Tag Archives: Andrew Knighton

Lady Death [2019]

Lady Death cover

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.

Plot

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Thoughts

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.

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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.

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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.

Walking the Line [2018]

Walking the Line cover

Published: Commando #5147

Art: Morhain & Rezzonico (story), Neil Roberts (cover)

Story: Andrew Knighton

Here is another recently published Commando in its new trend of featuring a female protagonist.

Plot

In July 1943 Flight Lieutenant Alan Freeman leads a bombing squadron against Germany. Unfortunately Freeman has an obsession about winning back his ex, Sarah, whose photograph he carries on every mission, by impressing her with a huge scorecard of daring, heroic war deeds. Freeman does not realise that his drive to make his missions as daring as possible to impress Sarah is clouding his judgement and causing him to take ever-increasing risks with his squadron.

One night the inevitable happens – Freeman takes one risk too many to impress Sarah. This has the Luftwaffe bearing down on the plane fast and Freeman and his comrades get shot down. Knowing the situation is partly his fault, Freeman tries to rectify it by flying his plane for as long as possible and be the last to bail out. He takes care to retain Sarah’s photograph as he jumps. As he watches his burning plane go down, he tells Sarah it’s all been for her.

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Right – so putting your squadron in a position to get shot down, losing planes and possibly lives that way, and bailing out over occupied territory, which could mean capture, have all been for impressing Sarah, Alan Freeman? You tell that to your superiors when you get home.

Well, back to the story now.

Freeman parachutes into occupied France, which is of course very dangerous for him. Moreover, the crash his plane made was heard for miles, so the Germans are bound to come running. At least Freeman paid attention in French class and also had training in evading capture. As per training, Freeman hides all trace of his parachute and military uniform. Well, nearly all – he forgets his boots, which are clearly military issue. Fortunately the Frenchman (Henri Chaput) who spots this oversight is friendly and hides him from the searching Germans.

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Henri’s daughter, Juliette, runs an underground escape line for Allied soldiers, which runs through the Pyrenees and Spain. However, Juliette warns Freeman there is a risk in taking it: she suspects the Gestapo have compromised it somehow because some of their people have gone missing recently. Freeman gladly accepts that risk, just because it will be another thing for him to impress Sarah. That night he takes a moment to think of Sarah and how going through an underground route will impress her.

Escapee reports are vital to the war effort. So next evening they radio London to inform them of what Freeman had seen during the bombing run. Unfortunately the Germans trace the signal of the illegal radio (the Achilles heel of the Resistance) and soon have the place surrounded. Freeman and Juliette are the only ones to escape when the Germans open fire – and kill Henri.

They make it to a town in search of a safe house. There they spot a Gestapo agent, and he is looking at them in a way that indicates he has realised Juliette is on their wanted list. They take advantage of this to lure him into a trap and capture him. At the safe house Juliette interrogates the agent to find out what happened to their missing numbers and why they have gone missing. The agent sneers that those missing people are all dead of course. And in reply to her other question, one of their number is a traitor but he does not know which one. Juliette now gags him and leaves him for the local Resistance to pick up.

Freeman comes up with an idea to flush the traitor out: use him as bait by taking him down the escape line and spread the word through it that he carries vital British intelligence. And for the first time, Freeman is not taking a risk to impress Sarah. He’s taking it to help Juliette and the war effort.

Two days later Juliette and Freeman are at a café waiting for their contact, Claude the forger. Juliette suspects Claude is the traitor because he is in the perfect position to be. But Claude is soon eliminated as a suspect when another contact, Celine arrives, and tells them the Germans have arrested Claude, along with several more members of the Narbonne cell. Freeman and Juliette head for Narbonne and the remaining cell members.

On the way Juliette tells Freeman that the Germans killed her sister, Lucile, who was not even a Resistance member, along with nine others, in revenge for a Resistance attack. Lucile is the reason why Juliette fights the Germans. Now that sure is a far more worthy reason to fight than trying to win back an ex who keeps trying to tell you she’s moved on.

In Narbonne they meet Louis, leader of the Narbonne cell, and Julio, the guide through the Pyrenees. A fight breaks out when Louis says that before they helped Juliette’s escape line they lost nobody and now the Germans are picking them off, and Juliette angrily accuses him of being the traitor. Freeman breaks up the fight and is not convinced Louis is the traitor.

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Whoever the traitor is, he soon strikes again; that night the Germans arrive and arrest Freeman and Juliette, who had no chance to flee or fight. They are taken to an Abwehr (Army) run prison, and are soon joined by other Resistance fighters. Louis joins Freeman and Juliette in their cell. This convinces Freeman that Louis is not the traitor, but not Juliette.

Freeman is first to be interrogated. His interrogator, Colonel Weber, makes a remark that will be of major plot significance later: “Some of your predecessors may have got away, but you would not like to end up like Lieutenant Davies, would you?”

A Gestapo agent interrupts the interrogation. An argument erupts between him and Weber, and this makes them careless in how they are guarding Freeman. Freeman takes advantage to seize Weber’s gun and shoots both Germans dead. He makes a dash for it, taking the cell keys that were attached to Weber’s belt. He frees the others and a mass prison breakout ensues, but the Germans are gathering forces with gunfire. Louis bravely covers for them while they make their escape until he is finally mown down. To Freeman, this is the ultimate proof that Louis is not the traitor and he convinces Juliette of it.

They head for Julio’s hideout and persuade him to take them over the Pyrenees. It’s a hard journey, made all the harder by having to avoid border guards on both sides, and no short cuts or easy routes. As they go on, Freeman realises he has no further taste for daring adventures to impress his ex and will just be glad when it is all over. And it’s only the first day of their escape through the Pyrenees.

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After the first day, Julio goes ahead to check the trail while Juliette and Freeman settle down by the fire. Recalling what Weber said about Lieutenant Davies, Freeman asks Juliette if she knew him. Juliette says Davies was the first pilot she helped, before she had even started her escape line. She took him to Julio and Julio got him to Spain – Julio said so himself! But that’s not what Weber said…unless…

All of a sudden, everything falls into place.

When Julio returns, Juliette and Freeman have an ambush prepared for him. He puts up a terrific fight, but once he is overpowered he does not deny being the traitor at all. His motive was self-preservation by making himself useful to the Germans, but no doubt the rewards must have been an additional motive.

The problem is, what to do with Julio? Where they are right now, they can’t leave him for the Resistance to pick up as they did the Gestapo agent. But Juliette can’t kill a man in cold blood and Julio takes advantage to plead for his life. Juliette agrees to hand him over for trial and execution but Julio is not having that. He lunges at Juliette, and in the ensuing struggle Juliette is forced to make her first kill. Juliette is deeply upset at this, and realises it has not given her the satisfaction of vengeance that she thought it would.

But Juliette can’t dwell on that – they still have to get across the Pyrenees. This is now even harder because they have lost their guide. Juliette has a fair knowledge of the Pyrenees, but it is not as extensive as Julio’s. The further they go, the less Juliette knows the terrain, until Freeman remembers he has a compass hidden in his boots. And there are still those pesky border patrols they have to dodge all the time.

Eventually they reach Juliette’s contacts in Spain. From there, the British embassy smuggles Freeman to Gibraltar and a waiting ship to Britain. Juliette will go back to continue her work. It would not be surprising if Juliette takes Julio’s place at the Pyrenees end of her escape line as there has been a strong buildup towards it. Besides, there is nobody else on her escape line with enough knowledge of the Pyrenees to navigate that route. In any case, Juliette can’t go back to her hometown with her family gone and the Gestapo looking for her.

Before Freeman boards his ship he discards Sarah’s photograph, saying she’s not worth it. He now realises that he has long since stopped thinking about Sarah and fighting just to impress her. As he sails home he thinks about more important things and far better reasons to fight. Among them is the inspiration Juliette has given him.

Thoughts

This story is another in a growing trend in female protagonists in Commando. They have ranged from partners to the male protagonist to the star of the show. The cover of this issue indicates that the male and female protagonist will be pretty much equal in how they are developed.

The thrust of the story is still on the male protagonist, Alan Freeman, as he battles to escape from occupied France through an escape line. It’s not only a struggle for survival and escape through the underground and past the difficulties of Pyrenees and enemy patrols. There is also the added worry of an unknown traitor compromising the escape route, whose treachery could get them captured and killed if they don’t get to him first. So there is a mystery to this story as well that needs to be unravelled. But until they do, paranoia and suspicion run through the escape line and are setting the cell members against each other, as shown in the near-fight between Louis and Juliette.

It could have been a pure adventure/mystery story for Alan Freeman. Instead, it develops his character by taking him on an emotional journey where he has to stop dwelling on his ex and trying to win her back with heroics because it’s affecting his performance. It’s causing him to take thoughtless risks that are putting missions, his comrades’ lives and his own in jeopardy, and he does not even seem to care. And his reasons for it are not only selfish but also pathetic, and they may not even succeed in getting her back. After all, will Sarah even be there to impress when he returns – if he returns – with all his tales of heroics? For all he knows, she could now be married to a medal-laden war general or died aboard a ship sunk by some U-boat. He’s just got to move on, as Sarah has done.

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As Freeman’s journey through the Underground progresses, we see him changing from taking risks to win back his ex to taking risks for the war effort and the Underground. After his first night in Juliette’s house he stops thinking about Sarah pretty quickly, because once the Germans strike he has more pressing things to think about. He stops looking at Sarah’s photo all the time. The next risk he takes is for unselfish reasons that have nothing to do with impressing Sarah. Furthermore, as Freeman hears the horrors Juliette and the French people are going through under Nazism and sees some of them first hand, he begins to discover the real reasons why he should fight. By the time Freeman is finally reminded of Sarah, he has grown mature enough to let her go and realise there are more important things than getting back your ex when you’re in the middle of a war.

Freeman also goes from cavalierly going through adventures to impress Sarah to understanding it’s not a bravo adventure of risk and daring. He has to learn things like keeping cool when he’s in disguise when Germans are prowling close by, and persistence when he has to go through the Pyrenees the hard way to avoid capture. All the while he is fighting for his life and his freedom.

Although we never see Juliette’s thought bubbles, she’s clearly going through an intense emotional journey too. It shows through her words and her actions. As we learn more about Juliette’s escape line, we realise that while she is brave and competent, it sounds like she is still pretty new to this game and there are some hard lessons she still has to learn. One is learning to kill when she has to, because this is war. And when it’s war, sometimes you have to kill or be killed. This lesson Juliette is forced to learn when at first she tries to avoid killing Julio but eventually she has to make her first kill with him.

Another lesson Juliette has to learn is not get emotions cloud her judgement, as her handling of Louis proved. She had no real reason to suspect Louis is the traitor and there was no proof. All he did was make a very pointed observation that suggests the traitor is connected to her escape line, but she went too much on the defensive over it. For his part, Louis acted with too much emotion in handling his suspicions about Juliette’s line. In so doing, Louis and Juliette both missed a vital clue to the identity of the traitor – he was someone linked to both Juliette’s escape line and the Narbonne cell.

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Juliette’s reason to fight – to avenge the sister the Nazis killed – is better than Freeman’s selfish reason to fight. But it sounds like Juliette is dwelling on it too much as her reason to fight. Like Freeman, she has to get beyond it and realise that there are other reasons why she should fight. And Juliette does when she realises that when she finally gets her revenge for the death of her sister, she gets no satisfaction over it. But she has to go on and get Freeman to safety. In so doing, Juliette has to grow as she develops her own experience and knowledge of the Pyrenees.

At the end of it, Juliette has a whole new reason to continue with her work – keeping downed pilots like Alan Freeman out of Gestapo clutches. Moreover, she will do it even better, and it’s not just because she has removed the traitor who had been sabotaging her escape line before it had even started. Rooting him out has also helped to develop her experience, competence, and also shown her that you really can’t afford squeamishness in a job like this. After all, enemies like the Gestapo agent or the dirty rat Julio won’t have any compunction in killing you.