When I was a kid I was a big fan of 2000ad comic. Judge Dredd was badass. The ABC Warriors rocked and Strontium Dog was cold but tender. As violent as this comic was back in the day (and still is today) it was set in the future or involved time travel. There was always some semblance of separation from a handcuffed perp being eaten alive by "The Man Who Drank The Blood Of Satanus" or a renegade rampaging medical droid tearing a bad guy to pieces and gleefully piping out, “Lots of lovely bone and gristle. Got to come out, every bit of it!”
The unreality of the comic meant that it held a fantastical value and was regarded as hard edged but relatively harmless. Attempts to bring the level of brutality to modern stories failed with Action comic. One of the most violent things ever published for little boys. Hook Jaw was a Jaws rip off with a great white shark with a harpoon stuck in its face, preying on unwary oil rig workers and divers. Blood spurted in every issue, usually in the colour centre pages and other strips like Spinball (Rollerball rip off) and Dredger (working class James Bond) meant the comic was soon shelved and then re-released in a fairy cake-eating version with the blood whitened out and the violence non existent.
Simultaneously in this world of the 1970s and 80s were a large collection of war comics. They had tough sounding names like Victor, Warlord, Valour, and Battle. The comics told stories of the First World War, the Second World War and later conflicts such as Vietnam and even the Falklands. They were gritty, hard edged, violent and brutal. They were also some of the nastiest pieces of shit to ever be given to children to read.
I used to lap them up at about age 8 and particularly loved the small Commando comics with the dagger on the cover. They had titles like “Obey Orders,” “Knife For A Nazi”, and “Jap Killer.” They were self contained stories of heroism and stoic adherence to duty in violent conflicts. There were no grey areas. Baddies were Nazis or Japs. Goodies were Brits or Americans.
In the normal sized comic world, one figure that sticks in my mind is Union Jack Jackson. A 20-something, British commando who hung out with two American commandos after being separated from his unit. Always clean shaven and brave, he had no sense of ego and would do the right thing without expecting anything, not even praise in return.
Another was The Rat Pack. A Dirty Dozen rip off which had mismatched “wrong uns” sent on suicidal missions as a pay off for not being in prison any more.
Then we had Hellman of Hammer Force. A rare attempt to show the war from the German perspective. But of course Hellman, a tank commander, was a true gentleman. Never killed unarmed men and fought with honour.
As I read these comics my enjoyment began to wane when I realised the violence was far beyond what we would gleefully recreate in the playgrounds of primary schools up and down the UK. Pretending to fire a machine gun at someone was fun and also funny. Taking dried lumps of sand from the sandpit and bunging them in the direction of the “enemy” during such games was also a laugh. They’d hit the playing field and impact like bullet hits from The Wild Geese or Where Eagles Dare. We pretended we had just been shot at and the bullets had all missed. How cool was that?!!
But something that nagged me about these things was the use of knives and the fact that panels were graphically shown that had someone being stabbed in the back while the attacker’s hand was clamped over their mouth to stifle their screams of agony. This wasn’t what I, in my pre-teen mind perceived as heroic or honourable. It in fact appeared a cowardly way to kill someone. And how much would that HURT?!!
Another was that the British soldiers would casually tell their intended victims what was about to happen to them.
One exchange was:
(A German sentry): “Gott, I am so tired.”
(Another German sentry): “Not to worry Hans, only 2 hours till sunrise.”
(English commando, appearing from the bushes): “A dawn you will never live to see Fritz.”
(Next panel has close up of both guards screaming loudly as knives are thrust into their chests…clearly forgot the hand over mouth rule on that one).
Another story had Union Jack Jackson swinging from a vine like Tarzan to drop a grenade into an entrenched machine gun position containing 3 Japanese soldiers. As he lobbed the bomb in he shouted, “Share this out Nips!” The enemy disappeared in speed lines and Jackson was greeted by his cigar munching Sergeant O’Bannion grinning and saying, “I always thought you came out of the trees but you sure made monkeys out of those Nips.” Incident forgotten by the next panel. No moral or psychological after effects of turning 3 men into a mess of blood, bone and vital organs.
As violence was just dandy but sex was forbidden in kids’ comics the violent Jackson would relax with….a snowball fight on Christmas Day. Before sneaking into the German compound, knifing the guards and nicking all their sausages as a substitute for turkey for their Xmas dinner.
Throughout all of this I couldn’t understand why there was such a plethora of gobshite comics that taught little boys that war was F.U.N.
Years later I came up with this theory…
We had had two world wars in less than 30 years. Millions of men died and the human cost in life, finance, despair and misery was incalculable. In 1918 after WW1, entire Scottish villages were without any men. Only women and children left after the travesty that should have got Field Marshall Hague tried as a war criminal. The powers that be realised that the public might simply refuse to go back if it was necessary a third time. So they decided to try a very simple tactic. Get comics out there, on the same shelves as The Beano and The Dandy and then millions of kids would think that the Normandy landings were a real hoot. Only traitors, the cowardly and the very unlucky got killed in comics if they were on the side of the Goodies. So if you were a heroic little bastard, then you could be like Union Jack, or Johnny Red or Baker’s Half Dozen…or any of the other fucking wankers that machine gunned and stabbed their way through the pages of entertainment that made out war was no more dangerous than a game of Rugby.
In Blackadder Goes Forth, the dopey Lieutenant George played by Hugh Laurie states that him and his friends signed up for soldiering on the very first day of the First World War. His pals had names like Bum Fluff and The Badger and they had leap frogged down to the recruiting station and played Tiddly Winks in the queue. This was a well observed yet cynical poke at the attitude of the time. That being, that every young man should do his duty and that duty was to fight for his country. George then notes that all his friends are dead and he is the only one left alive. He in turn is killed in the final episode, storming a German trench during The Big Push.
These comics have thankfully died out now. Commando are still out there but read mainly by collectors. I saw a compendium of issues in Waterstones a while back. The album contained about 20 issues but all sights of knife brutality had gone. One panel of a guy holding a knife had been doctored so the blade was whitened out, making it look like he was merely clenching his fist.
I applied for the Territorial Army some time ago, 88th Postal and Courier regiment. I imagined it would be fun, being a postman with a gun. I was rejected on medical grounds for an injured knee. What I now realise is that I don’t have the personality or the mental stamina for this.
I didn’t apply because I thought it would be like the comics, but I also believe that I had no idea what it would actually be like.
Life is sometimes something we pretend about.