War Comics

Just returned from two enjoyable trips – the first with the Fox family to the Somme and Ypres; the second to Normandy and the D-Day beaches with the Dickinsons, who wanted to visit the scene of their father’s WW2 action as a gunner. The Fox family laid a wreath at the Menin Gate and Fox Jr declaimed the ode, very nicely. War is hell, said Sherman, but battlefield tours don’t have to be; one way of lightening the mood is lively discussions of all things military and historical over a drink. Which tends to end with Calvados in Normandy, no hardship.

One discussion was about war comics, which those of my generation were brought up on; it was our first taste of history (and a pretty distorted one). My mother banned ‘shilling shockers’ (as they were known) so they were read by torchlight under the covers. In War Picture Library comic books, Brits and ‘Huns’ inhabited a Manichean world of goodies and baddies. The Japanese (always ‘Japs’) were hideously caricatured, even more so than bullet-headed Germans whose exclamations of ‘Teufel!’ and ‘Himmel!’ and ‘Pigdog Englander!’ became the common parlance of playground war games. I learnt pidgin German from comics, things like ‘Achtung Spitfeur!’ Very useful in restaurants.

The heroes of this rubbish (but well-drawn rubbish) were all based on Biggles. Braddock VC, Battler Britton and Rockfist Rogan were square jawed and fearless. Rogan was a boxer and pilot who first appeared in The Champion in 1938. He was not notably liberal in his attitude to ‘Krauts’. Nor was Wing Cdr Britton, who preferred them very dead. But they were not as vicious to foreigners as their US counterparts. In yesterday’s world of comics, foreigners – and fatties – were fair game. Particularly if they were the enemy: in WW2 Mussolini was lampooned as a fat oaf in Musso the Wop (‘He’s a Big-a-da-Flop’) for Beano. War comics feature timeless things like grit, mates, patriotism and making tea while bombs burst. By the way, when Japanese bite the dust they go ‘AIEEEEE!’ Germans go ‘AARRGGHH!’ A vital historical point.