Goin’ COMMANDO: British ninja pulp at its finest

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Britain’s military history somewhat mirrors Japans in as much as they had a long period of feudal warfare with an armored elite class of warriors, but also had a historically famous commando tradition. This may only have gone back as far as WWII, but modern fascination of it is no less intense.

Commando War Stories in Pictures (aka Commando For Action and Adventure and more commonly Commando Comics) by DC Thomson Media is a 5.5×7″ black and white comics digest that began in 1961, and “Britain’s longest serving war comic” is still being published today. With such a massive body of work, one would imagine any and every possible (and improbable) military theme crept into those pages, and ninja mucked things up during the Pacific campaign of WW2 on multiple occasions.

This particular gem is from 1972:

The title has employed hundreds of writers and artists in UK, Italy and Argentina. This particular team was a writer I’ve only seen referred to as ‘Richardson‘ with interior artist Luis Collado Coch under a striking painted cover by Jordi Bosch Penalva.

What I really love here is the pre-craze-ness of it. For England at the time, Ian Fleming’s You Only Love Twice would have been the primary reference for both creators and audiences alike, while Australian readers had a leg up due to The Samurai and Phantom Agents still running in syndication.

Even if foreign editions of Andrew Adam’s work made it to the United Kingdom, this sort of pre-80’s-boom media didn’t have the locked-in image of the ninja yet, there weren’t copious other examples to crib for the costuming, and we were a decade away from mail order ads being an easy reference for weapons. Had this issue come out in 1982 instead of ’72, the below masks would be that trademark Asian World of Martial Arts two-piece hood.

Never seen shuriken referred to as “spiked throwing quoits” before. The term is actually from a 19th century game of the same name wherein a metal ring is thrown at a stake, like America’s horseshoes. The creators didn’t seem to have a grasp of the throwing star’s penetrative nature, as they are always shown bouncing off of targets with concussive force. This may not actually be a mistake though — England had all sort of restrictions when portraying distinct martial arts weapons in popular media, which was a real problem later for the turtle folks and their highly-prohibited nunchucks. So maybe the artists just couldn’t go there… the fact that solid reference material was evidently available for the likes of the ‘shoge’ knife, the rope sandals and the manji design for the ‘quoit’ leads me to believe this was an editorial mandate more than a gap in knowledge.

Commando was definitely a warts-and-all comic series. Sure it was built on the usual heroic deeds and odds-defying battlefield miracles, etc and so forth, but from what I’ve read there were also cautionary tales of cowardice and betrayal and the darker sides of humanity not often seen in simpler war comics. They also didn’t shy away from what would have been commonplace racist dialogue from soldiers in the 1940s. It’s cringey now, for sure…

The distractions of the now-offensive dialog and some rather one-dimensional portrayals of the Japanese are a real shame as they get in the way of a genuinely nifty martial arts story. Pre-war, a Brit judo expert and commando in training inadvertently offends a touring Japanese karate expert’s demonstration, offending him deeply. He holds his own in an ensuing scuffle. Years later in the Pacific, the grudge-obsessive karate expert has been trained in ninja tactics for jungle warfare and fate brings them together again, this time in a fight to the death.

I want a film adaptation of this, with Scott Adkins and Kane Kosugi reuniting from Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear!

From the similar cover character, I assumed this 1990 issue of Commando was just a reprint of the 1972 adventure, but it’s an entirely different tale. Sadly, the cover is the closest thing we get to any real ninja action…

“Ninja Warrior” could easily be the result of a find/replace in the script for “Karate Warrior” or “Judo Warrior” as the martial arts content is mostly common kicks and such, and there is nary a shoge or quoit in sight. It’s also a by-the-numbers example of a trope that’s all too common in the West — these Asian arts sure are deadly, but when a WHITE GUY learns them LOOK OUT!

Taught some rather plain karate-looking alleged ninjutsu by the family gardener, this issue’s commando goes ‘coolie’ to infiltrate Japanese occupiers in Hong Kong and give them a taste of their own medicine.

It would seem by 1990 “throwing quoits” could be referred to as ‘ninja darts’ or ‘shuriken bolts’ although this looks more like off-the-rack crossbow ammo or pub sports fare.

In its decades of existence, which included the ninja-rific 1980s, there must have been more ninja-themed issues of Commando, and I’m on the hunt.

If you want to track one down yourself, I’d much more highly recommend issue #626 (reprinted as #1716 in 1983).

And if you want some American equivalent GI Ninja, forget not the  highly recommended but oft-forgotten Kana!


Keith J. Rainville — February 2023