Alan Grant and John Wagner (script), Eric Bradbury (art), various (lettering)
Treasury of British Comics/Rebellion
A stablemate to the legendary 2000 AD, Battle was a weekly anthology that aimed to kick new life into the traditional British war comic. During its run from 1975 to 1988, it tried a number of tactics to advance this goal, from running Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun’s now-classic anti-war epic “Charley’s War”, to the more commercial approach of tying in with the G. I. Joe toyline (or Action Force, as it was known in the UK at the time).
In 1983, Battle tried its hand at science fiction with “Invasion 1984!” Written by John Wagner and Alan Grant under the joint pseudonym of R. Clark and boasting the gritty black-and-white artwork of Eric Bradbury, the story – which ran from March to December – depicted alien invaders laying waste to what was, for all practical purposes, contemporary Earth. It was a long way from the romanticised visions of World War II that were the bread and butter of more conventional war comics like Commando.
Now, thanks to the ever-expanding Treasury of British Comics line, the entire story is collected in a single paperback volume. How does it stand up more than thirty-five years later?
The origins of “Invasion 1984!” in a British war comic are evident, as despite its unorthodox choice of subject matter, it retains many of the genre’s conventions. The story follows a band of soldiers called the Storm Squad as they try to track down linguistics professor Ed Lomax so that he can translate the language of the aliens – a plot point that seems to be loosely based on the exploits of wartime codebreakers. Written for a readership with an interest in military technology, the comic ensures that humanity is equipped not merely with planes, tanks and missiles, but with Harriers, Chieftains and Rapiers.
Meanwhile, the skull-faced aliens are clad in armour that makes them look somewhere between samurai and conquistadores, and – despite their advanced technology – are armed with swords. Here, perhaps, we see the lingering influence of the various historical adventures that ran in esteemed UK comic The Eagle.
The story is divided into three-page instalments, with almost every one structured so as to build into a cliffhanger. This makes the comic a trifle exhausting to read long stretches in one sitting, but it’s easy to imagine an adolescent of the 1980s eagerly devouring the bite-sized chunk of cathartic brutality dished up every week. While not exactly subtle, the comic shows a definite craft, a good example being its reticence in terms of graphic violence: although sundry characters are sliced up or shot to bits during the course of the story, the bloodshed either occurs off panel or is obscured by a carefully-placed white flash, the details left to the reader’s imagination.
By and large, “Invasion 1984!” is a strip that derives its horror from ideas rather than gore and guts. Entire cities are wiped out by both sides; stricken soldiers commit suicide for the good of their mission; and civilians too battered to serve the invaders are thrown onto bonfires, incidents that do not need lurid detail to be chilling. A typical instalment has the Storm Squad finding a band of civilians who have been permanently transformed into remote-controlled slaves by the aliens; obtaining one of the control devices, two of the soldiers amuse themselves by treating the poor souls as puppets (“Haw, haw! They’re all bonking into each other!”) and are harshly reprimanded by their Major (“Next time I catch you and your brother goofing off, I kill you!”) In more traditional war comics such conduct would have been reserved for the villains, not the nominal heroes.
As is to be expected from a serialised comic of this type, “Invasion 1984!” often gives the indication that its story was made up in large part on the fly – witness how the plot thread of Lomax’s attempts to communicate with the aliens is abruptly tied up to make way for a new story arc involving an alien disease. But despite this, the comic shows a complete conviction in its narrative: Wagner and Grant tell their story with a straight face, instead of lampooning their b-movie inspirations, and Bradbury draws up a richly textured world before laying waste to it.
Battle is often overlooked in favour of its younger sister 2000 AD, but “Invasion 1984!” shows that the latter title did not have a monopoly on bombastic sci-fi pulp. Another worthy addition to the Treasury of British Comics.