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

A classic Britsh war comic from the co-creator of Judge Dredd returns to print.

 

 

 

112 pgs., B&W; $22.95
(W: John Wagner; A: Michael Western)
 
In May of 1942, when twenty British soldiers find themselves surrounded by Japanese forces in the jungles of Burma, the unlikely savior Captain Joe Darkie appears seemingly from thin air. Darkie’s unorthodox, brutal command saves the troops from certain death, but not without a price. He fools them into thinking they’re heading for the safety of the British forces when in fact he’s bringing them deeper into the jungle and down a road that will ultimately lead to rivers of blood. Though they wear British uniforms, the members of what comes to be known as Darkie’s Mob soon discard all connection to—or care for—the regular British forces. Initially, they acquiesce to Darkie’s command only because they know he’s their only choice for survival. But soon the hardier members of Darkie’s always-shrinking ranks—like narrator Shorty Shortland, the strongman Samson, Lieutenant Meeker, and Flyboy—learn to share Darkie’s merciless tactics as well as his single passion: the slaughter of Japanese soldiers.
 
Darkie’s Mob was originally published in the UK comic Battle Picture Weekly, beginning in 1976 and ending the following year. The savage saga—written by Judge Dredd co-creator John Wagner and illustrated by Mike Wester—is told in three- to four-page strips. At first, I had some doubts about my ability to fully appreciate the collection because of these relatively short stories. It’s rare when I enjoy action comic strips that short, and it’s why I found the few 2000AD collections I’ve read unsatisfying. I had the notion while reading books like Bad Company and Devlin Waugh that if I’d been a fan when the strips were originally published, I would have enjoyed the collections more. But without any nostalgia to feed on, the individual strips were just too short. Every chapter ended with me thinking the same thing: “That’s it?”
 
Wagner and Western, on the other hand, pack an amazing amount of story into each chapter of Darkie’s Mob. Western fills the panels with rich, textured action, somehow managing to chronicle large battles in as little space as a single page. War comics are not something I’ve gravitated toward, but Western’s art succeeded in making me hungry for more. I think the idea of telling war stories in comics—at least those focusing on the action of war rather than its horrors—didn’t appeal to me because I just figured I’d rather see it in a movie or read about it in a prose book, but the artistry with which Western presents the action makes me excited to start looking for more war comics.
 
Joe Darkie and his mob are brutal to the point that you keep waiting for the story when Darkie and his followers are shown the error of their brutal ways, but it never comes. Darkie takes no prisoners and is short on sympathy, even for his own men. He happily uses his own men as bait and has no qualms about damning his soldiers to certain death if it means the survival of both the mob and, more importantly, his quest for vengeance. Darkie adheres to a brutal code and it’s only toward the latter half of the collection, when his few remaining followers make it clear they have adopted his code, that he betrays any sympathy or caring for the men under his command. While he is not immediately a very likable character, he is a complex and well-realized one.
 
There is, unfortunately, a pungent racism to Darkie’s Mob that’s impossible to ignore. The Japanese soldiers are consistently depicted as evil, stupid, and cowardly incompetents. They speak only in broken, illiterate English, even when they are speaking only to other Japanese. Garth Ennis tries to defend this in his introduction to the collection, but his argument is a bit of easy misdirection. Rather than addressing the ugly portrayal of the Japanese, Ennis gives a quick history lesson and justifies the use of racist language by European soldiers. At the very least, Ennis misses the point. The problem is not that Joe Darkie and other soldiers call the Japanese characters “monkeys.” The problem is that Wagner depicts the Japanese as monkeys.
 
Still, I’m glad Darkie’s Mob is in my collection. It’s turned me on to a new genre (new to me at least) of comics, and it’s a wonderful example of how to tell compelling action stories in a comic format with only a few pages to work with. While I think it’s important to acknowledge the racism of the book, I don’t think it’s enough to damn it. | Mick Martin

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