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Monday, December 02, 2019

Illustrators Special #5: Daggers Drawn!

Peter Richardson's long-awaited look at the history of the Commando pocket library has finally arrived in the shape of an Illustrators special entitled Daggers Drawn!, named (I presume) after the famous Sykes Fairbairn dagger in the Commando logo. "The Art of Commando" is an alternate title that sums up the contents pretty well.

Commando has been running for almost 60 years—it will hit its sixth decade in June 2021—and has achieved some astonishing milestones along the way, not least of which is the incredible number of issues. As recently as August 2019, Beano recently celebrated its 4,000th issue, the longest-running comic in the UK, having launched in 1938.

Commando passed the 4,000 issue mark way back in April 2007 and raced past issue 5,000 in March 2017. Four new issues appear without fail every fortnight and recently there have been a few interesting developments with the title, introducing some new cover artists, some new writers, including a number of female writers, re-introducing some old favourite characters, and experimenting in both story and artwork.

With such an extensive legacy, it was always going to be impossible to cram everything you would want even with 144 pages to play with. Daggers Drawn! makes a valiant effort and tells the story of Commando through a few key individuals whose names are inextricably linked to the title, with the larger portion of the book dedicated to Ken Barr, Gordon Livingstone and Ian Kennedy.

After an overview of the title's history by Peter Richardson, the meat of the issue, with an incredible selection of Ken Barr's covers reproduced from original art and looking astonishing. The difference between the artwork and how it was printed on its initial appearance makes you wish  that Thomsons would open up their archive and publish a whole book of cover art by Barr, Jordi Penalva and others in the style of their recent celebration of The Art of Ian Kennedy.

Barr's covers set the tone for Commando for years to come, his tough, rugged Second World War warriors in the foreground of the picture, snarling in anger, or grim-faced in the jaws of peril. He was a master of all three fighting arms of the military—Army, Navy and Air Force—and was key to the pocket library's early success.

Ian Kennedy painted his first Commando cover in 1970 and is about to celebrate 50 years associated with the title, a far longer association than Barr's (who left for the USA in 1967). While Barr set the tone, Kennedy took up the baton and ran with it and has now produced over 1,000 covers. Calum Laird introduces him as not only a masterful painter, but also as a thoroughly decent person whose company he has enjoyed many times.

Gordon Livingstone spent almost his whole career as a Commando artist. If you don't know the name, you will easily recognise his work, which graced about 370 issues, of which over 200 have been reprinted. Peter Richardson's insightful interview finally gives Livingstone some of the credit he deserves for making Commando the vibrant, action-filled title it remains as today.

This latter is reflected in a gallery of work by some of the paper's leading artists, from fab favourites like Victor de la Fuente to almost unknowns like Cecil Rigby. Newcomers are represented by interviews with Neil Roberts, Keith  Burns and Graeme Neil Reid, who are keeping the legacy of Commando's action-packed covers alive, while Sean Blair offers some insight into what it's like to write for the series.

As with all these special editions, Daggers Drawn! is a feast for the eyes, offering a unique opportunity to see dozens of pieces of arwork as they were painted rather than as they were (often badly) printed. Modern digital printing is something we should all be grateful for.

For more information on Illustrators and back issues of the regular quarterly title, visit the Book Palace website, where you can also find details of their online editions, and news of upcoming issues. There is another new special issue available, The Art of Brian Bolland, which I'll take a look at next week.

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