Action and Adventure in the Comics - Part 3

Thu 01 Sep 2011

The End of an Era? Commando Marches On!

In Part 1 and Part 2 we saw how the story papers of the 1920s had evolved into the action packed comics of the 1960s, and how "Commando" was promoted from its initial two issues per month status to the eight issues monthly of today.

War Comics 70s styleAll guns blazing in the 70s - "Warlord" and "Bullet".

With the relaunched "Wizard" and "The Hotspur" representing the old guard, and "Commando", "The Victor" and "The Hornet" flying the flag for the newer bloods, there was no shortage of action on offer. Still more titles would emerge throughout the 1970s, while some of the old standards would fall victim to the battle for sales in a competitive market.

On September 28th 1974, "Warlord" came onto the scene, all guns blazing. There would be no room for sporting stars or schoolboy pranks here: this was all out war! Longstanding frontline heroes were pressed into service again - "Union Jack Jackson", who had appeared in "The Hotspur" in the 1950s, blazed out from the cover of No.1, while Braddock flew again, under the punchier title of "Bomber Braddock".

The paper took its title from a new series recounting the adventures of a 1940s "Scarlet Pimpernel" character. To the world, Lord Peter Flint appeared to be an upper class dandy and, worse in the eyes of patriotic Britons, a conscientious objector. But to the Axis forces, Flint was known as "Codename: Warlord", a daring secret agent who carried out fearless missions behind enemy lines and countless nailbiting escapes - very much a "Boys' Own James Bond".

"Warlord" was a success, fighting off strong competition from other UK rivals, as well as the influx of more fantastical action heroes from the USA. In retaliation, IPC Magazines (incorporating former rivals Amalgamated Press and Fleetway) released "Battle Picture Weekly" in March of 1975, and mounted a short-lived revamp of the long-running "Valiant".

War Comics of the 80s and 90s"The Victor" and "Warlord" annuals of the 70s, 80s and 90s.

To some, the traditional mixture of thrills and courage seemed dated. Television news coverage of the Vietnam War had brought the true horrors of conflict into peoples' homes nightly - a far cry from the morale-conscious reports of the previous generation's cinema newsreels. In cinemas and on the three television channels, a more hardbitten, cynical, and violent breed of anti-hero had emerged in the form of "Dirty Harry" or "The Sweeney", while series like "Colditz" didn't flinch from showing the realities of the last war.

These changing attitudes were reflected in harder-edged story titles - a hero called "Killer Kane" would have been unheard of a few years earlier. There was also a more enlightened approach, with the strips such as "Kampfgruppe Falken" - a battalion of anti-Nazi German troops escape miltary confinement to fight back against the S.S. - showing heroism from "the other side" of World War II.

The taste for tougher edged stories led to the creation of "Bullet" - a surprise Valentine's day gift in 1976. Most of the stories had a more contemporary setting, but the main character, moustachioed martial arts master, secret agent "Fireball" provided a key link to the wartime exploits elsewhere - orphaned as a child, he had become the ward and apprentice to a certain Lord Peter Flint, making him, if not quite "Son of..." at least "Adopted Nephew of Warlord".

Just as the first issue of "Bullet" hit the shelves, IPC's own harder, grittier comic, "Action" made its debut. With stories influenced by popular films like "Dirty Harry" and "Jaws" amongst the sporting and war adventures, it was a massive hit with kids... but definitely not with their parents! Echoing the fate of the "penny dreadfuls" of the 1850s, or horror comics a century later, "Action" faced a tabloid-fuelled outcry against its violent content. It vanished from the shelves for a few weeks in late 1976, returning in a toned down form, before merging with stablemate "Battle" in 1977.

Collections and SpecialsComics are now seen as a serious artform leading to collections of classic strips.

A further threat to the traditional action strips came, not from the newspapers or moral guardians of the day, but from "a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away". Science fiction had always had its place in the comics, but the phenomenal popularity of "Star Wars" in 1977 saw a huge demand for adventures set on sleek futuristic spaceships out amongst the stars and far away from the muddy trenches, arid deserts, or steaming jungles of past wars.

"2000 AD" was IPC's response, reviving old "Eagle" favourite "Dan Dare" in a new guise - with a further incarnation of the "Pilot of the Future" to come in a relaunched "Eagle" for the 1980s - while the British arm of US comic giant Marvel had "Star Wars" itself in weekly comic form, and would launch a long-running British TV sci-fi hero in his own title with"Doctor Who Weekly" in 1979.

"Crunch", which began its short run in January 1979 - taking the place of "Bullet" following that title's merger with "Warlord" the previous month - chronicled the adventures of "Starhawk", and these intergalactic adventures would continue after "Crunch" was merged with "Hotspur" the following year. "Starhawk" would also make a few appearances in a longer-lived publication which also launched in 1979. "Starblazer", took on the pocket book format of "Commando" to bring futuristic thrills to readers. But what of the future for the traditional adventure comic?

Throughout the 1980s, the number of comics published in the UK dwindled, with the emegence of home computers and games consoles, video tapes and the increasing number of television channels generally held responsible. New titles like "Buddy", "Spike" and "Champ" carried the usual mix of sport, action, sci-fi, war, and even horror - that big taboo subject a few decades before - but were each short-lived.

Commando Goes Electronic"Commando" continues to conquer new territory.

In January 1981, "The Hotspur", last of "The Big Five", ceased publication after 47 years when it was incorporated into"The Victor". "Warlord" fought on until September 1986, and "Starblazer" dematerialised in January 1991, leaving "The Victor" to fight the good fight until it, too, bowed out in November 1992 - though hardback annuals of both "Warlord" and "The Victor" would continue to appear until the mid-nineties.

But even as these stalwarts were fading, a new interest in comics was emerging on both sides of the Atlantic - often due to the work of writers and artists who had served their apprenticeships on the weekly action papers. The term "graphic novel" rose in popularity, and comic strips - previously seen as disposable - began to be taken seriously amongst people who were now learning what many an avid comics reader had known all along: that comics weren't necessarily just for kids.

Academic works and histories of comics have been published, while a growing nostalgia market has seen the publication of anthologies of classic strips. Since 2005's "Commando: The Dirty Dozen", Carlton Books have regularly released large format collections of vintage "Commando" adventures - and you can read more about "Commando" in other formats here - and in 2010 they released 50th anniversary edition of "The Best of The Victor".

When "Commando" began, its readers would have played with tin soldiers and enjoyed a game of "Battleship". These would give way to "Action Man" and "Electronic Battleship", and these, in turn, to video games like "Call of Duty" and "Medal of Honour".

"Commando" has embraced newer technology, starting with this very website, as well as the launch of digital editions for PC, iPhone and iPad - see here for further information.

Current Commando50 years under its belt and no sign of surrender - "Commando" is ready to face the future!

Most of the comics mentioned so far have now gone from the shelves, but memories linger on - google any of the titles and you'll find fansites and glowing testimonials from many a former reader for whom these tales were a source of enjoyment, escapism, and inspiration. And as "Commando" celebrates its 50th anniversary in print and online, it's clear that there remains an eager readership for stories of valour, heroism, action and adventure.

The spirit of "The Big Five" and so many that followed still lives and fights on!

(This article originally appeared as a tie-in to the National Army Museum exhibition Draw Your Weapons: The Art of Commando Comics - September 2011-April 2012.)

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