WRITER: FRANK PEPPER | ARTISTS: ALEX HENDERSON, VINCE WERNHAM | PUBLISHER: REBELLION | FORMAT: TRADE PAPERBACK | RELEASE DATE: AUG 22ND
The past is certainly a different country, and the 1970s even more so. The character of Steel Commando first appeared back in the British comic book Thunder, way back in October 1970. These four-page strips were light-hearted adventure stories set during the events of the Second World War.
The Boffins had invented a new weapon of war, the Mark 1 Indestructible Robot, aka Steel Commando. Invincible and unyielding, it’s sure to help win the war for the British. Alas, it’s also impossible to command. Turns out the only person the machine will listen to is Lance Corporal Ernie Bates, who is a total coward. Bates mostly peels potatoes; he’s excused boots on account of his feet, apparently.
And that’s the set-up for The Best of Steel Commando. It’s 160 odd pages of essentially the same gag — one strong but dumb thing protecting a cunning yet cowardly human. Every story puts poor Ernie Bates into some sort of horrible life-threatening situation and he has to figure out a way to get out of it, using Steel Commando to do all the hard work.
It’s fun, it’s silly, and it’s a slice of the sort of post-war adventure story that made up typical comics fare of the time. This isn’t a high-tech sci-fi story, this is a wacky cartoon where the baddies are knocked over and exclaim surprise as a huge mechanical death machine bashes things and throws tanks around in the most cartoonish way possible.
There’s a slight shift in tone toward the end when the character is teamed up a Captain Hurricane from the Valiant Comics. (Back then comic books merged and mixed characters all the time.) Hurricane’s thing appears to be cruelty and yelling at people, and it’s clear that the creators in Valiant didn’t like Ernie. The tone shift is a bit jarring, and that means those strips are easily the least interesting. Thankfully, there’s only a handful of them.
Though the comic was aimed at kids, some terms used to describe people aren’t words you’d expect to see today. The compilation does warn us at the start that there was no attempt to remove certain words from the collection, and this is to its credit. This is a strong reminder that Steel Commando was a product of its time. As a slice of the past and a bit of nostalgia for post-war British comics, it’s a fun artefact. We’d hesitate to give it to younger readers though, as times have changed.