Tuesday, April 28, 2015
Growing up reading comics in Singapore in the 1970s meant you have the diversity to choose between American superhero comics, British weeklies like The Beano and The Dandy, Hong Kong action comics, Taiwanese pirated reprints of Japanese manga, comics from Malaysia, China, India, etc. While the comic scene today is dominated by manga and superhero movies, one lone UK bastion from the 1960s has survived till today. Commando, published by the ubiquitous DC Thomson in Dundee, is an institution and rightly so. Here is an interview with Calum Laird, the current editor of Commando and currently pursuing a PhD on British war comics at the University of Dundee.
1. For those unfamiliar with Commando, what is your one line sales pitch?
“Stories of action and adventure for boys of all ages” or “68-page compact graphic novels”
2. British comics has a long history of war comics. Titles like War Picture Library, Combat Picture Library and Battle Picture Library, weeklies like Warlord and Battle. Most have come and gone. What explains the longevity of Commando? (since 1961)
This is a tricky question and there’s no concrete answer, really. When Warlord and Battle launched, boys’ comics in the UK were in decline. The only part of the market that was untroubled was the area where Commando operated — exclusively war stories. However, Battle and Warlord — while hugely successful in their concentration on war stories — ultimately closed down. The only differences between them and Commando were the size and anthology format. My feeling is that Commando and the other “libraries” had the appeal of being self-contained so they could be enjoyed on a one-off basis without having to buy every week to get to the end of the story. In addition, the longer stories that were allowed in the libraries gave greater potential for complicated plots and characters.
As to Commando outlasting the other compact format offerings, I've often wondered. The market was definitely shifting away from war stories by the 1990s, probably due to the events of World War Two moving further into history. It could be that our economics lent themselves to continued production where the others' didn't. At that time, we (DC Thomson) did all our print production in-house and handled much of our own transport. We were also producing a raft of titles from Dundee. This might have meant some of our costs were significantly lower than theirs.
I don't think there is room for another war comic like Commando or like those of old. If there was to be something launched, I think it would have to be more contemporary in both tone, content and appearance. Bearing in mind the changed age group that buys many comics (older than before) a more "adult" tone could be adopted.
At the moment, though, mainstream comics rely heavily on TV/film/toy tie-ins to be successful.
3. Is it jingoism?
Being honest, I really don’t know. Most of the time, I think not (and it’s certainly not on the part of the Commando editorial team) but sometimes, I’m not sure. On balance, I think most people read them for the entertaining storylines and the players, not any misplaced patriotism.
4. This harks back to the Cold War of the days of MAD, but it is still relevant today. With the stockpile of nuclear weapons that we have to destroy the Earth many times over, why are readers still fascinated with war comics, movies, etc?
This is something I’ve thought about a lot and I don’t have the answer. There is a certain amount of escapism involved and a certain nostalgia for a time before the Bomb when things seemed clearer and more human in scale. The main thing for me, though, is that a war setting allows story-tellers to suspend a lot of society’s normal rules, freeing their characters to act in a way that they wouldn’t be expected to or permitted to in the normal course of events. All fiction tends to be more extreme than fact; war fiction is no different. The other thing to bear in mind is that most war stories are not really about war itself, they are about the characters in a war setting.
5. How have war comics changed over the years?
Generally the plots have become more advanced. In the early days, secret weapons and special missions were all you needed for a successful story (although even then, Commando gave a bit more). These notions have all been done to death so more subtlety and sophistication is needed. The stories in general, and I mean here across the whole genre, have reflected the growing knowledge of wars and the effects conflict has on those caught up in it so they have become more thoughtful, more reflective. Even those titles that concentrate on action and adventure reflect this trend.
6. Which conflict is the most ‘popular’ today? (WWI, WWII, Korean War, Vietnam War, Gulf War, the recent campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq…)
With our readership it’s WWII, in Western Europe and predominantly featuring ground troops.
7. Has Commando done comics on the war on terror? (Especially in light of the London bombing of 2005 and the ISIS public outcry of the beheading of British aid worker Alan Henning by Jihad John)
No, we haven’t. To do comics on these subjects is far too far from Commando’s current editorial stance. From a story-teller’s point of view it would be very difficult to get a good action and adventure story out of such conflicts/situations. In addition, doing them as a Commando could potentially be seen as trivialising them.
8. How did you become the editor of Commando? What do you do, your role and responsibilities?
In 2007, I was offered the job of Commando Editor while I was assistant editor on one of our publisher’s — DC Thomson — other titles, The Dandy comic. Prior to this I had worked on Commando in a junior capacity for various periods of time since 1981. In between stints on Commando I had worked on teenage magazines, women’s magazines, a specialist motorcycle title and one of our commercial departments.
As Editor I am responsible for all aspects of Commando whether it is work I have done myself or work done for the title. This covers stories, art, proof-reading, feature material, graphic design, advertising, promotion and so on. I am part of a very small team so I have done just about everything; from maintaining our web presence to speaking at comics events to collaborations with our local Art College.
I think that Commando’s biography below will give you an idea of a lot of things I have to keep an eye on. One of the most important is making sure our contributors are paid. We rely heavily on our freelances so we like to look after them.
9. How do you go about commissioning new stories? How is it done and how do you decide on the writer/artist/conflict?
As I’ll indicate in Commando’s biography, everything starts with a blank sheet on to which goes an idea. Normally this comes from one of our freelance writing contributors but we might suggest something to one of them if we think it’s something that might appeal to them. They’ll build up a synopsis either on their own or with us. Once that’s agreed, they deliver a finished 135-frame script of 12 – 15,000 words.
Once we have this we will select the artist whose style and talents best suit the story. That’s based on experience but sometimes if it’s something new or unusual we’ll check with the artist just to be sure. Maybe they’ve drawn too many stories with horses, for instance, and would prefer something with ships.
Generally the conflict is decided at the synopsis stage. If we’ve had a run of similarly set stories we might turn down an otherwise promising story. Too many WWI stories one after another tend to get a bit boring for the readers…and the editors.
10. What are the sales and circulation figures of Commando like? It is sold widely in Singapore and Malaysia. Which other countries or territories is Commando doing well in? (Is it Commonwealth states?)
That’s an interesting one. Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand are all good markets for us and they’re Commonwealth states. Yet we are no longer asked to supply the market in South Africa or Canada, again Commonwealth states.
Commando on sale at Kinokuniya, Ngee Ann City, Singapore
11. Do you get letters from the UK and overseas? What sort of feedback and response do you get from the Commando readers? As a matter of interest, any idea whether Commando was on sale in Malaya and Singapore in the 1960s?
Commando never had a letters page. But thanks to the web, we get communications from all over the world now, and in much greater volumes than we did in the days of pen and paper. Lots of readers are quick to pick us up on all sorts of points or to send us an encouraging note if we’ve done something they like. Very, very few are wholly negative. Yes, we were on sale there throughout the 60s. As you’ll know, we launched in the UK on June 27th 1961 and export sales rapidly followed the successful launch.
Commando on sale at Kinokuniya, KL
12. You have some titles that are about the ‘War in the East 1941-45’. Do they sell better in Malaysia and other parts of Southeast Asia? Were there titles on conflicts like the Malayan Emergency?
I don’t have broken down figures for the sales of those titles in South-East Asia so I can’t really comment on the first part of the question. We supply comics based on the numbers requested by the local distributor but I think they generally ask for the same numbers irrespective of the storylines. For the second part, yes, there were (and are soon to be more) stories on the Emergency. Our popular recurring characters Ramsey’s Raiders were involved there in our most recent foray into Malaysia.
We had previously done a series of stories to coincide with the anniversary of VJ-Day. Nos 4315-4322 are definitely set in Asia and SE Asia.
13. What did you read as a child? Did you read Commando?
Yes, I really did read Commando and it was my favourite. The other title I read regularly was Victor, also by DC Thomson, though I had no awareness that it was a publisher in my home town of Dundee who was responsible for both.
14. Which are your favourite Top 3 Commando stories, writer, artist and cover artist?
My top three Commandos have yet to come in. The best part of this job is looking to the future to see what fresh notions and art will come through the door. We have had, and continue to have, some absolutely wonderful contributors but the nature of this business is such that there is little time to look back.
[ct: if I have to pick, it would be the late Jorge and those gorgeous covers by Ian Kennedy.]
15. Which is the most collectible Commando issue?
Copies of No 1 in good condition have been sold for silly money, but anything in the first 100 are sought after and will sell for a good price. Some collectors go for particular artists (inside or cover) but most try to secure a complete run from 1 to 4800+.
16. How are the Carlton collections selling? Have they helped to bring a new generation of young readers to Commando? Or do appeal more to the older fans/collectors?
The Carlton Collections have sold very well indeed. However, they have definitely peaked in popularity and we will have to find a new product to entertain readers. We don’t have precise information on the age group the editions are bought for but at signing sessions, it’s a mix between old and young.
17. Finally, for those uninitiated to Commando, how and where should they start? (which issue, collection or conflict?)
They should start at the latest ones out and, if they like them, carry on. With our policy of re-releasing re-mastered classic issues, they’ll be getting a mix of old and new tales. There should be enough variety in there for them to make their own decisions after a month or so.
"Born in Dundee, home of Comic Kings DC Thomson & Co, there was always a fair chance that I would end up working in the comics industry. No-one, however, had told me that and I took a science degree at St Andrews University in the late 70s. Once I’d graduated, though, the comic magnets were switched on and, after a brief spell as a labourer at the firm’s print works, I landed a job as a trainee on Jackie Magazine. After 18 months there I moved to Commando Comic which became my home from home. Despite several “postings” to teenage magazines, women’s magazines, a motorcycle title and one of the commercial departments, I returned to Commando in 2007 after three years on The Dandy Comic. I was in the fortunate position of taking over from the man who had mentored me in my early days and was delighted, if not a bit overwhelmed, to be doing my best to fill his very large footprint. I suppose I’m expected to say this but it’s true – Commando was my favourite comic growing up. To be responsible for nurturing this national treasure is a privilege, a dream come true…and one big responsibility.
I recently graduated from Dundee University with a Masters Degree in Comics Studies, one of the first intake to a new and exciting development at the University. I am now studying war comics for a PhD at Dundee. Anything to help keep Commando the UK’s most popular series production action title."
"What is a Commando?
Physically it’s a complete 63-page story of around 135 black-and-white illustrated frames with text in panels and balloons to provide the narrative.
This is wrapped in a full-colour cover which wraps around the back of the book where lies our trademark dagger and the back cover write-up.
Between the covers lies the story. These are always fiction but they’re always set against an authentic background based in solid fact and the author’s research.
But a Commando is more than just paper and ink. It’s the story of a struggle against adversity, a tale of action and adventure that can be set against the background of the Roman invasion of Britain, the battlefields of Nazi-occupied Europe or, sometimes, the imagined battleground of the future.
The action can take place anywhere from the depths of the ocean or the dizzy heights of space.
Where does an individual Commando come from?
Every Commando starts with an idea. These can be the slightest thing and can be prompted by almost anything. They could be born as the result of seeing a piece of military equipment, the tale of an actual event, an imagined piece of dialogue. There’s no formula, every writer is different and may come up with ideas a hundred different ways.
All we know is that the ideas come and we’re glad of it.
So, you’ve got your idea, what’s next?
From the idea, the writer has to build his story into a plot with a beginning a middle and an end. And characters. Commando revolves around characters. Square pegs in round holes, the fearful, the daring, the compassionate, the cruel. All must overcome or be overcome.
When all that comes together it’s written down as a synopsis, a stripped-down outline of the incidents and the players who will bring the tale to life.
Next there’s the script. It follows a format and contains a picture description for the illustrator to follow, a panel or panels to carry the plot forward and balloons to reveal what those vital characters are saying or thinking.
This completed script is given form by the artist. He gives faces to fighting men, gives them guns and uniforms, gives them life. And, where the script demands, he may bring death to them too.
Once he has done his bit, the words and pictures finally meet up on the finished page.
And all that from a chance remark or observation."