50 years of war: Adaptable 'Commando' comic still going strong

 

"It seemed a straightforward job, risky but straightforward. Flying a helicopter full of gold out of South Vietnam before the advancing North Vietnamese Army got their hands on it. As an ex-Australian Air Force chopper pilot, Brendan Beckett thought the job would give him no real trouble. So how did he come to be tied to a post, knee-deep in rising water?"

This summer, the traditional war stories of Commando - like this one, taken from the typically unsubtly titled issue 'Talk... or Die!' - have been entertaining schoolboys hungry for action for 50 years.

While the rest of the Britain's comic offerings have largely died out, these little black-and-white cartoon books have somehow survived in an age of 3D, video games and the internet.

Indeed Commando has begun adapting for the internet age this year with the launch of an iPhone app that has been downloaded 45,000 times.

George Low, who began working for the comic in 1963 and only retired as editor four years ago, believes it is simply the quality of the storytelling - bucking the trend from abroad - that has kept the title alive this long.

"The stories were always quite dense; always quite a lot in them," he says. "We always put a lot of store in providing good, complicated plots - pushing the envelope but keeping them believable."

However, in a shrinking market now dominated by American superhero titles and Japanese manga, Commando's survival is rare.

The Beano and The Dandy are just about hanging on, but the other traditional comics produced in Dundee for so many years by the publisher DC Thomson are long gone. One man who mourns their loss is artist Ian Kennedy. At 78, he has not only been producing acrylic paintings adorning Commando's front covers for 40 years, but can also look back on a lifetime of work with such famous but now defunct titles as Hotspur, Air Ace, Wizard, Warlord, Buster and Dan Dare.

"I've lived through the golden times," says Mr Kennedy. "We thought television would hit us badly and then the video recorder, but they didn't appear to affect us terribly."But since then the video games have come on the scene and children can press buttons to get what they want in entertainment, it has meant more or less the death knell of the comic as I know it."

Morris Heggie, whose career at DC Thomson stretched back to 1969 and was editor of The Dandy for 20 years, believes it is the shortening of attention spans that has done for most British comics.

"Reading tastes have definitely changed," he says. "When I started you were looking to get value for money and it would take you an hour to read a comic, but that was an absolute turn off by the 1980s. If a speech bubble had more than four words in it, it was skipped over. Manga has a massive readership now, but there's not enough story in them for me. It's style over substance - and how. If you read an action manga novel there can sometimes be four pages with no words. We told stories and built up characterisation, whereas the American super-hero comics are faster paced than ours, too. In a lot of the superhero stuff, action is king."

The occasional classic moment of pure schoolboy fantasy does not go amiss, of course. In "One Must Die!", for example, a stoic Tommy saves himself from a grenade thrown at him by a German by batting it away with the butt of his rifle, shouting: "We English play a game called cricket! You should try it."

Mainly, though, it is Commando's authenticity that continues to serve the comic well in the 21st century.

"To begin with most of the scriptwriters were veterans themselves or had lived through the war, so they knew what they were writing about," says Mr Low, who is keen to emphasise that the comics often show two sides of war. "Ian Forbes, the second editor of Commando, had served in north Africa and Italy, and he had a great respect for the Germans. We always make the distinction between the ordinary German officer and the fanatical Nazi.

"I had a phonecall once from a researcher on a German radio station wondering why we still published the comics, and I said: 'At the moment I'm subediting a story about a very good German officer who saves American prisoners from being shot by the SS, so we are giving you a good German point of view as well.' I never heard from him again."

For now, Commando's stories of bravery and honour are still doing relatively well despite being available in few newsagents, with each comic selling around 8,000 copies. That is significantly less than the 750,000 they used to be able to shift in a year, however, and only around a third of the modern readership are boys aged 10 to 15 - men aged over 35 now account for another third of the sales themselves.

While it is hard to see Commando changing much, Mr Heggie admits that sometimes things have to move on. "The Dandy of today is so different to the one I left," he says, despite having retired just five years ago. "One of the ways they are surviving is paying attention to the market. The first editor of the Dandy was Albert Barnes, who was in charge from 1937 to 1982, and I don't think he'll have looked at one piece of market research in his life. But if it's fast, action, celebrity-led gags that's required these days, then that's what you give them."

But Mr Low is confident that Commando's subject has an eternal appeal. "I think war brings out the best and worst in characters, which is always a good start for any story," he says. To what extent modern wars can be adapted for comics, however, is perhaps another matter. "With the Second World War there was a definite right and a definite wrong," he says, "whereas you look at the Gulf wars and Afghanistan and it is difficult to answer the question: should we be doing that?"

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