UK — 50 years of Commando comics celebrated at National Army Museum

The Nation­al Army Muse­um is cel­e­brat­ing Com­man­do comic’s 50th anniver­sary with a free exhi­bi­tion that’s draw­ing enthu­si­asts in by the bat­tal­ion-load. Report by Ian Carr.

Heroes were often mod­elled on Hol­ly­wood stars — could this be Kirk Dou­glas? [Pic­ture: Copy­right DC Thom­son]
Source: Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

For the last five decades, the sto­ry­book heroes in DC Thomson’s Com­man­do comics have been locked in mor­tal com­bat with the ‘Hun’ or fight­ing off ‘Jap’ ambush­es in the jun­gles of Sec­ond-World-War Bur­ma. It would seem that no-one has told them that ‘for you Tom­my, ze vorr is over’.

Which is just fine by today’s reg­i­ments of school­boys who still swarm into newsagents to spend their pock­et mon­ey on the lat­est action-packed edi­tion, and run home shout­ing things like ‘try that for size you square-head­ed rat’ as they mow down imag­i­nary bad­dies with a stick as a Sten gun.

Well OK, they prob­a­bly buy it online, but it is nice to know that in a world of iPhone apps and role-based shoot ‘em ups, there is still a place for plucky sergeants get­ting their arro­gant offi­cers out of a spot of both­er and keep­ing the fight­ing spir­it up with a refresh­ing cup of tea.

Com­man­do comic’s stun­ning art­work cap­tures the imag­i­na­tion [Pic­ture: Copy­right DC Thom­son]
Source: Min­istry of Defence, UK

To cel­e­brate Commando’s gold­en anniver­sary, and as part of its series look­ing at how the British Army is depict­ed in pop­u­lar cul­ture, the Nation­al Army Muse­um has cre­at­ed an exhi­bi­tion of some of the comic’s stun­ning cov­ers.

And to judge by the crowds of dads and lads, and a fair few mums and daugh­ters, milling around the tick­et desk, the exhi­bi­tion has been a huge suc­cess.

So why have these comics endured? Maybe it’s the sim­ple moral­i­ty behind the plot­lines that has kept com­ic addicts com­ing back for more for so long.

Or maybe it’s the com­fort you get in know­ing that, if nowhere else in life, at least here a good bloke (and occa­sion­al­ly the good bloke is a ‘Jer­ry’) will always tri­umph over a bad ‘un — even if the per­son­al cost has been high.

But for many, the comic’s suc­cess relies on a lot more than this, and, if any­thing, their qual­i­ty should attract a great deal more crit­i­cal acclaim than they do. One admir­er of the genre is Robert Flem­ing, Cura­tor of Fine and Dec­o­ra­tive Art at the Army muse­um, who put the ‘Draw your weapons’ exhi­bi­tion togeth­er:

Robert Flem­ing, Cura­tor of Fine and Dec­o­ra­tive Art, Nation­al Army Muse­um [Pic­ture: Har­land Quar­ring­ton, Crown Copyright/MOD 2012]
Source: Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

“I was a big fan when I was 12,” he said. “Like every­one else I thought the bold stylised form was real­ly excit­ing. In fact I’m sure that read­ing these comics is where I got my inter­est in mil­i­tary his­to­ry from and start­ed me on my career.”

Robert also says that he has been told by quite a few blokes vis­it­ing the exhi­bi­tion that the comics had a part to play in them join­ing up for a career in the Ser­vices.

Accord­ing to Robert, the black and white art­work gives the pock­et-sized comics a grit­ty real­ism and por­trays the intense action of com­bat as well as the surge of emo­tions that are asso­ci­at­ed with con­flict. The writ­ers pride them­selves on the qual­i­ty of the research that goes into each edi­tion, get­ting details of uni­form and equip­ment exact­ly right.

The sto­ries them­selves may be fic­tion­al but they are all set against an authen­tic back­ground based in sol­id fact, even down to the lan­guage used in the speech bub­bles:

The ‘Draw your weapons’ exhi­bi­tion at the Nation­al Army Muse­um [Pic­ture: Har­land Quar­ring­ton, Crown Copyright/MOD 2012]
Source: Min­istry of Defence, UK

“I’ve put up an infor­ma­tion pan­el about that,” explains Robert. “Some of it may seem polit­i­cal­ly incor­rect, but that is how sol­diers talked to each oth­er, and it would be wrong to shy away from that.”

OK, the themes may be sim­ple, but they do present you with the tough ques­tions of moral­i­ty and the hard choic­es troops have to make in times of con­flict.

As you turn the pages you ask your­self if you would dis­cov­er the strength of char­ac­ter to do the right thing and help get your mates through it all, like the every­man heroes in the sto­ries — just as many of us won­der if we would be able to crack on like our troops who are on oper­a­tions when the going gets tough.

War is not glo­ri­fied, nor is it triv­i­alised. What is cel­e­brat­ed is that, in the face of adver­si­ty, giv­en the right cir­cum­stances, nor­mal human beings can be hero­ic. As Commando’s edi­tor Calum Laird says:

“It’s about the ordi­nary bloke in extra­or­di­nary cir­cum­stances.”

Ian Carr at the ‘Draw your weapons’ exhi­bi­tion at the Nation­al Army Muse­um [Pic­ture: Har­land Quar­ring­ton, Crown Copyright/MOD 2012]
Source: Min­istry of Defence, UK

And what’s wrong with that? With British forces rou­tine­ly mak­ing sac­ri­fices in Afghanistan, life, you could say, is very much imi­tat­ing art, and per­haps that’s the real rea­son the com­ic has endured — qual­i­ties like courage, endurance and deter­mi­na­tion are as valid today as they ever have been.

The exhi­bi­tion, which is open till the end of April, not only uncov­ers some of the real life sto­ries behind the art­work, but also links the themes to the extra­or­di­nary expe­ri­ences of the real life British Com­man­dos, and explains why the fight­ing elite were cre­at­ed.

So why not go along? Who knows, you may come out shout­ing ‘Good grief! Take a look at that Jer­ry, Sir — he’s got the nerve of the dev­il!’

This arti­cle is tak­en from the April 2012 edi­tion of Defence Focus — the mag­a­zine for every­one in Defence.

Press release
Min­istry of Defence, UK