Thursday, November 01, 2012

The Commando Interviews Part 6: Calum Laird

A brief introduction

The following interview with Calum Laird, editor of the British comic book Commando, was conducted by Michael Eriksson on 30 September 2009. 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.

Where Eagles Dare presents another interview with the editor in chief of Commando, Calum Laird. Calum has been top dog at Commando headquarters for two years now so we thought it would be interesting to check in and see how things are going. As always, it´s an absolute pleasure to interview these guys and I hope you enjoy this conversation. One thing that creeps up is the fact that Commando will celebrate 50 years in 2011 – now there´s something to look forward to!

You have been commander in chief for two years now (September 2009), how would you say that it has been so far?

Busy! To throw some statistics at you, we produce 96 Commandos a year, that’s 6258 pages with around 625,000 words on them. There are only two of us in the office to make sure those issues get to our readers in time and in good order. It’s full-on, all day every day. And we run the Commando website too.

When we did our first interview with you last year you had been in the position for six months but the product that was coming out then had been initially started by your predecessor George Low. So looking back now, what issue of Commando was really your first to reach the readers?

That’s a difficult question. It’s hard to say which ones were completely new because so many were in the pipeline and our pipeline is so long. I guess that the special issues for November 2008 were the first to have my fingerprints on them, though there may have been others before that.

Writers and artists are credited now, was that your idea?

Not really, it was something that had been talked about on and off over the years. It was just that when I took over it seemed a good point to start.

How did people react to the change?

To be honest, it was mixed. Someone said that it was the most important thing I’d done since I took over. Others barely noticed. It depends on your outlook on the comic. If you are into Commando for the stories and the artwork, the credits possibly don’t matter; it’s just entertainment. If, though, you have an interest beyond that, it will be much more significant.

You are involved in the Commando books from Carlton now alongside George, how successful is it and can we assume that this series is here to stay?

Actually I was involved in the project from the start as the department I worked in then was responsible for retrieving the books from archive for reproduction. The books have been wildly successful. As to them being here to stay, I don’t know, to be honest. It depends on our continuing relationship with Carlton and the economics of doing the collections. I love the books and would gladly do more but I leave those sorts of financial decisions to the people who are qualified to make them.

Have there been reviews in that world, the world of books?

Yes, they were even considered at some length by the Financial Times. I never thought I’d see Commando in that newspaper.

There was a bit of a media blitz in the UK when Commando reached issue 4000, has there been more interest since then?

We’ve had a lot of coverage for our special editions and the Collections reflect interest back on to us. Then of course there are the comic websites like your own that are a great way of keeping in touch with fans.

Is it true that Commando is the title with the highest number of back issues in the UK?

I believe that’s the case, but you’d need a comic historian to give a definitive answer.

Have any new writers or artists been introduced since you took over?

We’ve started working with a number of new writers and their stories have been published over the last two years. We haven’t added to our existing group of artists as we’re perfectly happy with our arrangements with them and they would all do more work for us if it was available!

Are you contacted all the time by hopefuls and what advice would you give to somebody that is interested in committing work for Commando some day?

Yes, barely a week goes by without someone brand new getting in touch. What advice would I give? Go and read loads of Commandos. Try to pick apart all the strands that are in those stories before you build your own. Don’t rely on what you think a Commando is, find out. Remember our stories are driven by text, not artwork. And bear in mind that a finished script will contain about 10,000 words including the picture descriptions. It’s hard work.

I understand that you wouldn’t want to comment on sales but how do things stand compared to, say, the 90s?

Commando doesn’t sell as well as it did, that’s for sure, but we are still viable. Obviously we’d like to sell more so we are actively promoting the title wherever we can. No one in publishing is feeling too secure at the moment, but Commando hasn’t lost any sales in the recent downturn and we hope to grow our sales on the far side of the recession. Anybody reading this is welcome to help by buying a copy or ten.

Can you mention a story that is in the pipeline that you found particularly interesting?

All the stories are interesting; we wouldn’t use them otherwise!. No two are the same and no two writers handle a theme in the same way. The great thing about working here is that the material is never the same two days in a row.

I recall that George said that he used to meet artist Ian Kennedy down at the pub once a week, is this still going on? It would be comforting if it was!

Sorry, Mike, that doesn’t happen these days. Ian comes into the office about three times a month. We talk about work – and other things - but the pub is out. He still meets up with George occasionally for a drink. Scott and I meet George on a regular basis for a lunch-time “refreshment”. We try NOT to talk about work! We also see Gordon Livingstone from time to time – another face from the early days looking well in retirement.

You recently commemorated D-Day with eight issues and it was also the focus in the Carlton edition “D-Day – Fight or Die!” at around the same time. Is “The Battle of Britain” next, considering the new Carlton book “Battle of Britain – Scramble!”?

Carlton have used that idea away before us and I certainly wouldn’t want to copy what they’ve done so look out for a twist on that theme in September next year. In the meantime, we’ve a pair of Battle of the Bulge stories in the pipeline and a group of six for release around V-E Day 2010.

I guess you have had two holidays by now as editor, but can you really let go or does your head spin with story arcs and ideas no matter what?

I never switch off completely. It might not be story arcs I’m thinking of but there’s always a part of my mind running over things Commando. (If my boss is reading this – “Hello, Mike!” – I hope he’ll be impressed enough to give me a raise.)

Can you give us a recent example of how an idea popped up into your mind and how it happened?

Last November I was in Glasgow. I’d gone to the Transport Museum while my kids were at Auchinawa – a manga cosplay convention. In the gallery devoted to Glasgow’s shipbuilding past I saw a model of a shallow draught, broad beamed ship from the early 1900s that had been used as a hospital ship in the Middle East. I decided that Ferg Handley could mould a story round that. And so he has; the script came in last month.

Do you think that what goes on in the world of cinema has an impact on the interest for Commando? Can a movie like “Inglorious Basterds” by Tarantino draw interest? Do you know if it ever did in the past?

I’d like to think that Commando has had an impact on cinema, not the other way round. After all we’ve been producing war stories for a lot longer than Tarantino has been doing movies. Maybe we’ve influenced him! Like all types of film, the war movie comes and goes. I’m sure there is an effect on us but it would be hard to find concrete data to back that up.

Incredibly, “Inglorious Basterds” is a hit in Germany, does that mean that the Germans may be ready for Commando now?

Our company goes to book fairs in Europe very regularly and Commando copies are happily accepted at the Frankfurt event. I think those people who look beyond what Commando is perceived to be to what it really is have seen that we have no axe to grind with any nation.

I will end this interview here before I get you into trouble, is there anything that you would like to add to this interview?

Commando will be 50 years old in 2011. Amongst other things we plan to re-issue some stories from the very early days and I’d invite any readers to email me with titles or numbers at if they have any that they’d really like to see again. We don’t have time to look for “a story that came out in the late 70s which had a safecracker turned Commando who saved Tobruk with a banana sandwich…” so names or numbers only please. Check Vic Whittle’s excellent website for help with cover images.

Mike Eriksson (September 30 2009)

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