For a certain type of kid growing up in the 1970s, Airfix kits were the bedroom hobby of choice, Clarke’s Commando shoes were de rigueur in the playground and battling the Germans with shouts of “donner und blitzen” an “mein gott” was virtually unavoidable.
Comic books such as Battle, Warlord and War Picture Weekly fuelled this distinctive fantasy world, which today, in the face of computer games and countless other distractions, has all but disappeared.
That is apart from one sole surviving example; Commando, the DC Thomson pocket war comic book which is celebrating over 50 years in the business.
At the National Army Museum a colourful 2012 exhibition acknowledged this remarkable comic veteran by exploring the artwork, the history and the men who gave it its name and its famous dagger symbol.
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According to the exhibition’s Curator, Robert Fleming, people who remembered the comic’s heyday enjoy both the voyage into a bygone era and the quality of the artwork.
“There is an obvious nostalgia effect” he says, “especially as comic readership has declined in the face of the choices available.
“A lot of the younger generation now learn about the Second World War more from Call of Duty and Medal of Honour and video games of that ilk. But I think the reason Commando survived was due to the high quality stories and the good original artwork.”
And it is the latter that takes centre stage. A selection of stunning creations developed for the Commando covers included the first, by veteran comic artist Ken Barr, for a lively tale called Walk or Die, which first graced the magazine stands in June 1961.
In many ways this issue set the benchmark for the next 50 years, both with its striking imagery and its story – in which a Tank Corps corporal and a German officer – two bitter enemies thrown together – struggle to survive the Western Desert.
To date almost 4,500 pocket-sized issues have carried similar tales of courage and redemption within distinctive full colour covers visualising everything from the blitzing of machine gun nests and the sharpening of bayonets to the snarls of sadistic colonels and the desperate battle cries of battle weary soldiers.
But as well as showcasing the art, the exhibition also tackled the history of war comics, how they came about and the main rivalry that Commando had with its competitors such as War Picture Library. The latter lost its way (and its readership) in the early to mid-eighties leaving the door open for the purer story-led approach and the stronger brand of Commando.
“If you think about it, what’s the better name?” says Commando Editor Calum Laird. “War Picture Library or Commando? Every vacuum cleaner is a Hoover and every pocket war novel is a Commando. I think we just captured something in the name.
“That said the first Commando, Walk or Die, sold 45,000, so it was a big hit from day one.”
Within just 10 years the comics had become so popular that DC Thomson, who publish the Beano and the Dandy, began printing eight issues a month instead of two.
Laird says the current Commando, which still turns out two new issues and two classics from the back catalogue every two weeks, tries to stick to the “core values” established in the first ten years. “If you boil it down every successful Commando story is about people, it’s always about people.
“World War Two is good from a storytelling point of view because it is so vast,” he adds. “You can take a guy from Brighton or Bolton and put him in Burma and it’s a one-line explanation. And because you have that huge canvas to work on as a storyteller you can go anywhere and it gives you a huge range.”
That’s not to say Commando doesn’t deal with other conflicts. There have been forays into Vietnam, the First World War and specially produced for the National Army Museum exhibition, Issue No 4419, The Mystery and the Museum, tells the story of a soldier returning from the current conflict in Afghanistan with an old pith helmet he has found.
A visit to the National Army Museum identifies the find as “a British sola topee from the Victorian period” and so begins a classic Commando flashback story of camaraderie, heroism and treachery during the 19th century Afghan wars.
“Our readers like strong characters,” adds Laird, “and they like a good hero.”
And that is exactly what Commando delivers with the Commando covers of square jawed heroes and some anti-heroes offering a potent brew of nostalgia and graphic comic art that encapsulate the war comic heyday of the sixties and seventies. It also brings to mind the Airfix and Matchbox kit box artwork, Action Man imagery and countless other war-related boys’ toys of the period.
Interestingly Laird reveals that Commando and Airfix today share almost exactly the same buyer profile of boys and middle-aged men, with the hardcore readers of Commando split between a “two-pronged demographic of boys in the 10 – 14 age group and an equally strong prong of buyers in the 35 – 45 age group”.
But rather than just offering a window into the escapist world of males of certain ages, there are also the stories of the commando brigades set up in World War Two, the commando insignia and the Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife.
Potent, combat-scarred objects on display include commando Sgt John Knowler’s World War Two helmet with several gaping holes in its crown. A dazed but conscious Knowler is pictured still wearing this remarkably holed headgear, shortly after the ill-fated Dieppe raid.
Nearby the bullet-holed Denison Smock of commando Lieutenant Timothy Hall tells the story of how he survived a hail of German bullets as he parachuted into the Battle of Arnhem – and captivity. Real boy’s own stuff – with a powerful human aspect to it.
But whatever your take on the history of Commando comic and the men who inspired it, it is the artworks borrowed from the thousands of examples at DC Thomson’s offices in Dundee that steal this show.
“We have always seen them as works of art,” says Laird. “Seeing them like this allows other people to see them as we do.”
Draw Your Weapons: The Art of Commando comic closed on April 30 2012. See the online exhibition at The National Army Museum website.
Find out more about Commando Comic at www.commandocomics.com
National Army Museum
London, Greater London
The National Army Museum is a leading authority on the British Army and its impact on society past and present. We examine the army's role as protector, aggressor and peacekeeper from the British Civil Wars to the modern day. Through our collections we preserve and share stories of ordinary people…