In 2011 DC Thomson’s war digest title Commando celebrated its 50th anniversary, a remarkable achievement only surpassed on the newsstands at the time by The Dandy and The Beano. While other titles were being cancelled or their publication schedules scaled back, in 2012 DC Thomson actually increased the number of Commando issues with, for the first time, over 100 issues being published in one year as the schedule was subtly changed from four issues twice a month to four issues every two weeks.
Today, in its 56th year, it reaches a figure that no other British comic or story paper has ever reached – issue 5000.
As well as winning the Eagle Award for Best British Black And White comic for the first time in its history, the 50th anniversary was celebrated in style with a major display of original Commando artwork at the National Army Museum at Chelsea Barracks in London, followed by one the same year at the University of Dundee and, in 2012, another at the Gordon Highlanders Regimental Museum in Aberdeen.
The 50th anniversary also saw the publication by Carlton of the factual book Commando: 50 Years A Home For Heroes. Written by the comic’s longest serving editor, George Low, this large format anniversary book was an affectionate yomp through the history of the comic giving more background information on the title and its creators than had ever been published before. Rather than reiterate that information here, this is more of a short trek through the title’s publishing history and its British spin-offs.
Commando’s first issue, “Walk Or Die!”, was published in July 1961 as a response to Amalgamated Press’ War Picture Library, which began in September 1958, and their similar Battle Picture Library, which began in January 1961. Both these Picture Library titles were being published at a rate of four issues per month when the first issue of Commando came out, a publication rate that they maintained until they were both cancelled in November 1984 with War issue 2103 and Battle issue 1708, the same month that Commando reached issue 1850.
In those fifty years there have only been four official editors; Chick Checkley who founded the title in 1961 and ran it until 1971, Ian Forbes who took over until 1988, George Low who had worked on the title from 1963 and took over the editor’s chair from 1988 to 2007, and Calum Laird who took it through to his retirement in 2015. Deputy Editor Scott Montgomery kept things running until 2016 when he left the company and Commando came under the auspices of the editor of ‘Heritage Brands, Comics’, Kirsten Murray.
The title was originally published twice a month for the first 24 issues and then ramped up to three a month for the next six issues. With issue 31 in August 1962, Commando began publishing four issues a month like its two Picture Library competitors and with issue 263 in June 1967 this increased to six issues a month. April 1971 was the next publishing change for the title when, in addition to the six brand new issues published each month, two reprints were also added to the schedule with the first reprint being issue 539, “Sniper’s Island”, which had originally appeared eight years before as issue 72.
This new schedule equating to 96 issues a year, 72 new and 24 reprint, which continued through to issue 3971 in 2007 when the number of new stories were decreased and the reprints were increased to four each per month giving an even 48 new and 48 reprint issues per year.
The final change came when DC Thomson sold off their own presses and the printing of the title moved to an external printers when the relatively awkward publication schedule of four issues on the second Thursday of the month along with four on the last Thursday, which sometimes meant a three week gap between batches, was changed to 4 issues every two weeks giving a new annual total of 104 issues. While these extra eight issues were all reprint, bringing the totals to 48 new and 56 reprint issues per year from 2012, they were introduced as a six monthly ‘By Special Request’ batch of four issues that readers could write in and request specific issues to be reprinted. It is worth noting that some issues, particularly the first ten, have been reprinted more than once and that around one quarter of the 5000 issues have been reprints.
The publication style of Commando has changed little over the decades, with four pages of glossy front and back covers wrapped around 64 pages of newsprint paper, 63 of which are the actual story in black and white line art. The change of printers allowed colour to be introduced to the inside front and back covers as well as the outside and with issue 4491 in April 2012 the quality of the paper was improved with the cover quality increased to 150 grams per square metre (gsm) and the interior paper to 60 gsm paper. The upshot of this was that the comic doubled in thickness without increasing the page count and now feels much more substantial than before.
While the publication style has changed little, what has changed over the last 50 years is the cover price. While it is not a direct comparison of like for like, for a reader walking into a newsagent looking for a comic, any comic, to read then for a long time buying a Commando was the expensive option. In July 1961 when the first Commando cost 1/- or 12d, Eagle cost only 5d. In 1973 when Hotspur cost 3p, Commando cost 6p. When 2000AD arrived in 1977 at 8p, Commando cost 9p. During the Falklands War in 1982 Warlord cost 14p while Commando cost 16p. As the weekly comics started to die out, in 1988 the very last issue of Battle cost 28p while Commando was 32p. When Commando’s first issue was originally published in 1961 it cost the equivalent of 5p and when it was reprinted as issue 4453 in December 2011 it cost £1.50. Yet despite it being relatively more expensive down the years, considering that today 2000AD costs £2.65 and Doctor Who Adventures costs £3.99, at £2.00 Commando is now the cheaper option.
Sales figures for Commando are not available as it is not listed with the Audit Bureau of Circulations and therefore there are no published ABC figures for it. As with all comics and magazines in general, the sales figures are not what they once were. In May 2007 to publicise the 4000th issue, then editor George Low was interviewed by The List magazine in which Commando was described as selling “a healthy 8000 per issue.” This would have put the monthly sales figure at 64,000 and the annual figure at over three quarters of a million.
Perhaps the biggest boost in public recognition in recent years for the title was the publication in November 2005 by Carlton books of the flexi-covered 784 page reprint book Commando: The Dirty Dozen. Featuring reprints of twelve issues of the comic selected by George Low and with an introduction by him, this book proved extremely popular and went to multiple reprints. Its success lead Carlton to release another six books in the same 784 page, 12 issue reprint format between October 2006 and May 2009 (True Brit, ANZACs At War, All Guns Blazing, Rumble in the Jungle, Bandits at 12 O’Clock, and D-Day – Fight or Die!) before rising costs reduced the page count to 656 pages and 10 reprints for Battle of Britain – Scramble! in October 2009, a shortened reissue of D-Day – Fight or Die!, and Rogue Raiders, both in May 2011.
Carlton’s bargain imprint Sevenoaks published at least four of these books often under different titles and sometimes different covers. The 12 story The Dirty Dozen became The 12 Best Commando Stories Ever (the Carlton edition’s tagline) with a different cover before a second Sevenoaks edition reverted back to its original cover with only 10 stories as Call Of Battle. The 12 story True Brit became The 12 Toughest Commando Stories Ever (again the Carlton edition’s tagline) with a different cover before reverting back to its original cover and almost its original title but with only 10 stories as True Grit.
The Sevenoaks edition of ANZACs At War also used the Carlton tagline and a different cover as The Best 12 Aussie and Kiwi War Stories Ever while the Sevenoaks version of Battle of Britain – Scramble! retained its original title and cover. It should be noted that all versions of the Carlton/Sevenoaks books reused covers that had already been published by Commando and none were specially created for the books.
Rogue Raiders marked the end of the large Carlton flexi-covers and they were replaced on the shelves with smaller paperback size books containing three themed reprints each. Carlton released two batches of these with four books in each batch – Tally Ho!, Banzai!, Action Stations! and Achtung! were published in July 2011 with Bombs Away!, Dive! Dive! Dive!, Who Dares Wins and Desert Rats published in April 2012. For February 2013 the books were transferred to Carlton’s Prion imprint with Airborne Assault, Behind the Enemy Lines, Tank Attack! and Weapons of Vengeance. These twelve books, while looking similar to the many Manga titles that are available as paperbacks in the UK perhaps owe more to the publishing style of the Commando titles that are translated and published four to a paperback book in Finland under the title Korkeajannitys.
The Carlton reprint books are the best known and most common of the Commando spin-offs licensed by DC Thomson. In all its years of publication, and when other comics titles received hardback annuals and tabloid size summer specials, DC Thomson themselves never produced a Commando summer special and only twice published a Commando annual. Dated for 1989 and 1990 and published the preceding years, the two Commando annuals are unusual publications that are surprisingly rare. At a time when the rest of the boys comics annuals were still the traditional hardbacks containing black and white strips with a single spot single colour, the two Commando annuals were softcovers each of which had 7 complete short comic strips in a mixture of full colour and spot colour formats. Most unusual of all, each of the stories had a traditional painted ‘Commando cover’ style title page many of which were by artist Ian Kennedy who also supplied the wraparound covers for the two books.
In recent years there has been a selection of Commando calendars published. After no calendars in the first 45 years of it publication, two different calendars were published for 2007. The Art Of Commando calendar was published by DC Thomson and featured images taken directly for the original cover artwork whilst Spitfire Designs licensed the Commando Covers Of Yesteryear Calendar which used the published covers for the 12 comics reprinted in the Carlton book The Dirty Dozen. 2008 brought the Art Of Commando calendar published by Unique Comic Collectables which was very similar to the DC Thomson calendar from the previous year. After a gap of a couple of years the calendar was passed to Waverley Books, then still part of the DC Thomson publishing empire, and they produced the 2012 and 2013 calendars also using images taken directly from the original cover artwork.
The 50th anniversary year also saw the title become available as a digital download subscription for iPad and iPhones, as well as other spin-off merchandise being produced including two compilation music albums, plus three different mugs and a selection of metal wall signs that were available directly from DC Thomson’s on-line shop.
Today Commando issue 5000, “Zero Hour”, written by Ferg Handley, illustrated by Carlos Pino and with a painted cover by Ian Kennedy, is released as part of the current batch of two new and two reprint issues which actually takes the title up to issue 5002. After all those 5002 issues, and having long outlasted all its competitors, Britain’s last war comic continues to march on. Long may it continue.