As a fan of basically everything Rebellion Publishing has to offer, as well as the visceral stolidity of old war comics, you can only imagine my joy at receiving an advanced copy of the newly re-published — and oversized — collection of the classic strip Battle Stations by Donne Avenell and legendary artist Hugo Pratt.
War comics have been a staple of British comics for the better part of a century, and while the genre is often bogged down with tiring patriotism and black-and-white world views, Battle Stations manages to forgo the tiring tropes entirely; exchanging it instead for a take on WWII that is as thought provoking as it is a visual masterpiece.
The story begins with the sinking of an anti-submarine trawler by a U-boat, and the subsequent murder of the remaining survivors who made it through. The only ones who manage to escape entirely are three British crewman; all of whom are eventually reassigned to the HMS Vengeful — a ship whose name means just a little bit more to these three new crewman. Because this is an advanced copy, I can’t bring myself to give away too much of the story, but I will say that the three men find themselves once again unmoored — but this time alongside survivors from the German side of the war.
Considering that this strip was originally created in 1963 — just 18 years after WWII ended — and during a period where many countries were still reeling and rebuilding from the war, it’s astounding to be able to read this take from creators who were present (and even involved) in the war itself. It’s clear that Avenell — who had been a telegraphist for the Navy — wanted the story to be more than just nazi-bashing. Though that message is still very clear and present in the story, Avenell creates a fantastic nuance with which the ideas surrounding the war are delivered through characters that tread a much more grey area instead of the consistent straight-and-narrow of patriotism.
And while Avenell writes up a fantastic story that has held up beautifully to the ages (and may be even more relevant again now), one of the greatest gifts this collection has to offer is Pratt’s artwork. Later famed for dozens of titles (most notably, Corto Maltese) and being the influence of many future creators (including Alex Toth, Paul Pope, and many others), this period showcases Pratt’s beginnings as an artist in a way that has otherwise been lost to time. Through rough brushstrokes, moody inks, and dynamic background work, Pratt captures the essence of the war and delivers the scenes with strength and grace.
For so long these comics have been lost to the ages, and being able to see the formative years of such iconic creators come alive on the printed page again is both a gift and a grand nod to history. There is no doubt that Battle Stations, and the titles following it, are sure to find their home among modern comic fans once again.
Battle Stations will be available in the U.S. on February 18, 2020, with the U.K. release following shortly thereafter on February 20th.