Interview With 'Battle' Editor Dave Hunt
Recently I managed (thanks to David Bishop) to get in touch with Dave Hunt, the editor of 'Battle' during its heyday in the late '70's and early '80's. He kindly agreed to being questioned on his memories of those times...
Could you tell me a little about your background - when and where you were born, what comics you read as a child?
I was born and raised in London's East End and, no, it's nothing like the BBC series. I recall loving, hard-working parents attempting to better themselves for their family's sake. My earliest comic-book memories were more the comics from the DC Thomson stable - Rover, Hotspur, Wizard and the like - and doing a morning paper round certainly helped me in keeping up with all the exciting storylines that were on offer.
At Plaistow Grammar School I befriended a guy who, of all things, had a Subbuteo set at his home. Together we created a fantasy word of fictional football teams as we wrote up the match-reports on the actual games and scorelines that we had played. We had a tremendous range of fictional characters that were all based visually on the real-life football stars of the time. So the foolscap books we completed had the pictures of the playing stars, managers and directors who were creating the soccer news of the 1960s. I still have the books somewhere at home. The interesting thing is that my pal is Peter Stewart, who later worked alongside me at Fleetway Publications and IPC Magazines and who eventually became the Managing Editor of the very successful Shoot! publication. He is now the head of media and programme editor at West Ham United and who, today, I also assist on the various publications required of a Premiership football club.
What got you into the comics business and what titles did you work on pre-'Battle'?
I began my career in comics in October 1961 working on the pocket-book titles 'Cowboy Picture Library' and 'Lone Rider Picture Library'.
I'd always hoped for a role in comics, but the natural run of things at that time was to join the Natsopa Union and be patient and see what jobs would become available. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I went for an interview at Fleetway Publications for the office junior role and captured the post. Fantastic. Very soon the then Editor of 'Tiger', a lovely guy called Derek Birnage, requested for me to join his title. Suddenly, there I was working with great 'Tiger' classics such as Roy of the Rovers and Jet-ace Logan.
From there I developed my career and, hopefully, my reputation until, in 1970, I was made up to Editor for the launch of a new football comic called 'Scorcher'. I think I was the youngest-ever to be promoted to the role of Editor and I recall a fair amount of flack from more senior personnel. This wasn't a problem to me and 'Scorcher' was relatively successful until it was merged with 'Tiger' in 1975. You can be sure 'Tiger' gladly accepted the football stories 'Billy's Boots' and 'Hot-Shot Hamish', both spawned by 'Scorcher', in the merged publication.
How did you come to be 'Battle' Editor?
'Scorcher' had ceased publication and I was 'resting' between roles when Fleetway's then Editorial Director John Sanders summoned me to his office. He told me that the Juvenile Group intended to launch a new war publication called 'Battle Picture Weekly' and two guys had been brought down from Scotland to be the creative force behind the new title. This was an exciting time, he continued, and he felt I was right to work with these guys and lend my editorial experience to their raw talent. In return I could only benefit as I experienced from them the creative processes that went into the development of new storylines and characters.
Soon after, and with some trepidation, I was meeting Pat Mills and John Wagner for the first time …
What was it like working with 'future greats' John Wagner and Pat Mills?
Often it was manic. John and Pat were very different characters - John's blunt, laid back-style was I think the perfect compliment to Pat's diplomacy but more intense energy. They were a terrific force. I remember them giving me the proposed launch issue to read which included such great war adventures as D-Day Dawson, The Bamboo Curtain, Rat-Pack, Lofty's One-Man Luftwaffe, The Eagle, Voyage of the Golden Hinde. Wow! I quickly realised the stories were top-notch, different and so well written.
Aside from launching new titles they also realised one of their roles was the vital one of developing new contributors. Very often this was the way they went about it … a freelance writer would be briefed on a specific character and a script would eventually be produced for their deliberation. Pat and John would read through the finished script and, if there was the glimmer of a good idea contained therein, they would rework, reshape, cut and paste, compile new dialogue until the original script was no more … but the glimmer had been retained. They were always aware how important it was not to deflate writers through their rewriting process but, instead, encourage new and different ideas. The majority of writers accepted this and especially so when they saw the finished product. I recall The Bamboo Curtain - we all knew this was a terrific idea but the boys felt it never quite worked. If they changed the dialogue once on the first episode, they changed it a hundred times. They were such perfectionists.
Another difference in their writing styles was to do with the self-contained episode.
Up to then, Fleetway stories had, for the most part, been two-page weekly episodes and always with the trademark cliffhanger ending included. Pat and John knew that if stories were to be told in the right way then they needed more frames and pages. So their weekly episodes were self-contained, i.e. the episode had a defined and complete storyline for that week.
Put simply, it made for better adventures because writers had the opportunity to develop each episode properly.
But such perfectionism couldn't, unfortunately, continue. We were soon so much in trouble time wise with the Printer that we were in danger of missing a complete issue. The decision was then made that I should take overall charge of the publication … with Pat and John continuing to exert a creative influence on the product but taking a more in the background stance … and with my assistant Steve McManus we eventually clawed the time back and 'Battle' survived for it to excite plenty of future readers.
On a personal and professional front I feel it was a challenging time for me. As said, Pat and John were different characters but professionally they were both extremely generous. Whilst they lived for the characters and storylines they were continually developing they were, as long as they felt the product was in good hands, happy to entrust these characters and storylines to others. I learned a lot from them.
I'd also like to feel that my relationship, with John especially, was a good one. I enjoyed many a pint, some vino, a game of pool and an enjoyable meal with him. I'll always remember taking him and Steve to a Cup game at West Ham one evening. John had a delicious sense of humour. I never got to know Pat quite so well, but I admired his undoubted talents and intense feelings for the business. Thanks to this creative pair, the comics' industry was a vibrant place to be a part of during the 70s and 80s.
What was the brief for the comic? There seems to have been a conscious effort to make a slightly darker and perhaps more 'grown-up' (if I can use that expression) comic than say its rival 'Warlord'.
The brief from the onset of the publication was to have a more honest approach to the fact that war is a killing zone - that flesh and bone is ripped to shreds when bullets or bombs strike mere mortals. Brutal, maybe, but up to then comic book adventures had depicted war in the 'Biggles' way, a sort of upper-class up and at 'em, chaps when not a drop of blood was spilled!
'Battle' was deliberately more realistic in its outlook. If I'm honest then, yes, I was conscious of constantly treading a tightrope as far as excess violence was concerned. On reflection I think some scriptwriters liked to push the barriers too far and I forever had to tone down what I considered to be excess realism. The key to most things, I felt, was always the quality of the script and artwork.
My policy was that if a story was told well with a thought-provoking element included, then it could tolerate most criticism levelled at it. This is where I felt 'Action' suffered. Its original stories were certainly violent but because they were well crafted the majority of its excesses were tolerated. Later, when the violence became more gratuitous with, very often, blood-spilling being the only element to a particular story, then its days were numbered. Despite this, the irony was that it took a football story, and a moment of senseless violence, to finally halt a ground-breaking production.
'Major Eazy' started in January 1976 - it was certainly different in tone to most previous boys' war stories at it featured a rebellious 'non-conformist' figure as the hero. It is also notable for Carlos Ezquerra's fantastic art (and some cracking Alan Hebden scripts)! What do you remember of the strip - were you involved in selecting Carlos to be the artist?
I enjoyed the Major Eazy story and its history is worth telling, because I still feel a tinge of guilt as far as Carlos is concerned. When 'Battle' was launched, one of its 'finds' was most certainly the Spanish artist Carlos Ezquerra. His depiction of the characters - Turk, Weasel, Dancer - in the all-action adventures of 'Rat-Pack' was, I felt, brilliant. Again we had to thank Pat and John for discovering him. Carlos was contracted to the agency Bardon Art, and it was they (with a little help from myself) who had selected Carlos to work on the Rat-Pack adventures in the first instance. As the pages winged in from Northern Spain each week I was amazed that the guy could not only retain the quality to his artwork, but also the quantity. He never let us down. His artwork had a stark, earthy reality to it, which made it perfect for the darkness inherent in the 'Rat-Pack' characters.
But as with all creative guys the 'Rat-Pack' stories eventually lost their magic to him and the only way I could keep Carlos interested was to offer him another story that he, himself, wanted to do - and so 'Major Eazy' was born. I wanted a character based on the 'Eastwood' style - charismatic, moody, cool, mean - and, in my opinion, Alan Hebden was the guy who could write this kind of story. Alan's first script was terrific but we all realised that it was the artwork that would make or break the story. I recall Carlos 'hand-delivering' the very first episode himself to the 'Battle' offices. He was in this country on a flying visit and, with his agent Barry Coker, myself, Steve McManus, Alan, plus the art guys, we were all soon drooling over his interpretation of the 'Eazy' character. It proved to be a huge hit with the 'Battle' readers.
But let's fast-forward to my guilt trip. If my memory serves me correctly, later, when Pat was developing the '2000AD' title and its flagship character, 'Judge Dredd', he asked Carlos to create some visuals for JD. We all know now that his versions formed the basis and concept of what was to be a truly memorable character then, and in the future. But I was determined not to lose Carlos to what I saw as a rival publication - I, again, contacted Alan, who Carlos had a lot of respect for, and the story 'El Mestizo' was specially created for this great artist.
Of course, with hindsight, I realise now it would have better for Carlos personally to have continued with the 'Judge Dredd' character. Yes, the tinge of guilt is still there, but I was an Editor determined to do the best for the readers and publication I was responsible for. You also have to remember that, at that time, Carlos was a big fan of the 'Battle' title; it had given him his first real break into the British comic market. I console myself with the fact that Carlos would never have worked on a story he didn't enjoy - it was the key to his brilliance.
'Major Eazy' leading 'Rat Pack' was about a close as British boys' comics got in those days to emulating the US concept of a 'shared universe' - do you remember who came up with this great idea?
I have to be honest and say that I checked 'Battle' on the website for the timing on this double-act. It told me that it came about in the 100th issue of the publication. Sorry, but I had forgotten. On reflection I wasn't one for contrived happenings. I can only surmise that both stories were still extremely popular, and because the 100th issue was the time of a promotional push for the title, rather than lose one or other of the stories, I made the decision to keep them both and tie them into the one adventure. It worked for you, a reader of 'Battle', so I'd like to admit that it was a brilliant idea on my part. But that would be a fib.
'Fighter from The Sky' I think was the first strip to take the side of a German soldier in the War. Very similar stories were told later in 'Panzer G-Man' (a personal favourite!) and 'Sea Wolf' - was there initially a sense of risk in doing that kind of story?
As a part of the reality check we wanted to give the title from its launch issue, it was a natural progression for us to eventually show an enemy viewpoint. Our get-out, if we needed one, was the fact that the lead characters in the stories were always very moral and very brave. They were ordinary guys pitched into a horrific conflict. It was as simple as that.
The same scriptwriter, Gerry Finley-Day, crafted the majority of the stories - 'Fighter from the Sky', 'Panzer G-Man', 'Sea Wolf', and also 'Hellman' from the 'Action' title.
I liked Gerry. He was a real ideas-man who was always a pleasure to work and be with. If there was a fault then it was the presentation of his scripts. We'd spend an eternity preparing them for the artists. His scene descriptions were, very often, a mass of creative overflow. Imagine the foreign artist, who speaks very little English, being given a script that even I had difficulty understanding what exactly the writer wanted in each frame. The ideas were generally always good, his dialogue was sharp and concise, but the presentation and his scene descriptions were sometimes messy and non-comprehensible. Still, as the editorial team we could always put that right. I'd tolerate anything if the ideas were good and in Gerry's case they were. He obviously had researched his subjects, the geography and the conflicts extremely well. We never had a complaint, be it parents, officialdom, social behaviour types or veterans from the campaigns, for our portrayal of the 'other side' - and I have to thank Gerry for this. He was a lynchpin of the 'Battle' publication and he went on to do excellent work for me on titles I was to be a part of in the future.
'Darkie's Mob' was my all-time favourite story. John Wagner said that you got Mike Western to make Darkie bald in the story - did the editorial hand intervene anywhere else in the strip? It was pretty dark and violent for a comic read by mostly 9 and 10 yr olds I guess - was there ever the threat of censorship (as happened with 'Action' later)?
I recall an opening sequence in Darkie's Mob when one of his outfit had to have his arm cut off in a bid to save his life after gangrene had set in. Scriptwriter John Wagner used words similar to the following … "It was Christmas Day in the jungle and as a special treat Meeker was having his arm amputated!".
That sequence prompted an MP to write to me after one of his constituents had contacted him complaining that her young son shouldn't be expected to see such a sequence. I wrote back saying that we were not being gratuitous with violence, but merely reflecting a situation in a war-type scenario. Thankfully, we heard no more.
Yes, if I'm honest, then we did push our luck with censorship at times. But as I've already mentioned, if the storylines are good enough then, most times, you'll get away with it. 'Darkie's Mob' was one of the best and, again, as with 'Charley's War', I felt that the combining of two great talents, this time John Wagner and Mike Western, was inspired casting.
Mike was what you might call one of the traditional artists, working as he'd done on 'Valiant' for a good few years. He was and still is one of the real 'gentlemen' of the business. It was always a joy to have Mike pay us a visit. His wonderful sense of fun lifted everyone. But Mike, I'm sure, was always conscious that we might be attempting one excess too far. He very often had to question the morality of what we were doing. But with the Darkie character he gave it 110%.
Like the rest of us he was inspired by John's craftsmanship and the artwork for the series was, in my opinion, the best Mike ever did for the company.
I'll let you into a little secret; the Darkie character was, to my mind, based on an older version of John Wagner! At times larger than life. I'll never forget the moment when John entered the 'Battle' office at King's Reach Tower with his latest script and he'd shaved his head, a la Darkie. It was so hilarious and typical of John's sense of humour.
As far as a heavy Editorial hand is concerned, it's all about having respect for one another. With John's scripts you hardly ever had to change a single word of dialogue. The hard work, as with any new story, is often the start of a series when the scriptwriter, artist and editorial team are deciding on the right look for the characters, plus creating a general overview for it as an ongoing series. Again, John naturally had his own strong viewpoints on every facet of his stories. But with Darkie, when you see a character not quite fitting the vision you have in mind for them, then suggesting he should be bald may have seemed minor at the time, but it certainly worked for this strong character. Thankfully, both John and Mike agreed.
The other sticking point was the reality that, sooner rather than later, the story would reach its inevitable conclusion. There it was, number one in the popularity charts as voted by the 'Battle' readers each week, and there was John depleting the squad as if he was using a fly spray. Many a scriptwriter and many an Editor, on realising how popular a story was proving, might have suddenly changed tack and moved it off in another direction so as to prolong its life. John would never have done that and I would never have attempted to cajole him into doing it. Darkie was John's creation and it was for him to decide when the fateful day would be to conclude the story. Every Darkie's Mob fan, myself included, was massively upset when the final frame was drawn for this tremendous war story. John and Mike had created a true comic-book masterpiece!
Who came up with the original concept for Johnny Red? Tom Tully certainly managed to spin out that story! Did you ever imagine it would run for more than five years?!
The writer. Tom Tully was one of the stalwarts of the industry and could always be relied on to come up with a good yarn.
I think the 'Johnny Red' story was his first for 'Battle' and, I believe, that Tom initially came up with the title for the series and then, naturally, wove his story around it. The Falcons were full of larger-than-life characters and with the setting told against the awful scenario of the Russian conflict, it gave Tom plenty of ammunition to create a cracking good read.
Believe it or not, but I first had dealings with Tom on 'Cowboy Picture Library', or was it 'Lone Rider Picture Library'? It doesn't really matter. The libraries were 64-page adventures, which gave its creators plenty of time to develop a particular storyline. As said, Tom was a natural and some of his most powerful work was done for Jack Le Grand's publications in the 1960s and 70s, and most notably 'Valiant'.
The irony was that Tom was also working with me for the final boys' weekly publication I was the Editor of, 'Roy of the Rovers' in 1993, where he was the pen and creativity behind the forever-remembered lead character's adventures.
'Johnny Red' was always popular with the 'Battle' readers and, even after I'd long left the publication, Tom was still able to retain it as one of the top adventures in the title's popularity chart. On a personal front, in the early 70s the lads of Fleetway Publications would travel down to Tom's neck of the woods which, then, was close to Reading, to play back-to-back cricket and football matches against his local side and who he played with on a regular basis.
We were never that good, but the games were still a lot of fun. I do recall that we really came into our own for the booze-up in Tom's local that rounded off the day. Good memories!
Pat Mills praised your decision to move all time great artist Joe Colquhoun off the fan fave 'Johnny Red' to the new 'Charley's War' strip - what prompted you to do that? Did you believe 'Charley's War' would be such a massive success from the start?
Charley's War was without doubt one of the finest stories I ever had the honour to be associated with in my long career in the business. Whatever my part in its development there can only be two guys who had the right to call it their own, namely Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun. Once this pairing was in place I never had any doubts other than the story would be a tremendous one. It might be trite to say it now, but I was never honestly that concerned if CW would be a success or not. All I remember feeling at the time was that a story about World War One had to be done in 'Battle' - it was vital for the title's development. Thankfully, Pat was of the same opinion.
It was an awful long time in the planning. Being the perfectionist he undoubtedly is, Pat obviously researched everything he did before finally producing a script. But with Charley's War he went that extra mile. We spent hours on the phone talking the concept through. As Pat realised at the time, WW1 was an extremely static conflict and a war of attrition in the trenches certainly wasn't the usual stuff of boys' comics. So Pat's ploy was to give the story a very human touch in the shape of the under-age Charley Bourne. The awful conflict would be told through the eyes of a kid who only ever wanted to do his best for King and country, but even more than this, his best for his mum and dad. The postcards home, full of spelling mistakes, were a revelation. Even the visual of the heading, with the S the wrong way round, seemed to capture the very essence of the story and its lead character.
Pat never saw Charley as a superhero, that would have been wrong and a slight on all the brave guys who were the cannon fodder during this most terrible of conflicts. Charley was brave without being heroic; Charley was moral without ever knowing why. As each chapter unfurled, as each development of the conflict was uncovered, be it gas, be it the tanks, you knew that you were witnessing a remarkable piece of creative storytelling.
Pat, however, would be the first again to say that his incredible scripts would not have had the same effect had it not been for an artist called Joe Colquhoun. I first had sight of Joe's work when he depicted the story Paddy Payne in 'Lion' comic in the late 50s. I next remember his vastly different artwork for the football character 'Roy of the Rovers' who, then in his early years, was the star of the 'Tiger' publication.
By the way, it's important to put on record that Joe never was a real fan of football. First and foremost he was a professional artist who could turn his hand to most scenarios. He was particularly effective in the 'Johnny Red' episodes as I felt he starkly captured the grimness of the Russian/German campaign. So who better than this great guy to be the visual and vital element to the planned 'Charley's War' story? I did something similar to this interview with someone else recently and I went on record as saying that I wasn't sure if, at the time, Pat was as certain about Joe as myself. I've used the word traditional before and Joe certainly fitted this description as he'd been around the Amalgamated Press, Fleetway Publications and IPC Magazines scene for a long time. But on recently reading that Pat was ecstatic when I offered him Joe as the artist, then I apologise sincerely for being mistaken. I myself had known Joe long enough to realise he'd be perfect - he not only had undoubted talent, he also cheated no-one. Every frame would capture the reality, the grimness Pat was striving for. I had no qualms about taking him off a number one story, namely 'Johnny Red', to do it. The subject needed the very best - it deserved to be constructed and delivered to the reader in the correct manner and if Joe ever had his doubts when I first broached the subject for him to do Charley's War, then any misgivings on his part were soon forgotten when he read through Pat's opening episode. They gelled in a very special way and it was a true pleasure for me to be a small and vital part in the creation of pure genius. My sincere thanks to both guys.
How did the introduction of 2000AD change the landscape of boys' comics? Did it make it more difficult for 'Battle' to secure the best talent?
At this time there were varying but very distinctive groups within the IPC Magazines' Juvenile Group led by John Sanders. There was the pre-school area run by John Smith - there was the fun area with Bob Paynter at the helm, which included such titles such as 'Buster', 'Whizzer & Chips', 'Cor!' and others - there was Barrie Tomlinson's sport's titles, including 'Tiger' and the new and very successful 'Roy of the Rovers' publication - there was John Purdie's action area with 'Valiant', 'Battle', followed by 'Action' and now boasting the recently launched '2000AD - there was David Gregory's 'Shoot!', which was breaking all records as its fan-base grew and grew and not forgetting 'Look & Learn' from Jack Parker's education area, plus the Girls' and Teenage group with such titles as 'Pink, 'Girl', 'Tammy' and others - oh, and the countless Annuals, Specials and One-Offs produced by the Juvenile Group and (phew!) all in all a lot of financial revenue was being made for the company.
But titles to this extent naturally needed countless freelance contributors to sustain them and, at the time, a host of new talent was produced who went on to complete some magnificent work for the Group. Aside from guys I've already mentioned, there were creative giants such as John Cooper, David Sque, Cam Kennedy, Dave Gibbons and countless others. Even if we weren't aware of it at the time, it was all very exciting. We had senior personnel such as Gil Page scouring the world for new artists - if air-miles had been around then Gil would surely have qualified for a trip on the space shuttle! What I'm trying to say is that, despite the development of new titles, be it '2000AD' or 'Roy of the Rovers', we coped and hopefully created new styles as a result of the new talent. On its staffing front, a lot of guys I knew and respected worked for '2000AD' - Kelvin Gosnell, Doug Church, Roy Preston, Alan Grant and eventually Steve McManus - so naturally I wished the publication every success. But with Pat Mills in charge of its development it didn't need any good wishes on my part. His innovation and motivation has resulted in the title still standing to this day - despite now having gone past its sell-by-millennium title date!
What do you think brought about the decline in 'Battle' after its '76-'82 heydays?
I feel it's difficult for me to voice an opinion on this one. I left 'Battle' in 1980 to work up a new football project for the Group. During my 'absence' the Juvenile Group was restructured and 'Battle' became a part of Group Editor Barrie Tomlinson's stable of titles. I later rejoined Barrie to help him launch the 'New Eagle' publication. You use the word 'heydays', well, yes, the 70s and early 80s could most certainly be called this. One likes to trot out reasons and excuses for declines but to my mind, comic readership had become a lot more discerning in its tastes by the time we reached the mid-80s. The computer age had arrived and a comic steeped in past glories was most definitely going to struggle - not only 'Battle' but other great stalwarts, too. Maybe IPC Magazines was also beginning to tire of the continuing controversy and the censorship problems that often surrounded the Juvenile area and I think it was with a great sense of relief when they eventually sold the Group off to the Maxwell Organisation. This sell-out also seemed to deflate John Sanders somewhat. On a professional front John and myself didn't always see eye to eye, but personally I felt he was a maverick character who, in my opinion, had injected a lot of zip and talent into the industry. He'd always been prepared to champion our cause and enjoyed nothing better than a good scrap with more senior management. By senior I mean not only in age but outlook, too! Whatever, everyone gave it their best shot and no-one enjoyed its de-mob when it was eventually merged with 'Eagle'- especially a title as good as 'Battle' had undoubtedly been.
What happened to you after you left 'Battle'? What do you do today - are you still in the industry?
As said, with Barrie Tomlinson we launched the much-heralded, often much discussed, 'New Eagle'. That's another long story and much too complex to go into now. In 1988, under instruction from John Sanders, Barrie formed his freelance company CES and I was one of Barrie's three Editors who took the titles 'Eagle', 'Roy of the Rovers' and 'Hot-Shot', on the road, so to speak. I was then invited back 'in-house' to edit a new-look 'Roy of the Rovers' publication. With my love for football (I believe Mike Western once used the phrase 'a football man to his ankles' which made me smile!) and also the chance to team-up with the character Roy Race again, it was a marvellous opportunity for me. The brief for the new Roy was to make it more feature orientated and with excellent production qualities, plus the advent of Desk Top Publishing, I believe we achieved a much more visually exciting look for the publication. But again, slowly, surely, the title's circulation fell away until it was decided to change it to a monthly frequency. I later returned to my freelance career, working on various titles such as 'Zig & Zag', 'The Flintstones' and 'Bugs Bunny'. I have also produced a host of Annuals, including 'Match of the Day', 'A Tribute to Roy of the Rovers' and, more recently, a 'Junior Gunners' book. But in the past five years my main area of work has been assisting on the match-day West Ham United programme, plus its various off-shoots, with my good friend Peter Stewart. I consider myself very fortunate to be involved with a Premiership football club and especially one I have supported all of my life.
· Thank you for giving me this opportunity to exorcise a lot of memories. 'Battle' was a very demanding master but I believe we created a publication that even Captain Joe Darkie would have been proud of.
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