The Second World War ended over 75 years ago, and yet, it continues to cast its long political and cultural shadow across the globe. Take the ever-popular Commando comics, for instance — or to give them their official name, the ‘Commando For Action and Adventure’ (formerly ‘Commando War Stories in Pictures’) — the storylines of which do occasionally touch upon the First World War, the Korean war and the Boer war, but primarily draw from World War 2.
First published in 1961, four issues of Commando are brought out by the UK-based DC Thomson Media every two weeks; although Commando was hugely popular in India in the media-starved 80s and 90s, especially among teenage boys, those boys are grown men now who would probably be surprised to know Commando still exists.
One of them, however, didn’t forget, and has written an original comic for the series that was published recently — making him, in all probability, the first Indian writer on its roster. “As far as we can confirm, to the best of our knowledge, Suresh is Commando's first Indian author. Suresh contacted us over a year ago with his first synopsis, and has more issues on the way,” says Kate McAuliffe, content editor at DC Thomson, over email.
“Although it is entirely possible that some earlier Commando authors may have lived in India or commanded Indian troops. The early stories from 1961 on were often written by WW II veterans, and at least one of the early authors, Eric Hebden, was a British army officer in India,” says Suresh R, the Chennai-based tech executive whose comicVengeance, with artwork by Carlos Pino and cover by Keith Burns, was published late last year.
Commando invites story submissions from readers all over the world, with a rigorous screening and acceptance process. Pitch-to-publication takes almost a year, says Suresh. His story has an Indian hero, Rahul Bose, a fighter pilot flying the iconic Hawker Hurricane aircraft. Along with his wingman Peter Ford, a British pilot whom he first meets during the Battle of Britain, Bose takes part in the legendary raid against the Japanese during 1944’s Operation U-Go, when Japanese forces launched an offensive against the British Empire in Manipur and the Naga Hills.
“Once a pitch is commissioned, I write a script that has detailed visual descriptions of each character in the story — right from the major ones to some that might appear on a single page. Also one has to add descriptions or images of specific vehicles or aircraft, distinctive buildings, that sort of thing… After this, each panel in the comic book has a description of the picture expected in the panel, followed by the dialogue that the panel contains,” Suresh explains.
Although he is not a writer by profession, his interest in World War II battle equipment prompted him to write this story — along with an abiding love for Commando comics, of course. “I first read a Commando comic when I was 10 and I am in my mid-40s now. My interest in military history and equipment has persisted since then. Plus, over the past few years, I’ve had the good luck to interact with military historians, as well as several current and former editors, writers and artists of commando comics and I finally felt I was ready to pitch my own story,” he says.
One of the other motivations was to mainstream the contribution of Indian armed forces in the great wars. While Commando has had several stories featuring people of colour as soldiers as well as officers — Gurkhas, Sikhs, Kachin people from Myanmar, Māoris — their depiction has not always been accurate, and this was especially so in the pre-internet era, when reference material was scarce, says Suresh, though he says there are exceptions — he remembers a decades-old story that had a well-researched plot point about caste discrimination.
The comics have tried to keep pace with the times. Over the past decade, the publishing house has put in place editorial guidelines that prohibit racist or jingoistic sentiments, and the authorship has become much more diverse, with several women involved as authors and editors. Talking about the comic series' enduring popularity, McAuliffe says: “Much of Commando’s success is due to its adapting format and willingness to change and explore different settings and stories... A more modern approach to format, with fewer captions and more experimental layouts, has been introduced, as well as stories about people who have been overlooked in the past, such as those from more diverse backgrounds like in Commando #5429 Horror of Hurtgen and Suresh's Vengeance, as well as women-led stories.”
The story that became Vengeance came to him in a dream, says Suresh. “I fell asleep reading KS Nair’s excellent book on the early days of the Indian Air Force, The Forgotten Few. The dream was an extraordinarily vivid one in which, as in the final story, the lead characters died in a heroic, though entirely fictional attempt to delay the Japanese advance on Kohima. Once I had a story that involved a brave and selfless sacrifice of the lead character’s life set around Kohima, it was inevitable that the epitaph on the Kohima memorial would feature in the ending,” says Suresh, referring to the famous epitaph ‘when you go home, tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow, we gave our today.”
“This verse is deeply embedded in the collective memory of the Indian armed forces,” says Suresh.
At a time when a furious debate rages on social media about whether Indian soldiers who fought in the great wars under the British empire were “mercenaries”, it is good to know that in popular culture, at least, the actions of these past heroes will remain immortalised.