In the mid-'70s, writer John Wagner and artist Mike Western unleashed Darkie’s Mob on the world: the story of a cutthroat, tough-as-nails, hard fighting British squad led by Joe Darkie, the ultimate in brutal tough guys. These were war strips from a different era and yet they resonate today just as much as they always have. The secret? It’s really any number of things all working together and then pushed through Wagner’s literary filter and Western’s incredible artwork.
Darkie’s Mob had no lessons; no sensitive weeping stories that illuminated man’s inhumanity to man. Anything of that nature came out of the stories and the struggles of the men, but they weren’t the point. Really what Wagner and Western achieved was to create bold stories that never flinched and moved with precision of a well-edited film.
Darkie’s Mob is set against the backdrop of World War II and it reads that way. In the '70s, the political correctness movement hadn’t been born and it allowed Wagner the freedom to write stories with the type of dialog that stayed true to the time. The soldiers used racist language, they took great happiness in eliminating the enemy, war was hell and these men aimed to kill the bastards who were trying to kill them. Joe Darkie himself was the penultimate solider, a killing machine whose motivations were an enigma to everyone, including his own men. He was a leader, a bear of a man with a face part Sgt. Rock and part Yul Brynner.
Until this new hardcover collection of Darkie’s Mob (released by Titan Books), I had only read a few scattered strips. I’m a sucker for old school war stories so I’d always considered myself a fan but it wasn’t until reading this collection a few times that I realized how truly revolutionary the strips were. The standard things were always in good form with Darkie’s Mob. The grim and violent stories, the offbeat humor, and the harsh conflicts that seemed to put The Mob into situations that seemed impossible. What made these strips rise above it all were the characters, especially Joe Darkie himself.
Even with all their bravado, Wagner was sure to make The Mob as human as possible. They were a melting pot of everything soldiers would be. Brave and heroic at times, cowardly and bitching at others, some with intelligence and others with the brawn to simply over power the enemy. While not every solider was an in-depth story, they worked together as a unit perfectly, almost as if the The Mob was one character with multiple layers.
Where Wagner thrived was in the character of Joe Darkie. Since the '70s, at least in pop culture, the Special Forces soliders have been the underdog. Commando, Rambo, Lethal Weapon – these characters and others like them were killing machines that had no joy for it. They did it because they had to and were often scarred by it, finding life at home miserable. They were our guilt over war, our bizarre human need to want to be trained to handle any situation, but never enjoy it. Joe Darkie was the antithesis of that idea, perhaps due to being created in the post Vietnam era, a time before the public understood soldiers and simply feared them.
Joe Darkie wasn’t an underdog, he wasn’t a tortured hero pushed to his limits, he also wasn’t a slick and well-groomed murderer that made killing look something you did to be cool. Instead, Darkie was a man filled with hatred for the Japanese for specific reasons (you’ll have to read this collection to understand) and he aimed to kill them all. He didn’t apologize for it, each kill didn’t mark his soul with horror, he saw what had to be done and he did it. The situations here are vicious, the violence is brutal, but that’s war. Those who are quick to brand these types of comics as bad examples probably have never seen battle. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never seen battle either, but I’d rather read something that explicit shows me how horrific it is so I can try to understand it.
Then there’s Mike Western’s art, which is an absolutely glorious thing to behold. Since viewing Alex Toth’s Zorro I have been in love with simple black and white comic strips. The use of only shading and bold lines to create action and drama is a set of skills so few posses. Its ironic Mike’s last name is Western because he draws like an old west gunfight. Fast, powerful, with images that knock you down every second. His ability to wind a plot into a few panels, and make each of those panels count, is astonishing.
When you read this collection look at the artwork, really take the time to analyze it. Imagine creating all of those images, all that movement, each of those characters and situations with such little space, with only black pencils and inks and all by hand. When Mike Western passed away we lost an unsung giant in the art world. Darkie’s Mob is a treasure, something to be read and loved as often as you can. This collection is not only a must-have for comic fans, it should be required viewing for writers and artists across the board.