Exhibition: Draw Your Weapons: The Art of Commando at the National Army Museum until April 30 2012.
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.
A slew of 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 this year is celebrating 50 years in the business.
At the National Army Museum they are acknowledging this remarkable comic veteran with a colourful exhibition that celebrates its artwork, history and the men who gave it its name and its famous dagger symbol.
According to the exhibition’s Curator, Robert Fleming, visitors who remember the comic’s heyday will enjoy both the voyage into a bygone era and the quality of the artwork.
"There is an obvious nostalgia effect in an exhibition like this," 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 includes 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 an officer from the Panzer Korps - two bitter enemies thrown together - struggle to survive the Western Desert.
Elsewhere a parade of dramatic artworks visualise the blitzing of machine gun nests, the sharpening of bayonets and the snarls of sadistic colonels. To date almost 4,500 pocket-sized issues have carried similar tales of courage and redemption within these distinctive full colour covers.
An impressive wall of them highlights the comic’s gentle 50-year evolution – and it makes for hugely absorbing and entertaining viewing.
But as well as showcasing the art, the exhibition also tackles 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.”
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.”
Today the hardcore readers of these stories are 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,” says Laird. And most of them prefer World War Two stories.
“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. Specially produced for the 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 introduces a classic Commando flashback story of camaraderie, heroism and treachery during the 19th century Afghan wars.
“Our readers like strong characters,” explains Laird, “and they like a good hero.”
And that is exactly what Commando delivers. The walls of the gallery are covered with square jawed heroes (and some anti-heroes) in a heady mixture of nostalgia and graphic art. It seems to encapsulate the war comic heyday of the sixties and seventies but also the art of Airfix kit boxes, Action Man 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; that “two pronged demographic” which includes boys and middle-aged men.
But the exhibition is more than just a window into the escapist world of males of certain ages.
Also revealed is the story of the commando brigades set up in World War Two, the commando insignia and the Fairbairn-Sykes commando 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 wearing this remarkably holed headgear, shortly after the ill-fated Dieppe raid.
Nearby the bullet-holed Denison Smock of commando Lieutenant Timothy Hall helps to tell 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.” It makes for a fascinating journey.
More artwork and pictures from the exhibition:
© Courtesy NAM
© National Army Museum
- For more events relating to this exhibition and the National Army Museum see the venue details below.
- For more on Commando see www.commandocomics.com
- Read more about the Fairbairn-Sykes Commando knife in the Culture24 Curator's Choice series.