Last year, I chatted to Calum Laird, Editor of Commando, for an article about “Charley’s War” – the seminal comic strip created by Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun that ran in Battle Picture Weekly from 1979 until 1985. We talked a lot about Commando and a bit about “Charley’s War” and about war comics in general.
Some quotes from the conversation were used in the “Charley’s War” article, which was published in the last issue of Comic Heroes magazine. Anyway, I thought it would be a good idea to present the full, unedited transcript of our chat online in case it was of interest to comic fans generally and/or of use to scholars of comics. Joe Gordon of Forbidden Planet International and John Freeman here at downthetubes have both kindly agreed to publish it, and Calum kindly looked over the transcript.
My thanks to John, Joe and Calum for their help in getting this interview out to a wider audience. I’m also grateful to the team behind Comic Heroes, who gave me some nice gigs during the lifespan of that magazine. I’m still somewhat flabbergasted that people will pay me to do what is essentially fanzine writing (not that there’s anything wrong with fanzines and the writing therein, but that, of course, is a subject for another day…)
Matt: Why has Commando endured?
Calum: It’s very difficult to say, to be honest. There are so many different factors. I think it’s the fact that generally the story is self-contained so you can pick one up and you can be completely satisfied with the story. There’s no obligation to have bought one previously. The format of a long story does allow authors to develop their characters more easily than in a short episodic format, where you’ve got four pages to build up a character and you’ve basically got to start again the next week. I think those two things are probably the most significant.
Matt: Why is war generally and World War One in particular a good setting for stories?
Calum: World War One and Two are good settings for stories because, particularly from a British point of view, the range is huge. You can take people and put them virtually anywhere in the world. That allows an author a huge amount of latitude, particularly if developing a long storyline. You can take characters out of Bolton and put them in Burma. You don’t have to go into a long explanation. You just have to say, the unit was sent there.
Also, the thing about war is that the characters are almost invariably in jeopardy and that is a vital part of any adventure story. If you knew the character was going to walk all the way through and come out untouched at the other end, you’d be talking about Lord Peter Flint in Warlord. It’s a bit tedious, to be honest. You’ve got to have that jeopardy there. It might not be death. It could be financial ruin. It could be the end of a romance or something like that. But there has to be jeopardy or you really don’t engage with the characters.
Matt: Does the self-contained nature of Commando stories add to this sense of jeopardy?
Calum: It does, because you assume you’re going to find out what happens to the character within those 63 pages. You don’t expect to see the character again. We have had some returning characters. Not many, to be fair. We’ve tried a couple of stories like that recently that have been quite successful, but because they have been groups rather than individuals you can’t guarantee all the group will be safe.
Matt: Some people might object to war stories because they tend to deal with real conflicts where people have actually suffered. What do you say to that?
Calum: It depends on the context. Why should we not write about war? It happens. We can play a useful part in showing that war does have consequences. We’re very keen that while we don’t show it graphically, the readers should be very much aware of the results of going to war.
Matt: Is it fair to say Commando has come a long way from the days of ‘Tally ho, chaps’ and the glorification that might have happened in the comic in the past sometimes?
Calum: I think it did happen in the past, but, really, the more you look at the stories, you have to go back quite far into the history of comics to find stuff that is so jingoistic. You’re going back, really, into the text period. Most of the picture papers, if you want to call them that, or comics, had become slightly more sophisticated.
There is definitely a case that could be made for the fact that they’re, particularly with our comics, very Anglo-centric. They are caught up with Empire and so forth, and that adversaries were caricatured to a certain extent. But it’s not a given. We’ve been reprinting fifty-year old Commandos recently and in a lot of the older stories, the adversaries are actually given a fair crack of the whip.
Matt: Can you give an example of a recent story and the consequences for a character in that story?
Calum: As you know, we’ve done a World War One series recently. I think it’s in the second one that there’s a company runner and he’s always been a runner. The upshot of his particular adventure is that he loses his leg. People are wounded. People are killed. In the first one, we just allow the fog of war to envelop the characters, so we don’t know what happens to them. That was deliberate because it was something that happened, particularly in the World War One. So many people vanished and have never been found. We’ve tried to give a flavour of that.
But you have to be careful doing that because if a reader has invested the time to read 63 pages and you’re not actually giving them a conclusion, they’ll quite rightly object. From that point of view, we would only do that once in a blue moon. People get killed. People’s friends get killed. Family members too.
Matt: What do the readers say they get from Commando?
Calum: They don’t spell it out. They either say they liked a story or they didn’t. I very seldom get long explanations as to why. I think they like the character development. The fact that the plots are generally not linear. They go from side to side, twist about and, as often as possible, we get a nice twist at the end. I also think they’re very satisfied with the length of the story.
Matt: It’s probably a good length for a decent commute.
Calum: Yes, it is. A lot of people use our digital service. They can download an issue and it is commute consumption, or whatever you want to call it.
Matt: If you could you pick out one Commando as emblematic of what the comic does well, which one would it be?
Calum: The thing is, there’s 4700. Even taking off the re-issues, you’re talking about 3000-plus stories. I honestly could not pick one out. I think my favourite Commando is the next one that comes in, because you’re looking at it completely fresh and wondering where he or she, depending on the author, is going to go with this.
Matt: You’re always excited about a new story…
Calum:That’s why we do it. We have to the process the story and make it fit for publication. But the same relish with which somebody takes it off the shelf is the relish with which we effectively take it off the shelf by getting a fresh synopsis.
Matt: Have you got any thoughts on “Charley’s War”?
In my view, it’s the best World War One story of its type that’s ever been done. I think Pat Mills got that blend of the character of Charley, the fantastic ensemble cast that he put around him and the fact he’d done his research. You couldn’t do another story with a single character going through the war on the Western Front and hope to compare with it, which is why we’ve never tried.
That is why our recent World War One story-arc is based on events, not people. A different cast of characters for each one. It was 13 over the whole year. The thing is, if you decide as a comics creator to do a story of World War One with a single character as the lynchpin of it and take them through the whole power-play of events of the First World War, you can’t help but be compared with “Charley’s War” (at least in a British context).
That’s not to say that somebody else couldn’t come in and do another World War One story-arc just as good or better, but in specific terms of what Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun did, you’re not going to be able to better that. You might be able to twist it with a different artwork style or do it in colour, for example.
Matt: What did Joe Colquhoun bring to it?
Calum: His eye for detail, but more than that his ability to convey character in a face and in a figure, and also to convey sensation and emotion. Sometimes a reader doesn’t realise they’re taking in information from a picture, because they’re just looking at a picture. They don’t realise that at a subconscious level, they’re registering pain, emotion, whatever. It isn’t written down. It’s there in the art. Joe was very, very good at that.
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Commando © DC Thomson. “Charley’s War” © Egmont UK