Published: Commando #4599
Artist: (cover and story) Carlos Pino
Writer: Mac MacDonald
In 1940, a dogfight with superior German Me109s goes badly for Pilot Officer Drew Granger and his unit. He is the only survivor, but his left arm is disabled from enemy fire, and the psychological damage over losing his entire unit makes him lose his nerve for flying. So he is deemed unfit to return to active service.
So when Hitler launches Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union, Drew is dispatched there to help the Russians because he has some background in the Russian language. However, Drew is still affected by his shattered nerve, and his command of Russian is not as good as the Allies think. The Russian commissioners are quick to realise this, so they are not impressed with him. Among them is Captain Gleb Revnik, who has a dark secret: he ran during a fight with the Germans. And Major Zubov, who has a knack for hearing tales about lack of will to fight, has men shot for running. Zubov is another commissioner who does not think much of Drew.
Then Drew is further injured during a German air raid on a Russian airfield. While recovering he is visited by a female Soviet fighter pilot, Yana Belinky, who fortunately can speak English, and they strike a friendship. When Drew recovers, he discovers the entire unit consists of women (whom the Germans call Nachthexen [Night Witches]), which he finds strange. He is concerned that their aircraft are nothing but dated PO2s (nicknamed “corn cutters” by the Russians and “sewing machines” by the Germans). All the same, they are still a vital part of the Soviet airforce. The Nachthexen pound the Germans during the night, and have worked their way up to become an effective fighting force against the Germans. Their ageing aircraft have the advantage of flying slow and low, which makes them a difficult target for the faster Me109s, which stall if throttled back too much. Another advantage of the PO2s is that they are invisible on enemy radar because their construct is canvas and wood rather than metal.
Revnik realises that Drew still hasn’t regained his nerve, and his arm, which was reinjured in the airfield attack, is troubling him as well. Drew feels useless and is ashamed to see Yana seems more resilient than he is to losing comrades and getting injured in dogfights. Revnik decides to write to Zubov about it when the time comes. In the meantime, he is pleased that Zubov’s focus on Drew and Yana is diverting him from any potential rumours about his secret.
Meanwhile, Drew begins to suspect Revnik is up to no good. Indeed, Revnik wants to bring Yana down because of her aristocratic family background during the days of the tsars. Zubov also has his doubts about her loyalty.
Then Yana says she is not flying because there is nobody to team up with. Drew volunteers to fly with her on a raid on a German communications post, and he will handle the PO2 machine gun. Drew finds that even going through the instrument panels and controls scares him when he once found them second nature, but there is no backing out. Revnik is delighted at the prospect of getting rid of them both, and suspects will be too.
As the flight unfolds, Drew finds his nerves are doing better than expected; even his disabled arm is. The advantages of the PO2 enable Yana and Drew to reach their target with little trouble, and they soon destroy it despite a strong attack from the Germans. Then they strike serious trouble from a ferocious Me109, and Drew manages to clip it. Later it is revealed that the clipped Me109 crashes on top of Zubov’s vehicle, which kills him.
However, during the dogfight Yana gets shot and the plane develops a fuel leak. Yana manages to land the plane so Drew can fix the leak, but it becomes apparent her condition is extremely serious. It’s up to Drew to get her back for medical treatment. But this means flying a plane he has never flown before and facing up to his nerve difficulties and problematic arm. At least he gets unwitting help with this from approaching German soldiers, who are out for revenge against one of those hated PO2’s. He has to take off fast or get mown down by their vindictive gunfire.
Drew manages to get the plane back to the airfield, though he too had taken a shot. Both he and Yana need extensive medical care, but he has regained his nerve. Revnik acquires a whole new respect for Yana and Drew and is confident they will both return to the skies. He is also relieved his secret is safe due to Zubov’s death.
This Commando holds a special place in the history of girls’ comics because it is the very first Commando to feature a female protagonist. Commando protagonists (and antagonists) have been exclusively male ever since its launch; appearances of any female characters were fleeting and peripheral, such as mothers seeing their sons off to war.
The protagonists in this Commando are atypical for another reason: they become recurring characters. Commando protagonists are generally one-offs, but Drew and Yana return in Witch Hunt (Commando #4616) and Warrior’s Return (Commando #4635), with the same creative team.
Although this Commando is the first one to use a female protagonist, the focus of the story remains firmly on the male protagonist, Drew Granger, and his fight to regain his nerve and resume flying combat. In the meantime, he is the fish out of water at the Russian airfield. His Russian is not good enough, he can’t join the fight because of his shattered nerves, he feels useless and out of sorts, he is a target of personal and political agendas of two commissioners, and he is handicapped by an impaired arm. Drew also feels shame at how Yana is such a contrast to him. While he can’t regain his nerve she always jumps back on the horse after it throws her, never gets the loss of comrades get her down, and can face down injuries with such utter stoicism.
How Drew regains his nerve is well handled. It does not come all at once, which would feel trite. It comes in stages during the flight with Yana, but it takes a real life-or-death situation to really force Drew to face up to his problems – fly the plane and get back to base, regardless of them all – because their lives depend on it.
As the focus of the story is on Drew, we get little feel of Yana’s character. Sure, she is stoic, courageous, quick-witted, resourceful, and has nerves of steel, but that’s about it. She does not get much development, and gets no thought bubbles for us to see how she thinks or show the human side of her. The only glimpse of it is when we get a hint that Yana is more affected by the loss of her comrades than she admits: she responds abruptly to Drew when he tries to sympathise, and apologises later.
Revnik is perhaps more developed than Yana because he gets thought bubbles for us to read, and these help to round out his character. When we learn his terrible secret and the fate he dreads, we may either develop some sympathy for him or we may hope he gets found out and shot because of his plotting against Drew and Yana. However, the respect he eventually gains for both Drew and Yana in the end turns him into a sympathetic and more likeable character. We end up feeling relief that Revnik’s secret is safe, with Drew’s unknowing help.
Unfortunately I do not have the sequels to comment on how the relationship and characters of Drew and Yana developed, or whether Revnik went on to become a good friend to them. Nor can I say whether any romance between Drew and Yana blossoms in the sequels, which is something readers might expect. For their first story there is none.