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Last Updated: Friday, 27 April 2007, 17:22 GMT 18:22 UK
Gott in Himmel!
Early editions

By Sean Blair

The country's sole surviving war comic, Commando, has made it to issue 4,000. Should we be celebrating this patriotic success story, or is its survival into the 21st Century simply more evidence of our national inability to let go of past glories?

Much of the media outrage during the Iranian hostages affair came from the extent that the captives' apparent "cry and tell" behaviour parted company from our traditional ideal of how UK servicemen in dire straits should act.

Classic World War II movies are one source of inspiration for the stiff-upper-lip Tommy, but for those who came of age during the 60s and 70s, memories of childhood comics are perhaps as great a contribution.

Writing in the Observer, Will Hutton made the link: "For those who lived in the world of Commando comics, in which the dashing squaddy or Spitfire pilot always heroically triumphed in a trial of honest Brit against foreign evil, the contrast is bitter..."

We were always very, very careful to differentiate between ordinary Germans and Nazis
George Low
Editor, Commando
In their heyday, British war comics, like Victor ("True stories of men at war"), Valiant and Warlord, shifted by the Bedford lorry load. Commando, which began in 1961, is all that remains of this history, and continues to sell healthily to this day. Four editions are published per fortnight, and this week the 4,000th issue goes on sale, snappily titled "Aces All".

Each pocket-sized edition houses a 63-page black and white saga of square jawed heroes and dastardly villains (mostly Teutonic types typically exclaiming "Achtung!" when surprised, "Schnell!" when in a rush, and "Aieee!" when shot), clashing mostly on the WWII battlefield.

Should we be hailing Commando as a patriotic success story, or is its lingering presence simply one more symptom of our national reluctance to let go of the comforting simplicities of WWII?

As an occasional contributor of scripts for the title who grew up reading it, I generally regard Commando as harmless yarns for boys of all ages, although occasionally something comes along to make me think twice on the subject.

'They're just waiting until dark before rushing us'

In 2002 for instance, the then German ambassador to the UK, Thomas Matussek, attacked Britain's enduring Nazi obsession. His brother, Matthias, lasted two years as London correspondent for Der Spiegel magazine - quitting in 2005 in disgust at the UK's dogged fascination with the Third Reich. He also recounted how his young son was called a "Nazi".

Neither man singled out Commando from the rest of the UK media - though it is easy to imagine their response if they came across a copy. Commando editor George Low started at the comic in 1963 and is wearily familiar with accusations of jingoism. But he counters that it typically comes from those who haven't actually read the title.

"We once had a German television studio call us up on the phone and ask how we could be publishing all these stories," says Low. "I told them that we were always very, very careful to differentiate between ordinary Germans and Nazis, and that we also often feature Germans as heroes, which they were surprised about.

Massive canvas

"We began to feature 'good Germans' quite early on, simply to extend the range of tales we could tell and prevent us repeating ourselves."

They are what started me on reading - and I wonder if kids today are missing out
Vic Whittle
Low argues that the main reason for Commando's frequent return to the Second and also First World Wars is simply the practicalities of storytelling.

"The sheer size and complexity of these global conflicts gives us such a massive canvas to tell all sorts of stories, which isn't so true of other wars."

That said, the field of battle has widened in recent years, from Cold War thrillers all the way back to Roman times. While Commando is basically in the business of boys' stories, Low says they do not shy away from portraying at least some of the ferocity of battle, and not every hero survives to the end.

Historical accuracy is considered important - a code of honour that initially was helped by the fact its writers had served in the war or been through National Service.

"They knew first hand about the camaraderie of the forces, how a private might feel about a sergeant for example."

Reading for pleasure

While some early issues read crudely today, Low credits the title's survival to a continued ability to find fresh new angles on the basic formula, with Commando attracting a "freeflow" of new, young, readers even as older fans drop out.

4,000th edition
Commando's 4,000th edition, with a typically gung-ho title
But there are also adult fans. Vic Whittle, 60, began collecting Commandos at car boot sales a decade ago, then began filling in his gaps with eBay. He now has more than 3,000 editions, but admits he is years away from reading them all.

"When I look back they are what started me on reading - and I wonder if kids today are missing out because they don't have a similar range of titles," says Mr Whittle.

Indeed, Education Secretary Alan Johnson has stressed the usefulness of both comics and adventure stories for introducing increasingly reticent working class boys to reading for pleasure.

Low notes: "Quite a few teachers have told us over the years 'please keep doing this', because the comics work as tools to get kids reading to a higher level."

So how did Commando come to be the sole survivor of its oeuvre?

Comics expert Steve Holland says interest began to wane in the mid-80s, when sales had slipped and "there was a general feeling the market was running out of steam".

140 Commando authors, 100 cover artists and 120 interior artists
More than 55 issues with 'Desert' in the title, 50 with 'Jungle' and eight with 'Commando'
All 4,000 issues would take a shelf around 12 metres long to store them
But today momentum appears to be returning. Carlton Books has published two best-selling Commando compilations with a third on its way, and Mr Holland is preparing similar "best-of" collections for the comics War and Battle.

He is also serving as archivist on this year's subscription-based relaunch of 1960s childrens' educational magazine Look and Learn, while the runaway success of the self-consciously retro Dangerous Book for Boys - 500,000 copies sold and counting - is another pointer of a revival.

Commando itself remains ongoing, although this year saw a shift to 50 percent reprinted material - Low explains this was "driven by a mix of economics and practicalities", including the struggle to find suitable writers and diligent artists able to maintain the required level of accuracy.

Will Commando still be around for issue 5000 circa 2017? "That's a difficult one to answer, but then I had no idea we would ever get this far," Low replies. "Some might think of us as a dinosaur, but we're still roaring out there, quietly!"

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

This has come as a bit of a shock to me, I never realised the 'twopenny blood' was still being published and thought it had succumbed to the nasty political correctness that has ruined so many of our traditions. In today's world of 'don't mention the war' or say anything to upset the European Union, I really did believe these great little reads had long disappeared. They were the staple reading diet of my time in the Royal Navy in the 70s and many changed hands in bulk from mate to mate and even from ship to ship and provided much amusement as well as thoroughly engrossing stories.

One issue that had HMS Scylla' ships company in laughter had the pilot of a seriously damaged hurricane with no ammo being stalked by a nasty Focker with fresh ammo, and Captain Dan Steel flew his craft upside down above the Jerry pilot and threw his side arm tommy gun down toward the Hun's cockpit, low and behold, this well planned action saw the tommy gun smash through the cockpit of the focker and before having his head smashed in he managed to scream the words 'gott in himmel' as he saw Steels 'brilliant' manoeuvre with the tommy gun
Ken Wharton, Leeds

As a boy growing up in Dorset near the the military bases at Bovington and Lulworth, I was always facinated by war and read the Commando war comics. Many of my friends were too, several who have joined the armed forces. While there continue to be wars fought with guns, tanks and planes boys and girls will continue to read Commando.
Mike, Oslo, Norway

As a kid I used to love buying as many copies of Commando as my pocket money would allow. I'd get through 3 or 4 a day whilst on holiday, and i loved the characters, the drawings and the situations - though the ghost style issues were never very good! I'd say that these magazines led to a deep rooted interest in the second world war, telling me what a Spitfire, a Panzer or a Stuka was; which nations fought in which theatres of war; who some of the main figures were and so on. I always found the stories well balanced in terms of national identities, as many 'good' germans as bad, likewise with the portrayal of english character. I went on to study history at university, perhaps in part because of these magazines. I still have a sense of nostalgia when I see an issue on a news stand.
James Hails, Newcastle upon Tyne

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