Friday 24 November 2023

Passing Things Down.

Keeping The Past Alive: 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 Baby 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. 

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.


Gary Peters said...

Chris you may be right but what heartens me is the resurgence of attendance at many ANZAC parades and memorials by that same younger generation.

What is the old saying, "if you aren't a socialist in your twenties you have no heart but if you're still a socialist in your forties you have no brain?. Something like that so I believe you are seeing things in a way that may not be.

Tom Hunter said...

I see where you want to take this debate, but allow me this sidebar...

My Dad, as a WWII vet, couldn't stand the Commando comics: hated them. Admittedly he didn't like any cartoon magazines, although my Mum usually bought me a copy of the latest Disney cartoon magazine (Donald, Scrooge McDuck, Mickey and the rest) when we went into town and learned to read from them as much as from real books. In terms of language and stories they were much more clever than I realised at the time.

In any case I'd find copies of Commando comics in the woolshed, the shearers seemed to buy quite a few of them, so I read them there, out of sight of Dad.

And there was one in particular that stuck with me because it was strange in the context of all the rest.

The story is that an allied team is put together to rescue a group of French resistance fighters from a prison where they are being held awaiting execution. The team fights and dies to the last man (and the last German), after which the explosives they've placed go off, breaking free many of the Resistance fighters who escape into the countryside.

But in later years rumours spread about strange happenings at the abandoned prison building. When the aging French Resistance survivors investigate they discover to their horror that on one night each year, the date of the original attack, the ghosts of the dead Allied soldiers return to the prison to wage their battle against the ghosts of the German defenders, all of them doomed for eternity.

The French survivors decide to blow up the old prison completely, destroying it down to the last brick. They do so and thus finally give peace to the dead.

Of course from the POV of university literature you can see the obvious issues, not to mention the same themes that have popped up in countless pieces of classic stories. But so what? I don't remember any other story from those books.

new view said...

The NZ government and people didn't like how the war was fought in Vietnam and treated the returning soldiers in a shameful way.
The reality of the war was shown on television daily and was too much. It was nasty real war where innocents are killed and soldiers aren't always hero's . Would Chloe have been booing the returning soldiers off the boats. Probably.

Tom Hunter said...

but what heartens me is the resurgence of attendance at many ANZAC parades and memorials by that same younger generation.

I thought that for a while also as I attended them.

But then I began to notice the themes constantly pushed at each one:
- The old canard of "Lions led by donkeys"
- Waste of life, especially young life.
- Endless regret.
- The innocence and ignorance of the boys.
- The only lesson is we must never again fight wars.
- Peace. Peace and more peace forevermore.

At not one ANZAC event I've attended in the last twenty years has there been any discussion or talk about fighting against monstrous evil ideas and that sometimes that means fighting wars. Courage, comradeship and heroism are mentioned only in terms of enduring suffering - as a pacifist or a conscientious objector would.

I've not attended an ANZAC ceremony since 2019 but then my Mum and Dad never took me to one, ever, and I never heard my Dad express any desire to. I suspect his reasons for not going were different to what mine are now but he never discussed it, despite ploughing through countless histories of his war. Perhaps in the 1950's and 1960's he was disgusted by celebrations of things like heroism and courage done in the culture of those times (Was that the case? Older readers can say).

Archduke Piccolo said...

What I remember of 'Commando' and the 'Fleetway Library' War, Battle and Combat series (in I think descending order of quality) was that they told good stories. Some were rather simplified accounts of events, e.g. the Russia convoys, or the development of armoured warfare in the desert, or the story of the Typhoon aircraft, or coastal naval operations with small craft. Others were stories of redemption, of initiation, or perhaps something akin to apotheosis.

I recall one story beginning in AD9, the defeat of the Roman legions in Teutoburger Wald. There, one Tullius found he had been betrayed by whom he thought a friend, call him Herman. The story shifts to NW Europe, 1944, and Tullius is reincarnated as one Pte. Tully, a rather slovenly and resentful member of the Grenadier Guards. During the course of a German counterattack that is carrying all before it, Tully recognises the one who betrayed him nineteen centuries before, reincarnated as a panzer commander. It is a story of vengeance.

Another story set in 1940, has an inexperienced, rather callow (British) subaltern gradually gaining the respect and trust of his platoon along with experience in action. During the retreat towards the Dunkirk beaches, his platoon gets cut off. The rest of the story is his leading his platoon, behind enemy lines, in a fighting retreat trying to break out. This is real Xenophon stuff, 'en petit'. I don't recall whether any of the platoon make it out, but our lieutenant doesn't. He is buried with honours by the Germans he fought.

What set these British comics apart for the most part from the more colourful American was the story-telling. The enemy - Germans, Japanese, Italians - were not always, or even all that often, so many aunt Sallies to be bowled over by red-blooded he-man types (Sergeant York) - but, however shadowy, adversaries - often (though not always) worthy adversaries.

They made good reading, but did they glorify war? I think there is a difference perhaps in honouring and memorialising the people who fought the war, than (the) war itself. Telling a real story with round, dynamic characters - real people - that's a memorial.

I play war games with miniatures, up to and including World War 2 figures and models. But I treat such activity as a form of story-telling, hence my style of narration - in the spirit, I like to imagine, of H.G. Wells and R.L. Stevenson - of my own battles and campaigns in my blog spot. I love history, have done since I was still single digits of age, and not just military and political history. But it in the course of my reading and studies, I have been forced to conclude that war, as an instrument of policy, outlived its usefulness some time between 1789 and 1815.

Ion A. Dowman (a.k.a. Archduke Piccolo)

Neil Keating said...

Donner und Blitzen!
My dad (ex 2nd NZ Div, Italy) didn't like the 'warries' (Commando mags) either. But didn't forbid our reading them.
Perhaps he rightly suspected them.
During a journalism stint in London 1969-71, a young colleague told me he'd worked for the big publisher of 'warries' -- IPC Magazines I think.
He said his job was to recycle each story's artwork by inventing new copy it -- a whole new plot that would adequately match the flow of the graphics. It was a way of saving money, and continuing to make some.
If that sounds like nonsense, better go through all your old cartons under the bed and check it out. :)

Shane McDowall said...

You left out Airfix aeroplane kits and boxes of soldiers.

I am a big fan of 1:72 scale models. These days you can buy ready made tanks and planes.

There were good American war comics in the 1970s: "War Is Hell", "Weird War","The Haunted TanK" were among my favourites.

John Hurley said...

He was the author of a classic work of history which threw out false, complacent and downright racist narratives of the New Zealand Wars – and now James Belich is on the world stage,
In the Airforce Museum (on the entrance door) a young man (23) who flew 79 bombing missions before dying in a mid air collision.
Today the fight is for what might (boringly) be termed an ethnicless society
The hero Belich shows how a colonial (ethnic) narrative can be challenged. But the myths are necessary and open to minorities.

Anonymous said...

Loved those comics!

Madame Blavatsky said...

It's not the WW2 was the Good War and all subsequent wars conducted by the victors of the Good War have been morally dubious and justified by false pretexts – WW2 was exactly the same. The post WW2 order relies on the myth that the Allies were on the side of right and justified in everything they did, while Germany and her allies were evil incarnate. That really IS the stuff of cartoonish caricature that you'd see in Commando comic books. The truth is never so cut and dried.

I listen to the self-serving lies told 24/7 to a largely credulous and uncritical public, clothing the ugly and otherwise unpalatable truth in a cloak of moral justification, about Iraq 1, Iraq 2, the conflict in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, the US's proxy war against Russia in Ukraine, and now Israel's flagrant barbarism and ethnic cleansing in Gaza, and the obvious inference is that the myth we tell ourselves about WW2 is a big of a lie, if not more, as all of these other later examples.

It's not at all as obvious now as it used to appear when I was younger that the world would have been worse off if Germany had won the war. Europe would still be Europe, if nothing else.

Chris Trotter said...

To: Madame Blavatsky.

Please, Madame B. make the case for why the Nazi regime was not "evil incarnate".

This was, after all, the regime that came up with the "Hunger Plan" to starve upwards of 30 million Soviet citizens to death as part of its broader plan to first seize, then depopulate, then colonise, vast swathes of "lebensraum" - living space - in the East.

As it was, upwards of 20 million Soviet soldiers and citizens died in the war to drive Hitler's armies from their "motherland".

And then there is the Shoah, the Holocaust, murder on an industrial scale. A full-scale and unequivocal case of intended and terrifyingly efficient genocide.

So, do, please, explain to me, Madame B., why Hitler's regime does not equate to "evil incarnate", and why you believe the world would not have been worse off if he had triumphed.

Chris Trotter said...

To: Madame Blavatsky.

I do my best to tolerate all manner of opinions on this site, Madame B., but I draw the line at Holocaust denial.

Return to the darkness from which you emerged.

Madame Blavatsky said...

Very convenient that, isn't it Chris. You ask me for an explanation of my position, then you won't even publish it when I provide it to you. Probably don't want to be blacklisted, I suppose. And you're obviously unable to rebut it, otherwise you would. That's why it's a taboo topic, because it would fall over in about 5 minutes if it was open to analysis by adults.

Isn't it odd to say the very least that there is one, only one, historical event that is apparently so beyond dispute that it is considered "dark" and immoral to question it? Again, very convenient. There's only one explanation for this state of affairs, and you're smart enough to know what it is.

Since you enjoy Biblical references applicable to contemporary matters, so here's one for you: "Yet no man spoke openly of him, for fear of the Jews" John 7:13

Chris Trotter said...

To: Madame Blavatsky.

You are right Madame B., and I owe you an apology. It is a bit rich to ask you for a response and then refuse to print it.

The thing is, I never, in my wildest dreams (nightmares?) would have expected antisemitism in its purest form to burst out of the 1930s and 40s and into a Twenty-First Century blog.

A failure of imagination on my part, I'll concede, or perhaps I just haven't been paying enough attention. But, I'm awake (woke?!) now.

You have my thanks, also, for showing me where my own, personal, line in the sand must be drawn. Paid up member of the Free Speech Union though I may be, your speech, Madame B., has discovered the boundaries of my tolerance. I will not allow the demons of the past to burst through the tiny portion of the magic digital mirror that I command.

There are words, Madame B., and then there are spells. Your black antisemitic magic will not pass through this portal - not on my watch.

Anonymous said...

I may have read him wrong, but I thought he was saying we're doing the same things now, that the evil's within us all. That Germany may well have been evil incarnate, but that didn't make us pure as the driven snow (Churchill apparently wanted forced sterilization of the working class) I disagree with his conclusion that we'd be no worse off if hitler had won - entire races would be gone by now for starters. Honestly didn't notice any antisemitism.

Tom Hunter said...

Return to the darkness from which you emerged.

Heh. Madame Blavatsky has been playing this game for quite some time here and it's a credit to the subtle semantics now being played that you didn't clue in on it earlier.

It's actually all the rage among young white men on the Internet and you can see examples all over the place. See one "Che Guava" over on Kiwiblog this morning. The good news is that as reality pushes into our face further, the semantics become less subtle and more blatant:
Dennis Prager, like Shapiro, isn’t really a conservative, he’s a Jew who uses his position in American media to convince stupid American conservatives that the latter should care deeply about Israel. The whole point of what they do is pushing Zionism, though wrapped up as it is in an outward layer of “free market” and “anti-socialism” rhetoric so it’s not so obvious, while directing viewers away from wanting to put America before Israel.

From 4Chan to BR, KB and a hundred others.

If you're in the mood for dark humour there's the prospect that John Minto, Pat O'Dea and many, many other "Palestinian" supporters are now marching with Madame Blavatsky's and Che Guava's in their ranks, without realising it. Subtlety meets subtlety.

Chris Trotter said...

To: Anonymous@8:58

That's because the offending responses did not make it past the Moderator, Anon.

See above.

Anonymous said...

@Tom Hunter -- as I said before, If opposing the Isreali's progroms against Palestinians makes me antisemitic and a Nazi, then so be it., I am more than happy to wear that label.

And I will not support a religion that makes women cover their hair (or shave it) after they get married. Not ever. Women should be able to dress how they like and have their hair how they like.


Anonymous said...

I've read Madame Blavatsky's comment: I didn't see it as Holocaust denial.

I agree with MB that all of us ought to be sceptical about the way in which the Allied victory in WW2 has been portrayed over the years since.

My generation accepted uncritically the notion that it was the epitome of the justified war, that the Allies were, so to speak, on the side of the angels. Our side went to war to defend democracy and people's rights, only did noble things, blah blah blah...

Of course it wasn't true: the polities involved had their own interests and obligations front of mind. Such high-minded ideals are a post facto narrative. It has suited the victors to so portray their involvement.

With regard to giving us a more realistic view of WW2, the rise of the Internet has been invaluable.

Anent the Jews and the Holocaust, the following article is of interest. It's long, but worth the effort. The end notes are particularly informative. The article sheds light on the current conflict:

I have extended family connections into Russia and the Ukraine: I went to school with, and married into, that European migrant community.

There was a deep hatred of the Jews among those refugees who came here from eastern Europe, the Baltics and the Ukraine. The above article goes into the reasons for it. That hatred wasn't necessarily passed on to their offspring, who absorbed local perspectives during their education. And when they arrived here, those refugees were quick to note prevailing views about Jews: thus they kept their opinions to themselves. Their real views were expressed only in their own languages and with like-minded community members. I have heard that, with regard to the Holocaust, the Jews "had it coming". We may blanch at this, but it's understandable in light of the history of that area.

I'd add that that generation is now mostly dead. The Simon Wiesenthal people discovered this, when they came here some years back, looking for the Baltic people who'd collaborated with the Nazis to send their Jewish populations to the death camps. The next generation cannot be blamed for what their parents did.

Tom Hunter said...

If opposing the Isreali's progroms against Palestinians makes me antisemitic and a Nazi, then so be it., I am more than happy to wear that label.

Tempting as it is to simply call you a Nazi and a Jew hater (antisemite is so wrong for this situation) I doubt Chris would allow that since it would cause these comment sections to fall into a Millsy world of unhinged, screaming.

You should re-start your old blog, Left Wing Nutter, since - while the title showed some self-awareness - your endless rants about how THE RIGHT WILL FORCE YOU ONTO SLAVE WAGES WHILE YOU TO STARVE AND PRIVATISE YOUR SCHOOLS AND HOSPITALS WHILE GENOCIDING TRANS PEOPLE AS VERMIN RHEEEEEE.... and so on and so forth, are not only highly entertaining but a great boon to Righties like me because we can point you out to ordinary people and ask whether they really want to vote for that.

Admittedly, like some Lefties on The Daily Blog, I do sometimes wonder if you're just a right-wing troll, but either way it's all good. You keep on keeping on.

Anonymous said...

Ahhh, nostalgia, at being reminded of Commando comics and Airfix model planes! My favourite was the Air Ace Picture Library, in which, I am pretty sure, the thought that bombing enemy cities just might be wrong was never entertained.

I certainly fully absorbed the "necessary war to defeat evil" message in my youth. The thought "our" side wasn't angelic only grew slowly, and much later.

Something I've only come across relatively recently are the revenge killings after the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. Accounts differ, but disarmed SS guards, who had been taken prisoner, were being covered by an American machine gun team. At same point, the machine gunner opened fire, killing some of the prisoners. The machine gunner claimed the "shot while attempting to escape" excuse. It seems much more likely it was revenge for the awful crimes committed by the SS, of which the fresh evidence was all around. Other guards were killed by the inmates.

Of course, this doesn't square with the Commando comics cliche of "for you, the war is over", followed by decent treatment until the war finally is over. Or conducting trials of those accused of war crimes. But it is an understandable reaction.

I think there are still justified and necessary wars, even though the angels
are nowhere to be found, on either side. A Russian elite motorized rifle division barreling down the highway towards Kyiev, in the first days of the war, was met with devastating Ukranian artillery fire. Putin did, and does, need to be stopped, and no less violent response was possible. The Ukranians deserve full support to expel the invaders.

Similarly, the awful atrocities unleashed by Hamas on October 7 require a response. The twin aims of crushing Hamas and freeing the hostages are somewhat contradictory. The military pressure on Hamas has led them to offer some hostages in exchange for a cease fire. They seek to extend the ceasefire, and to pile on the political pressure to make it permanent. They will, of course, use the ceasefire to regroup and prepare to commit new atrocities. Unless the military action to destroy their capability to do so is continued by Israel. I'm not a religious person, but no lesser description than "evil" seems suitable for Hamas. Just like the Nazis, an evil that has to be stopped, whatever that takes.

Woodbrook said...

Commando comics were great! They also paid due regard to Brit allies - e.g. they published an 'ANZACs at War' collection, which I still have. And yahoo Airfix - after the models had got a bit the worse for wear we'd fill the ships with petrol and set them on fire on the river and shoot down the aircraft with our air rifles. Some may not be impressed but I'd prefer my son had done such things rather than spending hours playing violent digital war games.