WHEN “COMMANDO’ WAR COMICS first started appearing in the newsagents of New Zealand, the war depicted was just 16 years ago. Think about that for a moment. Cast your mind back to the events of 2007. Helen Clark was Prime Minister. George W. Bush was President. Tony Blair’s “New Labour” government was still ruling the United Kingdom. Our memories of these people (all of them still alive) and their deeds remain vivid.
Memories of “The War” – everybody knew which war you were referring to – remained equally vivid for the men and women who had lived through it. That their experiences would be passed down to their children – the “Baby Boomers” – was inevitable. Commando war comics were an important part of that passing down.
Commando’s impressive stable of graphic artists worked in black and white. This seemed fitting to their young readers, since the images vouchsafed to them of the War were similarly monochromatic. Indeed, as the comic’s readership aged – peaking in number during the 1970s – they found it difficult to conceive of the past as happening in anything other than black and white.
Perhaps that’s why the war films emerging from the studios of the United States and the United Kingdom in the postwar decades never seemed quite real to their Baby Boomer audiences. Too much colour. Many of them felt the same way about the “colourisation” of film footage shot during the First and Second World Wars. It seemed, somehow, a violation.
The founders of Commando were all veterans of the War, a fact which explains their insistence on accuracy, and their eye for anything that contradicted their own recollection. It mattered to them that their boy readers (not many girls read Commando comics!) imbibed as truthful a representation of their fathers’ and mothers’ experiences as was compatible with compassionate discretion and commercial success. By and large they succeeded – although it is most unlikely that the expletive phrases of the average German soldier under fire were limited to “Gott in Himmel!” and “Donner und Blitzen!”
The durability of Commando comics testifies to the extended nature of the generational passing down of the images, music, and ideology of the Second World War. It has remained fixed in the Boomers’ consciousness as “The Good War”: the conflict in which, to a far greater extent than any other, the stakes were as high as the morality was simple. Unlike Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, the war against the Axis Powers is still accepted as a straightforward battle between Good and Evil.
That so much of the History Channel’s schedule is devoted to programmes about World War II is proof that this colossal, world-shattering event’s absence of moral ambiguity is as much appreciated by Boomers in their old age as it was when they were twelve.
But, as the war-fighters’ children entered their late-teens and early-twenties, the black and white certainties upon which they’d been raised, the anti-fascist ideas they’d imbibed with their mother’s milk, appeared to have been rejected by the very same “good guys” who’d won the war.
When the blood, tears, toil and sweat of Vietnam were captured in all their true colours, and broadcast into the living-rooms of World War II veterans and their families, they arrived from a very different historical place. Everybody knew that these dreadful images no longer came from “then”. They depicted the horrifying realities of “now”. And all the Commando comics in the world could not dismantle the wall behind which the so-called “Greatest Generation” – the men and women who had defeated Hitler – had so irretrievably sundered the past from the present.
For better or worse, the Baby Boomers’ “passing down” has been a mighty warning about the ease with which heroic men and women can pass from the side of the “good guys” to side with the “bad guys”. When the Boomers saw what their parent’s generation was doing to the world they had won – and on whose behalf – they did everything within their power to persuade their own children to question the historical and ethical narratives passed down to them from the past – including those of their own parents.
This is why the comics of the post-Boomer generations are all about deception and betrayal. About superheroes who fail, and turn bad. About the world which the dead heroes of Commando comics could not save.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 24 November 2023.