Action and Adventure in the Comics - Part 3
- Thu 01 Sep 2011
The End of an Era? Commando Marches On!
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
All 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
"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".
"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.
Comics are now seen as a
serious artform leading to collections of classic
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
"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" 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
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
"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
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.)