Published: Commando #5217
Artist: Manuel Benet
Writer: Andrew Knighton
I am always on the lookout for Commandos that follow the new Commando trend of having female protagonists. This is the first Commando I have read that not only has a female protagonist (a whole army unit of them in fact!) but is decidedly feminist in tone as well.
In 1941, schoolteacher Svetlana Korzh signs up for the army against the German invasion of the Soviet Union. The recruitment officer is sceptical about her doing so: “A woman’s place is at home…. Women can’t shoot.” However, Svetlana’s equally sceptical fiancé Vasily Zimyatov (now in the infantry) has given Svetlana plenty of backbone and shooting practice in dealing with such attitudes. She declares she can shoot better than any man around here, she will be an asset to the army, and to prove her point she seizes the officer’s own rifle and puts a bullet through a weathercock. Across the Soviet Union, other women have also had to persuasive to have the military let them fight, from fighter pilots to partisans.
Svetlana is assigned to an all-women sniper unit and is soon proving one the best. Svetlana is soon making friends who will impact the story. One is Galina Chaykavsky, a former secretary who proves courage comes in many forms by always looking calm and stylish no matter what their trainer Captain Leontev puts them through – and it’s just as tough as what he puts the boys through. Another is Zoya Tikhmirova; like Svetlana she’s a former teacher who suggests they use their teaching skills to help with training. However, Leontev just says stick to soldiering. Zoya is also distinctive for expressing hatred of Stalin (very dangerous!), but considers the German invasion (aided by Romanian allies) a worse evil and that’s why she’s fighting.
Soon Svetlana’s garrison are fighting at the Siege of Odessa, which goes badly for them. Svetlana saves an injured Lieutenant, Yuri Valeev, from death. Zoya is not happy about her saving “one of Stalin’s stooges”, but is promptly reminded of her own words: “better Stalin than the Germans”. Svetlana and Galina press on with Odessa as snipers. They pick off Romanian soldiers, including a vital captain, and press on to attempt sniping a Romanian colonial.
But a German sniper, Ludwig Weber, spots these “little ladies of death”, and picks off Galina. Svetlana goes after the German sniper, but he is gone; the only clue to his identity is a peppermint wrapper, and the distance he shot from indicates he is a brilliant shot. In fact, she eventually learns he is the best German sniper on the Russian front. Svetlana vows she will kill this sniper with a taste for peppermint and avenge Galina. But in the meantime, all she can do is continue her own sniping, and soon her count is almost as high as Weber’s.
Meanwhile, Zoya falls in love with a Russian soldier, Maxim, and soon marries him. Svetlana’s own romance, Vasily, returns as well. Determined to protect Vasily, she sets up a sniper nest near his patrols. She does her best with her sniping to help Vasily against a Romania offensive, but Vasily’s infantry is soon overwhelmed the far superior Panzerkampfenwagen IV tanks. Soon Vasily is one of the last men standing. He recklessly charges a tank with a grenade, but a sniper kills him instantly. Though there is no peppermint wrapper this time, Svetlana automatically knows who that sniper was. Now Svetlana has double the reason to take ol’ Peppermint down. And it’s double the grief, which she has no time to even address with all this constant fighting. But right now Svetlana is forced to flee, and she seeks refuge in an army truck, where Yuri finds her and gives the impression he is falling for her.
Svetlana returns to her sniper unit. But the newer female snipers are not as skilled as Svetlana, and the peppermint sniper, whose name is now known to her, is picking them off like flies. Svetlana has been giving them sniping tips, but now she demands a general give her permission to give them better training at sniping, and if he doesn’t she’ll do it anyway. Being too busy to seriously argue with a strong willed person, he just shrugs and lets her do it. “What harm can one woman do anyway?”
The all-female sniper squad is soon improving tremendously under Svetlana’s training and teaching skills. So is the Soviet counter-attack on Odessa, which has now entered the city itself, and it’s turning into rubble.
As Svetlana seeks out a sniper spot, an all-too-familiar peppermint wrapper falls down from above. She promptly takes a shot at Weber, but misses (not like you, Svetlana!). She heads to his sniper spot, but he is gone. Weber then shoots her from a new position and hits her in the arm. After bandaging her arm Svetlana makes her way into the catacombs, where a partisan fighter finds her and helps her get back to her lines. She has to be shipped out to an army hospital, where a visit from Yuri is the only bright moment in what she finds is a frustrating wait for recovery and getting back to her unit. And by this time, killing Weber is a real obsession.
At last Svetlana hears news of Weber, who is now an even bigger problem for the Soviets than ever. She heads out to pick him off, and this time she succeeds. But she is surprised to find that finally getting revenge did not bring her the peace she expected.
Removing Weber makes Svetlana famous and she becomes known as “Lady Death”. Strangely, that is what Weber himself calls her just before she kills him. Perhaps Svetlana was developing a similar reputation among the Germans to the one Weber had among the Soviets. Svetlana keeps on sniping and training new snipers right through the push into Germany.
On the last day of the war Yuri proposes to Svetlana but she declines; she still wants to feel the satisfaction of carving her own way through the war and isn’t ready to consider marriage again just yet. But now the war’s over the army has no place for women. Svetlana receives the Order of Glory and discharged. She heads to university to get a Masters in Education.
As said before, this story definitely has a strong feminist tone. We see it in how Svetlana not only has to prove she deserves her place in the army but has to fight chauvinist attitudes among her superiors as well. But the real reason she can get into the army is the necessities of war, which has driven many Allied countries to allow women into positions traditionally occupied by men. Once the war is over, not even the strong-willed Svetlana is allowed to stay in the army; like all other WWII working/fighting women she is expected to just go home to mother and be a homemaker.
It’s not often we see feminism in the British titles. Even girls’ titles didn’t seem to touch on feminism much. Some stories did of course, such as Mandy PSL #105 “They’re Letting Girls into St. Justins!”, where an administrative error unwittingly admits girls to an exclusive boys’ school. But the girls are there now and they are determined to stay, even though they really have to fight against boys and even teachers who don’t want girls in their school. Another is Debbie’s “Janet and Her Travellin’ Javelin”, where Janet Malcolm has to defy her grandfather, who believes a woman’s place is in the home, in order to become a javelin champion.
Galina and Zoya are more fleeting, but they have their moments to give them what depth the 62 pages can allow. Before Weber cuts her time so short, Galina turns vanity into an act of courage by always keeping herself stylish, no matter how tough the army makes things. Zoya is distinctive for her brave hatred of Stalin, and she also provides light relief in marrying Maxim, whose ridiculous moustache invites a lot of teasing. The wedding, amid the hardships of war (wedding dress made out of a parachute, army rations for the wedding dinner), and Maxim and Zoya seizing the moment, knowing full well war could take either or both of them, is also an act of courage. And both make it to the end.
Weber illustrates why German snipers were so feared during World War II. However, he doesn’t get much chance for development and only his peppermint fondness gives him a bit of roundness. He seems a bit careless, leaving those peppermint wrappers lying around. One of those wrappers almost gets him killed because it gives him away.
The main villain, Weber, is more fleeting than other Commando villains and takes up fewer panels. The story is not all focused on the pursuit of him either. It takes pauses to look at the characters more, whether it’s Zoya’s wedding or training new recruits as snipers. It doesn’t all dwell on the pursuit of Weber. But the threat of Weber is always there, an underlying current that pressures the story towards its resolution.
The story also devotes panels to illustrating the horrors of war and some of the effects it is having. We see the city of Odessa being turned into rubble, horses having to learn to take the carnage in their stride, partisans luring soldiers into catacombs and ambushing them, and Vasily’s unit bravely fighting overwhelming odds against enemy tanks until only one man is left. For the soldiers there is no time for grieving or dwelling on the horrors – you have to press on and fight. The story does not go into war weariness and we don’t see anyone cracking up under it. But when Yuri proposes to Svetlana, she finds her heart has been lifted for the first time in the grim war years she was fighting and pursuing revenge.
It is a bit sad that Svetlana turns down Yuri’s proposal. But after what she had been through and what she had to do to prove herself, becoming the homemaker expected of her after the war would have felt a comedown. We are delighted that Svetlana is going to pursue a degree instead, and pursue it with as much determination as she did to get into the army. We also hope she will continue shooting and pass on her skills to others, as she did with the sniper unit.