New format for Commando

No, don’t worry, they haven’t added any colour to it! (Mind you, if Commando sales are increasing and if The Phoenix can establish a bridgehead, could a re-launch of The Victor, “The new colour weekly from the makers of Commando!” be an outside possibility?), instead they have improved the printing dramatically.

A while ago, DC Thomson closed down their in-house printing operation to save money (this also bought about the end of the Beano and Dandy libraries). The new outside printers seemed to have trouble with Commando, with issues becoming creased along the spine.

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An old “in house” issue, a new printer issue and one of the latest.

As you can see, the most recent change has made the issues much thicker, with a good, square spine and no creasing! In fact the 64-page Commando issues are now as thick as 96-page issues of The Boys’ Friend Library from the 20’s and 30’s!

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Alongside a BFL from 1937.

The paper the new printers had been using was also slightly “crinkly”, but they have now switched back to a more ‘pulp’, newsprint type that really allows the ink to stand out.

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An old issue, note the creasing up at the centre and shiny paper.

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Now, much better!

Commando is not included in the ABC sales figures (in these dark times for British comics, they are eagerly scruitnised and speculated over!), probably because it’s “four every two weeks” schedule is “weird”. But according to information from the Commando CO there has been an increase in sales recently – no doubt due to the reprint books, publicity surrounding the 50th anniversary and the National Army Museum exhibition. Commando pages also work perfectly on the screens of digital readers such as iPads, where it has also proved popular. Perhaps the profit from the digital version is being invested back in the paper editions? It’s an encouraging sign.

Also encouraging is the fact that, on a few recent occasions, I have complained about the “stupid” WH Smith staff only putting out three of the four issues. But when I went to buy the most recent batch I actually got the last issue of the (non reprinted) Falklands War story. They weren’t failing to put out certain issues – they were selling out! In fact on occasion, when I have gone into Smith’s on the ‘other week’ there has been only 2-3 comics left in the box! May be feel some cautious optimism?

Incidentally another batch of 3-in-1 reprint books has been released. But I appear to have accidentally deleted the picture I’d taken of them!

50 years of Commando coffee table book

On Monday I had the day off and decided to go to the National Army Museum in London to see the Commando exhibition. Because it wasn’t a weekend (like it is when I go to comic conventions) the Underground was actually working! The museum itself is a fair walk from the station, past the Royal Chelsea Hospital. The houses round that way are nice mind you.

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When I rule my own country this is what the narrowest streets will look like.

Anyway after the walk I reached the museum, which has a banner outside advertising the exhibition. It did start on the first of this month though, the banner may not stay until the end! The museum itself is deceptively small on the outside, the inside is full of maze-like small rooms crammed with informative exhibits. The actual army exhibition part goes forwards in time as you climb the stairs, the first hall is about the New Model Army, for instance, whilst the one closest to the exhibition (on the top floor) is about 40’s and 50’s National Service.

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The Commando exhibition itself is actually quite small, and confined to one room. It’s primarily original cover artwork, which is no bad thing as the work of Ken Barr, Jose Maria Jorge et al is beautiful! There’s a mixture of ages too. DC Thomson are great at keeping their original artwork, which allows for top-notch reprints. They even have the original art for the very first issue, which will be reprinted shortly. You aren’t supposed to take pictures, and a small bloke who might have been a Gurkha caught me XD. But here’s one of the ones I managed to smuggle across the lines!

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50 years old and it looks like the paint’s barely dry!

Apart from the cover artwork there’s actually disappointingly little else, but only so much of a “serious” museum can be turned over to “mere” comics. There’s a very brief history of boys’ adventure comics mentioning The Boys’ Own Paper (with a 1916 monthly issue on display), examples of Commando’s IPC competitors, a mention of The Victor and a copy of “Battle Action Force”. This latter was an odd choice, Battle Picture Weekly (later Battle Action) is regarded as one of the greatest British comics ever, but Battle Action Force was just a stupid toy catalogue disguised as a comic (though unfortunately a sign of things to come).

There’s also one small cabinet featuring some authentic Commando equipment such as a silenced Sten Gun, a Commando knife, a few berets (and a helmet with a nasty-looking hole!). Behind it is a painting of the famous Saint Nazaire raid, which virtually immobilised Germany’s best battleships for the rest of the war.

Unfortunately there’s almost no interior artwork (I’d love to see the fine lines of Jose Maria Jorge up close!) but there is some more curious items – examples of the “transparencies” that used to be laid over the artwork. These have the comics logo, the knife and the title painted on them. They also have the cover of issue 11 “Closer Than Brothers” assembled with it’s transparencies, as it would have been back in 1961 for the printers! Of course today all of that is added to the art digitally instead.

One final important detail is that a couple of the descriptions lament the fact that comics are not taken seriously in Britain, and that the hard work of writers and artists deserves to be recognised and remembered much better than it is. Hopefully this display will be a small step in that direction!

In the museum’s shop the 50 Years a Home for Heroes book is on sale. It will be in bookshops at the end of the month. It’s about as thick as an annual but very large!

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Like so

As well as a general history of Commando, it also contains articles on writers and artists (“general overview” articles rather than ones for individuals, unfortunately) with some amusing anecdotes and insights into their working methods.

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With scattered-around bits of cover art. Here’s where keeping the originals comes in handy!

There’s also 6 reprinted stories, with 4 pages to each page at original size! Plus the covers are reproduced in colour (unlike the various other reprint books).

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Why yes he does have a story in there!

Finally the reprinted stories have introductions with big blow-ups of the cover art and detail on the stories, such as how they were developed with the writer, editor and artist. These pages look magnificent, and the whole book is printed on thick, heavy matte paper that really shows off the art.

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Must be about the original size of the paintings!

Despite it’s small size this exhibition is well worth visiting. The nearest underground station is Sloane Square. From there go left down the street in the picture above, then left again and right at the crossroads past the Royal Chelsea Hospital, then just go straight! Entry is free and there’s plenty else to look at in the building too.

Space Watch reprinted!

It’s actually probably close to going off-sale now, but the science fiction Commando comic “Space Watch”, reviewed by me right back at the start of this blog, has been reprinted!

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Mildly-changed cover. The fading of the original printing is most likely due to age and not older printing techniques!

However if you remember my review I was actually pretty disappointed with it. But of course you are regularly buying Commando anyway in order to support the very last Boys’ Own comic, right?

On one forum I go to people speculated if it was a  “rejected” issue of Starblazer. It isn’t, it was originally part of a series of stories, all (except this one) with “Challenge” in their name and most set in simulations of past conflicts.

Farewell, Jose Maria Jorge

Last week saw the sad death of one of my favourite comic artists, Jose Maria Jorge. Hailing from Argentina, he worked for DC Thomson’s Commando comic, which is incidentally the last-surviving title in the Boys’ Own genre that is properly published in newsagents.

He specialised in flying stories (though occasionally did submarine stories too – and in “Fire over England” in the “True Brit” reprint book did both!). In 42 years he drew 163 issues. The final one of which was “Divided Aces”, Commando 4329, which appeared in September as part of the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. He also had the honour of drawing issue 4000 – quite possibly the highest number any comic has ever reached!

He could turn his hand to flying stories of any era with equal skill. I’ll let the artwork speak for itself here, fans of classic warbirds might want to hang around!

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Starting off in World War 1 with Albatross fighters against “gunbus” pusher biplanes. This is from the story “Ace Versus Ace”, number 4091

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Into World War 2 now, with the story “Let Me Fly!”, number 4181. This story begins and ends with the air force but spends most of it’s time on the ground, with Germans fighting Russians. The uniforms and weapons no less authentically depicted. 

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Not bad at drawing explosions, either.

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Coming to the end of World War 2 in “Operation Extinction”, number 4144. Early jets could be bad enough to ‘just’ fly, let alone be shot at in! And just look at the attention to detail in that cockpit.

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And now it’s Sabres and Migs over Korea in “Iron Cross Yank”, Number 4104. Look at all the panels and rivets on the top of that Sabre! I bet a 1950’s American ground crew could find their way around this illustration!

Jose Maria also drew what is one of my favourite Commando stories of all time – “Aces Wild”, which is featured in the book “The Dirty Dozen” that can still be found knocking around in some book shops.  His artwork is good enough in the small Commando’s but really comes alive in those big books. In a just world we would, of course, have a big book dedicated to his Commando work as well as his paintings (mostly of classic motor racing) with lots of large-scale pictures. But i suspect instead the comics world at large will be left not knowing what a shining light it has lost just because he never drew Spider Man.

Return of The Deatless Men?

I should think every reader of this blog is already familiar with one of the greatest stories ever published in a British comic.

It is a tale of a ruthless fascist regime under which the downtrodden people long for freedom. It is the tale of a rebellion against this regime by faceless killers, clad in anonymous masks and with a seemingly supernatural ability to cheat death and be in many places at once. Above all it is the tale of the police of this regime desperately trying to catch the man responsible for the endless string of outrages that threatens their rule. It is the tale of their chilling discovery that those responsible for the attacks on their leading officers ought to be dead – having been incarcerated in their sinister death camps. And it is the tale of betrayal at the highest levels as we learn that all the time the rebellion has deep inside knowledge of the regime’s hunt for them, and can always remain one step ahead.

This tale is of course V for Venegance, first published in The Wizard in 1951!

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The first series of which was reprinted in 1959, of which I own in a bound volume.

Anyway, today I was looking at the titles of the next Commando comics to come out and noticed this:

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Number 4322 is going to be called “V is for Vengeance!”

Could this possibly be DCT digging into their past to bring us an abridged/complete story of The Deathless Men? Sadly probably not, I don’t believe any of the recurring  characters from their other adventure comics (not even during a time when those comics were still running alongside Commando) have ever made the leap into the title. Though somebody did once on one website mention that “The Wolf of Kabul” a character from text stories who later appeared in a picture-story in The New Hotspur or Victor had re-appeared in Commando, it was actually a different character entirely (though with a similar setting in the middle east).

Actually the main character of those “wolf” stories was not a man but a book, passed down through many generations of a family from before WW1 up to the Gulf war of 1991. And not a comedy sidekick with a cricket bat in sight!

Two interesting Commando’s…

Commando comics almost entirely concentrate on World War 2, and with good reason, as there’s such a huge range of stories and scenario’s that can be derived from such a large conflict. However at over 4100 issues (with a lot of reprints, mind) diversification becomes increasingly nessescary. This usually results in stories set in World War 1, Korea or small civil wars set in made-up countries. Science Fiction and Westerns are two much rarer Genre’s, the former last being seen in “War Games” from 2007 (and that was a reprint, and the story was ‘framed’ by WW2) and the latter in “Devil Canyon”, also from last year, which featured some ex-Yankee soldiers looking for lost gold.

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In the current batch of issues is another Western, issue 4139, titled “Rebel Army”. This time following an ex-Confederate (the politics of the confederation are completley left out, naturally. Though i suspect for the average trooper on the ground they meant little anyway… slaves still cost money that the poor people didn’t have!) officer called Samuel Watts and his former sergeant and business partner Nate Bridges. The story takes them to Argentina after a double-cross by another passenger. Searching that passenger’s cargo they discover he is a gun-runner and decide to sell the weapons to the Argentian government. Told the army already have enough weapons, the two are sent inland to link up with a militia that is suppressing Indian revolts. However after another betrayal and witnessing several acts of brutality, switch sides and defeat the militia. Finally collecting the money they are owed, they ride into the sunset, unable to decide between owning a farm or saloon.

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The “slight wrap around” cover is normal for Commando. The area the other side of the knife used to be black, but in recent times has had a photograph or other art used to liven it up. Ian Kennedy drew the cover, and is far and away the most prolific Commando cover artist. 

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The background to the story told in four quick frames. The way comics should be done! “Garijo”, one of Commando’s stable of Spanish/South American artists (i’m presmuming) has done the interior art. There’s a lot of detail packed in.

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Sam and Nate are enticed into the Militia, by being asked to deliver thier weapons in person 

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But they later switch sides, demonstrating the deadly power of one of the main weapons they found in the gun-runner’s stash, a four-barreled Nordenfeld machine-gun.

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…and battle commences! 

Meanwhile, an interesting science fiction Commando from 1994, which i have wanted to read for a long time since seeing it on http://britishcomics.20m.com (currently down) is issue 2774 – “Space Watch”. Today i was wandering Lincoln and decided to look at a book stall on the indoor market which sells Picture Library comics on and off for 40p. Imagine my delight when i discovered this issue! However, it became a proper “Never meet your heroes” moment when i discovered that the story was, in fact, terrible. I’ll let the scans do the talking here…

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Nice cover, Commando has only recently (within the last year) started to include credits (though for a time before that allowed the interior arists to sign the first or last frame). As this is well before the crediting era at DC Thomson i have no idea who did this, but other people can probably make identifications. 

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A nice wrap-around cover and a rather brief and confusing description of the story in question. This issue is from a ‘short’ period when the barcode was located on the front of issues rather than the back.

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The story is set in “the twenty-first century”. Japan wants to bring back whaling, and sometimes ‘pirates’ kill whales anyway. In order to get thier own way, Japan decides to go to war with the “World Environmental Council”. Except wars in the future are fought on computers in virtual reality between small teams of experts. So far so never-going-to-happen. The story reeks of early 90’s which will presumably put paid to it’s chances of being reprinted, when the reprint cycle reaches 1994. You won’t be missing much.

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The virtual reality war is set even further in the future, in 2442 to be precise. Once in the VR world the characters (the WEC team are made up of British, American, French and Russian men… to fight against Japan. So far so WW2) take on the personality of characters in the world. Note the commander of the Zakrun battle fleet (Japan) claiming his fictional space navy on a fictional planet have “never lost a war”. Also they have a huge starship which “is not finished yet”. This only adds more unessescary complexity to the story, if you ask me they should have done away with the VR, Whale-saving guff and just made it a straightfoward story actually set in 2442.

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Weather the participants in the space battle (which is so confusing and messy it’s not worth describing, though it is fought much like WW2 air battles) can actually die in real life if they die in Virtual Reality is none too clear. The Russian doesn’t and the American isn’t mentioned. Neither are any of the Japanese. The Frenchman is killed for real though, but that is because of attacks by hackers who are trying to murder the British man (who is the last remaining ‘real’ player in the game by the end).

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The hackers, paid by some kind of Arabic Mafia boss, ‘complete’ and send in the massive space battleship, Satori, against the sole surviving Earth ships, the Pennsylvania and a single space frigate. Satori‘s powerful laser cannons narrowly miss the escape pod from the other large Earth ship, Ark Royal, and it is the shock of these near misses which kills the frenchman in real life as well as the VR world. But still the Earth fleet manage to outwit Satori and win the game, keeping Whaling illegal.

At the end of the story we re-join the pirate whaling ship in time to see the crew arrested. The Mafia boss is also unimpressed with the hackers and has them killed. What a dissapointment after wanting to read this story for so long. I wonder what Starblazer is like…

‘Latest’ 2000AD, Meg and Commando

Well i was planning my second post to “come up to date” with the very latest issues of 2000AD, the Judge Dredd Megazine and Commando, however on the day i had no internet and since then have had no motivation, so this entry is actually being made more than a week later. Oh well, at least it’s not more than 118 years later!

Batch o comics for Wed 17th of September 2008

The comics. Judge Dredd Megazine, 2000AD, Snow/Tiger (JDM reprint supplement, and the closest thing here to US comic size), and the four Commandos.

2000AD is a weekly sci-fi themed comic which began life in 1977 on the back of the Star Wars boom (in fact, before Star Wars arrived in Britain, but after everybody knew it had been massive in the US) and has carried on ever since, in a way “growing up with” it’s readers and nowadays featuring more mature themes than it did when it started (at the time pitched at the 8-12 age group). It has had it’s ups and downs and i’m afraid to report this paticular issue (1604) is a “down”. 2000AD is of course Synonmous with Judge Dredd, and this issue features the start of a new story called Firestorm, in which the judge apprehends a criminal who has commited several murders in Mega-City 1 and then fled into space (whilst the earth is a radioactive, crime-ridden hellhole in the Dreddverse, humanity has also spread out amongst the stars and colonised new planets, which begs the question why anybody stays on earth. It would make an interesting story). The judge acts very out of character in this story i feel, stomping onto another planet (albiet one rife with crime and corruption) to catch his man and ignoring the consequences. The Justice Department ship he came on is captured so he has to get the criminal onto a departing luxury space liner, which then (would you beleive it?) comes under pirate attack.

Judge Dredd escapes the alien world

Other stories include The Red Seas, a pirate/occult story always drawn by the same artist in sparse-looking line-art. The crew have come to the recently founded country of America to investigate massacres of townsfolk by apparent vikings, who happen to be bulletproof. They encounter a tribe of Indians who in the past joined with Vikings and have a shared heritage, before spending most of this episode climbing a very large tree, from which they can even see Britain, and ending up at the door of Valhalla. Like you do.

Following that we have ABC warriors, a strip with beautiful and confusing art. In it the “west”, who’s flag looks like that of the USA but with the stars replaced by an eagle, are involved in a war over oil with the Volgans, who are very thinly disguised Soviets. The war is primarily fought by robots. This episode following one of the western robots called Steelhorn, who is designed to be a chivalrous robot knight. He is infected with a Volgan virus and turns on his own side. Eventually the virus is beaten but the shame never leaves him.

After that we have part 5 of Stalag 666, a rubbish prisoner of war story in which very little has happend. Finally something does happen when some kind of large burrowing insect that lives under the camp bites one of the alien guards and kills him instantly (rather than in a few hours as with humans). This gives the prisoners an idea to harvest the venom and use it as a weapon to allow thier escape. 2000AD has recently had a spate (well, 3) of stories in which an old character who has not been seen for a long time returns in a ‘twist’ ending to a seemingly unrelated story. If you ask me this is another one of those.

Finally prog 1604 is wrapped up by Lobster Random, who re-appeared in the ending to one of the above-mentioned twist stories. I don’t know anything about Lobster Random and if this story is anything to go on i don’t want to, it’s mind-numbing.

Moving onto the Judge Dredd Megazine, we have part 4 of Ratfink, a great Dredd story in which the son of Fink Angel (one of the Angel Gang, amongst the best ‘recurring’ villains in the saga, despite dying in thier first appearance). Ratfink is an expert at poisons and has been killing, looting and raping cursed earth travellers for years, but Dredd has finally caught up with him and after a tense chase the final confrontation begins!

Next there is an article on Crisis, a “politically aware” and “adult” offshoot of 2000AD from the late 1980’s. I’ve never read any of Crisis but what i’ve heard about it sounds frankly pathetic. A kind of preachy sci-fi tinged version of Viz’s “Modern Parents” told with a straight face. The article has examples of stickers given away with the first issue, which include slogans like “Mutate and Survive” with a nuclear symbol, “Global Pillage”, “Take back the future” and most hilariously “Caution: Fragile Earth”. Jesus christ… The cover designs weren’t all that either.

The Megazine used to run reprinted strips, but they have been “triumphantly” knocked on the head and replaced with a continuation of Tank Girl. This appeared in another one of the pretentious “adult comics” of the late 80’s, though one that doesn’t sound quite so horrible as Crisis. However Tank Girl is probably the least accurate representation of those comics, but has also become thier most enduring creation. There is some common sense in the world eh? The basic plotline involves her friend being injured in a skateboard accident, the operation she needs costs a gazillion dollars, which just happens to be the prize money for a crazed Deathrace 2000 – style blast across Australia, so our heroine enters, crashes (after using some old boxer shorts to tie her axles together) and is rescued by a lothario in a rather nicely rendered Ruf Porsche Le mans racer.

Tank Girl - Judge Dredd Megazine 276
After a short article on the state of British comics (much being made of recently launched subscription-only title The DFC) we get into a new Black Atlantic story, this follows a group of mutants and outcasts sailing the polluted seas between Mega City 1 and Brit-Cit as a kind of friendly pirates. Whilst salvaging some stuff from an island they find an old oil rig, and after boarding it are set upon by it’s crazed inhabitants. After this the Meg continues to vent it’s absolute worship of TV shows from America and disdain for anything else (Life On Mars only got an insultingly brief mention a year after it had finished) in an article titled “You Should Be Watching… Battlestar Galactica”. As in the new series with it’s terrible “documentary-style” filming. Jesus Christ…

After the usual woeful movie reviews (they are improving though, they used to be written in this agonisingly “matey” way) we reach the conclusion of a Judge Anderson story. She is a judge in the psychic-powered PSI Division, and is investigating a series of murders which take place in “Hyven”, a thinly-disguised parody of an advanced “Second Life” or “Myspace” of the future. Turns out the people who run it have smuggled criminals in now and again for money, but one of the criminals is a powerful psychic who is able to jump into other people’s minds and kill them. At the same time the central computer which controls the program has become sentient, and Anderson has to persuade it to help her rather than allow the killing to go on. There then follows the letters page made up of people praising everything i hate about the current Meg. Fortunately the comments on this blog don’t work or they’ll discover it and send me lengthy tirades.

As the Meg no longer features reprints (a feature i expect to last precisely as long as Tank Girl does), and now that the reprint-only 2000AD Extreme has been cancelled, reprints are bagged in a seperate comic that comes with the meg. The second one of these being Snow/Tiger.

This is, essentially, Eugene Manx, except replace the former Wehrmacht officer fighting neo-nazis in 1950 with two secret agents, a Brit who wants to go carefully and a Yank who wants to shoot everybody, in 2002. The Nazis in question have a genetically engineered version of the Ebola virus (remember 2002 was the year of the Athrax scares) which doesn’t kill white people. It features some cool action scenes like one where a woman remains rather non-blinded despite the fact a gun goes off centimetres from her face…

Snow/Tiger

There’s also your typical mano-a-mano “throw the guns aside and grapple” ever so heterosexual scene on the rocket launch gantry. But i’ll spare you that. The book also features a future shock and a short Dredd story reviving the “anti robot Klans” idea which was first done in 1977!

Onto Commando now, these small-sized war themed comics are the sole surviors of the “Picture Libraries” which used to cram spinning racks in newsagents and where produced on all sorts of subjects, though war was the dominant theme, 8 Commando’s are produced a month in batches of 4, on (supposedly) the first and last tuesday of each month. Currently they are 50% reprint and 50% new.

The two new ones are “The Fighting Storks”, about a very versatile Italian plane which could take off and land in very short distances, handy in a time before widespread use of Helicopters. The artist on this story is one of my Commando favourites – Jose Maria Jorge, who specialises in flying stories, though occasionally does submarine ones too. His style does not actually suit the small Commando books very well, but comes alive in those large collected editions (in shops now!).

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The other new issue is “Hollywood Hero”, about a film star going to war and ending up trapped in the jungle surrounded by the Japanese on all sides.

The first of the reprints is “Front Line Fixer”, about a German working for the REME. Would a German really have just been allowed to walk into the British Army during the war? well it still makes for a tense story… the artist is Gordon Livingstone, who has a unique and distinctive style. Personally i don’t actually like it all that much but others do. He has now retired from Commando but has drawn hundreds, so will remain in reprints for a long time to come.

Gordon Livingstone - FLF

And finally we have Outcast! with art by Dennis McLoughlin, another excellent one with a real skill for moody light and shadow. This story follows a member of the French Foreign Legion from Germany who has to leave and join the German army when war is declared, ending up on the eastern front.
D McLoughlin - Outcast

Well there you have a look at more recent British Comics. For the next few entries i have some interesting bits from the Union Jack in 1894, and some stuff from W. Howard Baker reprints of 1920’s/30’s Gem’s and Magnets… so it’ll be back to the past. I’ll have to have a scout around Lincoln again and attempt to find some more recent material, maybe from the 60’s to 80’s, the real “golden age” of British comics!