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Friday, 26 June 2009

In Review: Biggles - Spitfire Parade

James Bigglesworth, popularly known as Biggles, is one of those fictional characters that has entered the British public consciousness whether or not they have read any of the novels or short stories written by Captain WE Johns. The first Biggles book, The Camels are ComingBiggles: The Camels are Coming, was published in 1932 in which he was a World War 1 pilot in the Royal Flying Corps and he would progress through various jobs and adventures in the inter-war years before returning to once again defend the country from the Germans during World War Two despite having barely aged along the way.

Spitfire Parade was published as a hardback collection of thirteen related short stories in August 1941 when the imminent invasion of Britain had receded but King, Country and Empire still stood alone against the Nazi war machine. It tells the ongoing story of Biggles taking charge of the fictional Royal Air Force 666 Squadron in Summer 1940 and building a disparate group of pilots into a fighting team. Operating Spitfire fighters, they take on the Luftwaffe fighters and bombers as well as trying their best to outdo the neighbouring Hurricane fighter squadron.

This is an often tongue-in-cheek and unashamedly pro-British story which is only to be expected considering the book was written for children in the darkest days of the war. All but one of the RAF pilots return unscathed to their base no matter what happens to their planes whilst the Luftwaffe aircraft crash and burn.

In the Cinebook graphic novel of Spitfire ParadeSpitfire Parade, writer and artist Francis Bergese adapts around half of Johns' original short stories into 52 pages of comic strip that was originally published in France by Claude Lefrancq Editeur as Le Bal Des Spitfire in 1992. The comic strip story moves quickly without appearing to skip much of its source material while Bergese's art is clear and accurate despite the large number of aircraft types he has to illustrate - Spitfire, Hurricane, Blenheim and Tiger Moth on the RAF side and Messerschmitt Bf 109 and Bf 110, Junkers Ju88, Heinkel He111 as well as the inevitable Stuka on the German. He even manages to get a Matilda tank in on the action as well.

Bergese’s accuracy even extends to the British military serial numbers of the RAF aircraft. Most of the aircraft serial numbers are readable and, considering that most artists would ignore them or simply make them up, he uses serial numbers that are historically accurate for the types of RAF aircraft involved. While that might be totally irrelevant to the vast majority of the book’s readers, it shows an impressive dedication to accuracy by the artist.

British publications of Biggles graphic novels have been sporadic over the years but date back to artist Pat Williams' 1955 hardback "Biggles strip book" adaptation of the 1933 novel Cruise Of The Condor, while Hodder & Stoughton published various translated Swedish Biggles albums by Bjorn Karlstrom in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This is not the first time that this particular bande dessinee album has been published in the UK, the previous edition being published by Random House’s Red Fox imprint in 1993, but the Cinebook version is a new translation by Luke Spear.

This does beggar a comparison between the two translations and while the Cinebook version probably remains more faithful to the original French text, it does feel a little clunky in comparison to the more naturalistic translation by Adam Robson in the Red Fox version. A few differences between the two do occur, such as Flying Officer George Ferris being from Liverpool in the Red Fox version while the Cinebook version has him from Wales - but the biggest change is in the nickname used by the characters when referring to the Germans. The Red Fox version calls them "Huns" and is at pains to point out in an editorial note that this is used in a familiar rather than a derogatory sense(!), while the Cinebook version goes uses a wider variety of nicknames although they do retain "Hun" as well. However parents considering giving this book to younger children should be aware that Cinebook have included “bastard” as a description of one of the German pilots.

The Cinebook translation also tends to show a lack of RAF knowledge with Coastal Command being referred to as “the Coastal Command” and the squadron’s A Flight and B Flight being renamed the distinctly un-RAF Flight A and Flight B. At one point a Spitfire is described as belonging to Her Majesty's Government, however the biggest clanger is their description of one of the RAF pilots ejecting from a Spitfire, years before ejector seats were fitted to British aircraft. The Red Fox version more accurately described the pilot as having bailed out, as shown in the artwork.

Despite this, Spitfire Parade is a bright, often funny, boy's-own romp through English wartime skies. Just don't expect this to be a war story along the lines of Darkie's Mob or Charley's War - it is still Biggles after all.

• Spitfire Parade is the latest Biggles graphic novel to be published in the UK. The first UK Biggles graphic novel was Cruise of the Condor in 1955 and you can read Jeremy's review of it on Steve Holland's Bear Alley.

• More details of Biggles - Spitfire Parade can be found on the Cinebook website

• More details of foreign language Biggles albums that have been published in English can be found on the Euro Comics translations website.

• All the foreign language Biggles editions in print are available from the International Biggles Association Online Shop

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