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Saturday, September 01, 2012

The Commando Interviews Part 2: Ferg Handley (2004)

A brief introduction. 

The following interview with Ferg Handley, a regular writer for the British comic book Commando, was conducted by Michael Eriksson in July 2004. This was originally published on Mike's late and much lamented website Where Eagles Dare and is one of a number of interviews that will be appearing here with Mike's permission. I have made a number of very minor visual and editorial changes for clarity but I have otherwise made no alterations; Mike is Swedish – his English is near perfect and I'm sure you'll forgive the occasional verbal stumble.

Michael Eriksson: Can you give us some background to who you are and your early contact with the wonderful world of comics?

Ferg Handley, aged 40. I live in Edinburgh with my wife (Lee, a nurse) and dog (Gizmo); I’m half-English, half-Scottish and support Manchester United. Got an MA in Politics (my dissertation was on American super-hero comics and U.S. ideology); Many jobs before writing comics, mainly in the building trade. My dad used to run a pub, so when I was young I got many comics via the pub’s newspaper account - British titles such as Victor, Beano, Whizzer and Chips. When Marvel began reprinting their titles in the UK (early 1970s), I got hooked - although one of my earliest ever memories is of reading Avengers #1 (aged about 4).

What favourite comics did you have as a lad and did any writers or artists catch your interest even early on?

Like I said above, The Victor was always a favourite, also Commando. Didn’t know the artists or writers then (until the Marvel UK reprints, when I became aware of Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby, Roy Thomas).

How did you evolve into a writer for comics and who gave you your first break?

After doing my MA dissertation I realised it might be a career possibility. I eventually attended classes at London’s Cartoon Art Trust; soon after that I sold my first Commando (1996) - so George Low gave me my first break.

You are a regular at the Commando staff, did you ever write for another war comic before coming into the fold?


Can you remember your first job for Commando, and what issue it was?

It was a script called ‘Lucky Lenny’ (issue 3102).

How many stories have you penned for Commando so far?

About 150.

Do you have staff meetings were you decide on which ideas to follow up or how does it work? Could you just hand in a script that you have not cleared with them or is it a two way street?

No staff meetings (although I meet George regularly for a chat and a beer) - I do a full synopsis at home, which George (hopefully) approves then it’s on to scripting.

How long do you have to write a story and how difficult is it to meet a deadline? Are some scripts harder to get right than others?

No deadlines, but I write each script in three days, usually in 3 sessions per day. They vary, but once the synopsis is approved it’s just a case of breaking it down for scripting and I don’t find any to be more difficult than others.

My guess is that inspiration can come from just about anywhere. Could you give an example of a source that made it into a story?

A friend of mine from Sweden had an Estonian Uncle; in WW2 the SS forced all his village to join up - he refused, until the SS cut off his finger, then he and rest of village joined up. I used this as the starting point for # 3152 Reluctant Volunteer.

Does the artists that take on the story have input as well, ideas even? How close do you work with them?

Sometimes an artist will suggest a basic premise. However, I do not deal directly with artists (although John Ridgway is a friend of mine and we sometimes informally discuss scripts). George Low is the one who deals with the artists.

How many stories can you be working on at any one time?

Some times I’ve got three synopses ready to script, with other basic ideas noted down.

Who are the artists that usually take on your script and have you known them for a long time?

Various artists, many of them Spanish or South American (such as Carlos Pino or Manuel Benet). John Ridgway is the only one I know personally.

How would you describe your job?

It’s the best job in the world, but stressful at times (i.e. having to come up with ideas so as to eat and pay the mortgage). It’s hard to switch off mentally at times and it’s amazing how much of life can relate to writing - movies, books, comics, documentaries, anything can make you think about storylines.

Have you created any recurring figures or are we talking about adventures that are oneoffs only and do you have any thoughts on the issue?

Commandos are self-contained stories, with a new hero in each. However, I have done multi-parters (usually historical such as Ancient Roman) so the hero gets a longer run. The more you write a character, the more he comes ‘alive’; sometimes it’s strange knowing that the character is redundant after the single story is over.

How many jobs per year do you take on and how many of these are for other publications than Commando?

I usually do about 20-24 Commandos a year; recently I’ve been doing Spectacular Spider-man for Panini \ Marvel UK; I’ve done work for other DC Thomson’s comics (e.g. Football Picture Library); also done work for Warhammer (Games Workshop) and I’ve worked on other titles which I’d best not discuss here as they are yet to be published.

You write for other titles as well, can you tell us about that and how you manage to keep up?

I am very strict on myself and can’t relax until my workload is finished, which drives me on. But I love writing comics and enjoy the variety of different titles. Guess I’m a bit of a workaholic!

As for the Commando title, how would you approach a story that is going to be based in more recent times, like say the Falklands conflict? Would you approach that in a different way than a regular WW2 tale?

You’ve got to be careful with more recent wars in case we’re seen as glorifying things. But it’s the story that counts, so as long as it’s on the usual lines there is little difference to the regular WW2 stories. I’ve done Vietnam stories, and although I am critical of the American involvement, my stories are on the ‘human’ level which means you can be sympathetic (e.g. to a conscript soldier). We’re here to tell stories, not preach politics but ‘political animals’ such as communist Commisars are often villains - not because of their politics per se, but because of their brutal attitude towards other people.

For the ones that have not read a story set outside of WW2 of Commando, is there a spicific issue out that you could recommend the audience to look out for?

There’s so many of them, but I do like my Romans in Britain stories (such as Eagle on the Shore). To start with I was on the Roman’s side, but after reading much history I tend to relate to the native Celts and Britons.

Has there been a story set in the most recent war (in Iraq) as we speak?

Not by me, but I think there’s a few out there.

Ian Kennedy seems to be doing many of the covers, do you give him any pointers to what could work well as a cover or how does that work?

No, that’s all down to George Low and the editorial team.

With a great artist like that available, can that even inspire an idea in a story? Could you find yourself sitting there thinking "Ian would have a field day with that"?

No, because I usually have no idea who the artist is going to be. Sometimes a cover will be drawn up and George will ask me for a story based on it.

What is the most gratifying aspect of this job? Is it the writing process or the moment when that brand new issue comes your way hot from the printers?

Getting to do away with Nazis is fun!!! My favourite part is jotting down ideas for the synopsis, sometimes they really flow and when the story comes together it’s great.

When a new issue with your story arrives, do you take the time to enjoy the moment? If it was me, I would probably spend three hours just looking at it.

I don’t think I’ve ever read one of my Commandos - I guess I already know how it turns out. I just flick through them and admire the artwork. Sometimes, if I really like one, I’ll give it to my wife or mates to read (especially if I’ve used their name for a character).

Looking back on your body of work with Commando, if you look at your adventures now, do you have a few favourites that you can look at and say "That wasn´t to bad"? Could you mention specific titles perhaps?

Some are better than others in hindsight, especially if I can manage a decent twist in the tale or surprise ending. My favourite was one about a Russian dog used to find mines, booby-traps, wounded men and so on; it was based on jy old dog Logan and I had a lump in my throat when I killed the poor dog off!

What are you working on as we speak, anything in the pipeline right now?

I’ve got a script about British troops fighting the Turks in 1917 to script, plus one about a German tank crew sent out to China in 1938 as a propaganda exercise that goes wrong.

Can a writer ever really have a real holiday, completely leaving it behind, or do you find yourself thinking about ideas even then as a force of habit kind of thing?

Just back of holiday, didn’t switch off completely but managed to relax after a while.

In which invironment do you prefere to work? At home in silence or with music, or could it be anywhere? Can you "write" an entire story down in your head just driving your car and then just get it down very quickly once you´re in the right place?

Ideas come at any time, anywhere. I like to script Commandos in silence, but I do synopsis work (and other scripting) with the TV on. For more personal projects I like to play loud music (Clash, Pogues, Ramones) which helps hype me up.

Do you have friends that go "Gee, Ferg, I have this great idea"? Did you ever pick up an idea from one of the lads down at the pub (one of those guys that can´t belive your luck writing for dear ol' Commando)?

I’m sick to death of folk coming up with ideas - usually they are ideas that have been done a thousand times before. One mate spent ten minutes giving me a storyline - until I realised it was the plot of ‘Platoon’.

How about veterans? Has anybody like that ever been in touch with the staff going "I want you to hear this incredible story"?

Not that I know of.

Do you have any ambitions and dreams as a writer that still has to come true? Have you considered writing for television or anything outside of the world you support now?

Writing movies would be great; I’d love to do adult war story comics (like Garth Ennis - along with Alan Moore he’s my favourite writer). TV doesn’t appeal so much, although I’d have loved to have written Band of Brothers.

Do you want to add anything to the chat that we haven´t touched upon?

Yep - George Low is the man who makes things work, he never lets standards slip and is a very supportive editor. His obvious love of the title shows through and he really seems to care about you as a person as well as a creator.

Thank you for the interview and good luck with everything.

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