Tag Archives: Wrongful conviction

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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No-One Cheers for Norah (1972)

Sample Images

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“No-One Cheers for Norah” was one of Sandie’s very first stories. It is going to be discussed here because it has been mentioned in several Jinty blog entries as sharing parallels with Jinty’s “Toni on Trial”. There has been speculation it was the same writer. A promising athlete (or swimmer in Norah’s case) finds her career under threat from an old theft charge that was levelled at her mother/father.

When examining this story I also noticed it shares parallels with “Tricia’s Tragedy”, so it could be the same writer here too.

Published: Sandie #1, 12 February 1972 – #12, 29 April 1972

Artist: John Armstrong

Writer: Unknown

Plot

Norah Day is a keen swimmer, but her widowed father is so poor they are driven to training her in the canal. Nonetheless she has managed to win one trophy.

Dad falls ill and Norah is sent to stay at rich Uncle Phillip’s while he’s in hospital. Straight off the mark though, her relatives treat her like a piece of dirt. They call her a “slum kid”, a disgrace to the family, and they don’t let the neighbours even see her. Cousin Lorna says she doesn’t want her friends to know Norah is her cousin. They make her sleep in a shabby attic when they could easily give her a nice room. At mealtimes they won’t let her share the table with them and she has to eat separately. They see her as being more useful as a servant. In fact, that is what they lead Mrs Maddox, the president of the Dolphins Swimming Club that Lorna is a member of, to believe – that Norah is their new help. Lorna even throws Norah’s newly won trophy out the car window!

When Norah tries to join the Dolphins Swimming Club too, Lorna rips up Norah’s swimsuit and tells her to get out of the club. The relatives are making it loud and clear that they are not going to let Norah keep up her swimming, especially as it could pose a threat to Lorna’s swimming career. Swimming club President Mrs Maddox says she wants Lorna to win the club championship again and she thinks Lorna is now ready for bigger things. Besides, there are the swimming club fees Norah can’t afford and of course her horrible relatives won’t cover them.

Determined to keep up her swimming, Norah turns to swimming in the park lake. Eventually Mrs Maddox notices Norah and offers her a free place, but she has to go through a trial, which Norah wins despite a number of faults in her swimming. They decide the faults can be corrected with proper training, and on the whole Norah has potential as a swimmer. They agree to let Norah compete in the championship finals. Lorna realises how big a danger her cousin is. She still lets Mrs Maddox think Norah’s the family servant and enrols her at the club under a false name. The other club members are snobby and look down on Norah too, and the committee is quite snobby towards her as well. Meanwhile, Mrs Maddox senses that Norah reminds her of someone, but can’t quite place it.

When the news gets back home, the family predictably treat Norah worse than ever. However, Mrs Maddox eventually discovers how badly they are treating Norah, and how they have led people to believe she is their servant because they were too snobby to let them know the truth. Mrs Maddox is the most important person in town, so being shown up in front of her is extra-humiliating for the nasty relatives.

Poor Norah still has to wait upon her snooty relatives, though. And they still pose a threat to her swimming: Uncle Phillip says he has to tell Mrs Maddox who Norah really is because of the difficult position Norah has put them in. Meanwhile, Mrs Maddox begins coaching to correct Norah’s swimming faults and she begins to improve.

But then Uncle Phillip tells Mrs Maddox what he had been planning to tell her, and making the excuse it was the reason they had put up the story Norah was their servant. Whatever it is, it has Mrs Maddox deeply shocked and telling Norah it is best they don’t meet again. Norah has no idea what it is about. When she confronts Lorna, Lorna says her father was a crook who served jail time. Norah thinks Uncle has been telling Mrs Maddox a pack of lies. Lorna picks a fight with Norah, which Uncle and Aunt blame Norah for. He says he’s not keeping Norah in the house any longer and sends her to his clothing factory in Claydon, where he instructs his manager to give her all the worst jobs.

Norah goes to see Mrs Maddox, who says the story is true. Norah’s father was once the secretary of the club, but was sent to jail for stealing a sum of £480 from the club twenty years ago. Realising Norah is not like her father (as Uncle said), Mrs Maddox resumes Norah’s training. She is going to put Norah in the Dolphins team and get the English selectors to take a look at her. This is something Norah’s father always wanted as his imprisonment robbed him of that chance, but he can now fulfil it through Norah.

Norah goes to see her father. Dad’s condition has worsened, and the only thing keeping him going is the hope Norah will be selected for England. His thought bubbles reveal he is innocent of the charge that sent him to prison. So who is guilty?

After visiting her father Norah can’t go back to her uncle’s, so she sleeps in her dad’s house. But then new tenants move in. Norah has no choice but to go back to her uncle’s – only to be thrown right out of the house. They figure a night of roughing it in bad weather will make Norah unfit for the selections. Norah sneaks into her uncle’s factory to spend the night there.

While looking for food Norah comes across an old document, which reveals Uncle Phillip set up his business with a down payment of £480. This is the exact amount Norah’s father was accused of stealing, and the date of the down payment corresponds with the time the money was stolen. Norah recalls that Uncle Phillip used to bear a physical resemblance to Dad. Then she puts two and two together.

Uncle Phillip now catches her in the act and she confronts him over what she has deduced: he stole the money and left Dad to carry the can over it when (presumably) they mistook Uncle Phillip for Dad because of the physical resemblance. When she tries to run for it he knocks her out and locks her in the cellar (at least with some food and water). Norah escapes through a drain, but has to swim for her life against a torrent of dye waste being released from the factory. By the time she arrives at the baths she is bright purple!

Norah tells Mrs Maddox what happened and what she has discovered about Uncle Phillip, flourishing the document she still has (and has somehow survived the dye bath). She also begs to be allowed to compete for her father’s sake. Mrs Maddox says they will sort out the theft business later, and tells Norah she can compete. Everyone knows this is going to be tough because they know Norah is exhausted from that dye bath swim and Lorna won’t give an inch. And the Dolphins club girls are still unfriendly to Norah. As the race unfolds, however, cheers are heard for Norah as people see how well she is swimming despite everything. Norah’s determination, lust for revenge, and amended swimming faults are outweighing her tiredness. She wins against Lorna and is selected for England.

Afterwards, Mrs Maddox tells Norah her uncle just slunk off and the guilty look on his face told her all she needed to know. Mrs Maddox then tells Lorna to pack up and leave the Dolphins Club: “there’s not very much to be said for you either!” Lorna is roundly booed as she goes, for word has been around. Soon after, Lorna and her parents move away in shame.

Mr Day recovers and is eager to start a new life now that his name has been cleared. This includes marrying Mrs Maddox, and Norah welcomes her as a stepmother. Six weeks later, Norah wins her first race for England.

Thoughts

These will be discussed in context of the parallels with “Toni on Trial” and “Tricia’s Tragedy”. There certainly is a parallel with Toni in that a wrongful charge of stealing from a sports club was levelled at the protagonist’s parent years before and is threatening her own sports career. However, the wrongful charge is a much more powerful plot driver in Toni than in Norah. In Toni it’s established by part three and casts a cloud over the protagonist that just won’t go away because the townsfolk just won’t forget and the real culprit keeps fuelling it. So Toni is anxious to get to the bottom of it all for her own sake as well as clearing her mother’s name. In Norah the wrongful charge is not even revealed until nearly two thirds of the way through the story, and it’s only done so because Uncle Phillip believes it’s the only way to neutralise the threat Norah poses to Lorna. Even after it’s established, clearing the parent is not a priority. It only happens by sheer luck in Norah finding the document, drawing the right conclusions, and Mrs Maddox believing her. The wrongful charge and exoneration serve more as part of the plot resolution and punishing the unpleasant relatives than driving the plot as they do in Toni. The story format is more like a Cinderella story than an “exoneration” story, as was the case with Toni.

The parallels with Tricia are much stronger. First, both stories feature swimming. Second, a rogue uncle is responsible for a wrongful accusation against the protagonist’s father, which has driven him and his family deep into poverty while the rogue uncle’s family have grown richer and cruel to them because of it. Third, in both Norah and Tricia the protagonists can’t afford to train at the baths so they have to resort to a quarry pool (Tricia) or a canal or lake (Norah). Fourth, divisions between rich and poor have created further rifts between the poor protagonist and her unpleasant rich relations, who just rubbish her and her family. But the nasty relatives are not content with this and try to ruin the protagonist even more to stop her triumphing over their daughter at an important swimming match. In the case of Tricia it’s to stop her inheriting money from her grandfather. In Norah, it’s because they’re so snobby they don’t even want people to know she is family. Fifth, in both Norah and Tricia the unpleasant relatives take advantage to bully the protagonist, turn her into a slave, and pull all sorts of nasty tricks to stop her beating the cousin in the swimming match. Finally, in Norah and Tricia it all culminates in the swimming match where everything is at stake and it’s a battle for revenge. And once the truth is established, both the unpleasant cousins in Norah and Tricia are roundly booed off and soon move away in shame with their parents.