Tuesday, January 30, 2007

John Wagner talks about Battle Picture Weekly

Back in 2003 I interviewed one of the most acclaimed writers in British comics, John Wagner, about his involvement with seminal war title Battle Picture Weekly. Here's the first half of my raw transcript. Please excuse any spelling mistakes or bad grammar, those are my fault...

You worked first at DC Thomson, learning your trade. Around 1971 you and Pat quite to go freelance, writing as a team from his garden shed. After a year you went to London on a freelance contract with IPC where you edited a girls’ comic called Sandie. John Sanders recalls cancelling this out from under you when sales dropped to 199,000. You abandoned writing altogether and took a succession of other jobs including caretaker at a Scottish mansion and dredging on a barge. How accurate is that so far?

Actually, I went on from Sandie to Princess Tina, to kill that one off too. If it lasted beyond me, it was despite me!

In September 1974 DC Thomson launched Warlord. Publisher John Sanders decided he needed fresh blood and new ideas for IPC’s response and turned to Mills and Wagner for help. According to a previous interview I read, you got a telegram inviting you to come back to London and work with Pat on launching what became Battle Picture Weekly – true or false? Who was the telegram from – Sanders? Purdie? Mills?

D-Day Dawson was our answer to Union Jack Jackson.I think Sanders turned to Pat for help, more than me. I think Pat was the one Sanders had faith in. Pat needed someone to work with, that’s more the way it worked. The telegram was from Sanders or Purdie, more likely Purdie. Purdie or Pat, more probably Purdie.

Warlord went on sale the end of September 74 – the first issue of Battle went to press at the end of January 75. So you and Pat developed the title from scratch in just four months. What can you remember about that period?

They had I don’t know what lead time but we had it pretty near done in six weeks, pretty near done. I would say it lasted another week or two tidying it up – six to eight weeks it was ready. I was staying with Pat at the time which was a bad mistake, as we couldn’t stop working. We worked on the train on the way up, in the office, in the pub afterwards, in the train on the way back and we probably sit around at home talking about it too. At weekends we’d go out to pubs and talk around stories. We just never stopped. It drove me crazy.

Dave Hunt says you and Pat were secreted away in the Purdie empire of girls’ comics, one floor up from the boys’ comic department. Is it true you told people you were doing a comic for the blind?

I don’t remember that one, it’s quite possible. We weren’t supposed to talk about it. It’s like an idea Alan [Grant] and I came up with to do a puzzle magazine for the dyslexic called zupples.

Did you sense animosity from editorial staff who had been overlooked for the new launch?

Yeah. Also the boys’ comics staff felt it was an assault on them as we were doing a boys’ comic from the girls’ comic department, so we weren’t very popular. They felt that we were too violent. We certainly were in comparison to them but you can never really be too violent. (Laughs) It’s what the kids wanted.

Who created the ideas for the different strips? Did you and Pat develop them and then give them to other writers? Or did other writers come to you with proposals?

I think pretty much every one we developed. Gerry might have thrown in some. D-Day Dawson, we came up with the first one. I think we then handed it over to Gerry. He might have had some input into the first one, he might have written the first script. We might have had the idea and roughed it before giving it to Gerry.

Lofty – I think we’d have written the first script of that – was it Charles Herring. [Later episodes by Ken Armstrong] He was in the art department, he wanted to write. He was in the TAs. It took us days to find the title for The Headfirst Hero, we just couldn’t come up with one.

Don’t ask me who wrote the Golden Hinde, I’ve absolutely no idea. [S Conforth?] Cornforth? Oh yeah, he was a funny guy, he used to freelance for us on Sandie. Everything was close typed so he could get everything on three pieces of paper. [Mills/Wagner do the second, then Scott Goodall takes it over] I guess we didn’t think what Cornforth had done was right.

Battle Badge of Bravery – was this Eric Hebden? He did this kind of thing. He was never the most exciting writer, Eric, but he was a decent old spud.

Day of the Eagle – I’m sure we’d have written the first episode, maybe the whole thing. [Eric Hebden?] We may well have given it to Eric. I’m pretty sure we’d have done the first one.

[Arguments over free gift on BPW #1] Peter Mason, he was an ex-Army man. He wouldn’t tolerate us giving away SS stickers. We really didn’t appreciate the sensitivities, I think we should have been a bit more appreciative. Sanders, of course, sitting in the middle of this furious row smiling about it. “I like a bit of conflict.” As you can see he [Mason] got the SS one taken off. I think there was another one too, Panzer Division. They were great though, I loved those stickers. Stickers always seemed the best kind of gift.

Bootneck Boy – that went to Gerry. [I. MacDonald, then Gerry] Ian MacDonald, he was another DC Thomson fella who had been working on Tammy and then quit. He was a very occasional scriptwriter, just couldn’t get it together properly.

Rat Pack – I would imagine we’d have done the first one of these too. [Early Carlos] The trouble we had getting Carlos. We’d seen his artwork in either the Victor or the Hotspur. Every agent that came in we’d ask them do you know this guy? Barry Coker was the man who said yes. But he wasn’t going to let us use Carlos because he felt we were a new comic and Carlos’s employment wasn’t guaranteed long-term. I think we had to give him a promise that even if Battle folded we’d make sure he got other work.

I’m sure we wrote the first episode of this one [Bamboo Curtain – Herring, Wagner/Mills, Tully?]. Anything you see with Charles Herring on it, it was rewritten and rewritten and rewritten. He had lots of good ideas. You had to take one of Charles’ scripts and pick out those good ideas. This story didn’t work until we hyped up Sado. It was sitting there. We kept going over it and over it and couldn’t see what was wrong with it. Decided to hype up Sado. But it wasn’t that popular a story, I think because they were prisoners and they weren’t proactive. They were having it done to them, rather than doing it themselves.

Here’s what Battle staff editor Dave Hunt had to say about how Mills & Wagner worked…
“Pat and John wrote the initial episodes and then farmed them out to other writers. GFD was the author of D-Day Dawson. Lofty’s One-Man Luftwaffe – that was John and Pat. Their brief was not only create a new title but bring in new talent into the industry. We’d worked with a bed-rock of people. When you launched a new title, you rang up Tom Tully, he would do four of the new strips, Ted Cowan – people of that era – Ken Mennall. A lot of the people in Battle #1 were new to me.

“John and Pat always listened and got what they wanted from you. They would see a glimmer of an idea in a script and the writer would get paid for it. John and Pat would shape that glimmer. You’d re-read it 14 attempts later and the idea would still be there but developed. I was full of admiration for them. Being freelance themselves, they always felt they shouldn’t destroy a contributor, they felt that was the last thing they should do. They wanted to train them more into their way of thinking. Often it didn’t work.
Wagner: Almost always!
“John Sanders wanted to bring this out very quickly to combat Warlord. There was no time to stockpile material, we were really living hand to mouth. Issue 1 went to press and issue 2 wasn’t in yet. I couldn’t believe what I was watching – subbing things again and again and again, but that was Pat and John. You admired it in the end, that perfectionism. But you had to, at some stage, say enough’s enough.”
It’s true. I’m sure we overdid it. We wanted everything to be absolutely word perfect. Of course word perfect one day isn’t quite right the next. Anything you’ve ever written, you come back to it and change things. I read albums of mine and feel like getting the pen out.

Dave was right. There came a point where he had to say come on guys. I imagine he felt in a very difficult position because we were nominally in charge of the whole thing, having to tell us to get moving. We’d been working on first episodes, we didn’t have many more. We must have, you just can’t go to press without second episodes – but maybe just the scripts. I’m sure we caused him [Dave] a great deal of trouble.

There were seven stories in the first issue of Battle. Let’s talk about them one by one. First up, D-Day Dawson – Gerry Finley-Day seemed to be the main writer on this strip. How did you two know Gerry?

He was editor of Tammy. Was it still going then? I don’t think he was there when we came back, he must have gone freelance when I was away. He was another guy who had a lot of good ideas but sometimes putting them down was not quite what it should have been.

D-Day Dawson is a neat idea but all the stories become a bit samey after a while – yet the strip lasted nearly 100 issues! Why? Battle sub-editor Steve MacManus says it was most popular in early issues…

You could get variations on it but D-Day Dawson always came back to the same thing. But it was popular.

The Flight of the Golden Hinde – writer? This seems like a very traditional story – was it a struggle to find writers who could replicate the Wagner & Mills approach?

That’s one that shouldn’t have made it through the mix, very DC Thomson. It was probably the romantic in me that wanted to do that one but seeing it now I think it should have been left out of the mix for something more brutal. Quite nice artwork, if I remember rightly. [Vanyo] Like the curate’s egg, it was nice in parts.

THE BOOTNECK BOY – young boy runs away to war, a formula Battle who use again and again, most famously in Charley’s War – GFD strip? Iain McDonald on first episode?

I think it was an attempt to capture the Alf Tupper type hero, the rough diamond. It always seemed to lack a bit of direction but was mid-way popular. I think it was important to the mix, the comic could have become too samey.

RAT PACK – another story taking its inspiration from a popular film, in this case The Dirty Dozen. Pat would recycle this formula again and again for the launch of Action and then 2000 AD. Who was the main writer on Rat Pack? Notable for very early Carlos Ezquerra art – where did you spot Carlos from?

The formula worked. I never loved the story, but it worked. Carlos was later used in Battle to much better effect. The characters in this were so cliched. Rat Pack was the one you could try different people out on.

The Terror Behind the Bamboo Curtain – Dave remembers this story being rewritten again and again. How problematic was it trying the right style and tone for Battle? Were you afraid of overstepping the mark, going too far?

I had absolutely no idea where the story was going. I’m sure we hadn’t thought past the first episode. We knew it was something pretty awful, believe me! [Sadism, violence and black humour?] That’s what happens when you put a couple of freelancers in a room together! They just egg each other on. Part of it all was a reaction to the way comics had been up until then. They had been too safe, samey, sanitised. Characters never died, nothing ever changed, nothing progressed. Like Captain Hurricane went on episode after episode, the same formula, he’d throw a raging fury and rip tanks apart, and in his raging fury always win the day. It was so unreal and we were fed up with it. We wanted to kick some butt.



Anonymous said...

Really great read Mr B!!

Anonymous said...

Outstanding - thanks for this. I have full sets of 2000AD, Action and Battle and the latter is by far the least well-documented of the three. The more information available on this wonderful strand of comic history the better.

Hmmm... I feel a revisiting of Darkie's Mob coming up...