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UK Mike (miner2049er)

The Bi-Weekly British Backtrack – Commando Comics

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Hello fellow nerdlingers, this particular Backtrack is focusing on something slightly different than normal, but is both something retro and British, and also something that is still current and available today. We’re going to look at comic books.

Though it isn't strictly gaming related, the subject matter does tend to have some cross over into the gaming community. Generally the people who are into video games are also into comic books. So, we're going to look a little bit into comic books.

Now before you hit the back button I’m not going to go all Fantastic Four meets The Hulk on you, or talk about a selophane wrapped collection I've got tucked away somewhere because I simply don't have one. You see, I'm not that into comics, and I never have been.

OK dumbass so why do a segment on Comics then you may ask? You did ask didn't you? Thought so. Well all will become clear.

So like I said I'm just not that into comics either now or as a kid. I used to get a kids comic when I was very young but that stopped quite early on, and it was never something like the DC Comics you'll know or I was never into characters like The X-Men or IceMan and The Made Out Of Rock Guy. In fact my only involvement with super heroes was on the big and small screen. Usually the small screen.

Up until last Christmas the only Batman film I'd ever seen was the 1969 one with Adam West as the chin, sorry as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin, but who hasn't seen that? I watched the TV show too and I enjoyed that, but I was never inspired to put on a rubber suit. That came much later. I watched the Superman films of course and enjoyed those, and the original Spiderman shows, but my favourite was probably The Incredible Hulk TV show with Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno, and before you say it, I know that show and its characters had no resemblance to the comic book Hulk and when the movie came out I realised just how different they were.

So, this Christmas holiday I made a point of watching every Batman film to date, well, almost I still haven't seen The Dark Knight. I know, I know, it's the best one by far, yeah, yeah, yeah, but it's still got Christian Bale as Batman, but I will watch it, and soon, and I enjoyed the films, well, apart from the one with George Clooney obviously. I'm not stupid.

Quiet at the back.

I've watched the first Spiderman film with Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst but not the sequels yet, not that I've been advised to of course, but this segment isn't really about those kind of characters or those kind of comics. This is about another kind of comic altogether. The Commando Comics.

So let's take a little step backwards then, or more sideways really, as you all know that I got a Kindle 3 for Christmas, and once I got over the awesomeness of it as a device, I started playing around with file formats and trying different content on it, and I came across this thing called the Comic Book Format. Now I'd heard of it before in the context of the Nintendo DS because it's possible to read some form of comic books on that, but I'd never looked into what it was or how it worked.

So basically the Comic Book format is a digital version of a comic book, and how do you digitise a comic? The same way you digitise most things, with a scanner. So every digital Comic Book out there, well, most of them, somebody has scanned the whole comic in page by page. Opened the comic, placed it face down on the scanner bed, scanned it, saved it, turned to the next page, put that face down on the scanner bed and scanned that, etc etc. There's a lot of work gone into this, believe me. You're listening to a man who has just scanned in 398 photos of my 2003 trip around Australia.

So, once you have a nice digital image of every page of the comic, that becomes quite clumsy, so the best way to store them is in an archive file. Now usually the images that are scanned in are stored in .PNG format because it's a lossless format, or as .JPG which is lossless but is very common, quite efficient and compatible with most things.

The images are numbered, usually following the page numbering system they have in the comic or simply something like 001 and upwards, and the archive file they're put into is a simple zipped folder, but there are a few types of ZIP files and comic book archive types.

A simple ZIP folder will normally have the file extension .ZIP but in Comic Book Archive format that is changed to .CBZ (comic book ZIP). An archive compressed as a .RAR file will be renamed to .CBR (comic book RAR) and so on for other kinds of archives:
.7Z = .CB7
.TAR = .CBT
etc etc

Just renaming a zipped folder of images to one of those comic book archive extensions is usually enough and they will work on your comic book reader, though some do differ. Like I said I am using the Kindle 3 to read them and it will not read a .CBR file but it will read the exact same archive if I unzip it and recompress it as a .ZIP file and rename it as a .CBZ file. A RAR file and a ZIP file are compressed differently so just renaming a .CBR to a .CBZ isn't enough, even though it's basically a folder of JPGs, you have to decompress it and compress it again in the right format and rename it properly for it to work. Generally the image type inside the archive will be JPG images as I mentioned but they can also be .GIF, .BMP or .TIFF.

If you want to get fancy with your archives you can also include a .xml file inside them that contains information about the comic in much the same way that an id3 tag holds metadata about an MP3 file. For things like artist, title, genre and year of release. Not all comic book readers support that though, some will just use the filenames to build up information about the comic.

One of the first comic book readers was CDisplay but there are quite a few out there nowadays and for lots of platforms too, obviously Windows has a few as do Linux and Mac, but there are readers for things like mobile devices and the kindle form factor and the tablet pc form factor is ideal for them.

So, enough about the gubbins of comic book archives and comic book readers, what about this Commando comic am I reading? Well, the story starts way back in the late 70s when I was just a wee lad. A 7 year old actually. You see when I was 7 my mum was very ill, and after a long fight with cancer, she died, but because I was so young my family tried to protect me from the worst of it, and when she was having particularly bad spells I would be shipped out to stay with relatives or friends, which meant that for a lot of the time I would have to make my own entertainment. Now sometimes it was fine, depending on where I was sent to, usually at short notice. We had friends who had a 500 or so acre dairy farm in the Shropshire countryside, so spending part of a summer there out in the fields or exploring the big old farmhouse was great. We had another friend whose house I would stay at, and that was a huge house too with like 4 floors and a basement, and me and one of the lads who lived there would stay up and watch horror films at night so that was fun, but this one time I went to another house and I remember they had a TV that was broken, and a Robin Hood film was on, and it sounded great, but unfortunately the TV had no picture so I listened to a Robin Hood film.

As you can imagine that got old quite quickly, so they got out this box of stuff for me, and inside it was a bunch of annuals and comics. Annuals if you don't know are sort of compendiums of things like comics but with a hardback and they have all the best stuff out of that years softback comics. Anyway, in this box was a few annuals and some comics, so I started flicking through them. It was either that or listen to the TV again, and I remember distinctly a comic called Valiant and a comic called Commando, so I started to read the Commando comics, and these things were great. As the name suggests they were military themed and in particular they were stories from the second world war, but they weren't superhero type stuff, they were more real life type stories, but obviously simplified and idealised for the kind of limited text comic format. The stories had me and the artwork had me. It was fairly simplistic stuff but well done.

Anyway, despite enjoying them I never really got into comics again, but a few years later I got a great book. It was a paperback version of The Empire Strikes Back, but rather than being done as a conventional style book in prose it was done in a comic book style, and it was great. Obviously the essence of the movie was there and the story was there, but the way the book was done was great, and like most things from my childhood I wish I still had it, my mum included, but fast forward a few years again, and I get a Kindle 3 and I'm playing around with the comic book format, and I think, now what comic can I put on this, and I immediately thought of Commando.

Now here is where the disclaimer comes in, because Commando Comics are still commercially available, so if you're going to read commercially available comics you should buy them, and I would always urge you to buy them, but, there are downloads out there for some of the old and no longer in print versions that would have been the ones I read back then as a kid. So I grabbed a couple of those, and they worked a treat on the Kindle.

Now for books and newspapers and blogs and all that normal stuff, the Kindle is great, but for PDFs and JPGs, and for comics it can be a little bit hit and miss. If you open a PDF or a JPG it will open in full screen mode and fill the screen, well that's fine if the page your reading has quite large text on it that is readable at that scale, but when it isn't, if it has small text on it then you're going to have to zoom in which means you can no longer see the whole page so to read it you’re going to have to scroll around it both horizontally and vertically, which is doable, but annoying.

Well it just so happens that the Commando comics I had were from an era when the text was quite large, and the artwork was quite simple, probably as most comics were back then, and they worked out just great. In full screen mode I could see the whole of the page and all of the text was readable. It just worked out really well, and I compared it with some newer comics of other kinds, and they didn't work half as well, the text was way too small. Maybe on the larger Kindle it would be OK but on the normal Kindle it was too small, but the Commandos worked perfectly.

So, with all that banter out of the way, what about Commando Comics then, and why should you go out and spend your cash on them? Well, Commando Comics as they're generally known, or to be more precise, Commando For Action and Adventure, formerly known as Commando War Stories in Pictures, are a series of British comics featuring stories set in World Wars 1 and 2. Like I said, still in print today, it has stuck to the format of 68 pages and 7 inch × 5½ inch in size. A format used by most other comics.

Unusually though, only the covers were done in colour, all of the stories were sketched in black and white only and were quite simplistic. Having said that, it was perhaps the most popular comic of its kind and certainly of its era.
They started out life in 1961 as Commando War Stories in Pictures, and were launched by D.C. Thomson of Dundee, Scotland, with issue 1 called simply “Walk Or Die”. Thomson already had some well known comics in circulation like the Beano and The Dandy, which were also around in my childhood and my brother read them. In its first year of publication it was released on a bi-weekly basis but it was so successful that it turned into a weekly publication, amazingly though, since 1981 there have been 8 issues published every month, but some of these now feature reprints of old stories. In September 1993 the title was changed to Commando For Action and Adventure.

Remember I mentioned Annuals earlier? Well, in 1989 and 1990, annuals were produced that contained seven new stories each as well as older material, but unlike the comics these annuals were produced in full colour throughout and were illustrated in a more modern style more in keeping with comics of the time, whereas the original softback comics still maintained the look and feel of the originals.

That look and feel meant that the 68 page comic usually contained 135 panels per story, which is roughly similar to a standard 22 page US comic, so you can see that the panels are much larger and easier to read, which is what makes them ideal for the kindle, whereas other comics have text that turns out too small. The Commando Comics rarely used captions for sound effects, so the text is relative to the action and relative to the story at all times, making them easier to read in general.

Initially the artists and writers weren’t credited for their work, which was common for D.C. Thomson, and again crosses over into the game industry where it was common certainly at Atari, but eventually they added a small grenade icon to the first panel which credited the people responsible for the story the art and the cover.

Commando Comics were most popular in the UK but they did spread across Europe and beyond. They’ve been published in India in Hindi and they’re popular in Finland where they are known by a name I’m about to mangle, which is something like “Korkeajännitys" that translates to “High Tension". The Finns also had special editions of the comic published by Egmont Publishing from 1998 and with more appropriate Finnish themes based on the Finnish Civil War (was there one?), Finnish War and other stories with a Finnish bent to them.

The main memory for me though, and probably the first thought of most people with regard to these comics is what I mentioned earlier, the simplicity of the stories but much more important than that is the now almost comical, for want of a better word, stereotypical portrayal of the soldiers and their national stereotypes, particularly of course the English and the Germans.

The stories were usually evocative of that era, espousing themes like bravery, patriotism and putting your life on the line for King and Country and for freedom, probably like most literature and media did at that time.
More famously than that though, they adhered to the best and the worst of national stereotypes, so the British would all be called Tommy Atkins and would love to drink tea, and they would usually refer to the German enemy soldiers as Hans or Fritz. A German Guard surprised by an English soldier might shout out something like “Gott In Himmel” God in Hell or “Gross Gott!” Good God!.

Something that was sort of recognised in the TV Series Blackadder Goes Forth when the character Flash Heart played by Rik Mayall comes out with the phrase “Eat knuckle Fritz!” Something that you can easily picture a character in a Commando story saying.

So, if you want to pick up an available back issue then you can do that by going to www.comicsmagazines.com where they’ve not only got Commando Comics, but also a lot of its contempoRARies too, things like Air Ace or War At Sea. You can also pick up back issues at www.commandocomics.com where they also have current issues and you can subscribe to different payment options and formats like the iPad version. Sadly though, issue one “Walk Or Die” is out of stock.

You can also buy the posters of artwork from the colour front covers and you can view some of the work by people like Ken Barr who painted many of the early and somewhat iconic covers for Commando, in fact he did the first 10 and most of the first 300 issues in the 60s. It’s kind of like looking back at old gaming magazine where the artwork is suggestive and symbolic of the era, and looking at them can be almost as much fun as reading the actual contents.

So, like I said at the top, this wasn’t game related but there is some crossover between the world of comics and games, and not just some of the titles and the intellectual properties out there, but a lot of the audience too.

So get yourself over to one of those sites and pick up a few issues, and until next time, from Tommy Atkins and me, “Reach for the sky Fritz! For you the War is over!”

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