An Appreciation by former Commando editor Calum Laird
There’s nothing like an anniversary – say, Commando’s 5000th issue, for example – to start your mind scrolling back through the years to days gone by. Nothing, except perhaps the combination of an anniversary, a couple of pints of Mòr and lunch in The Phoenix (103 Nethergate, Dundee) with an ex-colleague.
So, a couple of weeks ago, ex-Commando Editor George Low and I were doing just that, all the while bemoaning the fact that we comics fans often seem to make our appreciation of our comics heroes public when they are no longer with us.
To do something about that, I’m going to set down my own experiences of working with the two artists concerned in the anniversary issue of Commando – Ian Kennedy and Carlos Pino. (George can maybe talk about Ferg Handley, writer on No 5000, as he knows him way better than I do.)
So, it’s 1981, I’m 18 months into my time at D C Thomson and only a few days into my first stint on Commando. (They thought they had got rid of me on a number of occasions but, like a bad curry, I just kept coming back.) The office space is shared with another of Thomson’s “libraries”, Star (Love Stories In Pictures) and, somewhat bizarrely I thought at the time, so are the Editor and Assistant Editor. I can see now what a good fit this was but that’s another story.
At some point in those early days, a smartly dressed figure entered the office, carrying a small artist’s folio (the folio was small, not the artist) and greeted the staff as he made his way over to the far corner of the office where, behind a massive roll top desk, sat Ian Forbes, the Editor.
“That’s Ian Kennedy,” my colleagues at the subs desk informed me. No further details were deemed necessary.
So began a well-rehearsed routine. Ian would hand over a pencil rough or a completed cover, a discussion would ensue and he would leave to finish the rough or work on the new commission he’d just been handed. Generally the brief for the new cover was based on a scene or scenes inside the book so Ian would be given copies of the relevant pages, and the characters who would appear. He’d also be given photocopies of the equipment that was to be shown.
If that sounds cold and clinical, it wasn’t; it was professional, yes, but there was a lot of friendly banter to and fro as things were chewed over. Although the two Ians and George would do most of the discussing, the sub-editor handling the particular story (and hence its cover) would be called across to chip in or clear up some query. Despite the seemingly rigid and hierarchical nature of the office set-up you, as a sub, were treated as an equal – and the one with (in theory) the fullest knowledge of “your” story.
By 2007 when I was the one sitting at the figurative roll top desk (it was taken away before I could sit at it!) I’d got to know Ian and his work much better. Amongst other things we used to wind each other up over the relative performances of our favourites in Formula One. That Ian’s a motorsport fan will be no surprise to anyone who has seen his Scalextric catalogue – the place I first saw his work. He also spent a lot of time correcting me on details of the aircraft he and I were both interested in. (Another artist who corrected me on the same subject was José Maria Jorge – what a pity we never got both of them in the same room!)
So, there we are in 2007 and Ian is still turning the dodgy briefs we (well, I) hand him into the proper, stunning covers that we all know. On a couple of occasions, my requests overstepped the mark in one way or another; I’d rather not say how. I’d know because when Ian appeared after a week with the pencil rough he’d look angry (a pretence, by the way…I hope) and his hand would quickly go into the pocket of his jacket to produce a yellow or red card depending on the size of the flaws I’d put in the brief. Having put me firmly in my place, he’d then reveal a pencil sketch that put everything to rights. He’s annoyingly good at that! In that context, he’ll not mind if I reveal that he hates drawing horses’ hooves with a passion – it’s amazing what a little dust cloud can obscure…
What you mustn’t think is that Ian was born with a natural ability and that was that. He has frequently paid tribute to the senior illustrators he worked with, and was trained by, in his early days and I know that he never stops looking at other illustrators’ work, and modifying his techniques to better deliver his art. It’s a pity in a way that he’s largely associated with aviation art, not because it isn’t good – it is! – but because he can paint and draw so much more. Have a look at more Commando covers and you’ll see that. He also likes to use graphic elements – a flag’s design or perhaps a huge clock face – within his cover art bringing more story telling to a single image than would otherwise be possible.
It’s little wonder that he was chosen to paint so many Commando covers. More than anyone else.
My experience of Carlos Pino is somewhat different. Whereas Ian is his own agent, Carlos worked through the delightful Pat Kelleher of London’s Temple Rogers art agency. That meant that even the Editor, never mind a sub, had no direct contact with “our man in Seville.” So, like my fellow subs, my contact was through his completed artwork. This was always a challenge as Carlos’ panels are far from square and regular, and Commando is pretty text-heavy when it comes to captions. There would always be a bit of cursing when it came to marrying the text (particularly in the days before computer layout and lettering) to his slashing, off-square frames but it was never really meant. Carlos was bringing even more movement to the space-constrained Commando page. Even more, because anyone who has looked at his art knows he can get 100mph from a static image.
I’ve not actually met Carlos yet. The closest I’ve come has been a telephone conversation when his wonderful Spanish bass boomed from the earpiece, “encouraging” me to hurry up with a new script for him as he had nothing to do. I don’t know if he was worried that he might be saddled with domestic chores if he wasn’t at his drawing board! By this time we were dealing directly with Carlos as the previously mentioned Pat Kelleher had decided to call it a day. Needless to say, the first pages of a new story were sent pronto, as I believe they say in Sevilla.
The script went by fax for these were the days before Carlos was online. He sent his cover roughs to us by the same method, always with a hand-written message in his own inimitable style of English. (I should add that his English is a damn sight better than my non-existent Spanish).
He now scans and emails his cover roughs and still includes the messages, I’m glad to say. His cover roughs are as dynamic as his finished art and he has a very good eye for what makes a cover image. Not all interior art illustrators can pick out the scene in the story that “sells” the tale and manages to lay it out for maximum shelf presence. Bear in mind he’s doing it in a language that is not his own, too.
Over the years he’s brought to life many a character and you’re unlikely to mistake one for another in any given story as he has the gift of making them all different. Their expressions have just the right amount of “cartoon” when necessary and boy can they shift when needed. You name it he can draw it, and very well indeed. Go on, go and look at his work if you’re not convinced! He doesn’t just draw action either – George recalled some spectacular gremlins and ghouls for children’s tales based on local Spanish folkloric legend. Not, I suspect, as spectacular as the ladies in “fantasy” costume he sent when we were working on Commando’s first-ever female lead…
Now, here’s the thing, Carlos Pino and Ian Kennedy have drawn Commando, Johnny Red, Judge Dredd and most points in between. Their styles are known to British comics fans over genres and decades. And yet, in common with many illustrators of their generation, for most of their working lives they have had little knowledge of the readers’ appreciation of them. Ian has begun to appear at more and more comics conventions and I believe he now truly realises what high regard he is held in by readers and his fellow professionals. Carlos remains tantalisingly out of reach for the British audience. For that reason I don’t think he is fully convinced how important he is to us.
So, if you’ve seen his version of Johnny Red’s Hurricane demolishing a Stuka, or Dredd’s Lawmaster blasting after a perp, or a bunch of Commandos charging from a landing craft, and admired the work, the movement, the energy in those lines, get on his Facebook page and tell him so. Ian’s too, for that matter.
And should you by any chance be the organiser of a comics convention why not send Carlos Pino and Ian Kennedy air tickets? Imagine what a double act that would be.
• For more about Commando, visit the official web site: www.commandocomics.com