Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Commando Interviews Part 9: Writing for Commando

Writing for Commando
By David Whitehead

For as long as I can remember, all I’ve ever wanted to do is write. And having read Commando since I was knee-high to the proverbial grasshopper, it will come as no surprise to discover that one of my earliest ambitions was to write for this wonderful war comic.

As a child, I used to turn out Commando stories for my own amusement, but it wasn’t until the late 1970s - and I was about twenty years of age - that I finally set about trying to turn my dream into reality.

I began by sending a letter to Commando’s editorial offices in Dundee, Scotland, in which I requested some writer’s guidelines. These arrived a few days later, together with an encouraging note from the editor, George Low.

The guidelines were fascinating. They gave a little background information on Commando itself, then offered some very practical do’s and don’ts for any potential contributor. For example: “The main character should be young and attractive, so that the reader will readily identify with him. He can be a tough type or a studious type, but he must be interesting.”

Potential stories needed action - obviously - but more than that they also needed some sort of emotional conflict between the main characters. “Conflict with the enemy,” noted the guidelines, “is frequently secondary to this.”

Stories usually ran for between 130-135 pictures, and the author had to describe each one for the benefit of the artist, as well as write every descriptive panel and bubble of dialogue. Naturally, played-out themes, such as the rescue of V.I.P.s from enemy-held territory, or boys meeting as rivals before the war only to oppose each other again in later life, as soldiers, were to be avoided.

Strong plots and well-drawn characters were the order of the day, then … but at that point, I was still a long way from being able to create either. Blissfully unaware of my shortcomings, I immediately hammered out and submitted no less than three feeble outlines, and though these were all rejected in no uncertain terms, one of them, entitled Ghost of a Chance, would later form the basis for my fourth published Commando, Hidden Helpers.

Over the years I had built up and disposed of about three major collections of Commando, only to start collecting them all over again when I realised just how much I missed them. By the early 1990s I was at it again, picking up the odd issue here and there, as and when I found them, but this time I resolved to build a complete set - something I had never managed to do before - and entertain no thoughts of ever parting with them again.

By now I had been a full-time writer for about eight years. I had written well over a hundred magazine articles and forty-odd books - mostly westerns, but a few romances as well. If you would like to know more about these - and here comes my one moment of shameless self-promotion - please check out my website

Inevitably, that old ambition of writing for Commando hit me again, and in the autumn of 1995 I once more contacted George Low. During the course of my research for a western called Blood Canyon, I had come across a fleeting reference to the contribution made by the Navajo Indians to America’s war effort, and I thought this would be a good starting-point for a yarn I called Warrior Breed. I sent George my synopsis, he liked it and asked to see the first thirty pictures in script form. This was to make sure I understood the correct way to set out an artist’s script, of course. After I produced the thirty pictures, he then told me to go ahead and write the remainder of the script. It was accepted on 10th November 1995 and eventually published as # 2966, Warrior Marines.

About a month later I was back with another story called Dive and Die, which focused on the dangerous work of the Royal Navy’s Underwater Working Party. Again, George liked it and told me to write the script, which was subsequently given the title Duel in the Deep (# 2985).

In January 1996 I submitted an outline called Fighting Mountie. I had been looking around for new or unusual concepts, and it suddenly struck me that, to the best of my recollection, Commando had never published a story featuring the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. This too was accepted, and published as # 2994, but my very next submission, The Guardian Angels, failed to impress. “It’s too predictable, and the supernatural events aren’t convincing enough for our readers,” George wrote in his rejection letter. “I will say, though, that the beginning of the story is intriguing, and I think you should look at the general idea again.”

I did just that, and in April 1996, the story - which revolves around a young Frenchman and the help he receives from three ghostly benefactors - was eventually issued as Hidden Helpers (# 3006). The following month I submitted Doctor’s Orders, which George found “different from any other story we have on the go at the moment, and an intriguing tale which we can use.” Again, I had searched around for another unusual premise, and decided that a story about the Royal Army Medical Corps might just fit the bill. George felt that the story needed expanding, however, and proceeded to offer a number of detailed suggestions, all of which improved the yarn no end.

And this, I think, is one of the things that make George Low such an exceptional editor. He understands perfectly what works and what doesn’t, and he can take a reasonable idea and make it immeasurably better by suggesting an additional twist here, or the introduction of a new character there.

He certainly knows his stuff, too. I remember one particular occasion when I submitted a story called Rescue Ship!, which was subsequently - and quite rightly - rejected. My plot called for a German admiral to return to Germany by U-Boat. But as George pointed out, any German officer of this rank making the journey I was proposing, would have been flown over neutral Sweden or taken by road down through occupied Denmark. Travel by U-Boat wouldn’t even have entered into it.

In any case, the script for Doctor’s Orders was written along the lines George had mentioned, and eventually came out as # 3030, The Getaway Gang.

By the summer of 1996 I had turned my attention to the Texas Rangers, and a story called The Ranger Breed. It began life as a simple story about some German POWs who escape en route to a holding camp in Texas, and the efforts of the Rangers to recapture them. Yet again, however, a not-bad story was elevated to new heights by George’s enthusiastic response. Adding a pair of nasty Nazis who had been sent to find out what the Americans were working on at Los Alamos, New Mexico, he gave the plot real depth, and it eventually saw print as # 3061, Behind American Lines.

By now I had six Commando's under my belt, but this was no guarantee of continued success. I came up with another story in August 1996 which was set in the days following the Normandy landings, and revolved around a German officer who decides to hunt down three escaped British POWs for sport. It was a pretty weak story, as George pointed out, but when I gave it some more thought, I realised that it would become considerably better if I introduced a hero who had was suffering from battle-fatigue. One of his comrades, who felt that he was the weak link who kept letting them down, would then gradually begin to understand what he was going through when his own fear of confined spaces suddenly reared its ugly head.

Confront and Conquer! - as it was called - was accepted in October 1996, but once again George showed his painstaking attention to detail. In one scene I’d had a Junkers 87 attacking British forces. George suggested that I change this to artillery fire. “The Junkers 87 smacks too much of the Dunkirk evacuation,” he wrote, “and not the invasion.” So artillery fire it became. This yarn was subsequently issued as # 3125, Face Up To Fear!

Even if a story was rejected, then, I could always go back to it at a later date and perhaps re-work it. In January 1997 I had an idea about an elite German squad who plan to steal the Crown Jewels, which were removed from the Tower of London during the War and taken to a secret location elsewhere for safekeeping (a location, incidentally, which remains top secret, even today). The idea was that the theft, should it succeed, would have a disastrous effect upon the morale of the nation. George felt that the basic plot was sound, but suggested that I transpose the action to Europe in 1945, and replace the Crown Jewels with some recovered Nazi loot, such as gold bullion.

I never did write the story in that form, but one evening in early 2000 I suddenly saw how I could give my elite German squad a different and altogether more unusual target. But you’ll have to read # 3385, Home-Front Hero, to find out exactly what that target was.

Incidentally, just checking through my files, I see that I submitted two versions of this script, because I really wasn’t satisfied with the first one I mailed in. “This is a first for us,” wrote an appreciative George, “and says a lot for your approach.”

In the summer of 1997 I wrote Commando’s first-ever Indian Wars story, Redman to the Rescue  (published as # 3145, Blazing Frontier). I had long been interested in the Old West, of course, and in my opinion Commando had neglected the Indian Wars for too long. I was lucky in that the story was illustrated by Denis McLoughlin, who was himself fascinated by this period of history, and in 1975 compiled a superb reference book entitled The Encyclopedia of the Old West. In May 1997, Denis also drew my story The Santiago Secret, for which I employed another little-used conflict, the Spanish American War. This issue came out under the title Storm Island (# 3167).

I returned to the western setting with Rebel Raiders in October 1998, a story of the American Civil War, which again was one of those conflicts which had been all but ignored by Commando in the past. This story centred around a group of so-called “Galvanized Yankees” - Confederate prisoners-of-war who were given their freedom on condition that they go west and help restore law and order, and looking back on it, I realise that I had pretty good mileage out of this idea. A couple of years later I wrote something very similar as a full-length western called Apacheria. There was also a sequel, entitled Lockwood’s Law, and at the moment (March 2006) I’m about halfway through writing the next book in this series, Kane’s Quest.

My forays into Old West territory haven’t always been as successful, though. Sixgun Showdown centred around the theft of an army payroll, and was rejected - as indeed was another Civil War story called Remington’s Raiders, which dealt with the adventures of a special force of Negro troops.

The Civil War was to give me another two acceptances, though. In May 2000 I wrote # 3402, Camel Cavalry, a story that was inspired by the U S Army’s ill-fated attempt to replace horses with camels in the late 1850s. And the naval battles of the conflict inspired The Fighting Furies (# 3526) in June 2001.

My next Commando, Battle Boats (# 3178) came about after I watched a TV programme about the many strange superstitions of Britain’s fishermen. Being more than a little superstitious myself, I chose to give the Motor Torpedo Boat in the story the number 113 because that was the number of the house in which the script was written.

I stayed with the sea for 1998’s Powder Monkey (# 3246). This was a Napoleonic War story about two young lads, both bitter enemies, who enlist in the Navy to get away from each other. Unfortunately, they both end up aboard the same ship, and share an adventure which eventually makes them forget their differences. George liked the premise, but felt that the plot was too short and too simple. He then listed no less than eight detailed story-points to improve the yarn, and I wasted little time in incorporating these into a revised synopsis. It still wasn’t quite right, however - but once again George came to the rescue, and as soon as his additional ideas were added to the mix, it made for a cracking yarn.

In the summer of 1999 I was researching an article on Ancient Rome for Book and Magazine Collector when I discovered that, as its empire began to fragment sometime around 60 A.D., the Romans were forced to introduce compulsory military service in order to maintain an army of sufficient size. This gave me the basis for a Commando called Outlaw! (# 3346). The plot immediately appealed to George, who suggested a number of additional points to make it work even better, and the finished product was drawn by long-time Commando artist John Ridgway.

Another Commando, # 3552’s Fight to Win!, came about in the same way. I was writing an article on the French Foreign Legion when I happened across a reference to the lesser-known Spanish Foreign Legion. There was so little information then available about this particular fighting force that I could only turn up one reference book. However, it gave me a reasonable basis for a story, although my yarn was hardly original - in fact, I later saw something pretty similar to it in Jean-Claude Van Damme’s movie Legionnaire.

After reading Breakout, Martin Russ’s brilliant re-telling of the Korean War’s Chosin Reservoir Campaign, I came up with Dragons of War (# 3429) in June 2000. What really intrigued me about the story were the KATUSAs - Koreans Attached to the U.S. Army. I felt that I could really do something with these fellows. And in a way, this illustrates just where ideas come from. Fact is frequently stranger and more exciting than fiction, and though there has to be a certain degree of artistic license - “romanticising,” if you will - I believe that just about all of my stories have been based - at least in part - on real-life events.

The same applies to Pull Together!, a story about the Japanese invasion of Singapore, and the work of the so-called “Stay-Behind” parties whose job it was to literally stay behind and harass the enemy at every turn. This one eventually saw print as Sabotage Team (# 3456). And aside from its supernatural overtones, Ghost Fleet (which was published as # 3535’s Phantoms’ Vengeance) was inspired by the sterling work of the “Shetland Bus”.

Although I’ve never taken a rejection personally, I was disappointed when my story Like Father, Like Son was turned down in early 2002. George found it “built on too much of a coincidence” and the action too “ordinary”. But it had come to me in a most extraordinary way - in two separate dreams. The plot unfolded in the first, and the title came to me in the second.

In the July of that year, however, I was given the go-ahead and write the script for Jungle Cop (# 3656), which was set in 1953 Malaya, and told the story of one policeman’s war against Communist terrorists. Once again, a fair percentage of this story was taken from real-life events.

And so it goes on. In February 2003 I wrote a North-West Frontier story called Frontier Fury (# 3679). Next came Rescue Squad (# 3717), a World War II tale showcasing the U.S. Army’s fearsome Alamo Scouts. To date, my last published Commando was The Bamboo Vipers (# 3789), my first Vietnam-era yarn (but not, I hope, my last!). Backed up and awaiting publication now are Coward and Killer! and Ace High, Ace Low, both stories set in World War II Burma.

As for the future - well, I have a stack of ideas. My biggest problem is finding the time to write them all up. But keep watching this space - there are more yarns yet to be told … a lot more!

The above essay by David Whitehead was originally published by Michael Eriksson in March 2006 on his late and much lamented website Where Eagles Dare. It appears here with Mike's permission.

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