May 12, 2011

Titan Books Reviews: Darkie’s Mob: The Secret War of Joe Darkie

Darkie’s Mob: The Secret War of Joe Darkie
Titan Books
Writer: John Wagner
Artist: Mike Western
Cover: Mike Western and Carlos Ezquerra

The Bronze Age was a good time for comics. It gave writers and artists the chance to take on darker subject matters and make the characters more human. But unlike the 90s’ anti-hero movement, these changes had a purpose to them and they didn’t completely abandon their golden and silver age roots. When most people think of that period between the 70s and 80s, they tend to think of events like the death of Gwen Stacy, or the O’Neil/Adams brilliant run on Green Lantern and Green Arrow. But people often forget about the contributions made outside of the superhero genre, such as Darkie’s Mob: The Secret War of Joe Darkie.

Darkie’s Mob is first and foremost a war comic, taking place in the Burmese jungle (with the British versus the Japanese) during World War II. It shares many elements you might recall from your favorite old school war comics. The Allies are clearly the protagonists, and the Axis are clearly the antagonists. The soldiers are brothers in arms, and there’s a certain (British) patriotism evoked. And although it has a real gritty feel to it, it’s much more of a war story than any kind of historical account.

But the similarities end there.

The first big difference is that the leader, Darkie, is, pardon my French, fucking crazy. Real fucking crazy. Yes, he’s a brilliant savant, an inspiring leader, and sometimes even shows compassion for his comrades. But never the less, crazy.

This is different than your typical anti-hero who gets a big gun and a license to kill. Darkie isn’t your Commander Fury. He makes Nick Fury look like Clark Kent. Darkie is like if Sergeant Rock had bamboo shoved up his fingernails and had to sleep in stagnant water for a whole year.

The soldiers are also different than your typical golden/silver age soldiers. And unlike modern war stories such as Platoon or Flags of Our Fathers, they’re not divided between compassionate vs. ruthless soldiers. Rather, they do their job, but some get fatigued and want to give up, many question Darkie’s leadership (and reasonably so), one soldier makes the fatal mistake of not boiling the water and ends up getting the soldiers fatally sick, and many other character flaws. Basically, they’re human beings forced into inhuman circumstances.

But there’s one flaw these characters have that may turn readers away from Darkie’s Mob, and that’s that the characters are racist and they say several slurs at the Japanese that I won’t repeat here. However, before you cross this book off of your list, let me say that while the characters may be racist, that doesn’t mean that the book itself is.

This is where Garth Ennis’s brilliant foreword comes into play. Most of the time, I don’t care about forewords. They seem to be pretentious flattery that run along the lines of “this decade was a miserable clutter of mediocrity until (insert writer/artist) came along and changed the game.” But here, the foreword is extremely important for readers to read. Not only does it get readers pumped up to read Darkie’s Mob, but also Garth Ennis helps us understand the book and the times it was written about, with both wit and factual evidence.

Once you understand its sensibilities, there’s not much of a problem. It seems like the series is self-aware of the problem. Also, what separates this from old propaganda, is that the characters are very much human. And there’s no praise or criticism for their actions; they are what they are.

Which leads me to believe that the series’ strongest aspect, what kept me from putting it back on the shelf for a second, is the storytelling. And by storytelling, I mean both the amazing writing and artwork. Although I haven’t read any of his other work, John Wagner is a fantastic writer. He can flesh out the characters, make unique plots, and keep it from being a redundant battle after battle. He also infuses a few literary techniques into Darkie’s War, such as having the narrator as Private Richard Shortland instead of Joe Darkie.

Complimenting John Wagner’s writing, is Mike Western’s drawings. His artwork captures the gritty story; a styling that’s very much his own while not going over the top. I love the black and white here, although sometimes it makes it hard to differentiate the characters.

So kudos to Titan Books for publishing Darkie’s Mob, as well as the beautiful hardcover binding and the high quality paper it’s printed on.

While I’m easy to please with my comic tastes (usually), few comics surprise me or leave me very impressed. Darkie’s Mob: The Secret War of Joe Darkie has the honor of doing both. So if you’re into war fiction such as Saving Private Ryan, the Call of Duty/Medal Of Honor series, or Apocalypse Now, then you should definitely have this on your bookshelf. And even if you’re not much into war stories, here’s one that you might want to check out anyway.

Andrew Hudson

Review copy provided by Titan Books.



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