Writers: Charles Herring, Pat Mills, John Wagner, Tom Tully (?). But only Charles Herring appears in the writing credits.
Artist: Giancarlo Alessandrini
Publication: Battle 8 March 1975 to 24 May 1975
Reprint: Tornado Annual 1980
In World War II, “Big Jim” Blake is a prisoner in a Japanese POW camp in Burma where prisoners are forced to build a bridge on the Benwaddy River. Sado, the cruel commandant, takes great delight in punishing his prisoners by having them run the gauntlet in the Bamboo Curtain, a bamboo forest on one side of the camp that is laden with deadly booby traps. Concerned at the intimidating effect the Bamboo Curtain is having on his comrades, Blake deliberately gets himself sent to the Bamboo Curtain, in the hope that if he can somehow beat it, it will break Sado’s hold over them.
Sado declares Blake dead after seeing him fall into one of the booby traps and forces the prisoners to cheer at this. However, Blake escapes. He is then surprised to stumble across a band of British soldiers in Japanese uniform who are acting as if they are brainwashed/hypnotised and don’t even feel pain when branded. One of them he recognises as “Handlebars” Lewis from his old unit. He soon finds out Sado is behind it, but the men disappear into a ruined pagoda before he can investigate further. He decides that for the soldiers’ sakes he will return to the camp to find out what is going on, although he is risking big trouble from Sado.
Everyone at the camp is surprised to see Blake has not only survived the Bamboo Curtain but returned as well. Blake’s purpose in going into the Bamboo Curtain is fulfilled; the prisoners now see it is not so unbeatable and become more rebellious and rallying around Blake as a hero. Jensen, Blake’s best friend, is sceptical when he hears the reason for Blake’s return, because Handlebars had been sent to the Bamboo Curtain several months previously.
Sado starts inflicting heavy punishments (actually, tests) on Blake. He starts with the sweat hut, but loses face when he realises Blake is too strong to break that way. Next, Sado forces Blake to fight a masked man to the death, and Blake is shocked to discover it was Handlebars. The next punishment (Sado’s final test) – forcing Blake to find a way to escape from a minefield – backfires when Blake escapes into the Bamboo Curtain and back to the pagoda. There he discovers another soldier undergoing the brainwashing process. The process takes effect, and it causes the prisoner to go wild and nearly kill Blake. Then Sado recaptures Blake and takes him back to camp – by shackling him to the back of his jeep and dragging him along until he blacks out.
Sado now brings Blake to his hut for a surprise spread of food. Suspecting his food is drugged, Blake contrives to switch it for Sado’s plate. His suspicions are confirmed when Sado’s cat Suki goes crazy from eating the food and attacks Sado. Judging by what he saw with the brainwashed soldier, Blake guesses the drug in the food must be part of the brainwashing process and this was what Sado intended for him. He also notices the door to Sado’s office is heavily padlocked and suspects the reason is that the key to the mystery is in there.
Jensen has the men start a riot at the bridge as a diversion so Blake can go back to investigate the office. Breaking in through the roof, he rips open a desk, where he finds a paper listing the men who have been sent through the Bamboo Curtain – and his own name is at the top of the list. The rest is in Japanese, but Jensen can translate it.
However, Sado has guessed the reason for the now-quelled riot and returns to his office to check. He discovers the theft, but Blake manages to escape with the paper. Upon translation, it reveals that the true purpose of the Bamboo Curtain is a survival of the fittest test. Soldiers who survive the Curtain are incorporated into Sado’s private army. They undergo a brainwashing process to turn them into crazed killers who obey Sado robotically. The paper also reveals there is a secret entrance under one of the flagstones in the pagoda.
Determined to get his paper back, Sado has turned extra-nasty towards the prisoners. He is forcing them to work under even worse conditions (extra hours, reduced rations and sleep, drinking from a malaria-ridden source) until someone comes forward about the theft. This has Jensen and Blake escape before someone breaks and lets on, and they flee into the Bamboo Curtain. But Jensen gets caught in a quicksand trap and Blake fails to save him in time. Jensen’s death hardens Blake’s resolve to stop Sado.
Blake heads for the pagoda, where he disguises himself as one of the brainwashed soldiers. He learns that Sado is sending his army against the approaching British forces, and sets up an ambush for them at Hsenwo Valley. Blake slips away to warn the British forces, but the commander does not believe him and locks him up. Blake escapes, but bumps into some of Sado’s goons. He manages to fight them off, but then hears Sado’s signal to the brainwashed soldiers to attack the British forces. Blake stops the attack by taking Sado hostage.
Now the British forces have seen the brainwashed soldiers for themselves, they finally believe Blake. Sado is taken into custody and the brainwashed soldiers are sent to an army hospital in England for deprogramming. Soon Blake and the British are on their way to liberate Sado’s camp.
Then a report arrives to say that Sado has escaped. Blake insists on going after Sado personally and heads for the Bamboo Curtain, figuring Sado has gone there. But Sado corners Blake and is on the verge of killing him. Then Suki trips Sado up and he falls into the same quicksand that claimed Jensen. Sado begs Blake for help and mercy, but Blake rebuffs him, saying he never showed mercy to anyone. Blake leaves Sado to the quicksand while Suki looks on, and departs to rejoin the war that still needs to be won.
Thoughts and Discussion
Although this story is from a boys’ comic, it has come up in many discussions of girls’ comics, with particular reference to discussing the slave story theme and transposing the themes of emotion, suffering, and cruelty used to revive girls’ comics in the early 1970s with Tammy to revive the boys’ titles with Battle and Action. It has also come up in several websites where former creators reminisce on what went on behind the scenes of IPC comics and the writing and editing processes of both boys’ and girls’ comics. And it has been mentioned several times on this blog. So now it is going to have its own entry here as it is related to the context of girls’ comics.
Tammy had led the field in the revival of girls’ comics in the 1970s with its emphasis on cruelty, suffering and deep emotion as opposed to stories on boarding schools, ballet and ponies. Girls were frequently abused and subjected to over-the-top tortures in schools, quarries, factories, abusive homes and other settings. The early Jinty followed in similar vein, but eventually developed her own character with science fiction, sports and fantasy stories. And finally there was Misty, who dared to be a horror comic for girls. Parents hated it, which meant their daughters loved it, and sales for the early Tammy soared.
The same elements of cruelty, emotion and suffering in Tammy were applied to Battle to make it the spearhead in reviving boys’ comics, which had fallen into a similar slump as the girls’. As Pat Mills explains: “…When we did Battle and so on, we followed the girls’ comic role model, and my boys’ comics were, and I take great pleasure in saying this, disguised girls’ comics!” http://www.comixminx.net/comixminx/articles/Entries/2008/5/31_Pat_Mills_at_CAPTION2004.html
Although this approach did make Battle a success, the creators soon discovered that there were differences between the sexes that made some formulas less successful than others. And Terror Behind the Bamboo Curtain is one example where a girls’ comics formula (the slave story) proved less successful in the boys’ because of the differences between the sexes. So much so, in fact, that they never tried it again, which makes Terror Behind the Bamboo Curtain a one-off stand-alone story in Battle. For this reason it is now undergoing reappraisals, with collectors appreciating what a unique story it was in boys’ comics.
The formula that Terror Behind the Bamboo Curtain followed was the slave story theme, which is one of the lynchpins for a girls’ comic. The story had a group of girls (or one girl) who were being used as slaves or prisoners in an extremely harsh institution (reformatories, islands, quarries, factories, boarding schools and workhouses are frequent settings, while more unusual ones have included ships, restaurants, despotic regimes and dystopian worlds). The protagonist refuses to break under the torture, so her tormentors subject her to extra-harsh torture to break her down. Sometimes there is a mystery element involved, such as who is the mysterious masked helper who turns up to secretly help the girls, and solving the mystery is critical to the resolution of the story. This certainly was the case with Bamboo Curtain.
But Pat Mills believes it was the mystery element in Bamboo Curtain that made it unpopular and short lived in Battle:
“Mystery stories – girls, female readers, love mystery stories, say a school where there’s a mysterious headmistress, and girls are disappearing, and other girls are turning up in the dormitory – this gets them going! And the explanation can be complete crap, and it usually was, and it doesn’t matter!
“We tried this with male readers, we only did it once, and they hated it! That was Terror Beyond the Bamboo Curtain… You could see the thinking; we had the sadistic Japanese commander of the prisoner-of-war camp, and prisoners are disappearing, and strange things are going on, and the readers DID NOT CARE! They weren’t bothered about the mystery, they just wanted to see the action! What was the Terror Behind the Bamboo Curtain? Who cares, bring on the violence! A female readership, even if you’ve got a mystery as simple as “What’s inside that box?”, that’ll keep them going for weeks! It’s a fundamental difference between the sexes”.
But co-writer John Wagner has a different opinion on what made Bamboo Curtain less than successful:
“… It wasn’t that popular a story, I think because they were prisoners and they weren’t proactive. They were having it done to them, rather than doing it themselves”.
Less-than-proactive prisoners are a typical element of the slave story, even with the protagonist who refuses to be broken and is a constant rebel against her tormentors. And although Bamboo Curtain has its share of Blake striking back against his Japanese jailers (slugging guards and Sado, shooting out watch towers, fighting the masked man), he does fall into the same vein as his female counterparts when he throws away his escape from the Bamboo Curtain and returns voluntarily to the camp to solve the mystery, although he knows he is risking death at the hands of Sado. Boys must have been outraged because they had expected a more proactive approach, such Blake turning jungle commando or something to bring down Sado once he had escaped. And the cowering prisoners in the first episode must have left them less than impressed either. And they must have been used to oppressed men rising up against their oppressors and bringing on the ass-kicking action that boys wanted to see.
But now Bamboo Curtain is attracting comment and reappraisal online for daring to be different. And it is not just because it was a brave, if unpopular, attempt at transposing the slave story formula into a boys’ comic. The story also dared to break clichés:
“[Comics] had been too safe, samey, sanitised. Characters never died, nothing ever changed, nothing progressed. Like Captain Hurricane went on episode after episode, the same formula, he’d throw a raging fury and rip tanks apart, and in his raging fury always win the day. It was so unreal and we were fed up with it. We wanted to kick some butt”.
The biggest kick in the butt has to be where Jim Blake actually fails to save Jensen from the quicksand trap. As Pat Mills explains:
“My favourite [great moment in the story] – Blake trying to rescue his buddy who is sinking into a swamp. “Will Big Jim save his friend? Find out next week!” Next week Blake fails to save his friend, who sinks and dies. I took such pleasure in writing that scene, because it raises truths we all have to deal with, that heroes don’t always arrive in time. And it mocks the cliché ending! Even today, in comics, we don’t challenge the clichés enough – although I do my best in Marshal Law”.
The cliché gets mocked again right at the end when Sado falls into the same quicksand. You expect the hero to do the noble thing and extend a hand to save his/her enemy, as Patti does in “Children of Edenford”. But Blake does not. Instead, he leaves Sado to die, saying he never showed mercy to anyone. This is a most shocking and unexpected thing to see a hero do in comics and readers must have been wondering about Blake after reading the ending.
While the story turned some clichés on their heads, other clichés were hammed up. This is the case with Sado. He is cast in the model of the stereotyped Japanese, and he certainly is evil, sadistic and loves inflicting torture. Yet he is so campy that he is such an engaging and colourful villain. The stereotypically Asian accented lines Sado speaks, such as “Bouncie, bouncie! Big boy bounce along path like rubber ball!” probably wouldn’t be allowed today, but at the time they would have given the strip its comic relief. Was Sado meant to be a parody of the stereotype rather than a depiction of it? After all, the intentional hamming up does make him a caricature. In any case, with lines like those you still laugh, even if they are questionable. Pat Mills says “It was even funnier when John and I were acting these lines out to each other”. It is small wonder that “Sado was popular in the company while we were writing it. One guy made and wore a ‘SAVE SADO’ badge”. Ah, the things writers could get away with sure have changed.
But it seems that either the writers or editor did not agree, because Sado is not saved in the end.
The glasses Sado wears serve to heighten his role as a humorous villain and help dilute his evil to less extreme levels (it seems to be something about comic book characters who wear glasses). His cat Suki does fall into the cliché of the villain having a soft spot. Yet the Siamese does add a subtle sinister note to the story. For example, it knows all the safe routes in the Bamboo Curtain, and it gives the impression that it is deliberately luring Blake into a trap when he follows it. Blake knows the cat will lead him to Sado without falling into any booby traps, but what he does not know is that Sado is planning another trap for him – leaving a gun for him to find that is rigged to fire backwards.
The campiness of Sado was deliberate because: “This story didn’t work until we hyped up Sado. It was sitting there. We kept going over it and over it and couldn’t see what was wrong with it. Decided to hype up Sado”.
Even with Sado hyped up, writing the story proved extremely problematic:
“I’m sure we wrote the first episode of this one [Bamboo Curtain – Herring, Wagner/Mills, Tully?]. Anything you see with Charles Herring on it, it was rewritten and rewritten and rewritten. He had lots of good ideas. You had to take one of Charles’ scripts and pick out those good ideas. This story didn’t work until we hyped up Sado. It was sitting there. We kept going over it and over it and couldn’t see what was wrong with it. Decided to hype up Sado. But it wasn’t that popular a story, I think because they were prisoners and they weren’t proactive. They were having it done to them, rather than doing it themselves”.
Here’s what Battle staff editor Dave Hunt had to say about how Mills & Wagner worked…
“Pat and John wrote the initial episodes and then farmed them out to other writers. GFD was the author of D-Day Dawson. Lofty’s One-Man Luftwaffe – that was John and Pat. Their brief was not only create a new title but bring in new talent into the industry. We’d worked with a bed-rock of people. When you launched a new title, you rang up Tom Tully, he would do four of the new strips, Ted Cowan – people of that era – Ken Mennall. A lot of the people in Battle #1 were new to me.
“John and Pat always listened and got what they wanted from you. They would see a glimmer of an idea in a script and the writer would get paid for it. John and Pat would shape that glimmer. You’d re-read it 14 attempts later and the idea would still be there but developed. I was full of admiration for them. Being freelance themselves, they always felt they shouldn’t destroy a contributor, they felt that was the last thing they should do. They wanted to train them more into their way of thinking. Often it didn’t work…I had absolutely no idea where the story was going. I’m sure we hadn’t thought past the first episode. We knew it was something pretty awful, believe me! [Sadism, violence and black humour?] That’s what happens when you put a couple of freelancers in a room together! They just egg each other on. Part of it all was a reaction to the way comics had been up until then. They had been too safe, samey, sanitised. Characters never died, nothing ever changed, nothing progressed. Like Captain Hurricane went on episode after episode, the same formula, he’d throw a raging fury and rip tanks apart, and in his raging fury always win the day. It was so unreal and we were fed up with it. We wanted to kick some butt”.
Despite these problems, the end result is a story that is gripping and filled with themes (brainwashing, struggle for survival, fighting adversity, war, black humour) that are guaranteed to grab the reader. The structure is well paced and the plot holds together extremely well. There is a discrepancy or two (such as Blake losing his boots in the minefield, but suddenly wearing boots again when he leaves the pagoda). But the overall product is strong, with its greatest strength perhaps lying in the characterisation, particularly of the villain, though this has become more questionable than when it was first published. Still, at the time, hamming up Sado that way was the only way the writers saw to save the story. Nobody reading it would have guessed the problems the writers had in drafting it.