Growing up in the spiritual home of British comics, it was perhaps inevitable that Calum Laird would be drawn into the shadow of single tower of DC Thomsons’ Dundee HQ. Not that he saw it that way, completing a science degree at St Andrews University before joining up. In a 35-year career he worked on teenage girls’ magazines, newspapers, a motorcycle title and, of course, comics — specifically The Dandy and Commando.
The order of service reads: Jackie, Commando, Etcetra (sic), Blue Jeans, Commando, Classic Motorcycling Legends, Commando, Syndication, The Dandy, and last but not least, editor of Commando. The newspaper work was in amongst and as well as this.
Besides work, in 2011 he was talked into doing a Masters degree in Comics Studies by the very persuasive Dr Chris Murray of Dundee University. To Calum’s surprise, he completed that successfully and was once again talked into a PhD.
“With so many years spent working on war comics, it would have been foolish not to use that experience,” he reflects. “My thesis was based on how British War Comics reflected British attitudes to conflicts and the adversaries British forces faced. And so… in 2019 I became a Doctor of Comics, yes it’s real, and I do have a piece of paper to prove it.”
Calum is now back on Commando, as writer, most recently penning the 60th anniversary story for No. 5448, “Die — or Walk!”, still available as a digital edition, set, initially, a few weeks after events in Commando No. 1, “Walk – or Die” recently reprinted as Issue 5444. A catch up was well overdue…
downthetubes: Firstly, Calum, congratulations on getting the gig to write the 60th anniversary story, “Die — Or Walk!”, a return, at least in part, to events of the first ever Commando story. How did the commission come about?
Calum Laird: Thanks, John. Yes, it was quite a buzz to be asked to write the sequel to No 1. Not that it came out of a clear blue sky. I’d finished another story and in amongst the general email conversations with Commando Content Editor, Kate McAuliffe, I outlined a possible follow-up to No 1. This was ages — at least a year — before the birthday, but I was pretty sure they have their own ideas. So it was a surprise when, months later, I’d another email from Kate asking if I’d like to work up the outline I’d sent in the original chat.
downthetubes: Was there a specific brief to the story, or did you pitch ideas in response to a suggestion to write a continuation?
Calum: The original pitch was from myself, thinking about the anniversary coming up and wondering how it could be handled to make it different from what we did for the 50th. I mean, you don’t want to do the same thing over and over again. After Kate asked me to work up that outline paragraph, I expanded the idea and submitted it like any other synopsis. The Commando squad weren’t sold on my ending, but suggested a different direction to take. I have to say they were exactly right. The ending turned out much less awkward to arrange and much more satisfying.
downthetubes: When writing the story did you put yourself in the mindset of the original way the first adventure was told, including the style of dialogue, or did you decide to take a modern approach?
Calum: Bearing in mind that I’ve been immersed in Commando off and on since 1981, it would be difficult not to to have that historical influence on my story-telling. That said, there have been a lot of changes of tone and language in the stories over the years, and I tried to strike a balance between making the dialogue sound authentic and believable, but not some strange throwback caricature.
downthetubes: there are a lot of different tanks in the story… Did you provide artists Morhain and Defeo with reference, or given your past connections as editor of the title, did you know they would have all that sort of material?
Calum: I included a number of references with my final script (and I suspect more were added by Commando editorial). I’ve always reckoned that if you include a reference, the artist knows exactly what you want, even if they have their own reference material. Morhain and Defeo have been around the block a few times so they would have their own material, too. It’s just a question of me as writer sending some signposts.
downthetubes: Did you have direct contact with Morhain and Defeo while working on this story?
Calum: Because of the way Commando works (and always has), it’s unusual for the illustrators to have any contact with the writers. I don’t know if Morhain and Defeo speak English (any scripts I sent to them in the past were translated), but I certainly speak no Spanish so communication could have been difficult! Back when I was the editor, we were in touch via their agent, so no direct contact then, either.
downthetubes: The longevity of Commando as a title, outlasting all competitors, is pretty astonishing. Speaking as a former editor, now writer, and someone who has researched British comics for various projects, to what do you attribute its ongoing success?
Calum: I’ve been asked about that so many times, and I wish I could give a pat answer to that one. I’ve talked about it to other people and I still don’t really know.
The best I can manage is that it’s a combination of things. Editorially, there was always a focus on the quality of the stories, and we benefitted from the work of some superb contributors, many who didn’t work for other publishers. I’m obviously biased, but I think our stories were much more character-driven.
It may have helped that Commando sat within a department apart from the other DCT comics, drawing staff from outside the Boys’ Comics. I don’t know about other titles, but Commando also had a very wide age group in its readership, reaching well into adulthood. Commando remained consistent in its approach and content when some other titles felt they had to chase circulations by changing their outlook. Think Battle Action Force and The Victor’s move towards more sport content.
I realise this makes me sound like a “company man”, but it has to be said that Thomsons themselves were and are very loyal to the title. The firm’s management continued to back it even as sales dropped back after the peak figures in the late 1970s/ early 80s. Other publishers with different financing arrangements might have taken a different attitude. I think Commando was always a bit cheaper that the competition, too.
Lastly, as other titles fell by the wayside, Commando picked up at least some of their readers so being the last man standing did have a benefit.
downthetubes: As an occasional reader, I have found the format of Commando remarkably resilient, for example the two panel page design which it has maintained throughout its run is great for reading on a digital device. Do you think that has something to do with its success?
Calum: I have often credited original editor Chic Checkley with anticipating the iPad screen size, but there’s something more than a joke there. That size is comfortable in the hand and eye for the device, just like on paper Commando is. It might just have been that it was easier to hide inside an opened school text book, too. The size, its constraints and virtues apply to other picture libraries, too.
For me, where all the libraries scored was the self-contained nature of the stories. You could pick one up and get the whole thing. No need to go back and find the next episode. Though it’s a nightmare as regards visibility on the newsagents shelves, the format is very distinctive.
downthetubes: despite its consistent format, the title has evolved over the years, as you would expect of any comic. Are there particularly significant changes in terms of content and approach the character that you have noticed, especially in the past few years?
Calum: When I started on Commando in 1981, there was a primary focus on World War Two. We had to use flashbacks and other devices to get other conflicts in. George Low opened up the title to all conflicts, and widened the casts. The casts expanded even further after I left, and it’s all to the good. There’s the same desire to keep things authentic, things that might have happened, and the language has moved more towards a more modern vocabulary. There’s also been a move to smaller explanatory narration panels and a more expanded visual story-telling style. Commando has evolved and is evolving as it has ever done.
downthetubes: As a Commando writer, do you have a particular field of conflict that you enjoy writing about, and if so, why?
Calum: Not really, I like aircraft stories, but my favourite aspect is the characters and the interplay between them. Stories can be set anywhere, any time, it’s the actions of cast that interest me.
downthetubes: What are you working on, comics-wise, right now, and when will it be published?
Calum: Well, I’ve just finished a two-part Commando, and they’ve commissioned another. I have a war comic project on the go, with Rik Stone, and a comedy adventure with him as well. I’m guessing the Commandos will be out later this year at the earliest. The others you’ll hear about when we launch a Kickstarter.
downthetubes: How do you plan your day as a creator? (Do you plan your day?)
Calum: I could tell you that I plan my days meticulously, but that would be a total lie. Just like when I was in the Commando office, I deal with what comes through the door. The Commando deadlines are quite helpful but I do have to give myself a boll***ing from time to time and tell myself to get on with it.
I always looked on full-time freelance comics people with an amazing amount of respect. When I was working in comics full time, I had the imposed discipline of having to turn up in the office every day. Now I don’t have that it’s very easy to be distracted.
downthetubes: What’s the best thing about being a comics creator? And the worst?
Calum: Best thing is being able to pull things out of your head and build them up. A close second is seeing how an artist realises your ideas. The worst is probably when someone else isn’t as convinced as I am about what I’ve built.
downthetubes: What most distracts you from getting your work done?
Calum: So. Many. Things. I love riding motorbikes, so when the weather’s that’s the big one. There are loads of others, like the internet, but that’s top of the heap. This may or may not have something to do with this interview arriving late!
downthetubes: Apart from Commando, is there a particular comic or a particular project you’d dearly like to have a crack at, that you haven’t yet?
Calum: I’d like to do something with a Scottish mythological flavour. There are some really good stories in Scots myths, and elements of them would lend themselves to be woven into some comics stories.
I’d also like to rework some of DC Thomson’s characters with a more modern twist, much as Garth Ennis has famously done with Battle’s Johnny Red. There is some excellent material in the DCT archives – Wilson, the Man in Black [from various DCT titles, including The Hotspur], and Sergeant Rayker [from Warlord] would be on the list. Maybe a few more Commando sequels.
downthetubes: What one piece of advice do you offer people looking to work in the comics industry?
Calum: I sort of fell into working in comics, almost by accident, so maybe I’m not the best person to ask. I know a number of people who have just done comics, done comics, done comics until they built up a reputation and the work came in. The single piece of advice would be to persist.
downthetubes: What’s your favourite comic right now and where can people get it?
Calum: You mean part from Cat Laird’s Working In The Arts?
Because I’m currently looking backwards into old war comics, I don’t get to read too much new material. The last new comics I read were Garth Ennis and Keith Burns’ Out of the Blue (available from Aftershock) and The Stringbags, Garth’s collaboration with PJ Holden (Naval Institute Press). Both are highly recommended.
downthetubes: Calum, thank you very much for your time and the very best of luck with all your future projects!