Fighting The British With Bats: Advanced Review Of Black Max Volume 1

by Rachel Bellwoar

There’s something about writers, Frank Pepper & Ken Mennell, clarifying that Black Max’s bats are “giant” that encapsulates everything I love about their series, Black Max. A safeguard against us getting the wrong idea and thinking his bats are regular-sized, these extra adjectives are so blunt, they’re exquisite, and when you see what the bat artists, Eric Bradbury & Alfonso Font, have cooked up, you appreciate how wonderfully out of place they are in a war zone.

Originally released in Thunder (later Lion & Thunder) in the early 70’s, Black Max is the first of 2000 AD’s volumes collecting the three-page installments together. Set during WWI, Black Max is about a German pilot who wants vengeance against the “Britisher pig-dogs” who caused him injury. With his special bat plane and giant bat pets, Baron Maximilien Von Klorr, or “Black Max” for short, couldn’t be more sure of his plan to wipe out the British. Standing in his way is Lieutenant Tim Wilson, a relatively new pilot to the Royal Flying Corps, who has ties to the circus, and ends up being a regular thorn in Black Max’s side.
While Tim’s character design doesn’t stick out in a crowd (mustaches help identify different characters), there’s no mistaking Black Max, with his caterpillar eyebrows and scowl, yelling “Donner und blitzen” (which means “Thunder and lightning” but sounds ridiculous when you know the names of Santa’s reindeer). Bradbury and Font recreate all the different style planes and although movement isn’t always reflected in the panels, the action shots are urgent and exciting.
Occasionally, Tim gets paired with another pilot but it’s no hardship when they part ways. For a while, Major Gromett and Tim’s military careers seemed intertwined, and there was room for the series to turn that relationship into something special (like JD and Dr. Cox on Scrubs, where there’s aggravation but mutual respect underneath), but a plot device gets implemented that the series’ major misstep, and it derails their relationship, leaving something much more formal and reflective of their ranks going forward.
Gromett was the one character that could’ve expanded Black Max’s twosome to a threesome, and it would’ve been great, too. While he’s introduced as the strict, authoritarian character, that tends to populate military stories, he also pulls off several heroic rescues, proving coolness isn’t contingent on breaking the rules.
With the series putting all of its eggs on the rivalry between Black Max and Lieutenant Wilson, it does create a reliance on keeping those two characters alive. Almost every installment ends on a cliffhanger, but the question isn’t whether they’ll be killed but how they’ll manage to survive. There is some repetition as you get further into the volume, with the same contrivances being used to prevent one from succeeding in taking out the other. Maybe there’s some historical precedence in the number of guns that jam, or planes that get replaced, but every time Wilson resorts to flying an enemy plane, it’s downplayed how he manages to avoid being mistaken for the enemy.
In defense of all that repetition, you really get to know who Black Max and Tim are and how they will respond to certain situations. Knowing what would be in-character for them, and being able to predict their actions, means Pepper and Mennell are doing their job, in creating complete characters. For the background characters, too, Black Max isn’t a team player and there are plenty of German soldiers who, when they find out about his bats, don’t want anything to do with them. All of the Germans aren’t lumped together, and repetition doesn’t have to mean the same thing, either. One of the series’ joys is getting to see how far the bat lair comes, from a meager cave in the beginning, and the family lore that gets added to Black Max’s history enriches the plot.
Rounding up the volume are two longer stories, one from the Lion & Thunder Holiday Special (’71) and the other from 1972’s Thunder Annual, that give other British pilots a chance to go up against Black Max. While worth a shot, the introduction of more giant animals doesn’t work, but the Thunder Annual boasts the best action sequences of the series, even if Black Max doesn’t act like himself in it (the timing of that story could have something to do with it).
If the idea of bats fighting WWI make you smile, you’re probably the right audience for Black MaxVolume 1 goes on sale October 24th in the US from 2000 AD.

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