Thursday, 18 February 2010

Western Tales – a belated tribute

I just found out veteran British comic artist Mike Western died on 13th May 2008. It seems daft to for me to be sitting here upset about it nearly 2 years later, but its like finding out an old friend has passed away but no-one told me.

Looking back Western was probably my first favourite artist. He illustrated my favourite strip when I was growing up The Leopard from Lime Street in Buster, though at the time I wouldn’t have known his name as the strips in Buster didn’t carry credits. Western’s jaggy style gave the schoolboy superheroics a kitchen-sink grittiness that looks bizarrely post-Watchmen-y from today’s perspective, rather like seeing Spider-Man leaping around Coronation Street.

As a kid Western's artistic skills were invisible to me – I never noticed how great his storytelling was, or what a great draftsman he was, how detailed yet uncluttered his panels are; I just knew it was good and that I liked it, that it was exciting and scary and looked real. Looking at his work as an adult I'm simply filled with admiration.

Western’s best work was arguably the strips he created for Battle Picture Weekly during the later 1970’s and early 80s; strips like The Sarge, HMS Nightshade and Darkie’s Mob – those (alongside Leopard and the two war strips he did for Speed comic) are certainly the one I love the most. Like so many classic British artists Western spent most of his career underrated and underappreciated other than by the boys who were simply carried away by his storytelling. If there was any justice in the world Mike Western would be as revered and respected as Joe Kubert is in the US.

Hopefully the upcoming Darkie's Mob hardcover from Titan Books will gain him some of the kudos he's been missing. Darkie’s Mob is arguably Western’s tour de force and a classic of British war strips. Originally serialised in Battle and written by John “Judge Dredd” Wagner it’s a brutal tale of the secretive and maniacal Captain Joe Darkie who walks out the Burmese jungle to take control of a shattered British army platoon and use them in his personal vendetta against the Japanese. Wagner’s hard-hitting script doesn’t shy away from the nightmarish horror of jungle warfare and Western’s artwork is drenched in grime and sweat and shadows. You can almost smell the dysentery and gangrene. It’s amazing to think that the strip was intended for 7-14-year-old boys!

It’s great that Darkie’s Mob is getting a hardcover collection finally and I can’t wait to get my sweaty paws on it, but I just wish Mike Western was around to see it. He was alive when the Judge Dredd Megazine reprinted the serial back in 2003 so I hope he got the kudos he deserved back then and got to hear how much lads like me loved his work. I saw Rufus Dayglo dedicated an episode of Tank Girl to Western a couple of month’s ago. Glad I’m not the only member of Western’s Mob.

The Darkie’s Mob hardcover is due out on the 23rd April.

A wealth of Western’s artwork on view here:
A collection of interviews with Mike Western here:

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