Saturday, January 14, 2012

Sven Hassel And Penny Dreadfuls

Adam Eterno, Sven Hassel, British Comics

I recently viewed some extremely funny stand-up footage of the English comic Stewart Lee including his acerbic character analysis of the Top Gear presenters - as to who was the most despicable - and his feelings on the questionable attraction of the Harry Potter books to an adult readership.

I mentioned a similar quibble in an earlier post and indeed it does seem incredulous sometimes - though perhaps fundamentally logical considering the blanket use of Second World War settings in Sixties and Seventies British comics such as Victor, Hotspur or the ubiquitous Commando magazines - that so many middle-aged males of today were getting stuck into Sven Hassel paperbacks with such gusto at a relatively early stage of their teenage years. We may have lagged behind later generations in terms of being immersed in the dark reaches of sex and drug experimentation but at least we were sharing our father's reading tastes of death and glory as opposed to the twee adventures of a myopic pubescent wizard and his wanker public school mates. This no doubt another pointer to now long-departed masculine foundations of working class life in a then industrial Britain.

Sven Hassel's war experiences across Europe in a Wehrmacht penal regiment were subsequently questioned by Danish writer Erik Haaest who claimed that Hassel was actually a member of the Danish auxilary police in situ during the occupation and took his story ideas from returning Waffen SS volunteers who had served on the Eastern Front. Imagine overhearing those kind of conversations down at the local pub? The books are still published to this day though in hindsight it is probably only the first two - Legion of the Damned and Wheels of Terror - that seemed grounded in some form of terrible authenticity.

It has been interesting to note too this week - and in particular with the cinema release of Steven Spielberg's War Horse - that my favorite comic character from times gone by is revered to this day as one of the greatest of all British strips and with many volumes reproduced in book format. Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun's Charley's War - which ran in Battle magazine between 1979 and 1985 - followed the Great War experiences of Charley Bourne on the Western Front and in Russia.

Going back to the earlier Seventies in turn another character I loved was Adam Eterno - who appeared in Thunder, Lion and Valiant magazines. In this story an alchemist's apprentice quaffs the Elixer of Life in a London cellar in 1580 and is cursed by his furious master with literal everlasting existence as opposed to just a lifetime's worth of youthful good looks. Eterno is thus doomed to travel through time seeking out death by a golden weapon to break the spell and bring release from this mortal coil.

Eventually he decides to give up and become a time-travelling do-gooder though god alone knows what he would make of his hometown today. Then again with lust for gold, monumental income discrepancies, alcohol dependency, physical squalor and hatred of outsiders in the loop he probably would feel right at home.