification to call Lord Peter ‘Warlord’ Flint a posh James Bond, but it’s not far from the mark either. This issue’s self-contained 7 page story sees our titular hero charged with blowing up a dam in enemy territory. This already tricky assignment is made more difficult by the presence of a new POW camp close to the dam, which has been set up precisely to discourage the RAF from bombing it. Too late, of course. The RAF has already attacked – and weakened – the dam, and Warlord has planted his charges to destroy it altogether. Having contrived to be (sort of) captured along with the flight crew of a downed RAF bomber, Flint finds out about the POW camp, bulldozes its fence and engineers an impromptu breakout, covering the men’s escape with fire from the downed bomber’s rear turret. All of this is typically improbable stuff but it’s pulled off with enough style that you don’t quite mind. The extra pages are used, not to flesh out character or build atmosphere, but to make the plot as intricate and reliant on coincidence as it is possible to be. Oh, well. Flint himself never really appealed to me and I think it’s mainly because everything’s too damned easy for the man. Planting underwater charges? No problem. Driving a bulldozer to free some prisoners? No problem. Persuading Germans guarding a facility that’s already been bombed by the RAF that you’re not doing anything more suspicious than a spot of night fishing? Yep. That’s okay, too. While Flint drops some occasional witticisms, they’re nowhere near as knowingly egregious as Bond’s best lines and consequently the whole thing just feels like it’s going through the motions. The art, mind you, is rather nice.
The issue’s final two strips are, for different reasons, ‘problematic’. The first, Sergeant Rayker, features a “negro” sergeant who is engaged in a personal vendetta against the two white officers who, prior to the war, were responsible for the murder of Rayker’s brother. In terms of story, this strip is actually pretty successful. Major Hickman, the junior of the two men Rayker is sworn to kill, is holed up in an elevated position on a snowy hillside taking potshots at Rayker in an attempt to get rid of him first. What follows is a pretty well-worked and surprisingly tense sequence in which Rayker tries to lure the Major out of cover (and succeeds) while his friend Dunbar makes the killing shot. Deciding to make race a central feature of the series is arguably a bold move and, the liberal use of the word ‘negro’ aside, it largely works. Rayker is a determined, sympathetic character; his adversaries are cowardly scumbags with no redeeming features whatsoever. The inferior status of black men in the US Army is explicitly acknowledged when Dunbar, in a thought bubble, opines that, if Rayker is the one who kills Hickman, “the court-martial is gonna love it!” The Luftwaffe show up at the end to remind us that this is still a war story, but the focus is firmly on a black man trying to right the injustices endured in the South (albeit obliquely referred to) in the context of the latter months of the Second World War. As such, despite the broad brush strokes with which race relations are delineated, it is an engaging strip.
By contrast, the issue’s latter strip Force Viper is insubstantial – a self-contained story featuring a special forces group in 1942 Burma escorting an officer on a top secret mission to a tea plantation. The inconvenient death of the officer means that the team has to do a bit of detective work to achieve their objective, but they do so pretty handily and much slaying of “Nips” and “Japs” ensues. The crude racialism of those slang words does jar a bit and the story itself is mostly by the numbers stuff. The art, however, is really quite special – particularly on the second page during the firefight between Force Viper and a squad of Japanese soldiers. There’s a dynamism and ferocity to the action that is really quite impressive, although it doesn’t manage to make memorable a story that is too slight to stick in the imagination.
On the whole, then, this is, as you might expect, a mixed bag. The strips cover a satisfyingly diverse range of protagonists and theatres of combat. The most successful story is probably the Sergeant Rayker strip, simply because, perhaps because of the potentially controversial subject matter, the creators seem to have taken greater care in devising and writing the character. He is, in some significant ways, considerably more ‘real’ and engaging a protagonist than the almost superheroic Lord Peter Flint. Many of the stories deal with rivalries between different characters and one or two touch on the hardship of combat, but all, to some extent, present a version of war that is sanitized of its more gruesome horrors and accentuate the opportunities it presents for heroism. Which suited an eleven-year-old me just fine, but leaves my adult self a little dissatisfied.