Black Max

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Black Max is a book I can highly recommend if you want to experience the greatness of British comics. It’s oversized, insane, and a lot of fun. And believe it or not, it was written way back in 1971. 

Here’s the plot.

Black Max, or Baron Maximilien von Klorr, is a German flying ace in World War One who has a secret weapon; a giant bat. Yes you read that right. A giant bat appears from a secret compartment on Max’s plane and he uses it to attack the Britischer pig-dogs. There’s a lot of fist waving and ‘I’ll get you next time’ stuff that’s typical of that era. But there’s still a surprising amount of depth, not to mention character development. And by ‘surprising’ I don’t mean to say that as an insult. It’s just that there are moments, many moments, that are downright violent. And I wasn’t expecting that from this corner of the comic’s world. 

Stories from this period can be very formulaic. It’s the same story every time using the same plot devices. In the beginning you think this is the case, especially when Tim Wilson of the Royal Flying Corps, Max’s arch enemy, guns jam right before he is able to shoot Max down. And wouldn’t you know it? Wilson has Max in his sights again and yep, guns jammed yet again. But right at about the time that Max acquires more bats from his weird, Dracula looking grandfather, the book pivots. 

The pivot focuses more on the German side of things than the British. The British are affected and they’re constantly looking for Max, but the German soldiers are affected as well. In the beginning Max needs to keep his secret from both sides. He doesn’t want anyone to know about his Bat-weapon of mass destruction. He’ll even go so far as to kill anyone who witnesses his terror. But as the series progresses this changes. The Germans are aware of this weapon of mass destruction and the Bats fight alongside them. And this upsets some in the German ranks because it’s dishonorable. This inward conflict on the German side culminates to the decision to eventually turn on Max. You are treated to a scene where the Germans join the British and fire upon Max.

And that takes guts to write. That’s taking a risk. World War I and II comics generally fall in the same trap; they demonize the German side and make them a faceless enemy. World War I was a very costly war on all sides, costlier than World War II. But many still point out the universal respect for the Geneva Conventions that were used to treat prisoners of war well, and perhaps here it makes it more palatable for younger audiences. Still, you would be doing the development here a disservice and not acknowledge that putting any German in a positive light during these times isn’t taking a risk. 

Creators and Production

Frank S. Pepper and Ken Mennell wrote the stories. Sadly this was before the credit cards so it’s not clear on who wrote what. But the general assumption is that Ken Mennell took over right when Max obtains his multiple bats from his grandfather (see podcast below). Regardless, please keep those names in mind because they were geniuses.

Eric Bradbury and Alfonso Font were on art duties. Bradbury, a British comics legend, sadly passed away. But they managed to find Alfonso Font who provides the forward to the book. A great pleasure of reading these British comics is you discover some unknown masters and Font and Bradbury are two of those.

And it’s a beautiful production. The Treasury of British Comics did a great job here. There is a hardback print out there but I highly recommend the paperback. In fact, this book shows you how paperbacks should be done. It’s oversized and you even have an inside flap that serves as a bookmark, which is a great idea for these types of stories. Each part of the story is only three pages long, but with the sheer amount of dialogue and art it can be overwhelming. Thus a trusty little paper flap keeps your place when you need to take a break.

And the restoration is really mind blowing. Most of the original prints do not exist and instead they had to dig up the originals that were printed on cheap newspaper print. That was the value society placed on these beautiful pieces of art and that is a shame. Regardless, a lot of what The Treasury of British Comics does is simply taking copies of actual comics and restoring them as carefully as they can. It’s a very intriguing process and my hat goes off to all those involved.

If you are jumping into British comics for the first time should this be the first one you pick up? Probably not because there are other easier to read titles out there. But if you’ve already dabbled in a few collections and are looking for something new, definitely give Black Max Vol 01 some love. It’s definitely worth the purchase and this book will entertain you from beginning to end. 

Further study

Mega City Book Club: Black Max (podcast)

Eamonn Clarke speaks with Keith Richardson about Black Max and reveals a few behind the scene details behind the publication. Definitely worth a listen.

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