On Charley’s War, by Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun (1979-80)

You have to be careful what chapter of Charley’s War you pick to introduce yourself to the strip. It’s all too easy to stumble upon a three- or four-page episode that, at first, seems to be nothing more than a typical, if enthusiastically rendered, boy’s war story of the day. After all, the strip ran weekly in Battle for more than six years. Even eight handsome volumes of reprints haven’t proved sufficient to hold all of Pat Mills and John Colquhoun’s tales of the young Charley Bourne’s experiences during and after World War One. With all that material out there, it’s conceivable that the curious browser might jump to an understandable and, yet, entirely misplaced conclusion. The reader who stumbles upon the second instalment of the battle between Charley and his comrades against Colonel Zeiss’s Judgement Troopers, for example, might so easily dismiss what they’re seeing as atavistically pro-war propaganda presented in an untypically squalid setting. Hiss as ugly, dishonourably-deceitful German soldiers bear down on the gallantly plucky Tommies. Tremble and cheer as a last ditch stand by ragged British survivors facing overwhelming, flammenwerfer-bearing opponents buys them a moment to recuperate. The perfidy of the Hun as he lures our lionhearted lads in a trap! The indomitable spirit of our boys as they pause before breaking out for one last inspiring cup of tea! What, beyond the still surprising brutality matched with a scrupulous attention to historical detail, is there to tell Charley’s War apart from decades-worth of xenophobic, war-glorifying tales?

Yet, even in the above single example, in which troops of the Kaiser who’ve been brutalised by their time on the Russian Front are unambiguously portrayed as the Other, a second glance at Charley’s War reveals nothing of jingoism or militarism. Look again at the faces of the British soldiers shown going over the top and they’re clearly utterly terrified. These are no handsome, muscular, adventuring men, but a range of immediately recognisable, typical individuals trapped in a world so appalling that it’s the manner in which they’ll die rather than the possibility of their own survival that consumes them. And then, the eye just might register the purgatorial detail of the trench-warfare, the casualties left behind for the enemy to finish off as they cry for their mothers, the soldier’s screaming for the explosions to stop, the exhausted few survivors slumped amongst mounds of corpses while Charlie Bourne himself declares “my knees can’t stop knocking, Sarge.” As grim and bloody a chapter as this is, there’s nothing at all of prurience, nationalism, or machismo about it. Even when Mills and Colquhoun’s narrative presents the horrors of hand-to-hand combat, the subject of their work is always a loathing for war, an unconditional sympathy for the men condemned to fight it, and a loathing for the classes who create and perpetuate such conflicts.

The tension between what Charley’s War can initially appear to be and its radical polemical purpose may make it a tough book to warm to at first. The fact that it’s an exceptionally emotionally literate tale told in what seems to be the form of a traditional boy’s gung-ho war comic is challenge enough. It’s a story that speaks to an audience of literate children with the conviction that it could be enjoyed by adults as well, and the needs of the two often inevitably clash. Its pages are marked by the most sophisticated writing, and yet, that’s by necessity expressed, at times, as clunky exposition constantly reiterating the who, why, where, and what of it all. Similarly, subtle characterization is also matched with melodramatic and even occasionally mawkish set-pieces, allowing each week’s episode to create the thrills necessary to keep it popular with its youthful audience. And so, Mills and Colquhoun were constantly pushing the bounds of what they could say and show while making the most of the constraints they were working under. It’s difficult not to constantly be aware of the limitations of the boy’s war comic form, as well as noting how it’s being deliberately and inventively subverted.

This might be thought to make a curate’s egg of Charley’s War, and yet, what it actually does is supplement the tale’s dramatic virtues with the sense that the strip’s also a comment upon how war has been peddled as entertainment to children and adults alike. Wherever the reader looks, there’s an awareness that what’s being shown is wonderfully done, and yet, it’s impossible to forget that the story’s quite obviously been constrained by the expectations of the day. The utterly compelling characters who are, at moments, so broadly drawn as to seem to be caricatures rather than individuals, the jeopardy which teeters on the edge of generic derring-do rather than horror? These stresses between form and content, surface and meaning, collaborate with the strengths of Mills and Colquhoun’s artistry to keep us awake, to make us think not just of what we’re being shown, but of the war itself and of how and why fiction and fact differ one from the other. Even in those moments when Mills’s loathing of the British upper classes leads him to present the likes of Lieutenant Snell, a villain so insidiously irredeemable that he seems to have wandered into the strip from out of Monty Python or Black Adder, it’s impossible not to be carried away by the sheer energetic commitment of the storytelling. When Snell knocks Charley out so that he can use him as a human shield against enemy snipers, the reader’s caught between recognising the absurdity of the scene and remembering exactly why it is that Mills is so understandably full of hatred for those that the Lieutenant is being used to represent.

Yet none of that alienation effect would matter at all if Charley’s War wasn’t quite simply a fascinatingly bleak, humane and grimly good-humoured, partisan and deeply moving story in its own terms. The brilliance — and it is brilliance — of Mills and Colquhoun’s storytelling matched with the strip’s moral purpose is so pronounced that Charley’s War‘s appeal only increases with every chapter that’s encountered. There’s few enough tales told in any form that create more and not less satisfaction and anticipation in their audience as the story continues to grow. But what seems, at first, to be a curiously limiting premise for a strip proves itself to be anything but, and much of the story’s power comes from the way in which Mills and Colquhoun examine characters and situations over time from a variety of different perspectives. Put simply, Charley’s War relies upon the reader persevering with it so that all those bite-size, child-friendly, weekly episodes can weave together a complex and smart-minded narrative that’s unparallelled in modern-era comics. The typical boy’s strip of the day tended to re-establish the same simplistic fundamentals of character and set-up week after week, presuming that the audience was ever-changing, forgetful, and disinterested in anything other the simplest of cheap thrills. For all that there’s been plenty of strips aimed primarily at children which contradicted that generalisation to a lesser or greater degree, Charley’s War stands in complete contrast to the majority of its fellows. At the same time, as each week’s chapter carefully re-established the basics of the strip’s backstory, Mills and Colquhoun worked to layer more and more complexity and depth into their tales. Characters are fleshed out and transformed from stereotypes to individuals, and that’s a process which simply dipping into the stories won’t reveal. We see Charley developing from a not-too-bright but fundamentally brave and decent working-class boy to a haunted, savvy survivor of the Western Front and beyond. We watch as Bourne’s sergeant, who’s every inch the wax moustached square-basher, gradually becomes revealed as a man of considerable compassion who needs privacy before an action to work the terror out of his system. Matched with that is the fact that no comic has ever equalled Charley’s War’s body count. Characters who’ve become more and more real over the weeks and months can be mutilated and slaughtered in the space of a single frame. It’s a process which constantly accentuates the capriciousness and barbarism of war. No cast member beyond Charley himself is too familiar, too apparently important to be guaranteed survival, and there’s a telling anxiety that hangs over even the most apparently innocent of shots.

That process of constantly reiterating and layering character also applies to the way that the events of the war are presented too. Though each individual chapter tends by necessity to be organised around a familiar litany of jeopardy and cliffhanger, spectacle and suffering, the cumulative effect of the process is anything other than ennui. The first year and a half of the strip deals with Charley’s experiences during the Battle of the Somme, and what’s remarkable is how wide and detailed a panorama of the front it is that writer and artist succeed in portraying. The back-breaking weight of research that both Mills and Colquhoun undertook is obvious in every single frame of the strip. Charley’s struggles to do the right thing, while attempting simply to survive, take him from the roads leading to the front to the trenches themselves, through no-man’s land to the German lines, and then beyond to where the conflict hasn’t yet devastated the landscape. We’re shown the hospitals and marshaling yards, the camps and mass graves, the punishment details and the execution squads, the cavalry and the tanks, the gas attacks, profiteering, and bombardments. There is no other work on the War that can match the way in which Mills and Colquhoun map out what today might be called the psychogeography of the Somme. The cliches of how the war is typically presented, the dubious conclusions of revisionist historians, the memoirs of the men who fought in the conflict, the snapshot reductions of the front as presented in history lessons and pop fictions; Mills quite deliberately takes each one on, playing out his weekly dramas in such a way as to challenge received truths and politically-charged reworkings. By the time the shell-shocked, unconscious Charley is laid out as one of a line of seriously wounded men on a railway platform waiting to be transported to the army hospital at Etaples, the reader has been taken through a journey the likes of which can’t be matched in any other form.

I can think of only two other British “adventure” comic strips that could be ranked with Charley’s War in terms of quality and importance. Yet, neither Frank Hampson’s Dan Dare or the work of John Wagner and his host of fellow creators on Judge Dredd can quite match Mills and Colquhoun’s achievement for ambition, emotion, or ethical force. Although Charley’s War was marked by the inevitable peaks and troughs of any work undertaken with such purpose for such a very long period of time, it remains the most consistently excellent of all its peers. For the reader willing to immerse themselves in Charley’s War, and that is what it really takes for those who can’t immediately warm to subject matter and / or form, I’d recommend with as much enthusiasm as I could the tales set during the Somme, which stretch across the first two collections from Titan Books and end after the opening third of volume 3. That there once was such a purposeful, well-crafted, committed, and fundamentally tender-hearted project, and that there is now no contemporary equivalent of any kind, ought to make us all think twice about how far comics have come in the quarter century and more since the last chapter of Charley’s War appeared.

The hard-backed Charley’s War collections are published by Titan Books.

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Colin Smith is currently Q Magazine’s comics columnist and blogs at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and on Tumbler.

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