Life During Wartime
Charley’s War, specifically.
I have written more than once about Titan Books and their really stellar program of reprinting classic British war comics, and every time I’ve done so, someone asks me either in the comments or through email, “Why haven’t you talked about their amazing hardcovers of Charley’s War? That was the best British war comic ever and….” followed by several pages’ worth of explaining to me why Charley’s War is genius and there was clearly something wrong with me for not saying so in print.
The answer to why I never wrote about the strip is simple. Despite this persistent myth that we read EVERYTHING here at CSBG, we really don’t. I had never read Charley’s War, and though it was kind of on my get-to-it-someday list, my review pile is fairly large on any given day, and my to-read shelf of shame is piled waist-high with books I already have here in the house. I wasn’t going to go looking for more for the pile.
But I never have to, because the pile has taken on a life of its own now. Titan had me on the list for the reprint volumes from Battle and the new omnibus collection of volumes one through four of Charley’s War just arrived. So I figured, okay, I guess I can take a hint, and settled in to educate myself about Charley and his War.
Charley’s War is the story of young Charley Bourne, who enlists in the British Army at the age of 16, at the onset of World War I, lying about his age to do so. He is quickly thrust into the forefront of the action, and promptly loses all that youthful patriotic zeal as he watches his friends cut down in battle on his first day.
And that set the tone for the strip. Charley’s War is all about the clash between the ideals of those who think war is a noble human endeavor and the reality of those poor slobs who are actually on the ground fighting it. We are with Charley through the Battle of the Somme, the unleashing of the new tank brigades, zeppelin raids on London… and all presented with an unflinching eye towards what regular people go through as governments play out their games of strategy and conquest.
Charley’s War was serialized in weekly chapters from 1979 to 1985. The strip was written by Pat Mills and illustrated by Joe Colquhoun for most of its run, and meticulously researched by both. Though it’s supposed to be about Charley’s experiences in the trenches, the story occasionally wanders off to focus on other characters, but the through-line is always the same– war is not noble, no matter what they tell you. It’s dirty and bloody and brutal, often foolish, and sometimes even weirdly funny.
Mills was occasionally criticized for letting his pacifist views bleed through into the work, but that presumes an agenda that I don’t think is there. These historical events happened as documented and they were pretty awful and sending teenagers ill-equipped to handle them compounds the crime; if you do the research on what we put kids through in the trenches during World War I, you end up a pacifist just through revulsion.
Mills’ plan was to take Charley all the way up to the beginning of World War II, but he ended up leaving the strip over creative differences. Artist Joe Colquhoun stayed on with new writer Scott Goodall and followed the adventures of the older Charley as he enlisted again to fight World War II alongside his son, but the new take didn’t last. Colquhoun’s health was failing and it was agreed that, really, no one else could draw Charley’s War and so the strip ended in 1985.
So is it genius? I don’t know, but it’s pretty damn good. Pat Mills’ sensibility towards war stories is so different than the Robert Kanigher-Joe Kubert war comics I grew up on from DC, and the weekly four-page superdense chapter format is so odd for an American reader, that it took some getting used to for me. But it was completely worth the effort once I fell into the rhythm of it. I couldn’t put the book down, and the artwork is stunning. Colquhoun’s style has a very Kurtzman-esque, EC war comics thing going on.
The entirety of the Pat Mills run is collected in ten handsome hardcover volumes from Titan, but I think I like the omnibus format better.
Charley’s War: A Boy Soldier In the Great War puts all of volumes 1 through 4 of Charley’s War between two covers in one classy trade collection for $24.99, which would be a steal in itself, but there are also chapter-by-chapter annotations from Pat Mills himself in the back. It’s a great jumping-on point and the art from Joe Colquhoun has been completely re-mastered– but NOT Photoshopped or re-colored, thank God, it’s all here in gritty black and white as God intended.
So there you go. I did finally get around to Charley’s War and yes, it’s every bit as good as everyone said it was. I trust honor is satisfied now.
See you next week.