This month sees a major change at DC Thomson with the retirement of long-serving but, perhaps, little-known editor of Commando George Low, who joined the company from school in 1963 and has worked on the digest title ever since.
downthetubes caught up with George to ask him about himself, Commando – and the title’s future…
downthetubes: When and how did you join DC Thomson’s?
George Low: 1963, from school.
downthetubes: What titles other than Commando have you worked on over the years?
George: Only Star Love Stories … a “sister” publication to Commando.
downthetubes: Of the non-Commando comics, do you have any particular favourites?
George: I always liked the text comics … Adventure, Wizard, Rover etc … which I had been brought up on.
downthetubes: How and when did you get the job of Commando editor?
George: I took over in 1989 when Ian Forbes, the second editor, retired. Ian had taken over from the first editor, Chick Checkley, some years previously.
downthetubes: What is a typical day in the office?
George: Check the mail, both snail and email, for both art and written material. Move on the current inside artwork and covers; check proofs and discuss and develop new plots and art requirements.
downthetubes: How many people work on Commando at DC Thomson?
George: Three at the moment.
downthetubes: How is a typical issue put together?
George: A synopsis is accepted and then scripted. The script is prepared for the artist with references etc and then posted out. When the artwork of one issue is complete the type is set and added electronically. It is then sent off for processing and the cover, which has been developed at the same time, is also dealt with.
The insides are printed in pairs; the covers four at a time.
downthetubes: There are now more non-World War Two stories with tales being set in Roman and Viking times, the Old West, Afghanistan, the Gulf and there are even some science fiction stories. Was there a deliberate decision to take the title away from World War Two and expand the story settings?
George: Yes. World War Two was and is our base, but we had done so many stories from that period, it was time to move on to other theatres. It gave our writers and artists fresh material to work with and the feedback was good from the readers about these new notions.
downthetubes: What sort of stories would you really like to see submitted to Commando?
George: I think we have quite a good mix at the moment, and it’s difficult to pick out anything in particular. It’s often the case that an idea comes out of nowhere and the ball starts rolling in an opposite direction.
downthetubes: There seems to be a return to ongoing stories such as the 13-issue run of Ramsey’s Raiders. What spurred that decision?
George: It was an in-house proposal and we gave it a go and the response was good. It called for tight scripting and good link-up work, but it turned out well.
downthetubes: When did recurring characters originally begin inCommando and why?
George: They have been there for quite some time now, and it was often the case that one synopsis had enough material for two or three published books. At one time, that would perhaps have resulted in two or three distinct stories, but it became clear that good characters and related action could be linked but still remain as a stand-alone editions if need be.
downthetubes: Have you had any favourite characters or settings down the years?
George: Not really. Each character or setting is the favourite as you work with it to get the best out of it. It’s always refreshing, though, when a writer comes up with a plot set in some little known backwater of any given war.
downthetubes: What’s the editorial role? How often do you ask for changes?
George: Our established writers know the score and if an idea is acceptable, it usually only needs a few minor alterations. These are some times brought about because another story at that time perhaps has some similar ingredients. It’s more complex with beginners, who have to be encouraged and guided more and often have to realise that it’s not as easy as it might seem.
downthetubes: Since the current Commandos retain the same format and layout as the first published, how have things changed production-wise over the years?
George: It used to be hot metal and then plastic plates before we changed over to very modern methods with everything done electronically.
downthetubes: Was Commando originally produced with DC Thomson staff writers and artists or have there always been freelancers working on it?
George: Staff writers have written material occasionally and staff artists have contributed too, but from the beginning it was freelance authors and artists who did the bulk of the work.
downthetubes: Do you have any favourite artists and writers on Commando?
George: I can’t answer that! The others would lynch me. Anyway, all the artists and writers have their own talents to add to the mix and that is their great strength in some ways. I have worked with some longer than others … Ian Kennedy, for example. He is also on our doorstep, which is great for discussing covers with him face to face.
Email has been a great boon for communicating with those further afield at a better speed and it also helps iron out any problems sooner and faster.
downthetubes: If you could only give one piece of advice to a new artist or writer wanting to work for Commando, what would it be?
George: Research Commando and your subject thoroughly and be prepared to write off your first attempt to experience. It’s not an easy task and even our regulars can have bad spells at times.
downthetubes: Are there any creators you would like to have worked with, but the opportunity never presented itself?
George: Too many to list but that doesn’t really come into the equation. All our contributors past and present have, in the main, done their level best at the very least and that’s what counts.
downthetubes: The artists are now allowed to sign their work and so their names are better known to the readership. Why hasCommando started crediting creators, but only on the Commando website?
George: Yes, we already carry full credits on our website and I think we will soon do likewise with the published books. Most readers knew who the artists were and we never had a problem with crediting them. It was more difficult for the readers to pick up on writers, so it was time to redress the balance. We could well take it a step further now.
downthetubes: Fleetway used some of their recurring weekly characters in their Picture Library titles such as Battler Britton or Jet Ace Logan. DC Thomsons’ Starblazer used the Starhawk character fromCrunch and Buddy, while Football Picture Story Monthly used Jon Stark and the United football team from Spike and Victor. Would you ever consider using DC Thomson heritage characters in Commando such as RAF pilot Matt Braddock VC or Royal Marine Union Jack Jackson?
George: It has been thought about, but there is something unique about the Commando treatment of characters and locations which makes such a switch more difficult than it would seem on the surface.
downthetubes: Many older readers remember Commando from seaside newsagents rather than their local shops. Was there a policy of getting the title distributed in holiday towns or are our memories skewed on this?
George: Summer was the prime time to box out unsold and the latest editions in as big a display as possible. They were right in your face then.
downthetubes: What is the reasoning behind choosing which stories to reprint?
George: The reprints must contrast with the current new issues, and not clash with them. Because we have such a back catalogue to call upon, it’s quite easy to present a good mix.
downthetubes: Do you reprint from the original artwork or from copies of it?
George: From the original artwork with the speech panels and balloons still in place to the original sticking down. Our Process department can cope with both the present, modern issues and the reprints.
downthetubes: Ian Kennedy continues to work his way through the lesser known military aircraft while Keith Page has started a run on soldiers throughout the years. Who chooses which inside cover subjects to illustrate?
George: Ian, with his knowledge of aircraft, goes off on a physical search of his vast reference library once we have pin-pointed what we are after. We knew Keith could do feature material and he proved it with an earlier Samurai series and the more recent soldiers through the ages set.
THE SUCCESS AND FUTURE OF COMMANDO
downthetubes: Why do you think Commando has proved such an enduring success when so many other boys adventure titles have disappeared?
George: I suspect we are lucky in that we appeal to a wide range of ages and thereby generations. I also think our endeavour to keep stories and artwork as fresh and as accurate and as interesting as possible helps. There is a lot of reading in a Commando book and that is a plus too.
downthetubes: Do you foresee a time when Commando might become a reprint only title?
George: I certainly hope not. We have enough writers and artists to keep going and I hope that our readers will play their part too.
downthetubes: What’s next for Commando? Can you tell us about plans for future issues?
George: Our grand plan is more a case of evolution, sometimes fast, sometimes slower. It says a lot for our writers that they somehow come up with something different enough to stand out, and the artists pick and carry the ball with enthusiasm and skill.
downthetubes: How do you stay fresh and excited about Commando after so long in the top man’s job?
George: Fellow staff members help, and it’s a lot of fun to deal with the special brand of very talented people who write and draw comics and are never fully recognised for it . Then you get the readers’ reaction and that too is a buzz.
THE STATE OF THE INDUSTRY
downthetubes: DC Thomson editors have often pointed to competing interests as a reason for the decline in comic sales down the years, but is it that simple? Are there particular things you think have affected sales more than others?
George: Competing interests play their part, but so does a general decline in interest in the written word. Maybe that will change but it’s up to us to make Commando or whatever a publication worth picking up.
downthetubes: Given Commando‘s success despite sales slowdowns in the UK adventure comics market, has DC Thomson considered launching similar Pocket Library titles, or is the launch and marketing cost for this too steep?
George: I don’t know a lot about the economics of it, but earlier Pocket Libraries like Star Love Stories, Starblazer and Football Libraries eventually fell by the wayside. Commando is luckier in that there is a bigger source of plots to call on, encompassing two World Wars and many other conflicts with all the nationalities and locations that meant.
downthetubes: Do you think the way magazines are distributed today and the costs of launching and marketing a title to the news trade hinder the success or even enthusiasm for of new comics titles?
George: I suspect it does and that’s a pity, but it’s not an easy market.
ABOUT THE COMMANDO SPIN OFFS
downthetubes: How successful has Commando been overseas? Are there particular countries where the stories have a strong following?
George: We have always had a good following in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The recent success of Carlton’s Anzacs at War collection on the other side of the world proves the point.
downthetubes: DC Thomson published two softcover Commando annuals in 1989/1990. They didn’t use the Commando format and were more like colour versions of strips from weekly comics. No other DC Thomson boys annual used a full colour format.
Were they an attempt to get a regular Commando annual published at a time when the majority of boys’ annuals were nearing the end of their publication runs?
George: I don’t really know as they were not done by Commando staff but by staff on other the then boys’ publications.
downthetubes: Would the annuals have been more successful if they had stayed with the tried and trusted Commando format?
George: They might have been but they might also have detracted from the regular Commando issues.
downthetubes: Given the apparent failure of the Commando annuals, since they only lasted two years, are you pleased with the success of the Carlton Commando reprint titles?
George: We’re delighted with the Carlton collections and there are more planned. Watch this space for details …
downthetubes: While the Commando collectors know your name, the majority of the Commando readership do not. Was Commando Dirty Dozen the first time that the readership would have learnt your name and did you prefer your previous anonymity?
George: But is it my real name or a pseudonym? Has anybody ever seen me? Truth can be stranger than fiction …
downthetubes: Why choose 2007 to produce the Art of Commando calendar?
George: It was a good time to do this with the Carlton publications having raised interest in Commando.
downthetubes: Was it a success and can we hope to see more produced?
George: The calendar was well received but there are no plans at the moment for a 2008 calendar.
downthetubes: It was ironic that never having released aCommando calendar before, two calendars were produced in the same year. Spitfire Designs who produced the Commando Covers of Yesteryear calendar also produced a Jackie Covers calendar for 2007. Was it a licensing decision to allow a competing calendar to be released at the same time?
George: It just happened that way, as things often do in publishing.
downthetubes: How much input to the commandomag.com website does you have?
George: A lot … the Commando staff maintain and update the material on it, answering the readers’ emails etc.
downthetubes: With just days in the job to go, what key advice have you given on doing the job to your successor, Calum Laird?
George: Calum has worked on Commando before on various occasions, so he knows the score. He also knows that I like to think I have learned as much from our contributors as they have perhaps learned from me. It’s a two-way street and encouragement goes a lot further than random criticism. But, most of all, enjoy it!
downthetubes: George, thank you very much for your time and the very best for a happy retirement.
Questions were provided by Jeremy Briggs (for most of them, in fact!), Matthew Badham, Ferg Handley and John Freeman
• There are more details of Commando on the official Commando website, the Commando Facebook page
• Commando Collections: Checklist
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Categories: British Comics, Classic British Comics, Comic Creator Interviews