Friday, 30 April 2010

Achtung Commando!!! Part 3 The Art of Gordon Livingstone

The final part of the equation that made Chick Checkley's particular brand of 64 page war comic so distinctive was his choice of artist, ironically the scripts which again tended to echo the idea of individual against the system, dysfunctionality being a given for many of the characters that inhabited the pages of the early Commandos, were provided by writers from both Thomson's and Fleetway, retired Major Eric Hebden being a case in point.

But as is always the case with comics, the catalyst that steered readers to engage with stories of men that the armed forces (let alone the enemy) found difficult to handle, was the artwork. Checkley had two conduits of artwork, with a whole slew of artists from Barry Coker's Bardon Art Agency (so called because of the sourcing of a lot of their talent from both offices in London and Barcelona) to help pitch in and meeet the omnipresent monthly print deadlines.

But the second conduit and by far Checkley's preferred route was via D.C. Thomson's own in house talent. And in the case of D.C. Thomson's we are talking literally in-house, as being patriarchal and money conscious Scots, they needed to know that their artists were at their desks and not at the golf course. The system worked well insofar as it provided an in-house training for a lot of the younger artists who would often be guided and mentored by their older colleagues, and there were plan chests just brimming with artwork which provided an added inspirational boost.

One of the younger artists that Checkley had under consideration was Gordon Checkley Livingstone, Livingstone's middle name bequeathed to him by Checkley's mother who was godmother to Gordon Livingstone. But it has to be said that all charge of rampant nepotism aside, Livingstone at that time wasn't a natural choice for a comic devoted to tales of military derring do. In fact much of his time had been occupied producing artwork for girl's comics and magazines such as Thomson's "Secrets". He had however done his National Service some ten years earlier in Germany and was no stranger to square bashing and handling, if not actually ever firing, a Lee Enfield rifle.

Livingstone set to his task with gusto, despite having absolutely zero awareness of pocket war libraries. It was this complete lack of knowledge about what had preceded Commando which enabled Livingstone to undertake the task free from any preconceptions about the genre. He was in effect working on a blank slate.

The first story that Livingstone delivered was "Mercy For None", which in many ways was definitely not what you'd expect a war comic to look like but in a kind of weird way it worked. In fact it worked to the extent that for the next thirty plus years until he retired in 1999, Gordon Livingstone was considered the face of Commando comics, with his work conveying a genuine charm in terms of the characterisation and storytelling that set his work apart from a genre where cliche can easily overwhelm individual artistry.

All images © DC Thomson 2010

For up to date information on all things Commando please check the Commando website.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Achtung Commando!!! Part 2 - Ken Barr Cover Artist Extraordinaire!!!

Chick Checkley's reworking of the 64 page war pocket library had a subtle irony underpinning his vision for the comic. Essentially Commando in those early years was far closer to U.S. Pulps in sentiment than it was to Fleetway's War Picture Library and the host of imitators it had spawned.

(Portrait of Chick Checkley by Gordon Livingstone - another Commando legend - more about Gordon soon!)

The clues were in the titles that Checkley dreamed up for those early stories, "A Guy Needs Guts", "Mercy For None", "Red Runs The River", "Knife For A Nazi", "The Death Dealers", "Lone Hero", "Death In The Sun", compared to which Fleetway's stable with titles such as, "Fight Back To Dunkirk", "The Gallant Few","Wings Over The Navy, Up Periscope", "Beachhead" etc, etc, seemed almost prosaic in comparison. The Fleetway vision was that of team work, blitz spirit, all in it together, whereas Checkley's take was much more man against the system, with the individual often depicted in torn battledress, with impressive sweat shone musculature, looking for all the world like a man you would cross the road to avoid. The thought that this was all hatched in a Dundee publishing house, more famed for periodicals such as The Sunday Post, The People's Friend and The Beano and The Dandy was really quite bizarre.

The man responsible for adding the visual punch to Checkley's prototype was Ken Barr, a pugnacious Glaswegian. Barr like a lot of his contemporaries had lived a bit, courtesy of Her Majesty's Government who had required him to spend his National Service years in Egypt where British Servicemen were not exactly flavour of the month or year come to that. Barr and his colleagues were in continual danger of death by ice pick in dark alleys, or  in the case of unwary motorcyclists, decapitation via wire stretched across lonely roads.

By the time that Checkley approached him with the job of Commando cover artist, Barr's love of U.S. comics and pulps had steered his artistic sensibilities towards a career in illustration with a distinctly bold and punchy style, his first cover art appearing on the covers of the U.K. Nebula Science Fiction digest in 1958.

It was Barr who created the panoramic cover and who designed the Commando logo with the Sykes Fairburn knife as it's fulcrum. Sykes and Fairburn were two ex pats whose extremely colorful lives had involved them training The Shanghai Police during the 1930's and latterly the Commandos. Their innovations and ideas in hand to hand combat had included the development of the distinctive double edged blade which now adorned the logo and back cover of each issue of Commando which Barr worked upon.

Barr it was who added form and color to Checkley's intent, the characters on Barr's covers ooze Pulp chic, with bulging biceps, buggin' eyes, clenched teeth and phosphorescent backlighting. All this against a sea of Nazi regalia, swastikas, skull and crossbones, daggers and flags as de rigeur props to add yet more flesh to Checkley's fantasy. Barr it was who was the model for many of the characters on those early covers, a keen bodybuilder he was the very epitome of the tough Glaswegian, good to have as a friend but someone you wouldn't want to piss around.

Barr set the style and approach to Commando covers for the first five years at least of the series, when the amount of work got too much and covers were assigned to other artists as with issues 15 and 17, the Barr influence is still very strong.

Barr's love of all things American finally involved him taking a U.S. wife and moving Stateside where he worked for D.C. producing comics for Joe Kubert and Marvel where he produced some truly spectacular magazine covers for Doc. Savage and The Hulk.

And that's not to mention all the work he produced for James Warren ...

All images © DC Thomson 2010.

Also be sure to check out the indispensable Commando website.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Achtung Commando!!!

Editor Chick Checkley was, like many of the staff at the Dundee based firm of D.C. Thomson,  wedded to the company and the affairs of D.C. Thomson. It's myriad young people's publications had occupied most of his adult life, barring a wartime posting to Canada with the R.A.F. where he contracted emphysema and was invalided out. Sadly he never fully recovered from the illness and eventually succumbed to it's ravages at the relatively early age of 63.

But, the illness notwithstanding his zest for life remained undimmed, a passionate golfer who had six holes in one to his credit at Carnousti golf course, he was always brimming with ideas and his last great idea for Thomson's would outlast the rival publications which had spawned it.

When Checkley first considered the idea of Thomson's producing a 64 page digest sized war comic, their number one rival Amalgamated Press, now Fleetway had been producing War Picture Library and Air Ace Picture Library for the previous couple of years and their comics dominated the market for 8 year old boys and upwards who wanted a one hit story rather than a weekly serialisation.

The comics had proven so successful that Fleetway were on the cusp of launching yet another title (Battle Picture Library) and there were already a whole slew of second and even third banana imitators. There was most immediately Micron's Combat Picture Library, with it's distinctive red bar extending down the left hand side of each cover, the covers themselves always hinting at more than the comic would ultimately deliver, not to mention the truly horrible Pearson's Libraries, whose covers sported a distinctive checkerboard strip across the top, thereby distracting your gaze from the mediocrity of the paintings that adorned them, the contents being so terrible that even the pedestrianism of Micron's artists shone like beacons of inspiration in comparison.

The idea that Checkley was formulating was Commando, a title that is still with us to this day albeit in a much less lurid incarnation. What Checkley did was rather than following the trend of imitating Fleetway's product, he actually reworked the formulae and in doing so created a classic comic.

We'll pick up this story again tomorrow, focusing a little more on the extraordinary story behind the artists who helped flesh out Checkley's vision but here in the interim are the first ten covers by the legendary Ken Barr, who like Denis McLoughlin had been well and truly seduced by U.S. pulp and comic art.

Also check out the excellent Commando website.

All images © DC Thomson 2010

Monday, 26 April 2010

More From McLoughlin

As I'm doing a hell of a lot of work on these little beauties, I thought I'd share some more with you. The amount of work Denis McLoughlin engaged in with both the Boardman Bloodhounds and the paperback editions of these stories is truly prodigious and in fact spans the period he was demobbed in 1945 until the demise of T.V. Boardman in 1967.

It's no exaggeration to say that most of these covers have never been seen by other than a small and dedicated coterie of collectors and it's a real pleasure to be able to share more of these with you today.

A very big thank you is owed by me to Steven Taylor who has been such a source of help with locating and scanning some of these hitherto unseen treasures.

Steven has a really helpful website where he is attempting to list all the Boardman Books featuring McLoughlin artwork. He's still looking for more material so if you can help, give him a shout.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

D.J.s and Bloodhounds - More McLoughlin Magic

With yesterday's posting of some truly fabulous Denis McLoughlin 'noire' paperback covers, I thought it might be fun to show you some of the equally amazing dustjacket covers he did for the Boardman Bloodhound series.
Essentially the same genre, in fact many of the paperback covers enabled the artist to revisit the same text and provide yet another interpretation to it as in the example of June Truesdell's "Be Still My Love", which he also  reworked in terms of content and setting for "The Corpse on the Hearth".

It's unfortunate that more attention hasn't been devoted to McLoughlin's noire art, whereas his comics and Buffalo Bill annuals are relatively familiar to many comic collectors as good as these are they frequently overshadowed by the the comic strip work of artists such as Don Lawrence, Ron Embleton Frank Hampson and Frank Bellamy. McLoughlin's art noire on the other hand is simply untouchable and in terms of inventiveness, design sense,  handling and creation of typography, atmosphere, and sheer storytelling in one effective and punchy image he is Mr Untouchable.

And here's why:

P.S. Anyone recognise the model for "Private Eyeful"?