Former Commando editor Calum Laird pays tribute to artist Gordon Livingstone, who died recently…
When British comics lost Gordon Livingstone, they lost one of their finest servants. As I was lucky enough to work with him, on and off, for nearly 20 years I’d like to add a few recollections of a colleague and a friend that might be missed in a catalogue of all the work he did.
To start at the end, so to speak, Gordon retired from DC Thomson in 1999, and when he did, he hung up his pens with in the same way that a plumber or electrician might do at the end of their working life. Oh, they might change a tap washer or wire a plug but, after many years of graft, the big jobs would be a thing of the past. That was Gordon’s outlook, too – he was a skilled tradesman, his trade was drawing, and now he was done with it.
I know this from first hand as, in the early 2000s, I was asked to approach him to do a well-paid freelance job for an overseas publisher; basically doing a Commando for them. The rates would have been much higher than any UK job and the deadline was lengthy but, after thanking me for the thought, he declined. After all those years deftly wielding a pen and brushes, he told me that he simply didn’t want to draw any more.
For me, that was part of the essence of the man. I’m sure he genuinely believed that he had been amazingly lucky to earn a living as an illustrator because he personally didn’t acknowledge his own talent. No matter how often we, the Commando staff, told him how good he was, he’d brush those compliments aside. This was no false modesty – Gordon saw himself as an artisan. Full stop. And drawing was his trade, not a mystical calling.
When I began work (work, ha!) on Commando in 1981 he was already a 20-year veteran. Once I’d realised that he was the artist whose style I’d tried to copy (unsuccessfully, I might needlessly add) as a youngster, I pulled one of my earliest and much read copies from a box in the attic and brought it into the office to await his Thursday morning visit. Come Thursday, I asked him if he’d sign the book for me. I cannot begin to tell you how difficult it was to convince him that this was no office wind-up! I persisted, though, and got my signed Commando No 199 – The Silver Spitfire.
Yes, Thursday mornings were part of the weekly routine. The Commando office was generally a quiet place but every Thursday morning (and it was habitually a Thursday morning) that peace would be shattered. The ruckus would be presaged by the sound of very distinctive footfalls in the lino-covered corridor outside. Then there on the threshold would be Gordon, battered leather portfolio under one arm, ready for amicable “battle” with the rest of us. I recall he always paused at this point, making his entrance more dramatic, or perhaps girding his loins for the fray?
There would follow the best part of an hour’s banter as he delivered his art to editor Ian Forbes (and, later, George Low) for approval. On one occasion, he made the mistake of leaving a half-pencilled page on the subs’ desk. He was back at home before he noticed two of the characters had acquired parrots on their shoulders, eye patches, and one had a wooden leg. Fortunately he didn’t ink our “improvements”, we just had to suffer his mock indignation. I can’t imagine too many other artists being quite so forgiving.
His pages often carried cryptic comments on the borders of his artwork; maybe a phone number but usually things he had heard on the radio while he was working in the shed – or as he preferred we call it, summerhouse – at the bottom of his garden. Whatever the subject, it would be followed by the comment, “discuss”. And we invariably did.
While writing this, George (Low) reminded me of another of the maestro’s quirks. On a rainy day – yes, we get them in Scotland – he’d arrive with a dripping brolly that he’d leave by the door. Not always, but fairly often, he’d forget to pick it up when he left, returning a short while later, half soaked, to pick it up.
Besides these weekly disruptions, what did Gordon bring to Commando? For one (unglamorous, I know) thing, an amazing work ethic – it takes a dedicated, conscientious professional to produce a 63-page Commando every four weeks for damn near 40 years. To do them to Gordon’s standard is another level of difficulty.
His style is distinctive and individual. Often described as “the Commando artist” as he was one of a small group who set the illustrative tone in the early issues. He mixes amazingly fine lines with heavy outlines, with hand shading, with Zip-A-Tone®, and a wealth of background detail which might swamp the frames in the hands of another artist. He can play with viewpoints with the best of them, especially in air stories, and I don’t think we ever came up with something he couldn’t draw. That is, unless you count the script direction that called for an attacking force of 10,000 camel-mounted warriors in one Commando frame. That provoked an outburst of mock indignation and no mistake!
For an artist with such a distinctive style, though, he had the uncanny ability to match that of other artists when their pages were “lost or damaged in the post”. This facility and his rapid drawing got Commando out of a number of holes over his years on the title.
His art style changes gradually from 1962 – when it was a very fully illustrated style owing a lot to the girls’ titles he previously worked on – to 1999. By then he knows exactly what to put in and what to leave out. His trademarks are there throughout; not the least of which is being able to letter a newspaper headline in a frame if it needs it. Another informal trademark is the wristwatch without hands. The majority of the watches he draws lack the means to tell the time. Perhaps Gordon thought that the detail wouldn’t show up in the final printing, and perhaps he was right. Didn’t stop us pointing it out, though. Then there are his stylised ears – not his, the ones on his illustrations – which are like the letter “C”. These are perfectly acceptable but we always pointed them out to confuse and confound and raise one of his trademark growls.
Along with his unflagging good humour, his kindness and warmth, my abiding memory is of the day we went to the Gordon Highlanders Museum in Aberdeen where we were opening a Commando art exhibition (with more than a few covers executed by Gordon). As well as claiming that the regiment was named after him, and bantering with his good friend Ian Kennedy like they were two high-spirited schoolboys on a spree, he insisted on referring to me as “young Calum.” I was 55 at the time.
I think our old boss George sums it up best.
“GCL has cast a long shadow which won’t fade for many of us.”