Comics: Charley’s War in Ten Volumes a reflection by James Bacon
Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun
“ …the real trouble with writing about WW1 is that you can’t go very far without running into- Charley’s War, which is simply so good that it makes the very prospect of tackling the conflict extremely daunting...” Garth Ennis.
The First World War celebrates its centenary this year.
That is sometimes how it feels, when politicians tell us their interpretation of history, or how it should be seen, a celebration in all but words. In Germany, there is no such joyous remembrance, and there one wonders is the shame of the aggressor the reason why it is a less celebratory affair or have they a clearer understanding of hubris?
Yet even historians cannot agree on the true cause of the First World War (see here, for example) , and amongst those who ask deeper, less ‘loyal’ questions, a name frequently appears: Sir Edward Grey. Recently Grey was described as ‘enlightened’ by a national broad sheet, and there is no end of praise (see here) for the foreign secretary and ultimately head diplomat of pre-war Britain.
Fortunately, here in the world of comics, my reckoning is that we have been occasionally blessed with a more questioning approach. I am used to a sober, calm and in many cases eminently researched formulation of work about historical subjects in the pages of comics.
Pat Mills has a way of putting things to the reader that just stop one in one’s tracks, as he recently said to me in some correspondence:
“And at the heart of it, hard evidence that Britain – not Germany – deliberately created the war with Sir Edward Grey as a war criminal equal to any in WW2.” Pat Mills.
Mills does in one sentence what he did every week for six years. He makes one question, makes one think, ask what one knows, and understands, and ultimately makes the reader do some research and form their own opinion.
With the anniversary of the first modern war that mechanised the process (although arguably the American Civil War hinted darkly at the industrial scale slaughter to come a few decades before), that industrialised death, that involved civilians indiscriminately or even purposely selected as targets, that slayed ten million people, that was horrific on a scale that can barely be comprehended, it is important that we have independent views of the war.
Ten minutes in a trench under shelling, let alone ten hours or ten days, must have been torturous bloody mayhem. The pressure of duty, the fear for one’s nation, and then the fight, across a no-man’s land, or in a muddy hole on the ground, bitter hand-to-hand fighting with tools of death fashioned like medieval weapons, the knowledge that there was only one way, and that was forward, for one of your own would be behind if you turned.
It is early 2014 and there are some excellent works on the horizon, and I expect there will be no shortage of comics about the Great War, The War to End All Wars. Personally I am looking forward to learning more. I feel that the five years of the First World War can indeed be utilised for stories, angles, truths and fiction that we are not aware of and of course, help enlighten people on its realities.
There is not a lot to celebrate. Yet commemorating this war, a war that involved so many nations, and was truly pointless – what was achieved, what was lost – is important, but this is no celebration in the literary imaginations brought to life in the reader’s mind through sequential art. It is a time for questions, to do what great comics do: make one think.
There is one piece of work that certainly succeeds in this: Charley’s War.
I loved Charley Bourne. I loved him like a pal, and I say honour with all seriousness. The few pence at the time was not a small amount of money then, and so my Dad, who for some godforsaken inspired reason spent his hard earned cash on a comic, light hearted, an ephemeral time passer.
Maybe it was the stickers, or something about Battle that meant it was the one he ordered, but Charley was my favourite. I would leave him to last, the best to last, with Johnny always second last. I would fret and fear for Charley, for the brutality of various characters, name-sakes, or personifications of more than just an individual.
Even as a boy, a child, one could see the good and the bad. Mills was able to craft a depth to his characters, so one could feel the broader conflict, and see the horrors in individuals, and it was clear they were part of an overall system, driven by class and a pox on the ordinary soldier. The writing captures a broader perspective for the reader, bringing elements that are unknown in my case, or less known to bear, and the treatment of soldiers so horrible, and yet as a boy I could understand that sometimes the enemy is not the coal-scuttle helmeted stormtrooper, who occasionally would be portrayed as just as hapless as some of Charley’s buddies, but the officer class, the system, the cowardice within and how empathy for humanity is something that friends understand but the class system wants to destroy.
The subversive nature of this story is unmistakable now as I read it. It is actively getting children in the late 1970s and early 1980s to understand the true horror of war, and to question authority and the class system, as it applies a very seriously analytical view of the war. Many weeks I hated Snell more than any German. Hated.
There was an incredible harshness, the brutality of war, the meanness and evil of men, the misuse of authority, the sacrosanct nature of that authority, that overrode everything else, the violence and fear, it was all captured every week in this comic that Dad would collect and bring home.
Now one can read it and recognise the phenomenal research and the perspective, distinctly that of a writer who is intelligently portraying situations and characters that give genuine insight into more than the immediate action. As an adult who has read some historical works about The First World War, one can only appreciate the metaphorical elements to the work, and of course the breadth that it takes.
These are some of the reasons why it is the greatest fictional First World War work.
Mills uses a number of techniques to introduce us to other elements of the war, be it in the air with Charley’s brother Wilf, at sea with tales from Charley’s cousin Jack, the German side, the rebellious French or the black American troops, of the Harlem Hellfighters and the British involvement after the war in the Russian Civil War on the White side.
As the comic would have four or so pages each week, it needed to be paced really smartly, the reader needing quite a lot, but also a pressure on the writer to hold attention and now, I look at the level of depth and detail. Charley would write to his ma, and this would form some of the narration, while Mills’ superb research and knowledge educated with each episode.
The artist, Joe Colquhoun, must have used real First World War pictures as references, as the accuracy and intimacy of detail give the story an unusual familiarity. Weaponry, the trenches, the clothing, the accessories, the reactions to things we take for granted, all are portrayed on the paper with considerable brilliance (and indeed in many British war comics of the period artists strove for accuracy, partly for artistic pride but also out of respect for those who had lived through that actual history).
The action scenes posses a sense of alacrity and movement that really get across to the reader the instantaneousness of what is happening, while the fear and upset, usually in Charley’s eyes, is haunting.
Colquhoun knew how to draw, or would have the material he needed to draw it right, and it is an incredibly hard standard to surpass. One looks at a Lewis Gun, or a Mark IV tank and it is perfectly proportioned and accurately drawn. This is vital to any reader who wants to submerge themselves into the story – an inaccurate element can wrench one from the story, and this never happened.
Colquhoun’s steady and clear line, the skilled way in which the characters maintain a consistency, even through time as we watch Charley age and grow war-weary, Oiley put on weight as his greed and criminality fatten him, Snell become the true monster that he always was. It is all brilliant penmanship of the highest order.
Again, this only cements my opinion of the comic.
At the moment the Imperial War Museum is undergoing a total refurbishment, but before it closed, I wandered through their example of a trench, simple and clean, no mud and water, but a good impression of what a trench was, stood next to the Mark IV tank ‘Devil’ and I browsed through actual photographs of the trenches in their archive (looking for some Tank activity in Ireland in Cork in 1919) and yet I have to admit that nothing else can give me the real palpable vivid sensations of the First World War that Charley’s War could and still does give me.
(a surviving British Mark IV tank, image borrowed from the Wiki page)
Men hoping for a Blighty One (a wound that meant being sent home), the stink of rat infested trenches, the whipping of soldiers on a wheel as part of court martial and the humour, the laughter and little successes, the friendship and comradeship but most importantly it is the view of the war from the ordinary guy’s perspective. Seeing everything that is rotten, everything that was just horrid about the war, the vulgarity of the officers, the behaviour that is shocking towards men who believe, have been convinced they are doing their duty. The honour and kindness of some juxtaposed against the heinous inhumanity and inappropriate belligerence of others.
The ability to neatly have the cynical but brutally honest reality slipped in neatly in a frame, as immoral acts occur, or fierce wrongs are committed, makes one think.
And I loved Charlie’s pals, Lieutenant Thomas, Mad Mick, Alf, Smith 70, Blue an especially interesting character and of course Ginger, who Charley buries.
Death happens frequently around Charley, and of course this helped me as a reader understand that curtailing of what one has, not just Charley’s friend, but a friend in the pages of a comic that I had come to care for. Mills was especially good at creating characters who engaged the reader in short order.
Charley’s War ran from the 6th of January 1979 up until the 26th of January 1985, and many readers, like me, felt there was an ending with the closing of the First World War .
Of course there was a twist even in the final moments, and Charley and Old Bill end up in Russia, fighting with the While Russians and thousands of British soldiers in the civil war, an element that most people have no idea about now.
After some three hundred episodes, Pat Mills the writer left the story, and Scott Goodhall took over. Charley’s War continued, and Joe Colquhoun still drew the comic, but it went towards the Second World War with less earnestness than I had hoped, and then in a moment that made me put Battle down, as Charley reminisces about the First World War, the story restarted.
Titan Books have reprinted the Pat Mills stories in ten handsome hardback volumes and they are to be applauded. Each one has an interesting introduction, and commentary, contextual essays, photos and reference material, and they really are beautifully and respectfully packaged, with Pat Mills taking time and care to write about the comic, that as a fan is superb to read.
One should also mention Neil Emery who ran The Charley’s War web site on a Tripod site, and tirelessly sought re-publication by keeping the great story in peoples’ minds. The Charley’s War website that contains considerable information continues; sadly Neil passed away at the age of 39, but for some fans, he left behind a legacy.
While it is nice to have a quote that inspires, something that sounds so counter to everything around us about the First World War that we are forced to ask questions, I thought, I should ask Pat Mills why he felt that way about Sir Edward Grey, so one can see that this writer bases his thoughts on research and independent thinking:
“The book that opened my eyes to Grey is… Hidden History by Gerry Docherty and Jim Macgregor. …
…Their book is not unique, but goes further in describing what World War One was really about. Paxman’s apologies for Empire – he’s clearly a government asset. Grey was part of the Milner faction who deliberately instigated war with Germany. (There are several other books which make this very serious and verifiable allegation) There’s no doubt Grey was a war criminal and should have stood trial for the slaughter of all those soldiers who died in vain.
‘The way he did it had much in common with the way Blair did it with Iraq. Because that’s how these things are done.” Pat Mills.
And there it is, one of the most important aspects of this series – it is historical, but as with all the best interpretations of history it shows its relevance to the modern day, from Flanders Fields to the deserts of the second Iraq war. Charley’s War is not just a comic about the First World War. Right now, as I write this, it is, for me, the greatest fictional work about the war. A huge statement.
All Quiet on the Western Front, War in the Trenches, The Great War, War Horse, these are all magnificent works, amazing, enjoyable, heart breaking.
Yet, it is Charley’s War, a four or five page comic story, that was published every week in a war comic, that I consider to the pre-eminent piece of work, that I had the incredible honour to read and it is a story that reminds me to think and feel. Pure brilliance.
For more information on Pat Mills, check out his excellent site, but we will be bringing you further news of First World War comics projects on a regular basis as they become known to us.