If sometimes I give the impression that my boyhood was characterised by an obsession with the Second World War, that’s because it’s largely true. I have a theory that, for any boy of the immediate post war generation (the baby boomers as sociologists would categorize us), you could place each one of us firmly in one of a short list of ‘types’: cowboy, sportsman, crime fan, or military – that dominated our hobbies, TV viewing habits, games and conversation. Thus, for each one of us who dreamed of scoring the winning goal for Arsenal (there – I managed to name a football team), fending off a party of marauding Sioux, or tracking down a master criminal, there was one who drank deeply at the well of afternoon black and white war movies, Airfix kits and, in the years before we starting consuming paperback histories of the conflict, the illustrated war comics churned out several times a month by publishers like Fleetway and DC Thomson.
The 64-page war comic was a product of its era, shaped by an insatiable appetite for the particularly British version of the conflict that our parents and grandparents had endured, full of stiff-upper-lipped officers, cheery tommies, and stereotyped sons of the Reich and Nipponese empire. But at the same time, it was a uniquely personal depiction of six years of total war, written and illustrated by a generation of young men who had lived through it – some, especially the editors and writers, on the Allied side; others, including some of the talented artists, in war-torn Europe. First on the scene was War Picture Library, launched in September 1958 and closely followed by its own Fleetway companion titles, Air Ace Picture Library and Action Picture Library. Competition was fierce, particularly from DC Thomson’s Commando magazine, which arrived on the scene in 1961 and continued as the Fleetway publications gradually collapsed into their parent publication and eventually ceased in late 1984 – representing a run more than four times as long as the War itself.
Although essentially running to a common good guys vs bad guys theme, the regularity and long run of the war comic genre allowed some subtleties that often escaped the naive target audience youth. Although enemies were conventionally depicted in two-dimensional ‘Achtung Spitfeuer’ or ‘Banzai’ mode that today would smack of racism, there were departures into more nuanced characterisations of an enemy made up of individuals with their own personal traits and stories. Likewise, our own and our Allies’ troops were not always without their own faults, with fear and fallibility recognised as an inevitable part of the reality of war. For the most part, though, the historical context and technical detail were excellent, as befitted creators who had experienced the war for real, and the full colour covers were masterpieces of their genre, rightly deserving the attention they’ve received in more recent years in books such as Aarrgghh!! It’s War – The Best War Comic Cover Art From Air Ace Picture Library, Battle Picture Library, War Picture Library and War at Sea Picture Library, edited by David Roach, and with a foreword by that doyen of 60s boyhood, James May.
My collection of war comics had no particular shape to it. I couldn’t run to a subscription – and which particular series would I assign my allegiance to? Instead, my treat was a trip to nearby Harlow at a weekend to rummage through the secondhand copies on a market stall dealing in used reading literature (only in later years did the significance of the more mature gentlemen’s reading on the other side of the stall dawn on me, where the signs of previous ownership probably went beyond the occasional bit of colouring in). Unlike those for whom the latest issue came unbidden through the letterbox (and, yes, we are back on war comics now…), my choice was led by the promise of the cover illustration as a I put aside my carefully allocated ration at a bargain 5p a copy. Fortunately, the space underneath the drawers in my bedroom allowed the collection to survive unscathed until I could retrieve it to MidCentury Villas, where it could undergo the collectaholic’s ritual scanning to create my own small library of those evocative covers.
Beyond my Pavlovian purchase of compendia of the best of the genre, and stalwart resistance to the temptation to start bidding for examples of original artwork, my war comics phase does have its own ironic coda. In much later years, I found myself interviewing candidates for the editorial staff of one of the Forces’ in-house newspapers. One promising interviewee produced in evidence an edition of Commando magazine for which he’d written the story, featuring a bespectacled bookish journalist who earns the respect of his hard-bitten platoon sergeant as, together, they look death in the face. It was reassuring to encounter someone else so clearly deeply influenced by the war comic genre to the extent that it provided a convincing outlet for his own longing to make his mark.
But enough of the esprit de corps of the painted page. There is, as always, a wealth of on-line resources devoted to the various war comic publications, complete with an encyclopaedic catalogue of images. Here, though, is a collection of images from my own collection, beginning with the first on the scene, War Picture Library (click on each to see the full image).
And its sister publication, Air Ace Picture Library: