Review – Darkie’s Mob: The Secret War Of Joe Darkie and Johnny Red: Falcon’s First Flight

Darkie’s Mob: The Secret War Of Joe Darkie by John Wagner and Mike Western
Johnny Red: Falcon’s First Flight by Tom Tully and Joe Colquhoun
Published by Titan Books

These two handsome hardbacks are part of a collection of reprints by Titan Books of some of the classic black and white stories originally published in Battle, the weekly British war comic which started in 1975, including The Best Of Battle and Charley’s War. Both of these volumes have an introduction from Garth Ennis, a man not unfamiliar with writing war comics, and who has often stated the influence of these books on his writing and how much he loves them. There is also an overview in the Johnny Red book of the story behind the story, and the true incident that was the inspiration for the character.

Darkie’s Mob collects the full uncensored strip from 1976 (the book has a disclaimer at the front: ‘This book is a work of fiction. Characters may have views and use language which some of today’s readers may find offensive. The publisher and copyright holder in no way endorse the views expressed or language used.’), which is about a group of soldiers in 1942 behind enemy lines in Burma when Japan invaded (in what Ennis calls ‘a hateful war’ in his introduction) and the savagery of the fighting that ensued.

This is particularly the case for Darkie’s Mob, with Joe Darkie leading a group of soldiers in a personal guerrilla war against the Japanese. It is a vicious tale of war and fighting and death, told with brutality by John Wagner and Mike Western. The storytelling is amazing: each section is six pages packed with story and character and action. John Wagner, famous for co-creating Judge Dredd and a huge volume of stories, writes these tales with power and intensity and economy. Each chapter is a masterclass in compressing as much into as few pages as possible. Western does his part by fitting as much art on to the page as he can without losing clarity or intensity, fitting up to 14 panels on a page. His style is detailed and dark with a rough edge appropriate to the material, showing the viciousness of the battles but also characters involved.

The story reflects an accurate attitude of the men at the time: the language used is a sanitised but truthful portrayal of that used by the men fighting at the time. The language is inappropriate for the present day, but it was used freely in a different time at a time that we can’t fully comprehend in our supposedly more enlightened time where we haven’t been drafted to fight a vicious war against an equally vicious enemy. Titan should be applauded for reprinting the book in an uncensored form, in a time where The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been reprinted with removal of the ‘n-word’.

The comics are boys’ adventure stuff, so there is a stretching of plausibility for the sake of an exciting story, but the only element that slightly mars seeing these comics now that I enjoyed when I was a lad (like most boys, I was obsessed with all things to do with the second world war) is the sacrificing of various characters for the sake of Darkie’s Mob. I have no doubt that there were incidents of valour and heroics in the war that exceed those described in these comics, but nearly all of the characters seem to sacrifice themselves to save the other characters, and it seemed excessive. But perhaps it is because of the change in my approach to war comics: where once I would have lapped up the heroic deaths of minor characters, I have found that my appetite for it has changed, so your mileage may vary. The strip covers a year of fighting in the jungle with an ending that explains the mystery of Joe Darkie and his hatred for the Japanese and his fighting abilities in the jungle, which make for a very good war comic.

Johnny Red is a different story, describing the adventures of fighter pilot Johnny Redburn, who ends up joining the Falcon Brigade in an advanced airbase in the Arctic Circle in Russia in a stolen Hurricane airplane. The Falcons have been left to fight their own war for the Motherland, trying to stop the Germans in their corner of Russia despite the fact that they only have old biplanes against Messerschmitts. This hardback collects the first volume of the strip, written by Tom Tully (the longest-serving writer on Roy of the Rovers) and drawn by Joe Colquhoun, who was the first artist on Roy of the Rovers.

This book, which contains the same warning about the language used, sets up the story of our protagonist and how he becomes involved with a Russian air squadron fighting on the Russian front and then stays with them, starting in 1941. The strip was the longest-running strip in Battle, lasting about 10 years, covering about three years of the war during its run. It is also a boys’ adventure story, but it’s not afraid to mix in truth about the state of Russia during the war. The people and fighters starving due to lack of food and supplies, fighting a brutal war in vicious and freezing conditions, and the security police killing soldiers and pilots who didn’t die in fighting because they hadn’t given their lives in defence of the Motherland (of the approximately 70 million people who died during the war, over a third were Russians).

Colquhoun provides excellent art: his drawings of the planes used are exquisite, even in the small panels (like Western in Darkie’s Mob, Colquhoun fits a lot on to a page, full of detail without losing clarity), and his dogfights are particularly impressive, with different types of planes in icy and snowy conditions. All his characters are individuals, with a Slavic visual for the Russians, and the starving emaciated people look appropriately horrific; he was a very talented artist, and this is a small section of this 30-year career.

Tully had an equally impressive career, writing for many other British comics apart from his run on Roy of the Rovers, including for Valiant and 2000AD. His writing here is very heroic – Johnny Redburn is a classical hero character – and he has done his research on the war on the Russian Front to provide an accurate depiction of the events in which he places his characters, who are all individuals. I can understand why Garth Ennis declares Johnny Red as his favourite strip from Battle in the introduction, and why it was the longest-running strip in the comic: it’s a classic of British war comics.

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