Yesterday I posted half the transcript of a 2003 interview with acclaimed comics writer John Wagner about ground-breaking 1970s war title Battle Picture Weekly. [If you missed that, you can read it by clicking this link.] Wagner developed the comic with fellow freelancer Pat Mills. They were joined by in-house editor Dave Hunt as the first issue neared completion. Now, here's the second half of the transcript, covering the rest of Wagner's involvement with BPW over the years...
I’m guessing first change strips like Coward’s Brand on Bradley and The Fortrose Falcon were stories that had been developed for the launch but rejected from #1 – correct?
That’s exactly what they are. [Coward’s Brand…] We tried hard with that story, if I remember rightly. It was just one that was never gonna work. It was just to try and get a different story. Once again, he’s someone who’s having it done to him, rather than doing. That’s where it fell done. The Fortrose Falcon lacked one strong central character. It was a nice idea, kind of old fashioned. Once again it didn’t make it into #1. It was never going to make it into the first mix but we obviously liked the story. It might not have been the most popular story but it did help leaven the mix a little.
I think the thing that really did that was Charley’s War. It was totally outwith Battle’s normal fare but it really fitted well into Battle.
Battle is unusual because it had typeset lettering when most IPC titles of the time had hand-lettering – why was this?
This is something we brought from [Dundee publisher DC] Thomsons, we just preferred it. These days I would always have hand lettering.
When 2000 AD came along we took the definite decision to major more on art. I think that was part of the reason for the popularity of the comic. When the art is very striking and in your face… You often feel with 2000 AD you could do with twice as many pages to get the same story value as early issues of Battle.
Battle was soon getting very later and in danger of missing its printing slot. Can you remember when you and Pat moved on to other projects?
I began to see I didn’t have a real role there anymore, we were only getting in Dave’s way. So I thought it was best if I toddled off. For a while I was a script editor on a new comic, a new girls’ teen comic they were bringing out, the name of which I can’t remember. It did come out. I really wasn’t suited to that anymore. I soon got fed up and they offered me Valiant. I don’t suppose I paid much more attention to Battle until I left Valiant.
I’ll name some Battle strip from 75 and 76 to see if they stir any memories: King of the Yanks?
I don’t think I know that one. I don’t remember this at all.
They Can’t Stop Bullet!
I have vague memories of the title. But I deny all knowledge.
That was excellent art by Carlos. That’s where he really started to come into his own. Lovely cover. Alan Hebden wrote Major Eazy, that was a good story.
You went off to edit Valiant, already a sinking ship by that point. Did you quit before it was cancelled? At last year’s Moniaive Festival you were telling me Darkie’s Mob was your parachute job when you left Valiant and you put a lot of effort into getting it right…
It was something like that, it was the first job I did.
Mike Western was a big part of the success of Darkie’s Mob…
He was kept pretty busy by the boys’ division. I guess that’s why he wasn’t in the early issues.
What’s it been like seeing the strip reprinted in the Megazine?
It’s been quite interesting because I didn’t remember much about it. It’s a wee bit repetitive when you read it all in a block like that. I’m surprised that we got away with some of the stuff we did. Most of it is based on real incidents.
Dave Hunt on Darkie: The dysentery episode, a politician wrote to Battle saying this is disgraceful, my constituents have brought this to my attention. Me, being forever the coward, wrote this long-winded reply saying these stories are based on real life events.
I don’t know if there’s anything I can tell you about Darkie’s Mob that is new. The dysentery episode I was quite annoyed with Dave because I had these old Arthur Mead encyclopedia. They were from 1937 so I was actually using the real cure that was available at that time, antisheega serum. Dave, thinking it was just something I had invented, cut that out! That was quite well researched, all that.
Three other strips started in the same issue. At the time British comics didn't carry creator credits, so it's hard to know precisely who did what. Did you have anything to do with Yellow Jack? Operation Shark? The Unknown Soldier?
Valiant was folded into Battle in October 1976, bringing with it three strips – One-Eyed Jack, The Black Crow and Soldier Sharp – did you have anything to do with these?
One-Eyed Jack, that’s one I created for Valiant with John Cooper. Soldier Sharp – that’s another way I created. That never quite worked. I was trying to mimic Cadman that ran in Warlord or another title, which was a genuinely good story – but I never quite made it. I didn’t write many of them, but it never quite worked. The Black Crow – I don’t remember that one.
The Valiant merger had the advantage of bringing three strong artists to Battle – John Cooper, Eric Bradbury and Joe Colquhoun – what are your memories of these three men?
That was quite fortunate, good artists all.
I think your next creation for Battle was drawn by Eric Bradbury – Joe Two Beans. What can you remember about that? The lead character is a Red Indian who doesn’t speak for the first 11 episodes – inspired by the chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?
Joe Two Beans – oh dear. God. Someone should have stopped me. [One Flew…?] Maybe – probably. I wish it had stayed in the nest. [Having Joe not talk...] I thought it would save on dialogue but in the end you had to write a lot more to explain what the guy was up to. “Joe Two Beans is thinking about the war!” Oh God, don’t remind me of this one! You know, you learn, you try things and you make some mistakes. The art was okay. He really got into the character, Eric. I don’t think it was that unpopular. I’d forgotten all about Joe. There you go. Just a guy trying to make a buck.
El Mestizo [by Hebden and Ezquerra] – I think this worked pretty well.
Darkie’s Mob concluded in June 77 – had the story run its course? Dave Hunt recalls pleading with you to keep it going. There’s an episode towards the end where Darkie has the chance to enlist a whole new mob but is foiled – was this your response to Dave’s pleading?
I imagine Dave and I had been talking about. I felt really shot on the story, I didn’t really have anything new to give it. Continuing it I seemed to be repeating myself a lot, it felt better to let it go. I felt it was ready to close. It had run a long time, more than I was ever used to running a story. It was pretty popular story in Battle. Why didn’t he [Dave] take me off it? Or he could have given me £100 to keep it going – that would have convinced me! That would have overcome any scruples I had – but things weren’t done like that.
A new trio of strips begins in June 77 – did you have anything to do with The Sarge? Gaunt? Sea Wolf?
Christ, I forgot about Gaunt too. That was me. Another one of these things that didn’t have enough going for it. There you go. A freelance searching for an idea. I didn’t like Gaunt, I think I closed it down pretty quickly.
Life Story of the Red Baron – your work?
No. They were scraping the barrel there, weren’t they?
78 strips – Achilles the Avenger – memories?
Oh boy! I wonder whose idea this was?
In July 78 Operation Shark returns and two new strips begin – Pat Mills’ Samurai and Crazy Keller with art by Bradbury. Did you write Crazy Keller?
No. The Japanese stories never seemed to go down as well. I don’t know if the theatre of war seemed to far away for kids…
January 79 - #200 – first Charley’s War – Battle’s finest hour? Why?
I think this was the best story that ever ran in British comics. I haven’t read it all but the bits I have are really well done, well researched and put together. Lovely drawing. Somehow Joe Colquhoun’s artwork captured the First World War. He was also willing to do an awful lot of researched himself, although I imagine Pat supplied him with a lot of it.
Did Scott Goodall take it over? Pat must have been miffed. I met Scott when I was over in Barcelona for a convention. He was a jolly fellow, always ready for a drink.
H.M.S. NIGHTSHADE – anything to do with you? Nice Western art – very hard to make naval strips work for some reason…
This was inspired by The Cruel Sea. Navy stories were difficult to make popular. I think this didn’t work too badly, for a Navy story. Real down home stuff.
GLORY RIDER - who wrote this? Seems to have been modelled on Patton…
I wouldn’t call a story Glory Rider. Most of these artists could tell a story, even if they couldn’t draw.
During 1980 the Wagner & Grant writing partnership was formed – you didn’t write a strip called Death Squad did you? Bradbury art?
No, absolutely not.
Long gap before you return to Battle with a new strip – Fight for the Falklands, fact-based story that began soon after the war ended, art by Jim Watson – genesis of that strip? Started within weeks of the war finishing?
I was ready to go. I had counted them all in. I must confess I was taken in by the jingo of the whole thing, of the war. I was all for bashing the Argies. I wasn’t a deep thinker. I have a feeling Barrie Tomlinson asked me to do it. This is the Falklands War explained – how the Argies got a bloody nose. I feel kind of ashamed of it, looking back.
Did you read the episode about the Belgrano? I’d like to see what I said about that – probably swallowed the Government line. I wonder how popular this was?
It must have been very difficult finding the right style for it… problems? Controversy?
It’s just silly. War correspondents get their books out as soon as they can after getting home, they never get any stick for it.
By 1983 you and Alan have adopted a range of pen-names at the request of John Sanders, including the Clark brothers – R. Clark writes Invasion 1984, a sci-fi war story for Battle – where did the idea for this come from?
We don’t know whether this is Ron or Rick. This is a terrible story. By normal standards it’s probably an average Battle story, but we could have done so much better. We somehow managed to get a futuristic story to look like an old war story. I’d forgotten all about that one.
How long did it last? [13 years] That’s pretty good going for a comic, although it had some merges.
I think that’s what we wanted to call it initially – just Battle. There was some reason why we didn’t. Was there some other publication?
Of all the work you did for Battle, what was your best?
Darkie’s Mob, by some distance, I would think so. But Charley’s War was the best thing in Battle.