Face of 1000 Heroes – a Commando Comic

Cover image by Neil Roberts

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…

Why Clones?

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!

Out Today – Flight to Freedom

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.

How Wrong We Have To Be – a historical short story

Maria took a breath as loud as the pounding of her heart. Her grip tightened on the bayonet they had taken from the French soldier. She looked down at him, arms and legs tied to a chair in the middle of the one-room house, blood dripping from his nose onto the white front of his uniform. His blond hair and soft, round face made him look like a cherub beneath the bruises.

“We found him walking alone on the Barcelona road,” Juan said. “Near where they strung up Santiago and Maya.”

“Were you part of that?” Maria asked, pressing the point of the bayonet against the soldier’s neck. Her hand shook at the memory of those bodies, flies buzzing around their drawn out guts, faces contorted by hours of pain. The soldier winced and blood trickled down the bayonet.

“He doesn’t speak Spanish,” Juan said.

“Of course not. Napoleon and his cockroaches want to rule us, not understand us.”

Maria took a step back, removing the blade from the soldier’s throat. Justice should be decisive and deliberate, not a slip of the hand.

Her gaze never left the soldier. Had he been one of the killers? Had those pale, slender fingers ripped off her friends’ clothes? Had this bayonet, blunted and battered, torn through their flesh? If she looked really close, would she find blood staining the corners of his fingernails?

It didn’t matter. He had come to Spain as a conqueror, had chosen to align himself with murderers. He was one of them.

“Take him back to the Barcelona road,” Maria said with a sneer. “Leave the body there for them to find.”

Juan untied the soldier and hauled him to his feet. That soft face looked around uncertainly, eyes darting between Juan and Maria. Bruises shone blue against ghostly skin.

“We’re going to make you suffer,” Juan said, leaning in close to the soldier, baring his teeth in a terrible smile. “Everything you did to Santiago and more.”

Maria frowned. She had sworn to do whatever was needed to set her country free, but what the French had done to Santiago and Maya was hideous.

“Kill him cleanly. Show we’re better than them.”

“No. We have to show that we’re worse, that every atrocity they commit will come back upon them a hundred times over. If we don’t then they’ll never stop.”

Juan spoke of terrible necessities, but his face filled with malicious glee as he dragged the soldier towards the door.

The bayonet was hard and heavy in Maria’s hand. A tool made to kill men, brought into her country for no reason but to keep it under control. The Frenchman deserved this, but what did her people deserve?

She leapt forward, grabbed the soldier from behind, and thrust the bayonet into his back. It was like sewing, a matter of precise placement, the cloth resisting the needle just for a moment before it slid through. Fear and hatred were replaced by the swift, energising moment of action.

The soldier didn’t even let out a gasp. He crumpled, fell, spilt blood across her feet and through the gaps between the floorboards.

“What the Hell?” Juan snapped.

“Take him to the Barcelona road,” Maria said, stepping back. She would have to find something to cover her dress, to hide the bloodstain as she walked home. “Do whatever you want to the body there. Make it as hideous as you like.”

“He was meant to suffer. He was meant to make a point!”

The soldier’s lips were parted in an “oh” of surprise, his blue eyes still open and staring across the bloodstained floor. Every crease and freckle of his skin was a letter in a book that no-one would ever learn to read.

“We only need the French to think that we act like monsters. We don’t need it to be true.”

“You didn’t have the right to make that decision.”

Maria picked up a blanket off the bed and wrapped it tight around herself.

“None of this is about right – it’s about how wrong we have to be.”

***

Maria comes to this story fresh from my latest Commando Comic, which is out this week. V for Vitoria is the sequel to my previous Napoleonic story, The Forlorn Hope, both set during the Peninsular War. English riflemen Hopper and Jones continue their journey through a wartorn country, aided by a washerwoman who is more than she seems. The comic is available through Comixology and wherever paper copies of Commando can be found.

***

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

Out Today – V for Vitoria

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.

Durand’s Dunkirk – A Commando Comic

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.

Out Now

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.

Out Now – Durand’s Dunkirk and Dodger’s Dunkirk

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.

Dodger’s Dunkirk – A Commando Comic

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.

Out Now – Rats in the Rubble

Berlin, April 1945. Sergeant Nikolai Kulikov is part of the Russian army advancing into the city. When his unit is sent to clear out an apparently abandoned orphanage, they discover that the children have been left behind. Faced with enemy aggression and his own men’s indifference, can Nikolai get the children out alive?

This week sees the release of my latest Commando comic, Rats in the Rubble. It’s a story about the devastation of war, about struggling to survive, and about the power of stories. You can get a copy now through Comixology or direct from the publishers.

Cover art by Neil Roberts

Rats in the Rubble

Berlin, April 1945. Sergeant Nikolai Kulikov is part of the Russian army advancing into the city. When his unit is sent to clear out an apparently abandoned orphanage, they discover that the children have been left behind. Faced with enemy aggression and his own men’s indifference, can Nikolai get the children out alive?

This week sees the release of my latest Commando comic, Rats in the Rubble. It’s a story about the devastation of war, about struggling to survive, and about the power of stories. And of course, it’s also a reflection of the bits of history and culture that fascinate me.

The Battle of Berlin

This spring marks the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Berlin, one of the last and most destructive battles of the Second World War.

Cover art by Neil Roberts

By April 1945, Germany was on the brink of defeat. The Allies were storming across the country from both east and west. The armies of the Reich lay shattered. Its European allies, such as Italy and Finland, had long since fallen away. On the 16th of April, Berlin, which had so briefly been the capital of a huge and cruel empire, finally came under attack.

The Battle of Berlin was a vital moment, for both symbolic and practical reasons. As the capital of Germany, it held the remains of a collapsing government, its genocidal leader, and much of the grandeur of the Reich. Taking out this city would behead what remained of the German war machine while signalling the nation’s defeat.

For Germans still dedicated to the fight, this was a last stand. Children, old men, and the walking wounded took up arms. If Berlin fell then all was lost. While many in the city just wanted the war to be over, others would fight on to the end.

Desperate Germans weren’t the only reason why the fighting was so terrible. Mid-20th-century warfare was a colossally destructive business fought on an industrial scale, with high explosive bombs and shells shattering entire cities. That destruction now rained down on Berlin.

And then there were the attackers. For reasons of politics and geography, the task of capturing Berlin fell upon the Soviet Union. Its people had suffered particularly badly at the hands of Nazi-led armies. Millions had died, soldiers and civilians alike, and the great cities of the Soviet heartland had been left as shattered shells. Many in the Red Army were out for revenge and felt that the Germans deserved every awful thing that could happen.

Writing Heroism into Horror

Even at a distance of 75 years, it’s hard to write an action story set amid that destruction, given the risk of romanticising a battle in which thousands of innocent civilians were robbed, assaulted, and killed. But even in the darkest moments, there are acts of heroism, and I wanted to reflect that.

This is where Nikolai Kulikov comes in. The hero of Rats in the Rubble is an idealist. He might fight with all his strength and brutality, but he still believes in protecting the innocent, and when we realises that there are children at risk he becomes committed to looking after them.

In some ways, his heroism shines more brightly against the darkness. Rats in the Rubble shows the destruction of Berlin, from the falling bombs to the callous disregard of many in the Red Army. It’s story about surviving a moment of horror, morally as well as physically.

My Raid Story

This is one of the more compact stories I’ve told for Commando. Rather than taking place across days, weeks, or even months, the action is contained to just a few hours and a single military action – one infantry squad assaulting an old orphanage.

In terms of story structure, this is my military history take on Dredd and The Raid, two of the most tightly contained action stories on film. Just like in those movies, the protagonists have to fight their way up through a single building, confronting dangers on each floor, as they try to defeat a deadly enemy who uses the building to their advantage. It’s a style that’s well suited to the Battle of Berlin, an intense, claustrophobic conflict fought amid the buildings of a shattered city.

Parallel Stories

This is also a story I’ve used to play with comic-writing techniques.

In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud talks about the different ways that words and pictures can interact. One can dominate over the other, they can work together to provide meaning they couldn’t on their own, and sometimes they even duplicate each other or tell separate stories. It’s something I’ve been wanting to play with for a while, and in this story I got to do that.

There’s a section in Rats in the Rubble where the pictures and the words part ways. While a character tells a fairytale story, the images show a dark moment in his past. In a sense, it’s what McCloud would call a parallel relationship, but in another sense it’s interdependence. These apparently parallel stories together show how Kulikov views himself, how the war has touched him emotionally, and what he is trying to achieve.

It’s one of my favourite bits of script I’ve ever written, and a technique I’m hoping to play with more in the future.

The End

Because of its subject and timing, Rats in the Rubble is also about the end of the war. It’s coming out around the 75th anniversary of VE Day, when the war in Europe ended, and that’s reflected in the end of the comic itself. As I said before, this is a story about survival, and that means it gets to celebrate being alive.

That seems a suitable point to end this. Rats in the Rubble comes out on the 30th of April, when you can get it through Comixology or direct from the publishers. If you enjoy claustrophobic action thrillers then check out The Raid and Dredd, and if you’re interested in reading more about how words and pictures work together than I really recommend McCloud’s Understanding Comics – it’s an accessible and insightful discussion of how comics work.

Happy reading!

Out Now – Out of the Woods

My latest Commando comic, “Out of the Woods”, is out today! Set in the First World War, it follows twin brothers Tom and Harry as they travel from Canada to the trenches of Belgium. Far from home, their courage is put to the test during the horrors of a gas attack.

You can buy individual issues of Commando online, get digital versions through Comixology, or subscribe through the publisher’s store.