Tag Archives: prison camps

Always a Prisoner [1981]

Commando cover

Published: Commando #1502, 1981

Artist: Ian Kennedy (cover), Alejandro Martinez Ruiz (story)

Writer: Bill Fear

Reprint: Commando #2828, 1995

Plot

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.

Prisoner

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.

Prisoner 2

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.

Prisoner 3

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.

Prisoner 4

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.

Thoughts

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”.

Prisoner 5

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.

Prisoner 6

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.

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The Terror Behind the Bamboo Curtain (1975)

Sample Images

bamboo curtain 1

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bamboo curtain 2

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bamboo curtain 3

Writers: Charles Herring, Pat Mills, John Wagner, Tom Tully (?). But only Charles Herring appears in the writing credits.

Artist: Giancarlo Alessandrini

Publication: Battle 8 March 1975 to 24 May 1975

Reprint: Tornado Annual 1980

Plot Summary

In World War II, “Big Jim” Blake is a prisoner in a Japanese POW camp in Burma where prisoners are forced to build a bridge on the Benwaddy River. Sado, the cruel commandant, takes great delight in punishing his prisoners by having them run the gauntlet in the Bamboo Curtain, a bamboo forest on one side of the camp that is laden with deadly booby traps. Concerned at the intimidating effect the Bamboo Curtain is having on his comrades, Blake deliberately gets himself sent to the Bamboo Curtain, in the hope that if he can somehow beat it, it will break Sado’s hold over them.

Sado declares Blake dead after seeing him fall into one of the booby traps and forces the prisoners to cheer at this. However, Blake escapes. He is then surprised to stumble across a band of British soldiers in Japanese uniform who are acting as if they are brainwashed/hypnotised and don’t even feel pain when branded. One of them he recognises as “Handlebars” Lewis from his old unit. He soon finds out Sado is behind it, but the men disappear into a ruined pagoda before he can investigate further. He decides that for the soldiers’ sakes he will return to the camp to find out what is going on, although he is risking big trouble from Sado.

Everyone at the camp is surprised to see Blake has not only survived the Bamboo Curtain but returned as well. Blake’s purpose in going into the Bamboo Curtain is fulfilled; the prisoners now see it is not so unbeatable and become more rebellious and rallying around Blake as a hero. Jensen, Blake’s best friend, is sceptical when he hears the reason for Blake’s return, because Handlebars had been sent to the Bamboo Curtain several months previously.

Sado starts inflicting heavy punishments (actually, tests) on Blake. He starts with the sweat hut, but loses face when he realises Blake is too strong to break that way. Next, Sado forces Blake to fight a masked man to the death, and Blake is shocked to discover it was Handlebars. The next punishment (Sado’s final test) – forcing Blake to find a way to escape from a minefield – backfires when Blake escapes into the Bamboo Curtain and back to the pagoda. There he discovers another soldier undergoing the brainwashing process. The process takes effect, and it causes the prisoner to go wild and nearly kill Blake. Then Sado recaptures Blake and takes him back to camp – by shackling him to the back of his jeep and dragging him along until he blacks out.

Sado now brings Blake to his hut for a surprise spread of food. Suspecting his food is drugged, Blake contrives to switch it for Sado’s plate. His suspicions are confirmed when Sado’s cat Suki goes crazy from eating the food and attacks Sado. Judging by what he saw with the brainwashed soldier, Blake guesses the drug in the food must be part of the brainwashing process and this was what Sado intended for him. He also notices the door to Sado’s office is heavily padlocked and suspects the reason is that the key to the mystery is in there.

Jensen has the men start a riot at the bridge as a diversion so Blake can go back to investigate the office. Breaking in through the roof, he rips open a desk, where he finds a paper listing the men who have been sent through the Bamboo Curtain – and his own name is at the top of the list. The rest is in Japanese, but Jensen can translate it.

However, Sado has guessed the reason for the now-quelled riot and returns to his office to check. He discovers the theft, but Blake manages to escape with the paper. Upon translation, it reveals that the true purpose of the Bamboo Curtain is a survival of the fittest test. Soldiers who survive the Curtain are incorporated into Sado’s private army. They undergo a brainwashing process to turn them into crazed killers who obey Sado robotically. The paper also reveals there is a secret entrance under one of the flagstones in the pagoda.

Determined to get his paper back, Sado has turned extra-nasty towards the prisoners. He is forcing them to work under even worse conditions (extra hours, reduced rations and sleep, drinking from a malaria-ridden source) until someone comes forward about the theft. This has Jensen and Blake escape before someone breaks and lets on, and they flee into the Bamboo Curtain. But Jensen gets caught in a quicksand trap and Blake fails to save him in time. Jensen’s death hardens Blake’s resolve to stop Sado.

Blake heads for the pagoda, where he disguises himself as one of the brainwashed soldiers. He learns that Sado is sending his army against the approaching British forces, and sets up an ambush for them at Hsenwo Valley. Blake slips away to warn the British forces, but the commander does not believe him and locks him up. Blake escapes, but bumps into some of Sado’s goons. He manages to fight them off, but then hears Sado’s signal to the brainwashed soldiers to attack the British forces. Blake stops the attack by taking Sado hostage.

Now the British forces have seen the brainwashed soldiers for themselves, they finally believe Blake. Sado is taken into custody and the brainwashed soldiers are sent to an army hospital in England for deprogramming. Soon Blake and the British are on their way to liberate Sado’s camp.

Then a report arrives to say that Sado has escaped. Blake insists on going after Sado personally and heads for the Bamboo Curtain, figuring Sado has gone there. But Sado corners Blake and is on the verge of killing him. Then Suki trips Sado up and he falls into the same quicksand that claimed Jensen. Sado begs Blake for help and mercy, but Blake rebuffs him, saying he never showed mercy to anyone. Blake leaves Sado to the quicksand while Suki looks on, and departs to rejoin the war that still needs to be won.

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Thoughts and Discussion

Although this story is from a boys’ comic, it has come up in many discussions of girls’ comics, with particular reference to discussing the slave story theme and transposing the themes of emotion, suffering, and cruelty used to revive girls’ comics in the early 1970s with Tammy to revive the boys’ titles with Battle and Action. It has also come up in several websites where former creators reminisce on what went on behind the scenes of IPC comics and the writing and editing processes of both boys’ and girls’ comics. And it has been mentioned several times on this blog. So now it is going to have its own entry here as it is related to the context of girls’ comics.

Tammy had led the field in the revival of girls’ comics in the 1970s with its emphasis on cruelty, suffering and deep emotion as opposed to stories on boarding schools, ballet and ponies. Girls were frequently abused and subjected to over-the-top tortures in schools, quarries, factories, abusive homes and other settings. The early Jinty followed in similar vein, but eventually developed her own character with science fiction, sports and fantasy stories. And finally there was Misty, who dared to be a horror comic for girls. Parents hated it, which meant their daughters loved it, and sales for the early Tammy soared.

The same elements of cruelty, emotion and suffering in Tammy were applied to Battle to make it the spearhead in reviving boys’ comics, which had fallen into a similar slump as the girls’. As Pat Mills explains: “…When we did Battle and so on, we followed the girls’ comic role model, and my boys’ comics were, and I take great pleasure in saying this, disguised girls’ comics!” http://www.comixminx.net/comixminx/articles/Entries/2008/5/31_Pat_Mills_at_CAPTION2004.html

Although this approach did make Battle a success, the creators soon discovered that there were differences between the sexes that made some formulas less successful than others. And Terror Behind the Bamboo Curtain is one example where a girls’ comics formula (the slave story) proved less successful in the boys’ because of the differences between the sexes. So much so, in fact, that they never tried it again, which makes Terror Behind the Bamboo Curtain a one-off stand-alone story in Battle. For this reason it is now undergoing reappraisals, with collectors appreciating what a unique story it was in boys’ comics.

The formula that Terror Behind the Bamboo Curtain followed was the slave story theme, which is one of the lynchpins for a girls’ comic. The story had a group of girls (or one girl) who were being used as slaves or prisoners in an extremely harsh institution (reformatories, islands, quarries, factories, boarding schools and workhouses are frequent settings, while more unusual ones have included ships, restaurants, despotic regimes and dystopian worlds). The protagonist refuses to break under the torture, so her tormentors subject her to extra-harsh torture to break her down. Sometimes there is a mystery element involved, such as who is the mysterious masked helper who turns up to secretly help the girls, and solving the mystery is critical to the resolution of the story. This certainly was the case with Bamboo Curtain.

But Pat Mills believes it was the mystery element in Bamboo Curtain that made it unpopular and short lived in Battle:

“Mystery stories – girls, female readers, love mystery stories, say a school where there’s a mysterious headmistress, and girls are disappearing, and other girls are turning up in the dormitory – this gets them going! And the explanation can be complete crap, and it usually was, and it doesn’t matter!

“We tried this with male readers, we only did it once, and they hated it! That was Terror Beyond the Bamboo Curtain… You could see the thinking; we had the sadistic Japanese commander of the prisoner-of-war camp, and prisoners are disappearing, and strange things are going on, and the readers DID NOT CARE! They weren’t bothered about the mystery, they just wanted to see the action! What was the Terror Behind the Bamboo Curtain? Who cares, bring on the violence! A female readership, even if you’ve got a mystery as simple as “What’s inside that box?”, that’ll keep them going for weeks! It’s a fundamental difference between the sexes”.

http://www.comixminx.net/comixminx/articles/Entries/2008/5/31_Pat_Mills_at_CAPTION2004.html

But co-writer John Wagner has a different opinion on what made Bamboo Curtain less than successful:

“… It wasn’t that popular a story, I think because they were prisoners and they weren’t proactive. They were having it done to them, rather than doing it themselves”.

http://viciousimagery.blogspot.co.nz/2007/01/john-wagner-talks-about-battle-picture.html

Less-than-proactive prisoners are a typical element of the slave story, even with the protagonist who refuses to be broken and is a constant rebel against her tormentors. And although Bamboo Curtain has its share of Blake striking back against his Japanese jailers (slugging guards and Sado, shooting out watch towers, fighting the masked man), he does fall into the same vein as his female counterparts when he throws away his escape from the Bamboo Curtain and returns voluntarily to the camp to solve the mystery, although he knows he is risking death at the hands of Sado. Boys must have been outraged because they had expected a more proactive approach, such Blake turning jungle commando or something to bring down Sado once he had escaped. And the cowering prisoners in the first episode must have left them less than impressed either. And they must have been used to oppressed men rising up against their oppressors and bringing on the ass-kicking action that boys wanted to see.

But now Bamboo Curtain is attracting comment and reappraisal online for daring to be different. And it is not just because it was a brave, if unpopular, attempt at transposing the slave story formula into a boys’ comic. The story also dared to break clichés:

“[Comics] had been too safe, samey, sanitised. Characters never died, nothing ever changed, nothing progressed. Like Captain Hurricane went on episode after episode, the same formula, he’d throw a raging fury and rip tanks apart, and in his raging fury always win the day. It was so unreal and we were fed up with it. We wanted to kick some butt”.

http://viciousimagery.blogspot.co.nz/2007/01/john-wagner-talks-about-battle-picture.html

The biggest kick in the butt has to be where Jim Blake actually fails to save Jensen from the quicksand trap. As Pat Mills explains:

“My favourite [great moment in the story] – Blake trying to rescue his buddy who is sinking into a swamp. “Will Big Jim save his friend? Find out next week!” Next week Blake fails to save his friend, who sinks and dies. I took such pleasure in writing that scene, because it raises truths we all have to deal with, that heroes don’t always arrive in time. And it mocks the cliché ending! Even today, in comics, we don’t challenge the clichés enough – although I do my best in Marshal Law”.

https://patmills.wordpress.com/2012/10/18/misty-the-female-2000ad/

The cliché gets mocked again right at the end when Sado falls into the same quicksand. You expect the hero to do the noble thing and extend a hand to save his/her enemy, as Patti does in “Children of Edenford”. But Blake does not. Instead, he leaves Sado to die, saying he never showed mercy to anyone. This is a most shocking and unexpected thing to see a hero do in comics and readers must have been wondering about Blake after reading the ending.

While the story turned some clichés on their heads, other clichés were hammed up. This is the case with Sado. He is cast in the model of the stereotyped Japanese, and he certainly is evil, sadistic and loves inflicting torture. Yet he is so campy that he is such an engaging and colourful villain, and he is the source of all the humour in the story, with lines like:

  • “See Fearnly run! He think he okey dokey, but he no get far – you see!”
  • “Englishman sing! He too tough for sweat box. Sado lose much face!”
  • “See – Suki like. Big boy like, too! Please to eat.”
  • “Sado have way of making prisoners talk. Work them double chop chop. Soon someone break – talk turkey with Sado.”

“Bouncie, bouncie! Big boy bounce along path like rubber ball!”

With lines like those you just have to laugh, even at the lines that show just how evil Sado is. Pat Mills says “It was even funnier when John and I were acting these lines out to each other”. It is small wonder that “Sado was popular in the company while we were writing it. One guy made and wore a ‘SAVE SADO’ badge”.

https://patmills.wordpress.com/2012/10/18/misty-the-female-2000ad/

But it seems that either the writers or editor did not agree, because Sado is not saved in the end.

The glasses Sado wears serve to heighten his role as a humorous villain and help dilute his evil to less extreme levels (it seems to be something about comic book characters who wear glasses). His cat Suki does fall into the cliché of the villain having a soft spot. Yet the Siamese does add a subtle sinister note to the story. For example, it knows all the safe routes in the Bamboo Curtain, and it gives the impression that it is deliberately luring Blake into a trap when he follows it. Blake knows the cat will lead him to Sado without falling into any booby traps, but what he does not know is that Sado is planning another trap for him – leaving a gun for him to find that is rigged to fire backwards.

The campiness of Sado was deliberate because: “This story didn’t work until we hyped up Sado. It was sitting there. We kept going over it and over it and couldn’t see what was wrong with it. Decided to hype up Sado”.

http://viciousimagery.blogspot.co.nz/2007/01/john-wagner-talks-about-battle-picture.html

Even with Sado hyped up, writing the story proved extremely problematic:

“I’m sure we wrote the first episode of this one [Bamboo Curtain – Herring, Wagner/Mills, Tully?]. Anything you see with Charles Herring on it, it was rewritten and rewritten and rewritten. He had lots of good ideas. You had to take one of Charles’ scripts and pick out those good ideas. This story didn’t work until we hyped up Sado. It was sitting there. We kept going over it and over it and couldn’t see what was wrong with it. Decided to hype up Sado. But it wasn’t that popular a story, I think because they were prisoners and they weren’t proactive. They were having it done to them, rather than doing it themselves”.

Here’s what Battle staff editor Dave Hunt had to say about how Mills & Wagner worked…

“Pat and John wrote the initial episodes and then farmed them out to other writers. GFD was the author of D-Day Dawson. Lofty’s One-Man Luftwaffe – that was John and Pat. Their brief was not only create a new title but bring in new talent into the industry. We’d worked with a bed-rock of people. When you launched a new title, you rang up Tom Tully, he would do four of the new strips, Ted Cowan – people of that era – Ken Mennall. A lot of the people in Battle #1 were new to me.

“John and Pat always listened and got what they wanted from you. They would see a glimmer of an idea in a script and the writer would get paid for it. John and Pat would shape that glimmer. You’d re-read it 14 attempts later and the idea would still be there but developed. I was full of admiration for them. Being freelance themselves, they always felt they shouldn’t destroy a contributor, they felt that was the last thing they should do. They wanted to train them more into their way of thinking. Often it didn’t work…I had absolutely no idea where the story was going. I’m sure we hadn’t thought past the first episode. We knew it was something pretty awful, believe me! [Sadism, violence and black humour?] That’s what happens when you put a couple of freelancers in a room together! They just egg each other on. Part of it all was a reaction to the way comics had been up until then. They had been too safe, samey, sanitised. Characters never died, nothing ever changed, nothing progressed. Like Captain Hurricane went on episode after episode, the same formula, he’d throw a raging fury and rip tanks apart, and in his raging fury always win the day. It was so unreal and we were fed up with it. We wanted to kick some butt”.

http://viciousimagery.blogspot.co.nz/2007/01/john-wagner-talks-about-battle-picture.html

Despite these problems, the end result is a story that is gripping and filled with themes (brainwashing, struggle for survival, fighting adversity, war, black humour) that are guaranteed to grab the reader. The structure is well paced and the plot holds together extremely well. There is a discrepancy or two (such as Blake losing his boots in the minefield, but suddenly wearing boots again when he leaves the pagoda). But the overall product is strong, with its greatest strength perhaps lying in the characterisation, particularly of the villain. Nobody reading it would have guessed the problems the writers had in drafting it. Terror Behind the Bamboo Curtain deserves to have more appreciation than it received when it was first published. But the attention it is getting on the Internet indicates that it is getting that appreciation now.

Song of the Fir Tree (1975-6)

Sample Images

Fir Tree 1

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Fir Tree 2

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Fir Tree 3

Publication: 6 September 1975-31 January 1976
Artist: Phil Townsend
Writer: Unknown
Summary
Solveig Amundsen and her brother Per are two Norwegian children who are prisoners in a Nazi concentration camp. They and their mother (now dead) have been sent there by Grendelsen, a rich and powerful man whom Mrs Amundsen accidentally found out was a traitor who had betrayed their Resistance group. Solveig draws strength from the resolution that they will return to their home with the big fir tree and the song their mother used to sing, “The Song of the Fir Tree” – hence the title. She is also determined to return to Norway and expose Grendelsen, as she and her brother are the only ones who know what he has done. (As the story develops, one gathers that Grendelsen is regarded as a respectable man and there are no suspicions that he is a Nazi collaborator.)

From the outset, Solveig proves the stronger one, with spirit, strength and determination to survive and make it back home, while Per has a weaker constitution. He is more prone to illness, demoralisation and almost succumbs to the camp conditions. He needs constant buoying up physically and mentally, and he would never survive without his sister.

The end of the war comes and the Allies liberate the camp. But Solveig recognises Grendelsen among the Norwegian officials who have come to collect them. Realising he has come to silence them, Solveig and Per go on the run, with Grendelsen in relentless pursuit. And Grendelsen soon proves he knows what he is doing in tracking people (and Solveig and Per never think to cover their tracks), and is very clever at tricking the authorities into helping him. And so the stage is set for a fugitive story going all the way from Germany to Norway, and all the assorted adventures, betrayals, misfortunes, lucky breaks, helpers and enemies the two children encounter along the way as they run for their lives. And all the while Solveig sings the song of the fir tree to keep her brother’s spirits up.

As the story progresses, another man joins the hunt for Solveig and Per – their father, Captain Amundsen. Captain Amundsen has returned from the war, discovered his children are alive, and is trying to catch up with them. He finds out about Grendelsen’s manhunt, and Grendelsen discovers the father is also searching. So it is a three-way journey and hunt, with Grendelsen and Captain Amundsen coming close to each other as they both search for the children, with the father constantly coming tantalisingly close to his children. However, the children’s constant attempts to evade Grendelsen also mean that their father constantly misses them. Each time Captain Amundsen comes close, he finds they have just taken off because of Grendelsen or whatever, which is heartbreaking and frustrating for the poor father and the reader. His biggest heartbreak comes when it looks like Grendelsen has finally killed the children by setting them adrift in a derelict boat and left it to sink. He does not know the children were rescued in the nick of time. He heads home for Norway, vowing to make Grendelsen pay.

Along the way, the children also become entwined in the fates of the sadistic Sergeant Strang and their fellow inmate Rachel Brodsky, the two concentration camp characters introduced in the first episode (above). The first occurs when the children go on a path that a local warns leads to a bad place rumoured to be haunted – haunted by Holocaust victims apparently, because the bad place turns out to be an abandoned concentration camp. The children take shelter in it anyway, not realising that Strang is doing the same thing.

We see that Strang has fallen a long way down from the hulky bullying Nazi with the whip and vicious dog. Forced into hiding from the Allies, he is now living rough, ragged and scared. Also, his mental state has deteriorated, exposing the coward he really is – or maybe a guilty conscience, as Grendelsen suspects? Strang even believes the voices he hears (Solveig and Per) are the ghosts of the people who died in the camp. It gets even worse for Strang when Grendelsen shows up (he would) and gets Strang to help him. Strang ends up breaking his leg and Grendelsen abandons him: “Then that’s your hard luck!” Fortunately for Strang, a more decent man is about – Captain Amundsen, who gets help for him. So Strang is not left to die a slow, painful death, but his final fate afterwards is not revealed. The story turns back to Captain Amundsen, whose quest to catch up with his children and Grendelsen has failed yet again.

The second occurs towards the end of the story. The children bump into Rachel, who is trying to get to Palestine. But she is doing it illegally with the help of an underground group because Palestine will not take any more immigrants (the strongest inference to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust in this story).  Grendelsen stumbles across them and holds all three at gunpoint – something he has been doing several times already, but the children always escape with the help of a rescuer. And this is no exception; the smugglers arrive and rescue the children. Rachel is soon on her way to Palestine, but Grendelsen has the authorities arrest Per and Solveig for helping illegal immigrants. However, the children escape once more with connivance from a sympathetic soldier (the only one who shows any good sense in this story – for the most part, authority figures think Grendelsen is the one to believe).

Of course it all comes to a head when the paths of all three parties finally meet. It happens at a port, where Solveig and Per try to catch a boat to Norway. Grendelsen arrives with the idea of stealing a boat, corners the children and holds them at gunpoint – again. He does the same with Captain Amundsen, who has (by fluke) arrived at the same spot. But then a bolt of lightning sends a tree toppling over Grendelsen, which kills him. And the tree is…a fir tree. Yep. After that it’s a happy reunion and return to their home with the big fir tree.

Thoughts
For some reason World War II stories were very rare in Jinty. The only other Jinty serials with this theme were “Somewhere over the Rainbow” (1978) and “Daddy’s Darling” (1975), which were also drawn by Phil Townsend. Perhaps Jinty’s emphasis on science fiction, fantasy and sport became so strong that other themes fell by the wayside? It is noteworthy that “Daddy’s Darling” also appeared in 1975, at the time when Jinty was still following Tammy’s lead in producing serials that focused on darkness, cruelty, hardship and raw emotion to tug at your heartstrings.

And this is what the story clearly sets out to do. The cover says: “They must escape – or die! A story to tug at your heart.” And it must have done, because this serial ran for five months!

“Song of the Fir Tree” had a mix of the usual three-page spreads and two page spreads throughout its run. This is very unusual. Occasionally an episode was reduced to two pages if space demanded it, or increased to four or even six if there was pressure to finish it quickly. Sometimes a story was reduced from three pages to two, as was the case in “The Secret of Trebaran” from Tammy. But what could be the reason for the mix of two and three page spreads for this story? Was the writer under pressure from the editor to condense some episodes into two pages for space reasons? Or did the writer sometimes come up with ideas that only required two pages?

But on to the story itself. “Song of the Fir Tree” certainly catches your attention for featuring the Holocaust – a subject usually delicately avoided or addressed fleetingly when girls’ comics ran World War II stories. Any use of Nazi prison camps tended to focus more on captured civilians or soldiers being used as slave labour, such as in “Wendy at War” from Debbie. But here you get an immediate taste of the Holocaust the moment you see the first episode. Of course you don’t get too much of a taste; once the children are liberated, the rest of the story is focused the fugitive issue once Grendelsen shows up. But as mentioned above, the concentration camp not only comes back to bite twice, but a second camp is introduced, with ironic consequences for the Nazi villains.

The journey also incorporates statements about Nazi Germany and the aftermath of World War II, such as in the devastation from the war bombing seen everywhere in the story. But the focus is more on the effects of the war on the people Solveig and Per encounter during their journey. For example, Solveig and Per take refuge at a farm where young Luise is sympathetic but warns that her Aunt Johanna will not be, so they have to stay hidden from the aunt. When Aunt Johanna discovers the fugitives, Per and Solveig find themselves caught between two Germans who were on either side of Hitler. Luise’s father was anti-Nazi and paid the price for it (taken away, never to be seen again), but Luise upholds his ideals. However, Luise’s Aunt Johanna still has her Nazi Party membership card, which Luise uses to blackmail her into putting up with the runaways until they are ready to leave. This encounter makes a strong statement that not all Germans liked Hitler. There were decent Germans in World War II, and being German did not necessarily mean being Nazi. Winston Churchill understood this – he always said “Nazis” in his speeches, not “Germans”.

Other good Germans are introduced too, such as the Schulmans, a kind farming couple who nurse Per back to health when he falls ill. Per wants to stay and is tired of running. But Grendelsen shows up again – yes, dear Per, as long as Grendelsen is around, you will have no peace wherever you go. Mr Schulman shows more kindness when he picks a fight with Grendelsen, who has cornered the children again. It looks like the fight ends in Grendelsen dying in a river, but the children take the hint and take off again. Just as well, because they soon discover that Grendelsen is not dead and is back to chasing them again.

People who are less kind (apart from Grendelsen and Strang) seem to be fewer, but they crop up occasionally. One example is a gang of street urchins that Per and Solveig fall in with. They leave Per carrying the can over a stolen watch, but Solveig pleads with the authorities that it is because the urchins are homeless and starving after the war, and the authorities take pity on the urchins.

Do we also get a sly message about environmentalism with the constant imagery of the fir tree, and its use as a symbol of hope, steadfastness and, ultimately, retribution and salvation? There is even a hint of prophecy, as the fir tree song speaks of “wild skies” and “storm” – and in the final episode, a storm does break out and sends the fir tree toppling over Grendelsen.

Indeed, “Song of the Fir Tree” ran about at the same time as Jinty’s best-remembered story about ecology, “Fran of the Floods”, where warmer temperatures cause world-wide flooding. So it is possible that they slipped an environmental message in here too. Or maybe somebody on the Jinty team had a fondness for fir trees and wanted to a story that incorporated them? Whatever the inspiration for the fir tree, you will emerge with a whole new respect for trees – especially fir trees – after reading this story.