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Location: Lancashire
Member Since: Sat May 17, 2008
Posts: 39,777
Subj: Commando - War Stories in Pictures
Posted: Sat Jan 18, 2014 at 07:43:31 pm EST (Viewed 158 times)

'Commando is the last great survivor story of British comics, a book that shouldn't, but nonetheless does. Adapting to circumstance and offering a wide variety of material.'

It would be all too easy to dismiss Commando as an obsolete and out of time throwback, a comic belonging to another age of publishing. And to some extent yes, this is definitely true. Commando began in 1961, a pocket-book sized black & white war comic coming from the Biggles school of storytelling, where our British chaps are all jolly good fellows and from a distinctly middle-to-upper class background. In the fifty years since that first issue while Commando's content has evolved to cover many diverse fields of global conflict the actual design of the book has changed not a jot - still a Pocket-book, still B&W, and with the exact same cover design.
As a cover design though it hasn't altered for the simple reason it can't be beat. With its distinctive logo and painted covers this design is without a doubt its single biggest selling point over the years and why it is a book which attracts a loyal core audience of collectors while other similar war themed books long ago slipped into history. It's just so memorable and attractive a design. Commando is the last great survivor story of British comics, a book that shouldn't, but nonetheless does. Adapting to circumstance and offering a wide variety of material.

Commando stories owe a debt to the storybook principle of storytelling, with pages typically containing no more than three panels and these panels being constructed around a plot containing a sequence of brief, inventive, and protracted moments set in a wider conflict. In line with traditional storybooks these 'moments' are narrated in terse fashion. The reasons for this format, are almost certainly a necessary outcome of the books small size, whereas conventional A4 size magazines have the space to lay out a dynamic arrangement of panels and action sequences Commando's pacing and page layout is dictated by the books very own unique style of printing. Hence the result is of a book that can feel somewhat static to look at, due to the reader reading an illustrated sequence of pictures rather than a conventional comic strip - The results of this house-style ensue in a pace of story that is quite different to any other War comic out there.

Published in batches of four one of the latest issues (issue 4668) sees a reprinting of one of the earliest stories to see print in the book, all the way back in issue #134 1964. Commando issues with airplane dogfights on the cover are so commonplace you can almost expect to see one every month, so while Ken Barr's cover has a lot to overcome it still manages to be quite an eye-catching piece with its orange hues and disintegrating Nazi fighter set in the foreground. No, what sets this issue apart from others is the inner content, the striking and accomplished art of Peter Ford.
Commando was never noted for crediting those who brought these stories to us, so artists like Peter Ford never gained the recognition they were often due. Whether Ford is still with us is unknown, but he contributed to a handful of Commando issues and in recent years greater effort has been made in giving these creators at least a name attached to their work when it is reprinted. Peter Ford's work for this issue is an example of how to do Black & White pencilling successfully, his understanding of the effects of light is something that comes through on every page of this issues story, and the level of detail put into each panel is astounding, particularly considering the standard of art in the 1960s was often of a commercials simplicity or else rough unfinished outlines. Fords style and his obvious high standards mean that every single panel in this book is worth a comment in and of themselves...

    Commando #4668 - The Lost Squadron

    "Slim" Sothern, fighter pilot, floated in the Channel in his Mae West and cursed his rotten luck. Sure, an ambulance rescue seaplane was circling above, but it was German, and Slim feared that for him the war was over, and only the deadly dullness of prison camp lay ahead.

    How wrong can you be?

    He was taken prisoner all right but inside a week such strange and mysterious things had happened to Slim Sothern that he, and other RAF pilots like him, had been turned into a "Squadron of the lost," and were flying Messerschmitts for the Germans against the British...

1. Despite what might be quickly dismissed as another generic airiel dogfight Ken Barr's painted cover is in fact a well conceived and exciting piece, with the perilous fate of the messershmitt set against an orange backdrop the potential buyers eye is immediately drawn by the keen kineticism of the piece.
This issue sees publisher DC Thomson shifting to a new sales tactic and fastening the book to an A4 card - this makes the books much more competitive and easy to find on the crowded shelves of retailers, pocket-books formats like this are unheard of today, and as such Commando has always been slightly lost on the shelves. Attaching it to A4 card therefore is such an obvious move it really should have occurred to them to go this route a long long ago... the only drawback to this is that you destroy the cover of the book due to it being taped to said card - a common calamity in British comics of the 70s and 80s but a thing of the past in these polybagged days. Thus even in progress Commando remains hopelessly old-fashioned in its ways...

2. A prime example of artist Peter Ford's capable storytelling and ability to use light correctly.
In the first panel we can see the German fighters heading not just home but roughly towards direction of the sun, the direction of the shading and the imaginative low angle from the rear which Peter Ford uses to illustrate the scene and communicate this information make their flight direction clear.
The second panel again uses light and shadow to great effect, creating a convincing and absorbing shot of the watching airmen gazing up at the passing fighters with some apprehension evident in their body language and positioning - another artist might well have just drawn this scene fully lit, employing no shading, but by adding shadow Peter Ford gives the scenes, and the story, a convincing sense of reality. This story feels much like watching a war film of the era.
The final panel with the German soldier being struck from behind is an impressive blend of finely detailed figures and a striking use of tight radial lines to accentuate the action and violence of the moment. Note how the soldiers hand breaks the panel border as well - something rarely if ever done in these books, but due to Ford's obvious ability to craft action and suspense the results support a stunning turning point in the plot as the airman makes his escape move.

3. As Slim is told of the nature and gravity of his betrayal Peter Ford chooses to focus the shot on the emotional impact of the reveal, hence this first panel is the only one in the entire book that is devoid of any backgrounds, so detailed is Ford's work even the shots set in the air following the aircraft have carefully crafted shades and lines that suggest cloud. For this panel though it is all about Slim, and what the enormity of his actions under German control mean to him in this moment of realisation. The eyes and subtle shading on the faces communicate both his immediate contained anger and his shame, but predominantly also the will to make it right. A very subtle but superbly crafted scene.
The subsequent panels all showcase impressive inking - note the trees in the far backgrounds and shading of light falling on the grass in Panel #4. Even in the foreground of that shot you can see the way the water is both reflecting the daylight and at the same time how the weeds along the edge, and tree on the right, are also reflected in the water. This is again typical of Peter Ford's exceptionally high standards for this issue, with a daunting sixty-three pages to service other artists would have sketched the scene out rather than address such fine detail, Ford's standard is of the highest though and the result is a book that stands up to repeated reading and an ever growing appreciation for the level of skill and attention to detail this now forgotten artist had. I wish I knew more about him, but given this was first published in 1964 it would seem quite likely he is no longer with us... a great shame as he deserved a greater recognition than he got in life.
This is wonderful work, and fifty years on I would like to sincerely thank the man for such a fine and vividly illustrated war story.

(Apologies for the resolution of the above pictures, not ideal, but such is the limitations of embedding images on the site.)

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