First published in 1961 Commando is Britain’s last war comic. Indeed, of those British comics that many of us grew up with, only the ubiquitous Dandy and Beano are older – however, since there are eight Commandos a month, its issue count is much higher than both of its septuagenarian cousins. Commando even makes the thirty year old 2000AD look like a young upstart.
In 2007 , long time Commando editor George Low gave downthetubes an interview on his retirement. As the title approaches issue 4100 in 2008, Jeremy Briggs talked to new editor Calum Laird, who joined DC Thomson in 1979, on the recent changes he has made and the growth in Commando related tie-ins…
downthetubes: What comics did you read as a child and which were your favourites?
Calum Laird: I started with Playhour, then Sparky, Victor and, yes really, Commando. A pal used to get US comics like Silver Surfer but they never totally worked for me.I also remember reading someone else’s Look and Learn for The Trigan Empire stories. Working here at DC Thomson, we used to see all the war comics on the market and I really enjoyed Battle.Favourites? Sparky and, yes really again, Commando.
downthetubes: What other DC Thomson titles have you worked on over the years?
Calum: Jackie, Etcetra, Blue Jeans, Classic Motorcycling Legends, Best Of Bunty, Dandy.
downthetubes: As readers we perceive a big difference between boys and girls titles. From a production and editorial perspective is there much difference between working on a girl’s title like Bunty or Jackie to working on a boy’s title?
Calum: From a production point of view there is little difference in a boys’ or girls’ title; the deadlines are the same and the mechanical processes are the same. Editorially, the difference is in the content, otherwise it’s broadly similar.
Calum: When I started on Jackie there were no photostories – they were handled by the two younger sisters, Blue Jeans and Patches – just illustrated strips. The big difference is between Commando (or any novel-style publication) and the rest. Each issue is one story as compared to several, or several plus features.
downthetubes: Having worked in the Syndication Department of DC Thomson, what other countries licence old material and what type of story is the most popular to be licensed?
Calum: Material is syndicated to all corners of the globe and not just stories. I suppose that historically, our Boys’ and Girls’ Paper material will be the most syndicated.
downthetubes: When did you start working on Commando and when did you get the job of editor?
Calum: I ’ve worked on Commando on four occasions, starting in 1981. I got the job of editor in September last year (2007) joining up with Chief Sub Scott Montgomery who I’d previously worked with on The Dandy.
downthetubes: Having worked on Commando at different times over the last quarter of a century, what different jobs have you performed on the title and how has the production and editorial side changed over the years?
Calum: I’ve always been editorial. I’ve never been on the art side of things. So it’s always been the same, editing contributions and organising illustration of the stories then getting them ready for printing. It’s different now, because there’s a computer and phone on every desk, sorry, workstation. I still prefer to sub with a pen and paper — I must be too set in my ways after the last “quarter of a century”!
downtheubes: For the collectors, the biggest change that you have made as editor is the addition of credit details in the shape of a grenade. While some artists have signed their work in recent years, the writers for the most part have remained mysterious. Were the credit grenades something that you had planned from the start and was there resistance within the company to introducing them?
Calum: It wasn’t planned from the start — it just became clear that part of the market was interested in that information so we decided to put it on. No, there was no resistance. The Credit Grenade was done by an unknown artist (unknown by me, anyway) for advertising purposes a long time ago.
downthetubes: With eight issues a month, four new and four reprint, how far ahead of the publishing schedule do you work?
Calum: How long is a piece of string? Our print deadline is two months before sale date. Our artists may take up to three months to illustrate a story and for us to organise a cover, so that’s five months. Then it can take a month for a script to go from synopsis to artist-ready. That would make it around six months.
downtheubes: What artists and writers are currently regulars on Commando?
Calum: I’m tempted to say buy the books and you’ll find out from the credits on page three…
Writers: Alan Hebden, Ferg Handley and Mike Knowles provide a lot of stories. Other writers, like Norman Adams and Sean Blair, provide regular contributions, just at a lower frequency.
downthetubes: With a number of Commando artists not being UK based and the growing ease of sending documents electronically, do you still receive the original art boards from the artists or is the art now mainly delivered in the form of high quality scans?
Calum: With the exception of a few covers, all the illustrations arrive on board. It’s much more satisfying to open a parcel that an e-file.
downthetubes: Some of the artists provide covers as well as the comic strip. Is it preferable for the same artist to do both?
downthetubes: The covers display a range of styles: José Maria Jorge’s fully painted covers, Keith Page’s coloured line art and John Ridgway’s computer generated covers for instance. Is there an editorial policy of varying the styles of covers for a given batch of four titles?
Calum: The range of styles reflects the range of inside artwork and we do try to have a mix of stories and styles in every four. I suppose it’s like a comic where you have different artists doing different strips rather than one doing every story.
downthetubes: Most non-readers consider that Commando stories only cover World War 2 despite the title covering most conflicts from the Roman Empire to the Gulf War. Do you have a favourite era and are there any eras that you would like to see more stories from?
Calum: At the risk of giving what sounds like a politician’s answer, what I like has nothing to do with it. It’s what our feedback tells me that the majority of our readers and potential readers want that counts. My job is to make sure that the stories are set when and where they want them and they are good, entertaining yarns.
I like to give them something different every now and again, though, just to keep it interesting…
downthetubes: The readers of Commando have recently been asked to take part in a survey. As Commando has never had a letters page, has there ever been that much feedback from readers prior to the survey?
Calum: Yes, we get plenty of feedback. Our readers have always been happy to put pen to paper.
downthetubes: One of the survey questions asked readers where they purchased their copies. Could you tell us where we would expect to be able to buy the title?
Calum: Local newsagents, WH Smith, Eason & Sons, Martin McColl, WHS Travel, Co-op, NAAFI, SPAR…
downthetubes: Foreign comics websites show the number of foreign editions of Commando. Are Commando stories still being licensed in other countries?
Calum: Yes. Finland’s Korkeajännitys has been a long-time collaborator and Eurokids in India have just come aboard. There are contacts with Eastern Europe and the Middle East as well. We are also available by subscription to all corners of the globe at very reasonable rates. (More info by emailing: email@example.com).
downthetubes: The D C Thomson syndication website shows Starblazer issue 269, which was originally published in black and white, coloured for potential reprinting. Other than the two Commando annuals which used a larger coloured format, have any Commando stories been reprinted in colour around the world and would you like to see some Commando stories reproduced in colour?
Calum: I know about those images because I organised their colouring. That story was chosen because those particular images lent themselves to being coloured, a lot of black and white illustration doesn’t. I have seen coloured Commando artwork that would turn you green. [See example below].
Would I like to see artwork in Commando meant for colour from the word go? Yes I would — but I don’t think it would be an economic proposition as things stand. However, all things are possible and I live in hope that we may be able to do something in the future.
downthetubes: The Commando website (www.commandomag.com), is being promoted more heavily both on the back cover as well as on the inside. Has the extra promotion increased the number of visitors to the site?
Calum: It’s early days so it’s difficult to say.
downthetubes: The letters section of the website has now been replaced with a blog style comment option to go with the news and features. Are you pleased with the response of reads to the site and its various features?
Calum: All the reaction I’ve had has been positive so, yes, I’m pleased.
downthetubes: The site now has an ongoing e-comic version of Commando Issue 221, Wall Of Death, in addition to inside cover features from a variety of artists and an increasing number of covers available as wallpapers. Can we look forward to seeing more along the same lines?
Calum: Yes. The website is a developing project that will evolve over time. There will be more things to come that we haven’t even thought of yet.
downthetubes: The website also now has a shop with mugs and T-shirts available with various exclusive designs featuring the title logo and the knife emblem. Has the response to these been good and are any other items planned?
Calum: The response has been okay and we expect it to improve as we find out more about what our online shoppers want. There are more products planned including limited-edition T-shirts. Another calendar is a possibility too. E-mail me (firstname.lastname@example.org) with suggestions.
downthetubes: The Carlton/Sevenoaks Commando reprint books have been very successful, inspiring similar IPC boys and girls titles to be published. Can we expect to see these Commando titles continuing?
Calum: There are two more planned for this year, but after that nothing has been settled. All fans of the compilations should e-mail me (email@example.com) with their support.
downthetubes: With the success of the reprint books licensed to another publisher, would DC Thomson not consider doing their own annual Commando publication alongside the current Beano, Dandy, Broons and Oor Wullie publications?
Calum: I’m not sure that the two products (the compilations and our annuals) are comparable, so I don’t know how the success would impact on that decision. And just because there hasn’t been a Commando Annual since the early 1990s doesn’t mean it hasn’t been considered…
downthetubes: Of all the titles that you have worked on in your career which do you look back on with the greatest affection?
Calum: This is impossible to answer. The titles are mixed up with the people I worked with as well as the work I was doing. They’ve all been great fun to put together.
downthetubes: Commando reached Issue 4000 last year. Despite the contraction and juvenilisation of the comics market in recent years, do you foresee the title reaching its 5000th issue in around nine years time?
Calum: This is another impossible question. However, as I’m not due to retire before 2021, I certainly hope so!
downthetubes: Calum, thank you very much for your time and best of luck with Commando’s continued success
All illustrations are © D C Thomson
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The Perils of Colouring Commando…
The perils of bad colouring exposed – pink SS officers from the 1986 Warlord Annual. “I must make it plain that the “bad colouring” on the Warlord annual is not a pop at Bill Graham and his merry men,” explains Calum. “They were given a single colour wash over different bits of the annuals and had to choose the best compromise. I’m sure they didn’t want the SS in pink…”
On the ComicsUK website, Lew Stringer, who knows a thing or two about artwork, points out the difference between black and white artwork drawn for colouring and black and white artwork drawn to be seen just as black and white artwork.