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Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Commando Interviews Part 7: David Whitehead

A brief introduction

The following interview with David Whitehead, one of the authors of the British comic book Commando, was conducted by Michael Eriksson in November 2005. 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: This is the seventh interview in which we take a good look at the wonderful world of classic war comic Commando, and this time we ask writer David Whitehead about his years with the publication. Once a fan as a lad, he now belongs to that very exclusive club of the inner circle that you could call The Commando Old Boys Club (my words!). Tradition meets fresh enthusiasm and Commando marches on.

To begin with, tell us a little about yourself. Who is David Whitehead?

I was born in London in 1958, and was very fortunate to grow up at a time when there were so many great comics and children’s books to fire the imagination – movies as well, if it comes to that. My father took me to see just about every film it was then possible for a boy of eight years old and upwards to see – war movies, westerns, science fiction, action movies, everything. And when I wasn’t reading, or sitting in “a shilling’s-worth of darkness” at the cinema, I was re-enacting everything I’d read or seen with my like-minded friends. Today I live in Suffolk with my wife Janet, just a little north of the most easterly point in Britain.

Can you recall your first interest in the written word and what it was that triggered it?

I’m not entirely sure, because I was always a voracious reader, but it was probably the Famous Five books of Enid Blyton. I also loved the humorous misadventures of H E Todd’s “Bobby Brewster”; the “Billy Bunter” school stories of Frank Richards; the “Jennings” books by Anthony Buckeridge; the mysteries solved by Malcolm Saville’s “Lone Pine Club”; Geoffrey Bond’s Luck of the Legion” yarns; the science fiction thrillers of Hugh Walters; Herge’s adventures of “Tintin”; Willard Price’s always-fascinating “Adventure” books; and - naturally - W E Johns’ “Biggles” stories. All these books made me want to become a writer myself, an ambition I never grew out of

What favourite comics did you have as a boy?

Too many to list, really. But my favourite – aside from Commando, of course – was Valiant. Valiant offered a fabulous mixture of humorous strips and atmospheric mysteries and thrillers every week.

Do you still collect comics today? And if so, what gems are there in your collection?

I’ve built up and disposed of a number of collections over the years – full runs of Valiant and Buddy, as well as a lot of American comics. These days I’ve pared everything down so that all I’m left with now is a complete run of Commando, a more or less complete run of Action Picture Library, about eighty issues of Wild West Picture Library, and some old DC Comics which made a big impact on me when I first discovered them, and which I really couldn’t bear to part with at this late stage.

I’m sure I speak for the hundreds of fans who will read this when I say that you are one of the luckiest men on earth to own a complete run of Commando. How long did it take you to build your collection, and do you have any idea how much it has cost you?

Curiously enough, it didn’t take me that long to build the collection, once I decided to do so. And just to go back to what I was saying earlier, I had already built up and disposed of at least two big collections of Commando before I really decided to collect them all over again, this time for keeps.

What made you start collecting them again, then?

Two things, really. When we remembered the 50th anniversary of V.E. Day in 1995, I watched some of the celebrations on television and saw all these old soldiers marching down the Mall, heads held high, and I suddenly realised that here was everything that was really great about my country – everything that was really great about people in general; their courage, their determination, their loyalty, their pride in themselves and their comrades. That rekindled my interest in the Second World War. And around the same time, Book and Magazine Collector, a monthly magazine we have here in Britain, published an article on Commando (issue 127). From that moment on, I decided to collect them all again. This was long before the internet made collecting that much easier, of course, but even so I managed to buy little batches here and there. I must have bought several hundred direct from Commando H.Q. I also remember buying about 400 issues from a fellow who had decided to dispose of his own collection. Almost as an afterthought he suddenly said, “I’ve got Commando number one here as well, but I’m afraid I’d have to charge you £15 for that.” I nearly choked. I would have happily paid him ten times that amount to get my sticky little fingers on such a rarity! And what a bargain it turned out to be. It was in at least Fine if not better condition. I have no idea how much the collection cost me, in total, or indeed what it’s worth now. I do remember that the hardest issue to find was number two. It was actually the last issue I needed to complete my set, and I managed to buy a spare copy from Peter Richardson.

It’s interesting to hear how fellow collectors stash their beloved comic books. Would a visitor to your place discover your passion with a glance around the living room, or have you stashed them away in the attic, or something like that?

I keep my Commandos shelved in numerical order up my office. They take up one entire wall. But when you climb the stairs, they’re the first thing you see when you reach the top, and even if you’re not a Commando fan, it’s still a pretty awe-inspiring sight – 22 shelves packed with thousands of colourful spines.

Counting other titles, like War Picture Library and all the rest, do you have any idea how many war comics that you own on top of the Commando collection?

As I said earlier, I actually trimmed my collection down some years ago. Today, all that’s left are my Commandos, Wild West Picture Library, Action Picture Library, a few odds and ends.

It seems that your way into the business as a writer started with a series of novels that you tried to get published, and that you finally succeeded one day. Can you tell us what happened and what kind of books you primarily concentrated on?

Well, before you can be a western writer, a horror writer, a war writer or whatever, you’ve got to be a writer, full stop. Luckily, I was always a natural writer, but I wasn’t always sure what I wanted to write about. I wrote my first “real” book - by which I mean typed and double-spaced, all ready for publication - when I was sixteen. It was a horror story. It didn’t get published of course, because it was no good. But hopefully I learned from my mistakes. I made plenty along the way – nineteen unpublished manuscripts’ worth – before I got my first acceptance, and somewhere along the line I fell in love with the western genre and started writing westerns.

You’ve used different names as a writer, is that because the subject matters have been different or has there been other reasons?

I never had a burning desire to see my own name in print, and right from the outset, I quite liked the idea of masquerading behind one or more pen-names. Besides which, on a purely practical level, a western by “Ben Bridges” or “Matt Logan” is always going to appeal to readers far more than one written by the rather ordinary-sounding David Whitehead.

Can you mention a couple of titles that you are extra happy with and what are you doing at the moment in that field?

At the moment I have no less than three westerns in various stages of completion. Greased Lightning, as by “Ben Bridges”, is the fourteenth book to feature my regular continuing character Carter O’Brien, a freelance fighting man who makes his living by taking on the jobs other men say can’t be done. I’m about halfway through Kane's Quest, which is the third book in my “Apacheria” series as by “Carter West”. These are written in collaboration with my friend, Link Hullar, and follow the exploits of a band of Galvanized Yankees – that is, Confederate prisoners-of-war who were granted their freedom on condition that they went west and helped to restore law and order. And I’m still plotting Send for Morgan Starr, a stand-alone western to be issued under the name “Glenn Lockwood”. As for the westerns I’m most proud of? They would have to be Squaw Man, Cold Steel, Tanner's Guns, Hang 'Em All, Ride the High Lines and Back with a Vengeance.

You approached Commando in 1996 and got your first script published. What issue was that and how do you recall that period now?

Well, it wasn’t quite as straightforward as that. I had originally approached Commando several years earlier, with three potential storylines. That would be, roughly, about 1977 or ‘78. All three storylines were rejected because they were either too sketchy or frankly, no good. However, I did eventually revise one of them, and it was published as Hidden Helpers (number 3006), in 1996. When I decided to have another stab at it, I researched my story thoroughly and tried to give it something extra, something special that would increase its chances of acceptance. And fortunately enough, it paid off that time. I was subsequently asked to write up the first twenty pictures in script form, and when George Low saw that I knew what I was doing, he told me to go ahead and finish it, and that was that. The first story was called Warrior Marines (number 2966).

As an old fan of Commando, how did it feel to have that first comic in your hand? It must have been a good day!

It was. I remember taking my dogs for their morning walk deliberately so that I could hijack the postman and get my hands on it that much sooner. We exchanged greetings and then he said, “Would you like your post while you’re here?” I hesitated a moment, as if nothing had been further from my mind, then said, oh-so-casually, “Okay. Thanks.” That day’s post was thrust into my hand - there was a manilla envelope from D C Thomson. I tore it open and … well, all I can say is that it was most certainly worth the wait!

Can you please list the issues that you have been involved with as a writer?

No problem. So far I’ve written # 2966: Warrior Marines … 2985: Duel in the Deep … 2994: Fighting Mountie … 3006: Hidden Helpers … 3030: The Getaway Gang …3061: Behind American Lines … 3125: Face Up to Fear! … 3145: Blazing Frontier … 3167: Storm Island … 3178: Battle Boats … 3248: Powder Monkey … 3250: Rebel Raiders … 3346: Outlaw! … 3385: Home-Front Hero … 3402: Camel Cavalry … 3429: Dragons of War … 3456: Sabotage Team … 3526: The Fighting Furies … 3535: Phantoms' Vengeance … 3552: Fight to Win! … 3666: Jungle Cop … 3679: Frontier Fury … 3717: Rescue in the Jungle … and 3789: The Bamboo Vipers. These are all the ones which have been published to date (November 2005). I’ve just completed a new one, entitled Coward and Killer and am currently researching another, tentatively called Air Ace, Ground Ace.

Looking back on these, do you have some favourites?

I think Fighting Mountie came out well. Behind American Lines was a good story, but improved immeasurably by George Low’s perceptive suggestions. I was especially happy with Powder Monkey, The Fighting Furies and Jungle Cop.

Describe the working-process. How does a script emerge and under what circumstances? I assume you work from home?

At this late stage, there’s no such thing as a completely new or original idea, so I try to settle for something that is simply “different” – perhaps an obscure aspect of war, or an unusual spin on an old theme. Then comes the research, which for me is a pretty intense week or so of hitting the books and making notes. Next comes the business of writing a story that incorporates some if not all of the ideas I’ve come up with. If George accepts the synopsis, then I start writing the script. I usually draw each picture myself - very roughly, I hasten to add, using stick-figures or sketches of specific incidents I will have to describe when it comes to the actual typing-up of the script. Into each of these rough pictures I write the panels and dialogue, although this is always open to change. After that, I use my little sketches as a guide to writing the script itself.

Have you ever been commissioned to write a story from an already existing cover, which we know happens occasionally, or have all the scripts been original ideas that you have pitched to George Low?

I would assume that, if an idea occurs to George Low, he approaches a writer who has already proven himself in a particular field - for example, aerial war stories, historicals, science fiction etc., My own particular sphere would be, say, the American West, so if George suddenly had a great idea for a story set during the Indian Wars, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, the American War of Independence or whatever, I would hope he might consider me to be the best person to expand it into a script. So far, all of my Commandos have been based on my own ideas, but it is impossible to ignore George Low’s input into each and every story. This man is Commando.

Inspiration for ideas can obviously come from just about anywhere. Do you have a couple of examples that you would like to share?

Inspiration certainly does come from every source. The idea that the Navaho Indians fought in World War II, which I discovered quite by chance whilst researching one of my westerns, more or less gave me the entire story for Warrior Marines. One single throw-away sentence in a western I was reading gave me the entire plot for my “Ben Bridges” book Squaw Man. A television programme about adoption gave me the idea for my new western, Greased Lightning … although I have to say that it is nothing whatsoever to do with adoption! I even dreamt a complete Commando story one night, including the title, and I still think it was a good idea, but George didn’t agree, so that one never made it past the synopsis stage!

As a fan of war comics, are there certain elements in a story that you grew up with that you strive to include in your work or are there some general guidelines that kind of takes care of that? Surely, the publisher would want a certain formula to continue so that the reader can feel at home.

In that respect, Commando is no different to, say, your favourite brand of Cola. You buy it because you know exactly what you’re going to get, and you’re going to get exactly what you want. Speaking for myself, I always strive to re-create the feel of the Commandos I read as a child. And the one scene I always enjoy writing, and which always gives me that special little tingle, is the one where the two protagonists finally bury the hatchet and shake hands. The idea that two men can forget their differences and see each other in a more favourable light, or that two friends who have been separated by circumstances or alienated by some quirky chain of events can eventually be reunited … well, call me sentimental, but it’s the highlight of any Commando for me.

How do you feel about the fact that the writers and the artists don’t get a name check in the comics? As a fan, I always missed that myself.

It’s not something that bothers me a great deal. It would be nice to see your name on the opening page, but it’s enough for me just to know that I wrote it.

What’s the best feedback that you’ve ever had in your work with Commando?

The very fact that George Low considers the story to be publishable in the first place is the greatest compliment.

If we compare the old with the new, is there anything now that you can’t do as a writer that was considered OK 30 years ago in the field? Are there phrases that wouldn’t be politically correct these days?

I think a lot of it comes down to good, old-fashioned common sense, really. You don’t often see Commando characters smoking these days, for example, and rightly so. Now that we understand the dangers of smoking so much better than we did thirty years ago, it would be irresponsible to encourage it. And I seem to remember that in one issue, published around 1978, a Japanese character was referred to as a git - a British slang term for someone who isn’t especially nice. I can’t imagine we’ll ever see that expression used again. I don’t really know how it slipped through then.

When I was a kid and read these comics, a British soldier could gun an Italian soldier down and say something like "Take this you darn spaghetti-eater", but I would assume that this is not OK these days.

Well, you still get the odd reference to “sausage-guzzling” Germans, and “macaroni-munching” Italians. Japs are still occasionally referred to as “Tojo”. My own view is that most if not all readers of this kind of book find the racial stereotype more amusing than offensive. I know I do, whenever I see the archetypal upper-class British ass with a name like Bertie Blenkinson-Smythe. But have you ever noticed that German characters can say, “Mein Gott!” but British characters never say, “My God!”?

War comics thrived in Italy as well, I believe. So it probably never was a real issue in any case. Do you think that the general public (or the critics) understands that Commando is a publication that has moved with the times or could there be a misconception that this is some kind of relic from the past that is not politically correct to include in a conversation about good comics or art in general?

I’m not even sure the vast majority of the British public even knows that Commando still exists. Distribution here – at least in my neck of the woods – is patchy, at best. And when Commando celebrated its fortieth anniversary back in June 2002, there was little if any media coverage. And yet that was a milestone by any standards.

To me, some of these comics are little masterpieces, great art, entertaining stories. Will they ever get the credit that they so richly deserve? After all, we are talking about a scene that has survived for nearly half a decade now. There should be respect in that.

I completely agree. But I think the general perception of publications like Commando has and always will be that it’s “just” a comic, in the same way that it’s “just“ a western. The ordinary man in the street have no real understanding of the work that goes into Commando. That work isn’t always immediately apparent, but I can assure you that it’s there – commitment, attention to detail, an absolute determination to get it right.

As a writer and a fan, have you ever considered writing a book on the subject?

I did toy with the idea some years ago, but I don’t think it will happen.

If the new Commando-book "The Dirty Dozen" sells, one could probably assume that there is a market for a book on the art form in question.

My own hope for "The Dirty Dozen" is that wives and girlfriends in search of Christmas presents will spot it and buy it for their husbands and boyfriends, maybe as a “joke” gift. But when those same husbands and boyfriends actually open it on Christmas Day, they’ll remember the fun they had reading these wonderful stories first time round, and some of them, at least, will begin to search out the comic itself. "The Dirty Dozen" will, I hope, remind potential readers that Commando is still out there.

Have you met any of the people who work on the comics with you, or are you scattered all over the world and limited to e-mail contact?

I believe that Commando’s contributors are scattered far and wide. I myself am not in contact with anyone other than George Low.

Do you have any favourite artists, old and current ones?

Gordon Livingstone is an absolute must. A wonderful artist whose work has been sadly missed, not least by me, since he retired. And the great Denis McLoughlin, of course, whose eye for detail and use of light and shade was exceptional. Jose Jorge is another personal favourite – absolutely stunning.

Do you have a homepage or have you thought about having one?

I’m in the process of starting my own website at the moment, but don’t hold your breath – I don’t think it’s coming any time soon!

As a writer, are you worried that the younger generation seem to read less these days and what could this mean for the business in the next five to 10 years? Where is the comics-industry going?

Well, aside from Commando, we no longer have a comics industry here in Britain. We have a number of comics for pre-school children and some odd superhero titles from Marvel, but that’s it. But yes, it does worry me that the younger generation seem to have abandoned reading altogether – unless of course it has something to do with a certain wizard named Potter. Some years ago, I wrote a booklet about the Old West, which became the basis of a project at the school where my wife worked. The children there had never even heard of westerns, or the Old West, before, but they quickly became fascinated by it. The excitement that ran through the school after that was tremendous. But how do we get the message out to the next generation of readers and potential contributors that such a genre exists in the first place? They need to know that a comic such as Commando is out there, and then they need to see for themselves that it’s well worth reading. There’s also an educational element to it. Read a Commando and you might just learn something about friendship, loyalty and history along the way.

Everything in this world is getting smaller, phones, albums are now CD’s, DVD’s takes up less space than the old VHS tapes. Maybe the Commando sized comics will have a resurge in the future? That’s one of my theories, or dreams maybe... I truly love the format. And smaller sized comic books are cheaper for the consumer as well. Any thoughts on that?

I personally have always found the digest-sized format attractive, but unless these comics are displayed carefully or prominently, it’s all too easy for them to get lost behind regular-size magazines.

To me, the people that are in charge of publishing houses should realise that the top priority now is to get the young to read. If they don’t read comics, they’re not going to read books later on. I think that a publication like Commando is a very positive feature in the cultural landscape in that sense. I can see dads all over the place trying to get their sons to get a taste for reading via Commando books.

I completely agree. Teach a child to read, give him or her something genuinely good and exciting to read, and you’ve got a reader for life. But getting them started is the hardest part.

Would you like to add anything to this interview?

Just that it has been a real privilege to be part of Commando’s long and distinguished history, and that I feel pretty much the same way to have been interviewed for your marvellous site. Thank you, Mike – and please keep up the great work!

Thank you for supporting the scene David.

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