Published: Commando #1502, 1981
Artist: Ian Kennedy (cover), Alejandro Martinez Ruiz (story)
Writer: Bill Fear
Reprint: Commando #2828, 1995
Harry Dane’s lot always seems to be brutal imprisonment, with him shoving his fist at it whenever he can. Harry begins to go this way in 1935, when desperation makes his friend Ted Taplow steal £15 from work to pay off a gambling debt while knocking out the elderly cashier in the process. But when the alarm is raised and police are searching all the men, Taplow panics and plants the money on Harry to save himself. Harry and his protests of innocence do not have a chance in court, not least because he cannot understand how it happened.
Harry spends five years in “one of the hardest, grimmest prisons in England”, and the prisoners’ lot is harsh, backbreaking quarry work. While in prison, Harry’s cellmate, “The Prof”, helps him to figure out Taplow framed him. From then on Harry is fuelled by a near-monomaniacal determination to make Taplow pay, which helps him to survive. However, it also drives him into an escape bid that fails, and because of it he has to serve his full sentence before he can confront Taplow.
When Harry is released in 1940, it is World War II. He finds Taplow has gone into the army and his battalion is stationed at Hong Kong. He joins Taplow’s regiment in the hope of tracking down Taplow, and his brutal prison experiences help him adapt quickly to basic training and army discipline. He also fends off bullies who pick on a weedy cadet, Archie Duckfield, and he and Archie become friends. Harry’s battalion does meet up with Taplow’s in Hong Kong, and he finally finds Taplow (now an NCO). He then proceeds to give Taplow a revenge punch in the face.
Inevitably, this gets Harry court martialled, and he is sentenced to 12 months. The guards hate Harry for striking out at an NCO, so they go out of their way to break him, with little regard as to how they do it. Harry responds with thoughts and threats of punching them, and he has plenty of experience in handling prison brutality. Fortunately for Harry, Japan begins to attack Hong Kong, and all the soldiers in the detention barracks are released to join the fight.
So now it is Archie and Harry’s first action, which goes badly, and Hong Kong falls. They are forced to retreat, and in the end the Japanese capture them. Now Harry faces a whole new brutal imprisonment, in the form of a Japanese POW camp and all the conditions Japanese POW camps are infamous for. But this time there is a consolation: Taplow has been captured too and is now a fellow prisoner, right alongside Harry!
When Archie hears about Taplow’s frameup of Harry, he points out something Harry had not thought of: get a confession out of Taplow to clear him. But although Taplow’s guilt is obvious from his body language, Taplow makes it obvious that he will not be easily persuaded to confess. Rather, Taplow is desperate to get away from Harry as much as the prison camp. He breaks out with several others, but the Japanese guards catch up and slaughter all but Taplow. He is brought back to the camp and sentenced to death. Archie and Harry save Taplow because they want that confession, but the ungracious Taplow refuses to give it. All they can do is hide Taplow in the roll call under the alias of Dyson and keep a close eye on him.
Then the commandant is ordered to send the most able-bodied prisoners to Japan for slave labour. Harry, Archie and Taplow/Dyson are among those selected. They are locked into the sweltering hold of a rusty tramp steamer for the journey, which soon leads to an increasing mortality rate. Fortunately, fate intervenes in the form of a US submarine that torpedoes the steamer, which enables the prisoners to make a break for it. Harry and Archie find a raft, and pick up another prisoner in the water, Claude, which will prove very fortunate for Harry. Claude tells them they are not far from the Chinese coast. If they can make it, they stand a chance of escape.
Then they find Taplow about to be eaten by sharks and rescue him. Taplow’s water/shark ordeal has broken him down enough for them to finally succeed in getting a verbal confession out of him. Now all they have to do is get Taplow somewhere to make a written one.
When they reach the coast, Japanese soldiers arrive on a motor launch, looking for survivors from the prison ship. But Harry is not having another round in a Japanese POW camp; he says he has had enough of prisons. After getting a rifle off one of the Japanese soldiers, Harry uses it to take out all his long-standing anger against his brutal imprisonments straight out on the Japanese soldiers.
Unfortunately Taplow panics and gets shot dead when he tries to run. With Taplow gone, there can be no written confession and Harry is despondent. Archie consoles him with the thought that at least he and Claude know the truth.
They make their way to the Japanese motor launch, and nobody seems to be there. But Archie discovers otherwise when a solitary guard on board shoots him dead. Harry and Claude are so enraged that they pump all their magazines into the soldier. After burying Archie, they make their way to China on the motor launch, where they meet up with Chinese forces and safety. Soon they are back in England.
Claude testifies on Harry’s behalf about the verbal confession Taplow made. As he is Lieutenant-General Sir Claude Trelawney, V.C., his word carries weight, and Harry is cleared of his wrongful conviction. Harry is promoted to sergeant, gets a medal and leads the regiment on D-Day.
This was the first-ever Commando I bought because it had themes that appealed to me: wrongful convictions, imprisonments, and struggles to survive and escape. It also has slave story elements, so it may have drawn some inspiration from girls’ comics. Yet there is still plenty of action in it – mainly from Harry Dane’s angry fist or his rifle when he has one – to keep the boys happy. The story clearly draws inspiration from “The Count of Monte Cristo” as well, which has always been a popular story.
Indeed, we see echoes of the Count (Edmond Dantes) in Harry himself with his early reactions to his false imprisonment. Like Edmond Dantes, Harry cannot understand the circumstances of his false imprisonment. He is still a good-natured naïve, trusting fellow who does not realise the one he trusted most is the one who is responsible. Like Dantes, it is not until he talks it over with another prisoner who can provide the right insights that he works out the truth. And like Dantes, it is from that point on that Harry becomes the angry, embittered man who is out for revenge.
Unlike Dantes, however, Harry never quite gets to the point where he fears things have gone too far and whether he really is in the right to pursue revenge. This could be due to Harry’s change of tactics towards Taplow. At first he is merely out for revenge against Taplow, which he expresses by beating him up. But when Archie points out that only Taplow can clear him by making a confession, Harry becomes more restrained towards Taplow and does not abandon him to his fate when his life is threatened. The only time Harry’s lust for revenge really gets out of hand is when he lashes out against the Japanese soldiers towards the end and pumps them full of lead. And it’s not even personal – he’s just taking out all his rage against all the prison guards in his life out on them. At least it sounds like Harry begins to find peace once he gives vent towards his anger. And he certainly does once his name is cleared: the story tells us he is a “changed man”.
The story certainly makes a strong statement about the evils of prison brutality and human rights abuse. Still, it would be foolish to expect much from the Japanese guards of the POW camps. They had a different way of thinking that made them particularly cruel to their POWs during World War II. Perhaps we should not expect much of the HMS prison guards either. This story was set in the 1930s, and harsh prison conditions and treatment were considered more the norm than they are now. It is the guards of the army prison who come across as the most repugnant out of the assorted prison guards that Harry encountered. While the other guards are pretty much the same in how they treat Harry and their other prisoners, these guards deliberately go out their way to break Harry in any way they can out of pure viciousness.
As for Ted Taplow, the man responsible for all of Harry’s troubles, the only point in his favour was that he was driven into stealing the money out of desperation. The bookkeeper’s goons were leaning on him and making threats that he would end up in the river if he did not pay. He did not intend to slug the cashier, an elderly man. He only did so because the cashier had caught him by surprise and he felt he had come too far to turn back. Otherwise, Ted Taplow comes across as a despicable, cowardly, unsympathetic character with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. He shows no remorse or guilt over what he did, or what Harry went through because of him. And he was supposed to a good friend of Harry’s, the two having been mates since school. He refuses to confess at all, not even when Harry and Archie save him from the death sentence. He only confesses because his defences have broken down, but we don’t trust him to keep his word to make a written confession once they return home. Getting shot while running away is a fitting end to a man who is at heart a coward and a weasel, and we are not sorry he died. Yet Taplow’s death is shattering because Harry’s chance of that written confession died with him, so it is one of the powerful dramatic points in the story.
The death of Archie Duckfield is even more powerful. Archie’s death is absolutely gutting for everyone because he is such a likeable, sympathetic character and had a somewhat nerdy look. Initially this made him a target for bullying, but Harry helped him there and we sense he grows into a more confident character, though there is little room in the story to develop this more. He also provides light relief against the grimness of the story, as does Harry’s cellmate, The Prof. The Prof comes across as a father figure. Although he is in for counterfeiting, we warm to him immediately because he is a likeable, sympathetic character. He likes to help prisoners out with their problems, which makes him even more sympathetic. He is definitely the equivalent of the Abbe Faria from the Count of Monte Cristo in the way he helps Harry to work out Taplow committed the crime he was convicted of.
When Claude is introduced, his level head and his quiet modesty (not revealing himself as a senior officer and a knight to boot) are a welcome, calming contrast to the rage of Harry Dane. And when we see Claude’s leadership qualities and resourcefulness as they fight for survival against the Japanese soldiers, we can see why Claude has risen so far in the army.
The Prof, Archie and Claude don’t just provide light relief and offset the anger and bitterness of Harry Dane. All three of them, in their own respective ways, help Harry to clear his name. The first helps Harry work out the truth, the second points out a confession from Taplow is more in order than mere revenge, and the third provides the vital testimony to clear Harry.
It is ironic that Harry owes many of his qualities as a soldier and a survivor to Ted Taplow. If Taplow had not framed him, Harry would never have gone through the experiences that toughened him up physically and mentally to endure the rigors of basic training, the horrors of POW captivity, survival on the run, and ultimately to lead the regiment on D-Day as a sergeant. Had Harry simply carried on as a factory worker until World War II broke out, it is less likely that he would have cut it so well in the army. And he naturally comes to appreciate freedom and there are things far worse than being in combat. As he takes his regiment up Normandy Beach, his words of encouragement are: “Come on lads. There’s far worse places to be than this one. I know – I’ve been there!” One can only hope he was not captured again and found himself in a German POW camp.