The iconic art of Commando comic at the REME Museum

By Richard Moss | 25 June 2009
a picture montage showing a commando blazing away above a Motor Torpedo Boat as warplanes fly above

Artwork (above) from the iconic comic series, Commando. Picture © DC Thompson

Exhibition Preview: Commando - Art and Action, at the REME Museum from July 4 - October 30 2009.

Square-jawed soldiers crashing through windows, machine guns blazing, artillery gunners sweating in the desert as they beat off Hitler’s Afrika Korps. These are just some of the images that have fed the fevered imaginations of men and boys for the last 40-odd years through the pages of Commando comic.

Now, for the first time, the REME Museum is returning to the original artwork of this iconic comic survivor with a summer exhibition of stunning graphic works which go some way to explaining its enduring popularity.

Launched in 1961 by DC Thompson, the company which published comic favourites The Beano and The Dandy, Commando was a competitor to Fleetway's pioneering War Picture Library and soon became the benchmark in war comic publishing. It eventually eclipsed its competitors and today it survives remarkably unchanged.

an artwork montage showing a Lancaster bomber flying through a red sky beneath the faces of a young man and pilot in flying helmet and goggles

Artwork (above) from Commando comic. Great artworks, such as this from Commando's roster of artists, have always been the comic's stock-in-trade. Picture © DC Thompson

The compact comic book is now the lone war comic survivor in an age of Blu-Ray, Playstation and the i-Pod - stubbornly refusing to surrender in the dwindling and ever-fragmented comics market.

"I think what happened was that apart from the quality of the artwork we have always prided ourselves on the quality of the storytelling," says Commando editor Calum Laird, reflecting on the comic's survival. "It’s not the violence, it's not the glorifying of war or anything like that; it's the story that's the thing."

The Commando story formula remains simple: tales of courage, cowardice, and comradeship, usually set against the backdrop of World War Two. "The size is also a significant part of it," adds Calum, "and the fact that it's always a 63-page story and it's always been in black and white - you know what you’re getting when you go for a Commando."

a Commando comic cover with a soldier fixing a piece of equipmet as a field gun roars in the background

Gordon Livingstone's Front Line Fixer (above) tells the story of a REME engineer in World War Two. Picture © DC Thompson

It's also fair to say that the Commando name caught the popular imagination much more than its competitors such as Air Ace or Battle Picture Weekly, "because it is condensed into one word," says Calum. "Say Commando to comic fans and everyone knows what you are talking about."

"That's the core of it, but of course Commando has always had good, and in many cases brilliant artwork."

And it is this artwork that the REME Museum exhibition features to great effect. Some of the best examples by the likes of Commando stalwarts Ian Kennedy and the great Gordon Livingstone are on show. Livingstone was a DC Thompson-employed artist all of his working life until his retirement in the 1990s.

A Commando comic opening page showing artillery pieces roaring into action

Front Line Fixer (above), a classic piece of illustration by Gordon Livingstone. Picture © DC Thompson

Livingstone's freer, looser style can be seen to great effect at the REME Museum in a fittingly featured comic classic, ‘Front Line Fixer’, which tells the heroic tale of a REME engineer in the desert campaign of World War Two.

Visitors can also enjoy the work of London-based comic artist Keith Page, who drew Dan Dare in the 1990s, and other notable artists in the genre such as John Ridgeway and Mike White.

Today the Commando remit may have evolved to cover other conflicts to appeal to a new generation of readers, far removed from the post war minds of young boys who were still fighting the Germans, but it is still the World War Two stories that dominate.

An artwork showing a German engineer in the foreground of a picture which features a Spitfire attacking an enemy column

German Mechanic (above). Picture © DC Thompson

With eight Commando comics a month, four classics from the back catalogue and four new ones from a roster of writers and artists based as far afield as South America and Spain, Commando continues to entertain older fans of the comic as well as younger readers.

Calum admits the readership is roughly split between older fans who have grown up with the comic or even rediscovered it and younger boys. "About 45% of the readership is made up of 45 to 55 year-old men and another newer audience, again about 45%, is 11-14 year old boys."

There is also a healthy readership among the soldiers of today’s armed forces, who are said to favour Commando’s compact comic format because it fits handily into the combat trouser pocket.

"We've recently sent out a couple of bundles of Commandos and various other bits and pieces to the RAF Regiment out in Afghanistan and also to Number Two Rifles," adds Calum. "I think they view them as entertainment rather than training manuals, but who knows?"

An artwork showing a soldier sheltering on the ground as flares and explosions burst above him

Lone Ambush (above). Picture © DC Thompson

In its current guise far flung fans across the globe can read classic Commando comics online and catch up with news and features at the official Commando website, which bustles with the opinions of fans who trade views and information through the Commando Blog.

But it's the comic publishing arm that remains in refreshingly rude of health. With sales of up to a million a year, Commando comic and the writers and artists who contribute to it are evidently doing something right – as visitors to the REME museum will find out.

Visit Commando comic online at www.commandomag.com/index.php.

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