Rail tragedy inspires Hailey’s Commando debut

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An American student who came to Dundee with no experience of writing comics has become one of the first female writers in over 30 years to have a story published in the legendary Commando war comic.

Hailey Austin, a PhD student at the University of Dundee, has written ‘Steel Inferno’, a fictionalised version of a true World War II story of bravery and sacrifice, which will be published as Commando #5241 tomorrow.

Steel Inferno is inspired by the Soham Rail Disaster which took place in the early hours of June 2 1944. As Britain prepared for the D-Day landings, a 44-wagon ammunition train caught fire in Soham Station. The crew detached the alight wagon from the rest of the train and were drawing it away when the cargo exploded.

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Several people were killed but if it hadn’t been for the bravery of those involved, the Cambridgeshire town would have been reduced to rubble and the fatalities would likely have risen into the hundreds. The fireman of the train James Nightall, who died in the disaster, and driver Benjamin Gimbert were both awarded the George Cross for their role in preventing an even greater tragedy.

Commando sometimes issues a call for new writers and I thought that was something I could do so I began researching these really brilliant stories from World War II that aren’t as well-known as they should be,” she said.

“I came across the Rail Disaster and was struck by the incredible bravery of those who sacrificed themselves to prevent an even greater tragedy. With 44 carriages packed full of ammunition the damage and loss of life would have been colossal if they had not got the wagon on fire as far away as they could. No one really knows how the fire broke out but for my story I thought “what if it wasn’t accidental?” and had a Nazi spy sabotaging an ammunition delivery only to be foiled by these men.

“Luckily the editorial team at Commando loved it and I’m very excited to see it published. I didn’t have any experience of writing comics before I came to Dundee to study but I have learned so much in my time here. I love doing it and want to do a lot more of it in the future.”

Hailey will not have to wait long before her next publication day as Commando have picked up another of her stories. The new effort, written about the women of the French Resistance, will be published to coincide with International Women’s Day next March.

Hailey’s PhD research attracted media attention last year after she discovered rare comics dating back to the 1800’s in the University’s archives. These included drafts and proofs of early DC Thomson comics, and she has now strengthened her association with the Dundee-based publisher by writing for one of their longest-running titles, one largely seen as the preserve of men.

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The work of writers Diana Muriel Garbutt and Mary Feldwick previously featured in Commando but 2019 marks the first known appearance of female authors for 35 years. Georgia Standen Battle, a Commando editor, wrote the script for a story published earlier this year. Georgia, Hailey and another soon-to-be-published author Kate Dewar form a new generation of women writing for the title.

Hailey has already established herself as part of the vanguard of the movement as co-founder of the Dundee chapter of Laydeez Do Comics, an international organisation championing female comics creators.

“The readership of Commando is largely male but the majority of members of the editorial team is female, as well as new women writers coming through,” continued Hailey. “Until this year there were no women known to have written for the comic for over 30 years but it is possible that others did so using a male pseudonym because they thought it would increase their chances of being published.

“The next Laydeez Do Comics event on Friday 5 July will look at this very subject when former editor Calum Laird discusses the Women of Commando followed by a panel with the three latest women to contribute to the title.”

More information about all Laydeez Do Comics activities and events can be found at https://www.facebook.com/laydeezdocomicsdundee.

 
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