Review by Win Wiacek
This dinky, mostly monochrome paperback and digital digest revives classic 1970s comedy combat capers in a beloved theme: war robots who aren’t what they’re cracked up to be.
In 1970 grand marshal of English comics Frank Pepper first mixed slapstick humour, war stories and fantasy in the cheekily wry exploits of a World War II British secret weapon with a mind of his own and a handy habit of crushing enemy schemes. Shiftless slacker Ernie “Excused Boots” Bates is accorded the dubious accolade of “the laziest soldier in the British Army”, but as seen in the first episode from Pepper and illustrator Alex Henderson, becomes the most important individual ever to be called up. While the slob is spud-bashing on a secret British base, he encounters a hulking metal monster called the Mark 1 Indestructible Robot. The super-strong, humanoid tank is fully expected to win the war, but nobody can make it work. However, when it blunders into the kitchens, Ernie orders it to stop and it happily – and quite chattily – complies. It’s a feat no one else can copy. Still unable to find the programming fault, the top brass negotiates and compels the slacker into becoming the war machine’s handler.
Dodgy Ernie and his mighty metal mate face countless ill-prepared enemies and the bonkers bureaucracy of the British Army in short, complete and satisfying episodes. The tone of the times is frequently racist by today’s standards, but no more so than such still-popular TV shows like Dad’s Army, and Pepper channels the post-1960s era of working class whimsical irony, and discontented but laconic world-weariness. It places an unstoppable force for change in the hands of an Andy Capp style shirker who can’t even be bothered to exploit the power he has beyond securing permission to don comfortable footwear (plimsolls and flipflops).
Illustrated with workmanlike whimsy and lots of charm by Henderson and Vince Wernham, the unlikely duo perpetually face enemy action in Europe, Africa and the Pacific, whilst failing to dodge unwelcome duties with stoic reluctance and applied anarchy. Despite recurring brain glitches the odd couple always triumph: destroying enemy bases, sinking ships, learning (almost) to fly, wrecking trains and whatever else the boffins and generals can think of to test their terrible toy. They even outsmart German scientists who capture the Commando to jump-start their own Nazi robot project and a truly daft Allied enterprise to create a superior, officer-class British droid – the appalling “Metal Major”.
As the strip continues, Ernie gels as the archetypal “little man” at war with authority. Always agitating for his pal to be treated as human, he makes the boffins teach their creation to read, and even successfully wins regular home leave for the Steel Commando.
However, tastes change quickly in weekly comics, thus, following 29 complete weekly episodes is a truly deranged sequence of five team-ups between Captain Hurricane and Steel Commando. It finds the disturbingly “outspoken” (you can say culturally dismissive and jingoistic if you want) super-strong Marine commando a not-so-friendly rival of the mechanical marvel.
This provides a wondrous window onto simpler times that still offer fascinating fun for the cautiously prepared reader. Why not sign up for a few classic encounters?