I have a new Commando comic out this week. “We Are The Winter” is set during Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Russia which kicked off 80 years ago this month. The story follows Olga Goncharova, a partisan leader trying to protect her village from the invaders. When other Soviet troops arrive, they offer the promise of assistance, but also the threat of greater destruction. Can Olga save her people from the horrors of the war?
My latest issue of Commando is out today, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to write about how I create a script. Buckle in, this is going to be one of my longer posts…
My inspiration for Commando comics can come from a bunch of different places. TV shows, larp events, conversations on Twitter, things I studied at university, these have all fed into issues. Most come from plugging together more than one source.
The immediate inspiration for Desert Vultures was the 80th anniversary of Operation Compass, the first big Allied push of the Western Desert Campaign. Anniversaries are handy things for Commando, as they’re a good way to hook people into an issue. Sometimes my editor at Commando will send me a list of anniversaries they’d like to cover, and I pitch to those. Sometimes I spot an opportunity and suggest it myself.
My biggest source of inspiration, as I recently discussed in a video interview, is history books. I read a lot of them, sometimes for pleasure, sometimes for other writing projects. Back when I was writing for War History Online, I read a lot about the Second World War, which meant that I already had ideas for how to look at the Western Desert campaign.
When looking for a Commando story, I’m often looking for a conflict between people on the same side, not just a fight against the enemy. In-group conflicts often lead to more interesting stories, as characters argue and compete with each other – think about all the twists and tensions in Game of Thrones. I also like to cover the international nature of the Allied war effort. Fortunately, bringing people from different backgrounds together often causes conflict, so that became the hook for Desert Vultures – French and British officers forced to work together despite their differences, one of them rigidly rule-bound, the other relaxed and improvisational. Could they achieve a shared goal?
Once I’ve got my inspiration, I write a pitch. This sets out the story in two ways – first as a three-sentence synopsis, giving the setting, the main character, and the hook for their story. Then a page-by-page breakdown of what will happen.
When I’m writing the pitch, my thinking is shaped by two things – the characters and the plot. As Robert McKee points out in his excellent book Story, these two aren’t separate, but it can still be useful to talk about them that way.
The character is the core of a Commando story. Readers have to care about the people they’re spending time with. That means making someone who’s interesting to Commando readers, and who will drive the story forward. There are dozens of different ways to achieve this, and I always consider the balance of competence, proactivity, and likability, as recommended by the team at Writing Excuses. Most importantly, the protagonist has to want something, to keep them motivated.
The nature of Commando does a lot to define the comic’s protagonists. They have to be involved in military activity, usually during the world wars. They need to have a mission or objective, something that propels the story forward, whether it’s saving lives, sinking a submarine, or perhaps escaping occupied territory. For Desert Vultures, it’s a specific military mission – finding and destroying a hidden Italian base.
The story is then driven by this mission. What does the protagonist have to do to achieve their objective? Who stands in the way? What setbacks do they face? I structure the broad strokes of the story around this, then flesh it out with cool details, often found in those books I mentioned. Give the plot a few twists, and I’ve soon got 63 bullet points, one for every page.
I send my pitch to my editor at Commando, then wait. After an editorial meeting, they come back to me with one of three responses:
Yes, write it! My favourite response, for obvious reasons.
No, this isn’t suitable. This one doesn’t happen often, as I have a good idea of what Commando are after, but just occasionally an idea isn’t right for them, or has already been used.
Yes, but… The most common response. I’ve got a good idea, but it needs refinement. This might lead to a revised pitch, or just to me making some changes as I write the script.
Once the pitch has been approved and the outline adjusted, it’s time to write. My deadline is usually two or three months ahead, but I seldom wait that long, as I love writing comic scripts. As a fulltime freelance writer, I have the flexibility to make space in my schedule, but other projects sometimes have first dibs, especially if they’re on a deadline or offering a big payment. Within a few weeks of approval, I set aside some days when my focus will be on writing my script.
Having a detailed outline makes the writing relatively quick. I don’t have to think about the broad strokes of what’s on each page, just the details. How many pictures will there be? How will one lead to another, telling a clear and coherent story? What will everyone say?
For the flow of the images, a lot of my inspiration and guidance comes from comics guru Scott McCloud. His writing on comics is phenomenal and taught me about such critical topics as transitions. A comic isn’t just a bunch of pictures, it’s what’s implied by the way you move from one to the next, and thinking about that adds a lot of complexity.
I’ve recently changed my approached to scripting. At the time I wrote Desert Vultures, I wrote everything for one page, then moved on to the next, and so on, writing the descriptions and dialogue together. I’ve recently changed to writing all the descriptions first, then going back to the start and adding the dialogue. I find that works better for getting character voices right.
I’m no artist, but I do occasionally draw at the writing stage, to help me plan out the action. The things I draw are normally seen only by me and my waste paper bin, because I’m a terrible artist. But drawing can help me work out the flow of the panels, breaking a page down into a series of distinct images, each one with its own unique elements that together tell a story. Many stick men have died brutal deaths on scrap paper battlefields to improve my Commando scripts.
Writing dialogue is a funny thing. It’s never about being realistic, but it is about sounding realistic. In real life, people um and ah, they let sentences trail off and leave things half-said. They don’t deliver snappy dialogue while they’re busy fighting for their lives. But a story requires dialogue that flows while creating the illusion of people really talking. In the case of a comic like Commando, it means dreaming up things people could say while bullets whip past their heads or they punch each other in the face. It’s a fun challenge to create that sort of dialogue without it coming out stilted.
Creating distinct voices is important too. I’m the first to admit that I don’t always manage this, but if a character’s verbal ticks and preoccupations stand out, that makes them seem more real.
But the most important thing about writing isn’t any of these technical details. It’s sitting your arse down in the chair and having the discipline to keep going, even when you’re bored or distracted. Discipline, more than anything else, is how I get a script done.
Before I send a script off, I read it over a couple more times and make edits. This is usually just proofreading, as I’ve done my story edits at the pitching stage. Sometimes it’s adding more detail to the action of an image or sharpening up a piece of dialogue. Mostly, it’s finding my typos and grammatical errors.
If I have time, I leave a day or two between writing and editing. That way I can look at the script with fresh eyes. But the brutal truth is, often I need to be moving on to my next project. Then the script just gets left until after lunch, then given that polish and sent on its way.
Out of My Hands
From that point on, my work is done. The script vanishes into the ether for months on end, only to re-emerge some time later as a fully formed comic. To me, it’s magic, but this is where the hard work happens. I could never create the amazing images that Commando’s artists come up with. You’d have to ask one of them if you want to know how that part works.
Sometimes I’ll see the cover or snippets of art as Commando HQ build buzz for a release, but I don’t see the interiors until the issue comes out. This is also the point at which I get to read editorial changes to the story – how the team at Commando have sharpened up my dialogue, expanded on descriptive panels, or adjusted the plot beats to make the story even more exciting. The thrill of seeing a new Commando is as real for me the writer as for anyone reading it.
With a script finished, it’s time to go back to the beginning. Seek inspiration. Invent a character. Craft a pitch. Sit my arse down in my chair and start work on the next issue.
In the year 2104, regular military forces are obsolete. Instead, Iron Wind Corporation has created an enhanced army of super soldiers known as N-Unit. Engineered to be faster, stronger and braver than normal fighters, N-Unit is a clone army. Together they are unstoppable — that is, until one member goes rogue…
I’ve been writing comic scripts for Commando for a couple of years now. In that time, I’ve told a lot of stories that I’m proud of, from the intense urban warfare of Rats in the Rubble to the epic story of 1066. But this month sees the story I’m most excited about – a sci-fi adventure called Face of 1000 Heroes.
How the Story Came About
This story started at a comics convention.
I love history, and I’ve got the degrees to prove it, but as a fiction writer, my abiding passion is science fiction and fantasy. So when Commando publisher DC Thomson put out a collection of their old Starblazer comics last year, I was excited to see whether there might be more in the works.
Not long after, I met Gordon from Commando‘s editorial team at the Thought Bubble comics festival. Thought Bubble is always an amazing place to be, browsing the incredible range of comics being put out by British creators. It was fantastic to see Commando flying the flag for historical action alongside the superheroes and whimsical humour that make up so much of the comics scene. Naturally, I mentioned how excited I was by the Starblazer release, and asked whether it might mean more sci-fi from DC Thomson.
Following that conversation, Kate McAuliffe, the fantastic editor I work with on Commando projects, invited me to pitch a couple of sci-fi stories to her. While there’s no more Starblazer in sight yet, she accepted one of those pitches as a Commando comic, with a few changes to better fit the Commando theme.
And so a story was born…
Face of 1000 Heroes follows a group of identical cloned mercenaries. I could give a load of highbrow reasons why I wanted to write about clones, from questions of consciousness and free choice through to a fascination with what makes an individual. But if I’m honest, the real reason is two pieces of sci-fi I loved as a teenager – Star Wars and Space Above and Beyond.
I grew up before Star Wars really got into clones. The prequel movies weren’t out yet, so the clone wars were this vague concept mentioned briefly in passing. Even when clones started to appear in stories like the Dark Empire comics, they weren’t well fleshed out. But that idea of wars between clones lurked in the back of my mind, a concept tugging at my curiosity down the years.
Then there was Space Above and Beyond, the shortlived TV show about US marines fighting a war against alien invaders. When it was bad, SAaB was pretty ropey, but when it was good, it was spectacular, and there was nothing like it on TV. One of its characters had been grown in a vat, part of a group known as In Vitroes or tanks, a non-identical clone underclass. Originally grown for war, the tanks were social outcasts, used by the show to explore issues of prejudice and segregation. A rich and fascinating history was hinted at during the show’s all too short run, before some nameless TV executive killed the series I loved.
When I sat down to think of a sci-fi war story, my mind went back to those two stories. If I was going to write about the future of warfare, then I was going to write about clones.
Rebellion, the Most British of Virtues
As a student of history, I’ve often found rebellions exciting. From the Spartacus revolt in ancient Rome, through the American Revolution, to the resistance fighters against Nazi occupation, military history is rammed full of rebel heroes.
And despite our outward image of conformity, the British have a long, proud tradition of rebellion. Boudicca’s revolt of 60AD turned Roman Britain upside down. The Civil Wars saw dozens of dissident groups reshape politics and religion, from the Roundhead armies to the radical agricultural protest of the Diggers. The 19th-century Chartists and 20th-century suffragettes helped bring on a real democracy.
Even within apparently conformist war stories, the heroes are often the rebels, the people who buck against corrupt authority and don’t play by the rules. It’s why Richard Sharpe has become such a popular figure in fiction.
There is nothing more British than rebellion, so if I was going to write a British sci-fi war comic, I was going to get some rebellion in.
The Long History of Mercenaries
The fact that the clones in this story are mercenaries also has its roots in history. Though we’re now used to thinking of armies as belonging to nations, armies have often worked differently. Late medieval Italy was reshaped by the condottieri captains, while the British East India Company ruled a whole country through private armies.
The past 20 years have seen private military firms gain influence and attention again, thanks to the use of companies such as Academi (formerly Blackwater) in the Middle East. Mercenaries, who not long ago seemed like figures from the past, increasingly look like the future of military action. That made them a natural choice for my story, helping to distinguish the military culture of my clones from the modern military while giving them someone to rebel against – the ruthless company they were bred to serve.
Why The Title?
The title of this story is an inversion of one of the most famous works on storytelling, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
Campbell’s book explores fundamental patterns in myths and storytelling. Released in the 1940s, it was hugely influential over the following decades, not least on a certain young director named George Lucas.
Now its influence is on the decline. Writers from different backgrounds have shown that many of Campbell’s generalisations don’t hold true. He’d found one pattern of myth-making, but it wasn’t as universal as he claimed. Many modern storytellers work hard to drag us away from Campbell’s monolithic form.
In some ways, the clones of Face of 1000 Heroes represent the opposite of Campbell’s work – not the idea that a single pattern can repeat with a thousand different faces, but that a thousand different people could each have the same face and still each have their own unique story. It’s a rebel’s approach to the theme.
Go Buy It!
So there you go – the origins and influences of a single sci-fi comic. If you’d like to see more sci-fi from Commando, or more British sci-fi comics in general, then please go out and buy this one. Experiments like this help publishers to understand what their audience wants, and the more people buy Face of 1000 Heroes, the more likely it is that Commando will publish more sci-fi. Hell, if enough of you buy it, then one day I might get to write the other story I pitched, the one with a carnival planet, a talking cat, and a space station that folds up in your pocket. Dream big, right?
And to all of you who’ve already picked up a copy of the comic, thank you very much, and happy reading!
How do you escape from an Italian Opera singer in a seaplane, when you’ve got no weapons, no aircraft of your own, and your only help is from a six-foot-six Soviet who makes up for his lack of English language with his fists?! Issue 5369 of Commando has the answer, in my latest comic story, Flight to Freedom. It’s a tale of daring adventure set during the Second World War, and is out now through UK newsagents and Comixology.
Spain, 1813: Former opponents Tom Hopper and Samuel Jones are part of Wellington’s army, driving back the forces of Napoleonic France. When their captain is captured, it falls upon Hopper and Jones to rescue him. But it will take a daring escape and a lesson in humility before they can join their comrades to face down the French at the Battle of Vitoria.
Out today from Commando Comics, V for Vitoria is the sequel to my previous Napoleonic story, The Forlorn Hope. See Hopper and Jones continue their journey through a wartorn country, aided by Maria, a washerwoman who is more than she seems.*
V for Vitoria is available through Comixology and wherever paper copies of Commando can be found.
*No, she’s not Toad of Toad Hall, though that would also be cool.
The second of two comics I wrote for the 80th anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuation, Durand’s Dunkirk follows the crew of a French SOMUA S35 tank. With the French armies shattered and the Allies in retreat, Regis Durand and his indomitable crew gain a new mission – to hold up the advancing Germans and allow the British to evacuate through Dunkirk.
A Story of Sacrifice
Both Durand’s Dunkirk and its companion comic, Dodger’s Dunkirk, are stories with a message, but those messages are very different. During the Dunkirk withdrawal, the British showed that there could be courage and even triumph in a well-executed retreat, that not every battle should be fought to the bitter end. But the French army showed how sometimes you have to fight on, one person’s sacrifice becoming another’s salvation. The French fought hard to buy time for the Dunkirk evacuation, even knowing that it would leave their country undefended. That’s the battle that Durand fights.
Just as the evacuation didn’t only rescue British troops, the stand that made it possible wasn’t only fought by the French. The film Darkest Hour touchingly demonstrates this, in a section dealing with the fate of British troops in Calais who fought on as a distraction for the others rather than being given a chance to escape. But it was the French army that provided the greatest barrier to the advancing Germans in those last days.
An International War
Another point of this comic was to explore the international nature of the World Wars, a point I bang on about so much it’s probably getting boring, but that bears repeating.
Originally, Durand and Dodger’s comics were pitched as a single script, one that showed how the very different fates of the withdrawing British and the French rearguard were connected. I wanted to celebrate the British success at Dunkirk while remembering how many other countries were involved. It was thanks to my editor at Commando that the one story became two, and I’m really glad I got the chance to expand on that original idea.
In England, we refer to the First and Second World Wars but often neglect that “world” part. Our stories tend to be focused on British experiences, which is understandable but also a bit repetitive, limiting how many facets we see of an incredibly complicated story. There have been some interesting exceptions in recent years, such as the film Hurricane and the recent inclusion of a Sikh soldier in a scene from 1917. I think it’s good that we’re doing that more, as it makes the stories more interesting and more representative of reality. So of course I wanted to depict the French as much as the British in exploring Dunkirk, and also to show other nations, such as the Belgian soldier who plays a key part in both these stories.
One of these days, I might stop banging the drum on this subject. Today is not that day.
The Myth of National Character
This story is also about one of the big myths of late 19th and early 20th-century military thinking – the power of superior national character.
Across Europe, every country found a way to convince itself that it was inherently superior to the rest and that this was reflected in its armed forces. A superior fighting spirit would ensure their victory over a far less impressive enemy. This is a myth that Durand, the tank commander of this story, buys into.
The inherent flaw in this thinking is obvious – if everybody has a superior national character then nobody is actually superior. The myth falls apart based on logic, never mind evidence. It can be a useful myth in motivating troops, but it’s also a dangerous one if it encourages soldiers, commanders, and politicians to ignore reality. Germany didn’t win the Battle of France because of superior national character, but because it had better tactics and the element of surprise. Russia didn’t defeat the Germans in the east because of a greater fighting spirit, but because of superior numbers and a willingness to spend lives in a war of attrition.
Durand goes into the story believing in a superior French fighting character. The question the story asks is how that attitude can stand up to the prospect of defeat.
Both of my Dunkirk comics are out now. Both work as standalone stories, but together they create something more complex, showing the same events from different angles. You can buy them electronically through Comixology, or get paper copies wherever Commando is stocked.
I have not one but two Commando comics out this week, with matching covers by the excellent Keith Burns.
Durand’s Dunkirk and Dodger’s Dunkirk tell the stories of two soldiers, one French and the other British, taking part in the fighting that led up the Dunkirk evacuation of 1940. The two stories stand alone but are connected, with events and characters crossing over between the two. It’s one of the coolest projects I’ve had at Commando, and I’m really pleased with the results.
You can get both Dunkirk issues on Comixology or wherever copies of Commando are sold.
I have a pair of linked Commando comics coming out this week, to mark the 80th anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuation. Today, I’m going to talk about the first of them – Dodger’s Dunkirk.
One Man’s War
Dodger’s Dunkirk follows a British infantryman caught up in the Allied withdrawal to Dunkirk.
The Battle of France, fought from May to June 1940, was one of the great disasters of World War Two. The Allies badly misjudged both German capabilities and the terrain they were fighting over. In one of the most dramatic campaigns of the war, the Germans smashed through the Allies’ weakest positions and ripped their forces in half. Thanks to the incredible blitzkrieg advances of German generals such as Guderian and Rommel, the bulk of the Allied forces were surrounded, forced to retreat into an ever-shrinking pocket against the coast, unable to effectively manoeuvre or bring their forces to bear.
This is the chaos that Dodger is caught up in – a shattered army trying to pull itself together, groups fighting desperate, heroic rear-guard actions while the generals try save what they can. But Dodger doesn’t want to withdraw. To him, retreat is failure, and the only thing a soldier should do is fight on. With a gun in his hand and a stiff attitude fixed across his face, he’s set for conflict with his own side as well as the enemy.
Different Forms of Courage
I created Dodger to represent a particular attitude towards courage and fighting spirit.
Holding strong in the face of danger takes a certain stubborn willpower, something that’s a necessity in war. Without the courage to hold your ground despite terrible odds and others’ fears, many battles would have been lost.
But that stubbornness can go too far. Great military disasters have been born from an unwillingness to compromise, to back off, to accept the limits of what can be achieved and so to salvage something of value from a loss.
Dodger has that stubbornness gone too far. He has his reasons for this, which I won’t spoil here, but that doesn’t mean that he’s right. No Retreat is about a man learning that there’s something dangerous, something toxic in a virtue taken too far. Can he bend with the wind, or will the raging storm of Dunkirk break him?
Why Dunkirk Matters
The Dunkirk evacuation is rightly remembered as a significant moment in history, especially in Britain. The evacuation of 338,226 soldiers in eight days was an incredible logistical achievement, one that saved the bulk of the British army from destruction, along with 100,000 French troops and other Allied personnel. Without it, the Allied armed forces would have been significantly diminished and the remainder of the war might have been very different.
For me, there’s something even more significant about Dunkirk, and that’s the fact that we celebrate a retreat. Well-executed withdrawals are hugely important and hugely challenging to achieve, yet they’re almost never marked in this way. We just want to talk about the victories. With Dunkirk, we acknowledge the importance and the challenge of knowing when and how to give up. It makes the right retreat into a heroic achievement, breaking our narrow view of what qualifies as success.
In challenging and reshaping our view of history, it’s one of the key moments of the 20th century.
The Historical Details
While Dodger’s Dunkirk exists to explore the big picture, historical fiction is also about the little details. So what is there to look out for in this comic?
One of my favourite bits is the Canal Line. As in the First World War, the Belgians opened the slices of their canal system to waterlog the ground, bog down the enemy, and create a stronger defensive line. It’s a small thing amid the carnage, but it’s also a good example of looking beyond the obvious in tackling a problem.
As with many of my Commando stories, the international element is important. The Dunkirk retreat wasn’t just a British effort. Belgian, Dutch, and French forces also played a significant part, and without them the withdrawing British troops would probably have been overrun. An encounter with a Belgian sergeant helps shape Dodger’s approach to the fighting, and there’s also a French tank crew who we’ll come back to in a minute.
This being a Commando comic, you can be sure that the artist will have filled in a lot of extra details, like the uniforms of the soldiers and the equipment they use – enough to please fans of the period. I’ll leave it to you to explore the visual treats that I can’t claim credit for.
More to Come
Dodger’s Dunkirk is released on the 28th of May, alongside a companion comic, Durand’s Dunkirk, which follows a French tank crew through the Dunkirk retreat. I’ll provide some commentary on that one next week, and on Friday a short story tying into them both.
Until then, if you’re looking for more historical fiction then you can check out my mini collection of short stories From a Foreign Shore, and pick up copy of No Retreat on Thursday.
This Thursday sees the release of my latest Commando comic, Out of the Woods. It’s a First World War story, telling the tale of Canadian brothers caught up in a gas attack at Ypres. But why tell this story?
The First Gas Attack
This April marks the 105th anniversary of the first poison gas attack on the Western Front. The German army had tried to use gas against the Russians that January, but cold weather had stopped the weapon working. It was at Ypres that the full horror of chemical weapons was unveiled.
The results of the attack were horrifying. Chlorine gas causes the lungs to fill with fluid, drowning its victims on dry land. Survivors were left with terrible damage. It was as terrifying as it was deadly.
That attack was the first of many. Rather than abandon these weapons in horror, each side escalated its efforts to develop killer chemicals. Phosgene, mustard gas, and Lewisite left men dead or forever scarred. Medical staff had to develop whole new approaches to save lives.
By the end of the war, these weapons had a sickening reputation. Countries that were happy to bomb and shoot thousands of young men agreed that chemical weapons were beyond the bounds of war. But for the men scarred in those battles, life would never be the same.
An International War
That first gas attack hit the French army, in particular Algerian troops stationed around the village of Neuve-Chapelle. These North African troops, already caught in a strange and bewildering environment, were hit by a weapon beyond their worst nightmares. Unsurprisingly, they fled in panic.
The gap in the line was filled by the Canadians, who were on the receiving end of the next chlorine attack. Knowing what was coming, and with improvised masks at the ready, they managed to hold out against the assault that followed, even retaking ground lost to the Germans.
This was one of the moments on which the Canadian army’s reputation was built. Like the Australians and New Zealanders, they faced some of the most deadly encounters of the First World War, earning themselves a reputation for toughness and courage. Modern Canadians might be known for politeness, but during that war, they were hardened warriors that the other side didn’t want to mess with.
That’s why the Canadians are at the heart of this story. Their part in the First World War isn’t widely recognised, but they played a crucial role, and on this occasion, they saved the day for the Allies.
As for the title of this story, yes, it’s a Taylor Swift reference. My friend Al sings a modified and much more sweary version of the song at larp events, and when I was writing a story set in a wood, it ear-wormed me for hours on end. That made it the perfect title.
So here it is, a story of courageous Canadians and terrifying trauma, to a soundtrack of upbeat pop. Enjoy!
The Western Desert, 1941. When they find information about an abandoned squadron of German planes, RAF intelligence officer Captain Ian Thompson and daring Squadron Leader Samuel Westwell head out into the desert to steal a Stuka. But rising tempers and enemy action threaten to keep them from their coup…
My latest Commando comic, “Stealing Stukas”, is out today! You can buy it electronically through Comixology, or get a paper copy through newsagents in the UK.