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Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Commando Interviews Part 3 - Peter Richardson

A brief introduction. 

The following interview with Peter Richardson, publisher of Achtung! Commando, was conducted by Michael Eriksson in August 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.

Can you describe your Achtung! Commando fan magazine in your own words and how it all started?

Well labour of love probably best describes the approach to Achtung! Commando and with a lot of these projects it happened almost by accident. I got back into collecting Commando about seven years ago, having had many previous abortive attempts since boyhood days. Now the only way to get hold of the ridiculously rare early issues I could think of was to go out on a limb and offer serious dosh for them. So I plastered ads offering what was regarded as loony money for issues 1-300 in excellent condition, condition being king as always in collecting. I think I offered something like £150.00 (€220.00) for issue 1 and I had a  certain amount of flak from collectors who had devoted their lives to in some cases literally piecing together a collection of these impossibly rare comics. Their concern was that I was ruining the market by offering inflated prices for comics that they were still trying to locate in some cases after twenty plus years collecting.

Anyway, as happens when you're trying to amass a collection I acquired a lot of duplicates including high-grade runs of some of the early issues. There were two dealers in the South West of England who had unbeknownst to each other stumbled over multiple mint copies of issues 25-30. So of course I was in the enviable position of having a lot of fabulously rare comics to find good homes for.

The best and most efficient way of doing this was to produce catalogues of the comics I had for sale in colour with reproductions of the covers as a major enticement for people to take the plunge and part with the admittedly, for those times, quite high prices I was asking. It worked really well and I thought, "Well these catalogues look great, how about doing a fanzine?"

The first issue was in a way the most difficult to produce as I really didn't know what I was doing and wasn't using a proper desk top publishing program, which made it a lot more laborious than it needed to be. However with the enthusiastic help of Commando writer Dave Whitehead and encouragement from the likes of David Roach (2000AD artist and noted comics historian) it finally came together. It was this issue that really helped open doors for me as I could send copies to prospective interviewees and other interested parties such as George Low and the Commando editorial team in general.

How many issues are out so far and how many copies do you print of each?

Four thus far, a fifth is in production and in  many ways is the most important of the lot as it really is entirely devoted to Gordon Livingstone who is a brilliant artist and was with the series since it's inception. The magazine is printed at enormous expense on a desk-top printer and there are about a couple of hundred of each issue out in circulation, they are a steady seller and are available from my UK distributor: Book Palace.

What is the content and how has the feedback been from the guys at Commando?

Content includes the ongoing index – really just a chance to reprise all those fabulously rare covers and fill in some information gaps, editorials by yours truly which is a way of updating people on developments with Commando, articles and interviews with  the Commando creatives which is really the meat of the project. Feedback is always very, very positive, George Low and the rest of the gang have been very generous in their help and information.

What type of general feedback have you had?

Always very positive, I have had a few comments as to the likelihood (or not) of my ever completing the Commando index as at 30 issues a year it's going to take us well into the next century before it's completed.

Have you detected any particular age group among the connoisseurs?

I think a lot are in the fifty-something area, although there are some thirty-somethings too. Younger than that and you really are talking a different culture with computer games being the natural successor to kid's leisure fantasies.

Is it possible that men pass the interest down to the next generation?

Not really, you certainly can't brow-beat your kids into following your tastes and I really do think that the war had a real resonance for boys growing up in the fifties and sixties which made them a natural audience for those kind of comics, plus the fact that comics still held a real attraction for children that they just don't anymore.

Will there be more issues coming up?

Yup! As I said we're working on issue 5 – apologies for the delay but it will be worth the wait – promise!

There are thousands of issues of Commando out now, how many do you have in your collection?

God! More than enough – sad really but I think over 3000.

When did you start to collect Commando?

In 1963 first failed attempt, they were really hard to get hold of even then! 1968 second failed attempt – even taking adverts out Exchange and Mart (a weekly UK ad-paper) couldn't unearth them. I gave up on the project, grew up (sort of), and then tried again in 1992 but for some reason only got so far with the early issues and then let them go again. I finally got back on the case in 1997, my eldest son was quite into militaria at the time and was getting the comic every fortnight. I think I must have said something like "... these are good but you should have seen the original ones my boy". You know the argument, music was better, women were fitter, skies were bluer when I were a lad...

Can you still recall the first time that you saw the magazine?

Yes it was an advert in The Victor which was a boy's comic published unsuprisingly by DC Thomson, and even in murky newsprint the covers looked sensational.

Did you buy the other war comics that used to be around as well? Name another title that was decent in your book.

Well yes I did – of course! The first comic I got was War Picture Library starting with issue 59 "Tough as They Come" which featured a great cover and artwork by someone who became one of my favourite ever Italian picture-strip artists – Renzo Caligari. The start of an ongoing love affair with these things. Battle Picture Library followed and my brother was reading Air Ace Picture Library and Combat Picture Libary, the first three were Fleetway publications and all well written and illustrated. Combat Picture Library in contrast was pure crap with artwork rendered by twelve year olds and storylines equally dire. Micron the publishers were probably where you'd go after being rejected by every other publisher in town although there was worse – Pearson's Libraries being the worst thing ever, distinguished (if such a word can be breathed in the same context as these ghastly comics) by the checkerboard pattern on the top of the cover. They were admirably commited to their pursuit of shite insofar as everything about them was dire, the printing, the paper everything. The kind of comic that an aged female relative would give you if they had some vague inkling that you liked war comics. As you can gather I really didn't care for Pearson's Libraries all that much.

How big is your collection if you count every issue that you have of all the titles?

I have all the key issues of War, Battle, Air Ace, Commando. We're talking here 1-300 as a minimum on each title in mint condition. I also have a run of Combat Picture Library as the covers are almost OK. But look I'm a guy with a life and I haven't stooped as low as actually counting them up or getting them all on the carpet and rolling over them. Christ! Apart from anything else they're way too valuable for that kind of thing.

What was it that made Commando stand up above the rest?

Like all great comic endeavours it's down to the editor. Their first editor Chick Checkley was an undoubted genius. He had an editorial vision and he stuck to it. Which is very impressive as he was working out of the very staid and very conservative environment of DC Thomson, who are a very insular and anachronistic Scottish publisher, who, it should be said, are also highly successful in the field of periodical and newspaper publication. Anyway it was Checkley's idea not to try and beat Fleetway at their own game vis a vis the quality of the content for boy's war comics but to go one further and make his comic even more lurid than War Picture Library. Smart move! He could have wasted a lot of time trying to make his comics better drawn and better written than his London rivals. But the reality is his comics could never be better in those terms, Fleetway probably had the biggest budgets, they undoubtedly had accesss to the best studios in Italy, Spain and South America and outside of staff writers and artists Thomson's would be resourcing the same free-lancers as Fleetway, which is precisely what happened. Checkley's approach was to think of the first point of sale of any comic, namely the cover, and it was this that he really radicalised. He did this in four ways: 

Firstly he upped the lurid tone by hiring one of the brightest talents to paint the covers, Ken Barr was the nearest thing this country had to the true grit style American Pulp Art cover artists that had been outraging the nation's morals for the previous decade. His Nazis wore the blackest shiniest jack boots ever, all his characters had gritted teeth, bugging eyeballs and enough tungsten back lighting to sear your retinas. His covers were a sea of swastikas, SS runes, black uniforms, deranged Huns, nasty Nips and sweatsoaked tunics with enough rips and tears to see the bulging biceps and attendant sweat droplets bursting through. Totally non-PC and made the Fleetway product and everybody else's seem staid and boring in comparison.

Secondly to really punch through the message he commissioned Barr to produce the covers in such a way that although they worked in "portrait" dimensions, in reality the paintings were done to a "landscape" format to produce a wrap-around effect. The birth of the panoramic cover.

Thirdly he took the title Commando, which at first consideration seemed a bit daft because there are only so many stories you can do with commando's before the reader gets a mite bored with raids on Nazi cliff top secret weapons centres. But the beauty of Checkley's choice of title was that it got away from all the titles that had alrady been taken, I mean people were actually launching titles such as "Fight", "Conflict" etc. With Commando as a title Checkley summed up his editorial vision and to undeline it got Barr to design the banner header and paint the famous Sykes Fairburn dagger to double underline where the title was coming from.

Fourthly and again bearing in mind that he couldn't really better the actual writing and drawing of the Fleetway competition he went for stories that were strong on concept so that you'd have a cover which would arouse the kind of insatiable curiosity that could only be alleviated by actually buying the thing.

It was undoubtedly Checkley that made the thing work, that plus a degree of senendipitous good fortune insofar as key artists such as Barr and Gordon Livingstone were literally living down the road, working as staff artists and gave him a very strong core team to work with.

Have you met any of the creators in person?

No. Obviously I've spoken to a lot of them, but I've never met any of the artists or writers, again it's really down to geography as they're by and large living up in Scotland and I'm right down near the south coast.

Who is your favourite cover artist of all time and why?

Ken Barr – has to be. Really for all the previously stated reasons, I've never spoken to him, he really isn't up for interviews at all these days and I can respect that.

Do you have a favourite period of the title?

Yes, it really has to be 1961—1970. You pretty much get all the Barr covers, sadly Checkley succombed to emphacema fairly early on in the titles run, but his legacy continued under the able stewardship of Ian Forbes. The writing and artwork were improving, there was some really fantabulous artwork being generated by the Spanish artists with the Bermejo studio and Mathias Alonso producing some really superb artwork and Gordon Livingstone's artwork was just getting better and better. The writing was always strong on those early issues too and refreshingly free from that awful poltical correctness that is the bane of creativity in this field. You know, "You kan only zee zer uniform undt net zer menn" kind of shite.

Is Commando easy to find for the tourist that comes along and have a few days in your country?

Lord No! You'd need an experienced guide and a return ticket to Dundee. Seriously though if you look carefully and search through branches of W.H. Smith's you might be lucky, but as regards local newsagents not very likely.

How common are older issues today at second hand stores?

Sometimes you'll come across a run of issues from the eighties or nineties. But no, they're not that common.

There has been a few Commando annuals, do you wish that it could be a recurring event and what could be done to make them a little more attractive from the fans point of view?

The format was wrong unfortunately, and really what's the point? The comics succeed if at all by the nature of their size, page count, publishing frequency, all of which is thrown out the window when put into an annual.

In Finland they have a title called Korkeajännitys which is partly (or mostly) imported Commando stories, but they jam four issues together in 260 page issues and ship them out as little books. Would you like to see something similar in your country?

No ... for the reasons above.

96 issues annually is amazing and it could mean that Commando could enter The Guinness Book of Records if they had a go at it. Did the title always come out with 96 issues per year or has it varied over the years?

Well here lies the reason for Commando's rarity as regards those early issues. Commando really was Chick Checkley's baby amd the people with the purse strings at Thomson's were not going to take any unwarranted risks with filling the shelves with loads of potential returns so initial print runs I suspect were quite limited and it really was two issues per month for the first year, and then come issue 25 the publishing frequency was upped to three issues a month until issue 30 when they took the plunge and matched the Fleetway norm of four issues a month. Come Spring 1967 and they actually steal a march on Fleetway and push to three issues a fortnight, effectively six issues a month and all original material, although they did start to rehash some of the early scripts. Fleetway followed suit and upped it's publishing schedule to six issues a month in January 1968 although they did this by sourcing the extra two comics from the stories already published with new covers. Effectively the start of the reprints.

American comics are often presented with credits for the writers and artists, isn´t that one area were Commando could update its style and include that information in each issue? How do you feel about this as a fan?

Well, it's the secretive and at times somewhat condescending policy of DC Thomson and for that matter Fleetway as it was then. Ian Kennedy did manage to get this signature throughout one of his very early Air Ace comics, but the editorial department wised-up to this and with the subsequent issue they got some lad with a bucket of white-out and a bottle of ink to obscure all his name checks. From a fan standpoint I suppose it adds to the thrill of the chase if you have to dig out the information on these unnamed creators, but it's a little sad to think of so much of this information getting lost.

I have seen books that presents classic covers of titles like Superman and Batman, do you think that a book with Commando covers could generate a big enough interest for someone to publish such a title?

Yes I do, if and it's a big, big if... it was done well. I'm afraid most people don't have the first idea on how to put books like this together and I don't really think that the books you are alluding to are that great, the only thing they have going for them apart from the quality of their not very well presented source material is that there are still a lot of people out there into collecting every last Batman and Superman artefact going. An example of how it should be done is Robert Lessor's fabulous publication, Pulp Art. That's how books like this should be looking.

Have you tried to interest a publisher to release something related to Commando?

No. It's a possibility but I'm looking to self-publish an index of the early issues which might be a better initial step. You cannot conceive how cautious a lot of publishers will be over a project like this and after all with some justification. There are endless publishing ventures on the wonderful world of comics which fail to shift themselves out of the remainder bin and end up being re-pulped or lost in some warehouse somewhere.

How about a book with Ian Kennedy covers complete with detailed interviews?

That would be great but again with the provisos I've just outlined.

Do you have any current favourite artists and writers?

Not really, John Ridgeway is good, Ian Kennedy of course, theres a newish cover artist by name of Nick Forder (I think), there are some good writers, Ferg Handley and Dave Whitehead spring to mind.

The adventures are set in different times, what are your favourite adventures and do you miss any at all?

To me, Mister nostalgia, I like the early non PC Commando comics the best, that being said some of the later scripts, "Operation Manhunt" springs to mind with artwork by the late and very great Denis McLoughlin entirely sympathetic to the script still rank as high points in the titles run.

If you look back at the issues that have been coming out so far in 2004, which ones are your favourites?

Spoken in barely a whisper – I haven't read any – sorry. To be brutally honest I really felt that the life had gone out of the series a few years ago. You really do need a private income to consider working on the Commando comic, the last I heard the page rate was around £15.00 (or 22.00 euros) and even if you can work two handed with fire-proof wrists it's still going to take a month to six weeks to complete an issue, so really there is no way anyone could support themselves let alone any dependants on those kind of wages. As a consequence it's really difficult to see much of a future for the comic.

Would you enjoy a specific personality coming along, someone that would appear a few times each year?

Not really for the reasons above.

Have you considered creating a homepage for the fans? I think that would be a great thing for a classic title like this for guys all over the world.

Yes and No. It takes enough of my time doing the fanzine but I do consider that a well designed web-site entirely devoted to Commando would be fun.

Commando lives on, do you sometimes wish that some of the other classic stuff could be published again in one form or another? Like Battler Britton and such titles of years gone by.

Definitely not! The whole thing about comics is like any other valid art form, they are a reflection of the society that spawns them. Battler Britton worked in the late fifties and early sixties but a lot has happened since and unlike heroes like Superman and Batman whose historical references are less obvious, poor old Battler Britton, Captain Hurricane et al. are going to look a tad anachronistic these days.

Few titles exist today. Have you seen any title from the States? Like perhaps some of Garth Ennis work which is pretty good as well?

Not really and I can't really comment on Garth Ennis's work as I haven't seen that much of it.

The second world war was missing for a long time in cinema (and television), but has re-emerged in a big way the last six years or so. Do you think that the kids of today can find a title like Commando appealing once they have seen Tom Hanks storm the beach in Normandy, and that this could all be good news for Commando?

Well not really. I think what's happened is that all those kids who are into computer games rather than comics have played Medal of Honour, which was the logical outlet for Saving Private Ryan rather than putting it into comics. The Americans did make one or two half-arsed attempts to transmogrify the thing into comics and failed lamentably. The other consideration and it is very important is that the impact that Saving Private Ryan had was undoubtedly on it's harrowing depiction of the Omaha landings, there is not a cat in hell's chance that Commando would sanction that kind of realism in their comics. The nearest you can get to that kind of approach in comics is Jacques Tardi superb C'etait La Guerre Des Tranchees and there is no way that anything like that is going to pass the Commando editorial remit that the comics they produce should be suitable reading material for an eight year old boy, none of whom read comics these days anyway.

Also, games produced by PlayStation and other companies are doing good business with titles staged in WW2. To me, this indicates that the interest in this era will never go away and that some of the experts in the publishing world may have been wrong in the past. What do you think?

Oh yes! It's a part of recent history which still has a lot of resonance and it was the last war of such epic dimensions. As Steven Ambrose so adroitly put it, "the last good war", with a clearly defined evil that had to be overcome.

Do you want to add something to this interview?

I feel a bit talked, or perhaps typed out. So perhaps a thank you to you Michael for so kindly inviting me to do this interview and creating such a wonderful web-site and a thank you to all the dear readers that have made it thus far.

2 comments:

Chap O'Keefe said...

It's very easy to be sweepingly dismissive of Combat Picture Library and Micron Publications, as Peter Richardson is here. The company was founded in the 1950s by two disaffected workers from the Amalgamated Press/Fleetway House general office. The story goes that they were backed by some money from an aunt, told the boss what to do with their menial jobs, and launched the G. M. Smith Publishing Co. One of these clerks was a "Mike", the other a "Ron", which gave rise to Micron. The company was under-capitalized from the start, and although they lacked editorial experience they gave Fleetway commendable competition years before D. C. Thomson dipped a cautious toe into the water with Commando. Some of the CPL product was dire, but the phrase "pure crap" is unwarranted. Several of the British artists, like John Vernon, had their work used before or later by Fleetway.

My own association with Micron began in August 1962. Sadly, the company was already in serious financial trouble and by July 1964 was bankrupt. Before joining Micron I was an editorial junior at Fleetway. Straight from school, I was trapped on an editorial ladder negotiated by unions and management, which meant I had to be there five years before getting a senior's pay. At Micron I was paid as a senior immediately, but boy -- was it a sweatshop! At one stage I was responsible for turning out each month four war titles, four westerns, two Paul Temple picture library issues reformatted from newspaper strips, and a 128-page text mystery magazine. I had one junior art assistant. In those days, the War and Battle Picture Libraries at Fleetway employed a whole room full of sub-editors and art assistants on the fifth floor of a modern office building, "New" Fleetway House. When I was taken on, Micron was making a short-lived attempt to house its small editorial staff in a proper office in Station Chambers, Wallingford, but most of my time with them was spent in a draughty, unheated annex to the shack that served as their warehouse in suburban Gorringe Park Avenue, Mitcham.

All this, being young and keen, I could cope with. But the biggest problem was the editorial budget: Micron paid its freelancers half Fleetway's rates, not on completion of the work but allegedly "on publication", and even this occasionally turned out to be "on threat of lawsuit". Welcome to the world of backstreet publishing! Nonetheless, I was able to attract scripts from many of the Fleetway writers (Bingley, Brunt, Bulmer, Feldwick, Pendower, Hanson), and even a few from ex-colleagues working on the editorial staff of the Fleetway war libraries! I also wrote several scripts myself, of course. And with the increasing use of Spanish artists, through agencies like Selecciones Ilustradas, I felt that the standards there were improved, too.

Looking back, it was an interesting experience. Not all of the products of those Micron years could have been that bad either. After my job in Mitcham disappeared, I went back to London and Odhams Books, where I continued editing and writing comic scripts. One of my old Combat scripts I converted into a text story which was used as the opening feature of an Eagle annual and later made it into a Hamlyn anthology of boys' stories which was reprinted at least eight times! So, Mr Richardson, could Micron have been just "pure crap"?

Peter Richardson said...

Just read your (Chap O'Keefe) fascinating piece on Micron and am now hanging my head in shame. And in fact you are right there were a few talented artists that did end up working for Fleetway (well at last one in addition to John Vernon - Jorge Macabich), having served their apprenticeship with Micron.

So I will sink my choppers into a good sized wedge of humble pie and concur with your assessment of Micron's vices and virtues and restrict myself to consigning Pearson's Librarys to the hall of mediocrity and accord Micron with at least the occasional flash of inspiration in what was evidently a less than hospitable climate commissioning wise.

It would be great to hear from someone at Pearsons!