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Wednesday, August 03, 2016

The Commando Interviews Part 10: An Essay on War Comics

An Essay on War Comics
By Sarah Allison

(Please note: This essay was originally published in 2006 and some information in it may be out of date.)

Commando is a series of war comics first published by D.C. Thomson in 1961. They have been the only war comic in print for the last ten years and print eight issues every month. This essay will explain the reason for their popularity and their continuing longevity as we move through an era of developing technology, with the Internet, computer games and DVDs being the frontrunners of modern entertainment. This essay will analyse the historical context of British comic books by briefly outlining popular titles and discussing the reasons for their success or decline.

It will identify the initial success of Commando comics by comparing them to other similar titles published at the time such as Air Picture Library (1960) and War Picture Library (1960). It will also compare Commando with 2000AD (1977). Like Commando, 2000AD is still running today.

The essay will conclude by identifying Commando's core audience and the reason for their loyalty. Having sent emails to the current Editor George Low, and some of the collectors. The essay will use their responses, as well as information gathered from a wide range of material to provide evidence for why Commando comics have remained popular for so many years without changing their format, major themes or story concepts.

In 1880 a number of American newspapers began to publish on Sundays despite campaigns for the continued observance of Sabbath. (A. Aldridge & G. Perry, 1971). It was Joseph Pulitzer who first used the Sunday supplement as a showcase for his newspaper, The World. In order to attract readers, he increasingly used colour and cartoons. These are said to have lead directly to Richard Outcaults historic ‘Yellow kid’ on 16th February 1896, reputed to have signalled the birth of the comic as a distinct medium. (Horn, M, 1976).

It is said that the Funny Folks (1874) was the first British comic publication more than twenty years earlier although many argue that the first British comic strip was Ally Slopers Half Holiday which appeared 3rd May 1884. The first adventure of ‘Ally Sloper’ had appeared in Judy Magazine in 1867 (Sabin. R, 2003). Ally Slopers Half Holiday was published in London by the Dalziel brothers. It was a great success and pioneered a whole new format. The year 1890 saw the birth of two great comic papers which were around for over sixty years. These were Comic Cuts and Illustrated Chips. They were both published by Amalgamated Press and were the inspiration of its twenty-five-year-old proprietor, Alfred Harmsworth, who had just inherited the company. (British Library Board, 1999). Illustrated Chips and Comic Cuts notoriously republished material from American and British newspapers. Their success was such that Harmsworth was able to launch both the Daily Mirror and the Daily Mail newspapers with the profits. (A. Aldridge & G. Perry, 1971).

More comics followed in the 1890´s, such as Wonder (1892), also from Amalgamated Press, Larks (1893) from Dalziel and Comic Life (1899) from Hendersons. Despite this Comic Cuts and Illustrated Chips remained the leaders in the field.

In 1914 publishers saw the youth market as the most profitable so they produced comics aimed at children. Rainbow (1914) and Film Fun (1920) appeared and both did extremely well until D. C. Thomson launched three comics in the 1930s. These were The Dandy (1937), The Beano (1938) and Magic (1939). The first two still remain today and are perhaps the most well known British comics. Although Film Fun was hugely popular it used real comedians and therefore had to remain tame to keep within libel laws, whereas Beano, Dandy and Magic ridiculed teachers, policemen and other officials at every opportunity making them far more popular than their rivals. (A. Aldridge & G.Perry, 1971).

The Second World War was hard on comics, paper shortages and restricted circulations meant that titles vanished. Ian Norrie summarises the impact of World War Two on the book trade as follows:
Compulsory national service was introduced in June 1939, three months before the declaration of war, and it eventually left few but the old and the unfit in most publishing offices and bookshops. Air raids brought loss of life and property, also dislocation of trade… paper was rationed and rose dramatically in price and many important books went out of print for the duration and longer.—Ian Norrie, 1984, pg.95
1950 was the start of a new era, after the drab post war years it was the beginning of a new way of living. Hulton Press entered the comic field with Eagle (1950). Eagle was a science fiction comic and the first edition sold 1 million. The science fiction element was new and exciting, however the novelty wore thin and their sales quickly began decreasing as children became interested in other forms of entertainment such as television and music.

Due to the loss of interest from the once profitable youth market comic companies decided to rekindle their lost adult audience. As the war had a real resonance for boys growing up in the 1940´s war comics were the natural choice for publishing houses. The 1960s saw a surge in war comics such as War Picture Library (1960), Ace Picture Library (1960) and Victor (1961).

1961 was the year that D. C. Thomson first published Commando war stories in pictures which was an immediate success. Commando war comics are a series of British comic books that draw their main themes and backdrops from incidents of the First and Second World Wars. They are action and adventure stories in black and white drawings. They contain certain characteristics without which no issue of Commando would be complete, such as cowardice, patriotism, dying for the sake of ones country, enmity turning to friendship and noble actions in the face of danger (J. Donal, 2006). What made Commando so popular were these characteristics, the graphic art work and the portrayal of the soldiers which maintained the positive national stereotype. Soldiers in the Commando stories were brave, honourable and heroic.

Competition between war comics was fierce in the 1960s. Chick Checkley who was the editor of D. C. Thomson at the time decided not to compete with Fleetway in terms of content and writing as Fleetway had the biggest budgets and access to the best studios in Europe, instead Checkley made Commando more lurid than War Picture Library and other war comics by hiring Ken Barr to create gritty and outrageous front covers.
His Nazis wore the blackest shiniest jack boots ever; all his characters had gritted teeth, bulging eyeballs and enough tungsten back lighting to sear your retinas.—Peter Richardson, interview with Mike Eriksson, July 2004
The covers were the nearest thing in Britain to American Pulp Art and they aroused a voracious curiosity that could only be relieved by buying them. (P. Richardson, 2004). Checkley knew he couldn’t actually better the writing of the Fleetway competition, so he chose stories that were strong on concept. Commando weren’t striving to be politically correct either and other titles seemed sedate and boring in comparison. Commando’s popularity soon increased and as it did they produced more comics. From 2 issues per month in the first year, then 3, then 6 and eventually 8, which we still have today. Commando’s peak years were the 1960s.

During the late 1970s the industrial economy of Britain experienced a rapid drop in manufacturing and other industrial sectors. Manufacturing lacked the flexibility and skills needed to move into new markets. (Bilton, T et al, 2002). British comics were in steady decline due to competition from more sophisticated American imported titles. Both the publishers D. C. Thompson and IPC/Fleetway, who dominated the British market, created a range of comics by a factory production-line editorial system which hadn’t changed since the war. (R. Loveday, 2004). The British public were looking for something ahead of it’s time and slick. The appearance of 2000AD in 1977 was just that. This comic was seen as a natural successor to comics such as Eagle.
…these predecessors had an essentially benign, utopian take on technological fantasies of the future - catching the optimistic mood of the Britain of their period - 2000AD was an animal of an entirely different nature.—(R. Loveday, 2004).
2000AD excited the public and as a result of its appearance a number of new more adult orientated titles arose like Crisis (Fleetway, 1988), Deadline (Tom Astor, 1988) and Strip (Marvel UK, 1990). Unfortunately there wasn’t enough demand for them and none of them have survived.

2000AD has shown greater longevity than all its science-fiction predecessors. The reason for its success is in its ability to appeal to a young, unsophisticated audience whilst simultaneously appealing to a more knowing, older fan market. 2000AD out sold many of its competitors and because of this many titles finished. Despite many of Commando's readers, also turning to 2000AD Commando continued to sell 8 issues per month and retained a strong fan base. Commando was certainly not as glamorous as 2000AD but unlike other titles it didn’t try to compete with the new science-fiction image and D.C.Thomson kept publishing Commando comics in the same digest format, using the same concepts.

There are currently 96 issues of Commando published every year. 24 of these are reprints. There are thousands in the collection, and the most recent issue is number 3878. (Lawrence Curtin, 2004). The comic has remained a war comic but its themes have changed over the years.
Themes range from ancient history (Romans, Persians) right up to first Gulf war.—George Low, email to Sarah Allison, Jan 2006
George Low has been the Editor since 1963 and Ian Kennedy is the longest serving cover artist. He still creates around 20 covers a year. The writers tend to come and go but two recent writers are Ferg Handley and David Whitehead. Commando annuals were published in 1989 and 1990, but they didn’t sell well and there haven’t been any since.

The 21st Century has seen an even more rapid decline for comics than previous decades. There is no sign of growth in circulation for the few remaining titles and no sign for new launches from mainstream publishers. Comics seem to be more underground and older titles are mainly sold for the collecting market rather than the youth of today. Increasing numbers of small press and fanzine titles are being produced due to the cheapness and professional appearance of desk top publishing programs. (J. Donal, 2006). There is also an American reprint market but very little in the way of upcoming British titles. It is not surprising when the comic format has to compete with new media such as the Internet, Computer Games and DVDs. Children and adults alike are always waiting for the next modern gadget to come onto the market. Comics in general are regarded as a thing of the past and a way of looking back at our history. When Peter Richardson was asked in a recent interview if he thought titles such as Battler Britton and other titles of years gone by to be republished, he answered:
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 then and unlike heroes like Superman and Batman whose historic references are less obvious, poor old Battler Britton, Captain Hurricane et al. are going to look a tad anachronistic these days.—Peter Richardson, Interview with Mike Eriksson, July, 2004
If this is the case, what is it about Commando comics that allow it to continue and remain so popular? The answer may be with the audience. The audience has an extremely broad age range. "Readers from 8 to 80" (G. Low, 2006). It seems that many of the collectors are older than 30 and that the younger readers are their children. This opinion is shared by Mike Eriksson.
In my opinion Commando has got a core audience of buyers that are probably older than 30… It seems that the love for Commando is passed down from one generation to the next…—Mike Eriksson in email to Sarah Allison, Jan 2006
Like 2000AD, Commando is able to appeal to a young audience whilst also appealing to the original readers. As well as appealing to a broad age range. Commando also appeals to the international market and exports issues to Canada, Australia and New Zealand, as well as occasionally to France, Norway and Greece (G. Low, 2004). There are also collectors in other countries and as Mike Eriksson (2006) points out "eBay makes it very easy to start a collection". Mike Eriksson is a Swedish writer and author of ‘Den svenska Victory hemsidan’ (Swedish Victory Home page) which is a website dedicated to classic war comics. It contains lots of information about Commando including interviews with Commando staff and collectors. It also has some information about a title from that is produced in Finland called Korkeaj√§nnitys (1953) edited by Asko Alanen, which is mostly republished Commando stories and is said to have a large readership. In Britain there is only 1 fan magazine called Achtung! Commando by Peter Richardson. There are only 4 issues so far but more on the way. There is also a Commando webpage by Lawrence Curtin. In previous years it has been difficult to get hold of Commando comics as they don’t sell in local newsagents but this year D. C. Thomson have published The Dirty Dozen which is a collection of the best twelve Commando comics. This has been on sale in high street bookshops such as Waterstones. This could be an indication of Commando reaching a more mainstream audience or an attempt to revive a dying comic.

To understand why Commando has succeeded for so long, not only do we need to look at the audience but also at the content and concept of the stories themselves. World War Two remains an interesting subject which has significance to people in modern Britain. It is recognised by many as a war that needed to be won for the sake of a democratic system and social equality; therefore stories based in World War Two may always be popular. Films such as The Thin Red Line and Saving Private Ryan and computer games such as Medal of Honour are a more graphic and exciting medium for these stories. The games and film industry provide much of today’s youth with a form of education as and entertainment. Playing Medal of Honour may feel more interactive than reading a comic. However, whilst films and computer games are stiff competitors for Commando comics they do indicate that interest in World War Two is ever present and will be for many more years.

Commando has remained popular for so long. Not only because of its ability to appeal to a wide age range and across cultures but also because of the continuing fascination of World War Two. In order to avoid seeming anachronistic they have also sometimes diverted from the original backdrops of the First and Second World Wars and set their stories in ancient Persia and more recent wars. They have even on occasions used a western or science-fiction theme but have always kept the same strong concept of good prevails over evil. They have changed certain aspects. For example their characters no longer smoke and although you still get the odd reference to ‘macaroni munching’ Italians the racial serotypes used in Commando are far more light hearted than in the earlier years. Generally Commando have managed to adapt enough to attract modern readers whilst stylistically they have remained the same and used the same concepts to retain the original readership. Although the popularity of comics is ever decreasing there may always be those of us whom prefer the traditional literary medium and although Commando comics might not be to everyone’s taste there may always remain a market of war comics. D. C. Thomson has the monopoly in that field and there fore as long as they print Commando comics there will always be somebody waiting for the next issue to add to their collection.

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

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