Charley’s War – A Boy Soldier in the Great War
War comics weren’t a genre that I gravitated towards. They seemed to be a one-sided, inaccurate portrayal of historical events. That was until I encountered Charley’s War, written by Pat Mills and illustrated by Joe Colquhoun. Charley’s War was originally published in the British magazine Battle from 1979–1985. It was a completely unique comic strip; unlike the rest of the comics depicting adventures in war, this was decidedly anti-war. It is a hard-hitting strip which doesn’t shy away from showing the full horrors of the trenches in the First World War. Rebellion has released a definitive collection with the original pages in colour reproduced. It also includes original commentaries by the writer Pat Mills and beautifully clear print which really highlights the excellent and evocative illustrations by Joe Colquhoun.
This edition collects the first four volumes of the strip and begins with Charley, 16 years old at the time, recruiting himself to join the war effort. The narrative accurately depicts the attitude of the time, with the belief that it will be an adventure and that the war will only last until Christmas – a short time away. Although Charley doesn’t realise it, he will soon be fighting in the Battle of the Somme, in which over 1,000,000 men were killed or gravely wounded. The majority of this volume – Boy Soldier – takes place during this battle, where Charley progresses from a wet-behind-the-ears infantryman to a hero. He saves his comrades and friends countless times from the German forces and constantly attempts to evade capture by the enemy.
Pat Mills’ Dynamic Writing Style
While the narrative is full of exciting heroic events, the overall tone is critical of the First World War. It is this crucial element that helps make this title stand out from every other war comic. Pat Mills uses his strong narrative skills to criticise the tactics of both sides during the conflict. It shows the inhumane tactics and poor decisions used by the officers, and haunting depictions of poison gas and its effects really drive home the truly horrific nature of trench warfare.
The narrative also introduces readers to corrupt officers who controversially act as main antagonists throughout the story. Some of these officers place Charley and his comrades in danger and one particularly loathsome officer – Lt. Snell — uses Charley’s body as a human shield as he moves from trench to trench.
Joe Colquhoun’s Dramatic Artwork
Joe Colquhoun’s artwork is full of beautiful detail. He manages to show World War I in all its destructive force through the muddy trenches, the body- and shrapnel-littered No Man’s Land and the regular explosions. His character design brings a depth to the narrative, with detailed faces and expressions reaching out to the reader. This, along with Pat’s gift for crafting believable characters, manifests incredible empathy.
Overall, I would have to say that Charley’s War – A Boy Soldier in the Great War is the best war comic that I have ever read. It is full of action and war adventure that had my heart racing, but the same time it was heavily critical of both sides of the war. This critical element gives a more realistic take on World War I and separates it from all the other war comics of its time. If you are someone who is looking for great war stories, or even someone who is very anti-war, Charley’s War – A Boy Soldier in the Great War is a great read and highly recommended. I can’t wait for the next collection.
Available on Amazon
Interview With Writer Pat Mills
Thanks to Pat for taking the time for answering some questions regarding the ideas and impact of the comic strip throughout the years.
Where did the idea for Charley’s War come from?
We were producing a war comic and traditionally war comics are concerned with the era of World War II. Everyone [at Battle] felt that we should do a story regarding World War I but it would be impossible to do as it’s just trenches all the time. So it was the view at the time that it would be very difficult to bring a story alive; there was also so much horror and darkness surrounding World War I, could it really work as a story?
I have always had a profound interest in World War I, from a history perspective but also because of films like Oh What a Lovely War. So I saw that it was possible to craft a story, which would also be an anti-war story. I talked it over with the editor and he said – ‘Yeah, go for it!’
What he did was astonishing and unheard of; he took his best artist – Joe Colquhoun of a very successful war story called Johnny Red. This was a story about the air defence of Russia. So he took that artist off that story and gave him to me for Charley’s War. This would be like Brian Bolland being taken off Judge Dredd and being put on an unknown story. So obviously I was thrilled that he had given me Joe. I felt that the story really had to live up to what Joe could offer.
Of course, the other thing is that Joe was an artist with an incredible range. With his incredible detail, he turned every person in that story into a character. There’s so much power and energy in what Joe draws. That communicates itself to the readers and they love this work!
What was the initial reaction to the strip?
It was hugely popular. It was the number one story. Which again is interesting and remarkable because, again, it doesn’t fit with this traditional war comic thinking. Here you have a war comic – which is an anti-war comic and it’s the most popular story in the magazine. That, as I am sure for both of us, Chris, is something of tremendous importance. It shows that the readers are looking for something more than just gung-ho action. They are looking for soul, they are looking for conscience, they are looking for the morality of war. A story which takes a strongly anti-war viewpoint and condemns war becomes their most popular story then, and of course, now.
This has tremendous implications and of course, the tragedy of British comics is that this has never been followed up. There’s no natural successor to Charley’s War. There is a guerrilla artist who has done a satire on Action Man – Darren Cullen – Battlefield Casualties. There’s some very profound anti-war messages on his site.
I must mention that there was a period of time where Marvel Epic seriously considered doing the American Civil War and getting me to write it. I did think about it for a while; obviously, I would have been keen to write it. The American Civil War handled in a similar way to Charley’s War would have been very effective. Of course, Marvel successfully did The ‘Nam. It’s a shame that they didn’t pursue it.
One of the most important aspects of Charley’s War is that it stopped a lot of British kids from joining the army. They read Charley’s War and understood that war wasn’t this grand adventure, and for me, that is the most profound reaction to Charley’s War.
It’s a very subversive political work – it’s drawn in a very traditional British war hero style – but its tone is anti-war. What compelled you to write such a powerful pacifist piece?
I suppose on a personal level I’m a product of the ’60s generation and we’re just about anti-everything. So when I went into comics I assumed that that would be the same attitude that the industry would take – as counter-culture as everything else. So for me, it’s natural for me to write a counter-cultural narrative. I found that this was not the case: the industry was still steeped in conventional methods of telling narrative. So I had to work within those boundaries until I could change comic books into what I wanted them to be.
The comic is written portraying the division in class within British society – do you see the First World War as ‘class war’?
Yes, I do; not only do I see the First World War as a class war, but also the Second World War as well. I think that was evidenced by the way that Churchill was thrown out after the end of World War II, then the electorate chose a Socialist Prime Minister. But I think with the First World War it was a clearer class conflict.
The media relentlessly lies about the nature of World War I. We have this image of Jolly Tommys glad to lay down their life for King and Country. That would be no more true of that era than it would be in our time. In World War I there were a lot of dissidents, a lot of strikes. A lot of people were forced into the army by their employers who wanted to send them to war to get rid of them. These stories have been suppressed, to our shame. There was also a very strong anti-war movement which sprung up and that story has been suppressed too.
Another thing that the establishment like to do is produce these very stiff photographs that are often shown from World War I. Where you often see Tommy going off to war, smiling with his sweetheart beside him. That simply wasn’t a true depiction of the ordinary soldier in World War I. They were just like soldiers now, they listened to music, so for our generation – The Doors was the anthem for G.I’s in Vietnam. In World War I, the British soldiers – long before the Americans came over – were listening to both jazz and ragtime. In fact, a popular song that they used to sing was:
|We are Fred Karno’s army,
We are the ragtime infantry.
We cannot fight, we cannot shoot,
What bleeding use are we?
And when we get to Berlin
We’ll hear the Kaiser say,
Hoch, hoch! Mein Gott, what a bloody rotten lot,
Are the ragtime infantry.
They were singing this song in 1914/1915. This was the ragtime that their parents hated. Ragtime was dirty and sexy; we do our ancestors a disservice by not showing that they were into music and very similar to us. This understanding brings us much closer to our ancestors and unfortunately, historians aren’t interested in the social lives of soldiers. They were no different to us, but there’s a myth, and a self-serving myth. That they were somehow very distant from us. This numbs the empathy when we think of the slaughter that happened in the First World War. But if we think of them as just like ourselves we begin to gain horrific empathy with their situation.
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