For over 50 years Commando Comics has been filling the dreams of children, and some adults who perhaps should know better, with rifles, bayonets and heroic victory over the Nazis. The small, pocket-size editions have captured the imagination of generations through bold, vivid artwork and realistic, engaging stories. To honour half a century of the comics, The National Army Museum is exhibiting some of their finest works in 'Draw Your Weapons: The Art Of Commando Comics.'
In collaboration with DC Thomson, the comics' publisher, the museum has built an exhibition which not only pays respect to the high calibre of art shown through the 50 years of the publication, but also links the fictional stories to the real life adventures of British Commandos. Filmed interviews, artefacts and an array of photographs all play an important part in linking the comics to the real life heroics of the men who were their inspiration.
The exhibition also allows the comics a wider audience, Robert Fleming, Curator of Fine and Decorative Art at the Museum, explains how 'There has been a rise in the choice of entertainment in the past 20 years or so, and there is so much more choice than when Commando was at its peak in the '70s and '80s. But, it's picking up again, there is a nostalgia group, who read them as children, who are now reintoducing them to their own children.' The comics now sell 40 to 50,000 copies a month, a shade of its 1982 average of 750,000, but still an impressive figure an a heavily saturated and competitive market.
Fleming explained excitedly how at the exhibition's press launch, 'there was a queue of young children, of around ten, eleven years old.. they all had their favourite episodes and their favourite recurring characters.' Looking at the wider picture, this is promising in the world of comic books, even American giants Marvel and DC have been struggling to engage a young audience in such a way, Fleming puts Commando's success down to it's realistic roots, and educational ideals.
"It's so different from our other exhibitions, but we wanted to take a look at a genre of pop culture which was under-appreciated..."
"They hit on a really great idea, had a snappy title in 'Commando' and the stories, despite being fictional, are historically accurate, they have a realism and a grit to them. War is a serious subject with a sharp edge, but it's all done tastefully and realistically. They provide a really good introduction to military history." It is true that Commando provide a tasteful and credible realism to their tales. Whilst characters are often killed off, there is no gore or over-zealous violence, they provide genuine accounts of war without discrediting the armed forces with grisly and sensationalist portrayals. This was a style which Fleming was keen to capture through the exhibition:
"It's so different from our other exhibitions, but we wanted to take a look at a genre of pop culture which was under-appreciated in both literary and artistic terms, and also provided a different representation of the armed forces from our more sombre exhibitions"
50 years on Commando Comics still seems to be a roaring success amongst old and young alike, its exemplary artwork, digestable storylines and relatable characters seem to be timeless. Whether the narrative explores World War Two, The Falklands or something more avant-garde all together, the market still seems to be there for the comics. With the backing of people like Robert Fleming at the National Army Museum, perhaps the comics will continue to grow in stature and finally be given the wider respect that they deserve.
"They realistically express the range of emotions and tough decisions in combat, courage, cowardice, redemption, allowing the audience to relate to the characters." says Fleming "There's been a great reaction and there's still a really strong interest in this art form".
Here's to another 50 years of bayonets, cannons and Commando Comics.
Draw Your Weapons – The Art of Commando Comics – Opens 1 September 2011 at the National Army Museum.
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