For most Americans, World War I may be tied only with the Korean War in terms of conflicts that most people largely forget about. There weren't the ties of heritage that were present in the American Revolution or Civil War, nor were the broad, sweeping landscapes and super villain esque characters of World War II. Even the failed Vietnam conflict, with its equally well known counter-war protests has eclipsed World War I in the public consciousness. Perhaps the most known work of fiction surrounding the Great War is All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. For many Brits, however, a weekly comic strip named Charley's War was also an instrumental work of fiction which helped to bring light to the many horrors of the Great War. Now available in a new collection from Titan Books, perhaps Americans can finally learn more about this almost forgotten war.
Running in the pages of Battle Picture Weekly from 1979 to 1985, Charley's War told the story of Charley Bourne, a sixteen year old soldier who had tricked his way into the army and found himself on the front lines of many of the Great War's most known conflicts. The comic was written by Pat Mills and drawn by Joe Colquhoun. As the strip would run, Charley would face air raids and other various forms of conflict which also occurred during World War I, but, like most veterans of the war, much of Charley's time would be spent in the trenches. Featuring an ever changing and evolving cast of secondary characters, Charley's War went on to become not just popular with the young, male readers of Battle, but also the most popular comic strip in Britain.
Easily the single most jarring factor when reading Charley's War is the way that Pat Mills did not attempt to censor his stories of World War I. Despite having a primarily young readership, Mills confronted the brutality of trench warfare from both the British and German perspectives in a way that was startling and honest. The ever-changing roster of side characters was such due to the fact that these characters were being killed, often in ways which are jaw-dropping to see done on the pages of a comic. Such violence is not new to the medium by any means, but perhaps it is due to the fact that the reader knows Mills was basing his writing in fact that allows for this images to provoke an even greater sense of shock and awe. The use of gas and bayonets is probably known by most, but World War I also featured the first use of tanks, something that Charley's War tackles in this collection. Tanks are something we easily give children, particularly boys, as something to play with, but Mills' passionate writing is able to show us that, even when fighting on the side of the "good guys," a tank can be a vehicle of immense brutality.
What also makes Charley's War an engaging read is that Mills had an excellent handle on character development. Numerous expected archetypes and cliches of the war story are present in this comic, but just as many characterizations that feel real and incredibly human are also present. As to be expected in the comic strip format, much of this development happens through the eyes of Charley Bourne. Throughout the course of just this collection, we get to see Charley go into the war as a boy, excited by the prospect of fighting for king and country, and exit as a man forever changed and scarred by his experiences. Often written off as being too stupid, Charley commits some of the bravest acts of heroism out of anyone in the comic. Not only do the deaths of his comrades help show the brutality of the Great War, but they also help to evolve Charley as a character. The boy begins to question the reasoning behind this war and the tactics used by those above him when the cost in human lives is so readily apparent to him. Readers at the time got to see this unfold rather slowly, but this new collection allows that development to happen at a pace that feels exceedingly natural.
When reading and analyzing Charley's War, it becomes increasingly obvious the agenda with which Mills wrote this comic. A quote on the cover of this collection calls the series "intelligently anti-war." This seeming oxymoron (an anti-war war comic) is surprisingly effective, particularly when one takes the time to absorb what they have just read. Any comic, film, or news piece can show the brutality of war, but often such images are used through whichever biases and filter the viewer approaches them with. While Charley's War allows for such a reading to an extent, Mills' use of Charley as a character and a method of delivering his message helps to affirmatively put this comic on one side of the argument without being too heavy handed. As you read what Charley goes through, you find yourself agreeing with his mindset. Such a writing tactic may be a bit problematic, but it works while reading this comic. What makes Charley's War so great as a piece of anti-war fiction, though, is that it would seem Mills did not want the conversation to end with the strip. Just as many young boys in the 1980's found a new connection with the war their grandfathers fought, many today can read Charley's War and begin a discussion on the importance, sacrifice, and horror of war. Even though Charley is firmly against the methods and loss of war, he is also a proud man, glad to give his life for his country. This type of sentiment is difficult to pull off with a character and Mills does so exceedingly well.
No discussion of Charley's War would be complete without discussing the incredible art of Joe Colquhoun. Several examples of Colquhoun's art can be found throughout this review, but those are just a very small sample of how stunning the man's work on this comic truly is. The haunting images which pervade this series are done in a way which is not gory or for pure spectacle. Instead, Colquhoun portrays these images in a humane way. Paired with Mills' truly human method of writing his characters, Colquhoun helps to make us feel genuinely sorry at the loss of a character we may have only known for 20 pages. Colquhoun's art can be incredibly detailed at times, but it is often when his images are simpler that they have a greater effect. The above image is particularly haunting, and incredibly well drawn. Many of today's readers may become frustrated in the lack of color in this comic. While such a device may have helped make certain images easier to discern, Colquhoun does a more than capable job of making everything stand out. Pat Mills deserves a lot of credit for creating this strip, but Colquhoun is perhaps entirely the reason this strip became so popular.
This is not the first time Charley's War has been collected by any means. Original trade paperbacks of the series can be found in 10 individual volumes. The latest collection from Titan Books contains the first four of these original volumes, collecting June 1916 through February 1917 in the strip's timeline (January 1979 through November 1980 in real time). The strip is gorgeously reprinted here, with even the more damaged strips being reproduced with startling clarity. In addition to the comics, the collection also contains a recap of the history of Charley's War, a brief history of tanks in World War I, commentary on each of the collected episodes by author Pat Mills, and an interview with the late Joe Colquhoun, where he significantly downplays his contributions to this strip. Anyone wishing to check this comic out would be highly advised to go with this newer collection as it contains over 315 pages worth of material for only $25.
Overall, Charley's War is a dense read. I received this book two weeks ago and, though I did only read it off and on at first, it was tough to get through. Once I was finished with this first collection, however, I was blown away by how much I really enjoyed this comic strip. Though funny at times, Charley's War is a dark, serious comic that approaches its subject matter with respect and honesty. Things may not always be bright in Charley Bourne's life, but it is never written in a way that feels ridiculous or too filled with self-importance. Joe Colquhoun's art is a stunningly detailed work; a master class for those looking to get into the medium. A comic which definitely serves as a discussion starter on the Great War and ideas behind war in general, this is also an important piece of comics history which should be standing on the shelves of every comic book fan. Charley's War will one day stand with All Quiet on the Western Front as a piece of fiction which made sure we do not forget the events of World War I and the sacrifices of those who fought in that conflict.
Charley's War: A Boy Soldier in the Great War is now available from Titan Books