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Thursday, April 11, 2024

Revival of UK’s War Comics: The Trek from Triviality to Treasure

From being tossed in bins to fetching thousands of pounds, the article steps into the journey of UK's War Comics. It highlights their remarkable transition, showcasing an exhibition that celebrates their historical and cultural significance.

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Russell Weaver
Russell Weaver
Russell Weaver is a renowned writer, celebrated for his vibrant storytelling and intricate world-building. Beyond being an writer, he's an artist, dedicated to crafting stories that captivate, transform, and linger.
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In its prime season, the UK’s war comics pile held illustrious titles like Battle, Warlord, Valiant, Hotspur, and the still enduring pocket-sized Commando. During the 1950s and 1960s, these stories were a channel for detailing adventures and heroics of audacious British troops, always in tough battles, frequently against one-dimensional German opponents.

Regrettably, the exceptional original artwork used in those comics, which presently attracts thousands of pounds, was at the time seen as trivial; this led to many being destroyed, tossed into bins, used as fire starters, or to sop up basement floods in the publishers’ offices. Today, however, a small unit of dedicated comic collectors and researchers has tracked down these remnants and compiled them into an exhibition that narrates the evolution of the British war comic.

Primarily displaying original 1960s and 1970s pages from classics like War Picture Library or Battle and Action comics, the exhibition hosted at the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum in Woodstock will present the captivating artwork that propelled the popularity of war comics.

Yet, only a handful of these original pieces survived. The Oxford-based Rebellion- a comic company that publishes the science fiction weekly 2000AD, and a contributor to the museum’s exhibition, has embarked on a mission to recollect what remains of them.

In 2016, Rebellion bought over the archives of Fleetway/IPC, one of Britain’s largest comic publishers. However, while the original comics were preserved on microfiche, less emphasis was put on archiving the actual artwork. As Pat Mills, renowned for revitalizing children’s comics launched in the 1970s like Battle, Action, and 2000AD, recounts, there were “horror stories” of original comic art being disposed of recklessly or destroyed post-print.

Original UK’s War Comics

Original artwork, which now commands hefty prices on collectors’ market, fell prey to negligence and ignorance, often being used to tackle basement leaks or mindlessly thrown away. “Since acquiring the IPC/Fleetway archive we’ve scoured the world trying to find any surviving original artwork,” said Michael Molcher, brand manager for Rebellion.

The exhibition sketches the trajectory of war comics decade by decade, from the satirical strips and patriotic illustrated story papers of the 19th and early 20th century to the game-changing 1970s comics filled with grittier, more authentic, emotionally resonant stories.

The 1970s, especially, witnessed a drastic shift in the narratives of comics when Pat Mills, with artist Joe Colquhoun, wrote Charley’s War. Set in World War I, Charley’s War looked away from glory and squarely at the horrors of conflict, going on to become one of the most celebrated war comics, still in publication today via Rebellion.

Rebellion has successfully revived 21st-century editions of Battle/Action and Commando, with modern renditions that follow the Charley’s War’s premise of displaying the grim realities of war. The lingering impact of Charley’s War is still seen in conversations with its now-grown audience. Pat Mills acknowledged the deep impression it left on young readers, many of whom renounced initial plans to join the army after reading Charley’s War, underlining the power and influence that these comics wielded.

As we celebrate these comics, it becomes clear these once-disregarded artworks are not only treasured collectibles but are also instrumental in painting a vivid picture of our cultural history, its shifts and evolution.

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