Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s Battle and Action (and their eventual coming together) were influential–and controversial–British war comics featuring tales specifically tied to World War II and other major world conflicts. While the titles offered a place to honor military heroics (and letter pages shared personal stories), the action-packed tales made a few people uneasy, specifically those who deemed its anti-authoritarian undertones morally reprehensible.
For a writer like Garth Ennis, however, Battle Action was important to his youth and eventually his career. Ennis is no stranger to writing no-holds-barred tales; The Boys and Preacher are prime examples.
Ennis chatted with The Beat about the upcoming 96-page Battle Action special published by Rebellion/2000 AD (artists on the anthology include Kevin O’Neill, Keith Burns, Mike Dorey, John Higgins, Chris Burnham, Patrick Goddard, and PJ Holden)
Deanna Destito: How did this Battle Action special come about with Rebellion?
Garth Ennis: I pitched it. I really enjoyed the Battle and Action specials from 2020, but I didn’t get the sense there would be any more of either any time soon. So I thought, okay, what if I did it myself? And editor Keith Richardson said yes.
Destito: It is both a revival and homage to Battle and Action (and their coming together later on) in the late ’70s and ’80s. What did you want to capture from those titles in this anthology?
Ennis: The Battle Action special is really a celebration of Battle at its best, which I would describe as being roughly 1978-1981 when all of the comic’s greatest strips either started or continued their runs (or in the case of Darkie’s Mob, were reprinted). Part of that was the immediate injection of quality that came with the arrival from Action of Dredger and Hellman; what I wanted to do was highlight those strips along with some of my favourites from the run of Battle I’m talking about. And I included another Action story, Kids Rule OK, for direct commentary on the demise of Action and its merge with Battle.
Destito: Who were your favorite characters and stories to bring back for this installment?
Ennis: Dredger for certain, he’s one of the most splendid bastards in British comics history. I really enjoyed working on Hellman with Mike Dorey in the 2020 Action special, so that was a shoo-in. Johnny Red is my all-time favourite strip from Battle, there was no way I wasn’t including that one- and it was nice to be able to give Nina Petrova her own strip after 40 years, she’s probably the most important supporting character in Johnny Red. Kids Rule OK I mentioned earlier- that’s an odd one, a sort of story I’ve written about a story. The Sarge is one I always loved; I learned a valuable lesson from that strip about establishing a cast of likable characters and then knocking them off one by one for maximum emotional payoff. And finally, Crazy Keller has an underdog quality for me- it’s a brilliantly written and drawn strip, but it doesn’t get mentioned in the same breath as the better known Battle series. That should change.
Destito: How much of an influence on you as a writer, specifically one who has pushed boundaries in storytelling, were the original books?
Ennis: Massive. See above for what I learned from The Sarge. The best Battle strips were all expertly paced, there was precious little dead space. As for pushing boundaries, there was never any comics code in the British industry, so a lot of what appeared came down to editorial discretion. Action was a failure in that department; Battle survived because editor David Hunt knew just how far to go, in terms of what could be shown and how it could be justified.
Destito: Are you planning to do more with these classic stories and characters in the future and do you have your sights on bringing back more influential British comics?
Ennis: I’d love to. Obviously, I’d like to keep on writing Johnny Red, and I could easily do more short stories with Dredger and Crazy Keller. I also feel like I have unfinished business with Rat Pack, who I wrote in the 2020 Battle special. That said, Battle, Action, and 2000AD represent the limits of my interest in classic British comics, I can’t see myself going any further than that.
Although come to think of it, there’s Battler Britton. And Commando…
Battle Action will be available through 2000 AD this June.