I like Grant Goggans’ taste, and envy his cool, alliterative name. I also like his writing, which is always clean and efficient, “simple and spoiler-free,” as he says at the beginning of every review. But while Goggans does a bang-up job reviewing just about anything, I most enjoy his reviews of British comics from the ’70s to today. You want to know the best Judge Dredd collection to start with? Check Grant’s blog. Doctor Who? The blog. And hey, you ever heard of this great black-and-white war comic called Charley’s War?
The saddest scene I’ve ever seen in a comic comes when a young soldier loses his best friend to the Germans, and, shellshocked, spends a few heartbreaking panels finding the words to tell an insensitive miltary policeman what it is that he’s carrying. It’s a pivotal scene from Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun’s Charley’s War, and if you can read it without a lump rising to your throat, then that’s all the evidence needed that you’re a soulless vampire, in need of a stake through the heart.
Charley’s War debuted in December, 1978, in the 200th issue of Battle Picture Weekly, and immediately made a statement that it was going to be a bold and challenging read. As we’ll see, Battle never shied away from controversial characters or issues, but World War One had proven itself a very unpopular subject for adventure-oriented comic strips, and the story’s launch saw the artist Joe Colquhoun removed from Johnny Red, the book’s most popular feature for the previous two years. The easiest decision for Battle's editors would have been keeping Colquhoun on the existing, proven success, rather than putting him on something so radically different.
Battle was launched by the publisher IPC in 1975 and was, from its outset, unlike any comic that Britain’s newsstands had ever seen, mixing hard-hitting war stories with achingly believable characters. True, features with haughty antiheroes were nothing new; in the mid-sixties, characters like the Spider, the Steel Claw and Janus Stark were thrilling young readers by either working outside the law or in opposition to it. There were exceptions, like the square-jawed, heroic, indestructible Tim Kelly, but he seemed to be outnumbered by all the dark and macabre protagonists of these stories. Dollman, a super-genius who controlled dozens of robots, might have been a good guy, but he was also badly needing a padded cell.
None of these offbeat characters, however, operated during wartime. British adventure strips, regardless of who published them, could have been set anywhere and in any time and featured any kind of oddball antihero, but prior to Battle, you could be guaranteed that a wartime protagonist would be a flawless patriot, valiantly defending Britain from the Hun. It took publishers until 1975 to try out characters who weren’t acting as role models during the war. The Rat Pack was made up of four convicts, any of whom might have gone AWOL with stolen Nazi gold at any opportunity. Major Eazy was so laid back and disrespectful to his commanding officers that he routinely drew letters of complaint from outraged kids. Joe Darkie, operating an illegal guerrilla war in Burma, would routinely murder any pressganged Tommy who disagreed with him. Johnny Red was drummed out of flight school after accidentally killing a commanding officer and began his strip swabbing decks on a merchant marine ship, Even the comparatively upright, role-model-type Bootneck Boy spent all of his stories ferretting out black marketers and bloodthirsty American soldiers.
Battle, therefore, knocked convention and expectations for a complete loop. It was a huge success and made D.C. Thomson’s rival paper, Warlord, look stilted and dull by comparison. Yet even with its willingness to challenge young readers by presenting morally shady protagonists, there’s still an underlying respect for the people who act heroically, and a clear antagonist for them in the Nazis. War isn’t glamorized, but it’s shown, believably, as a necessary evil.
Charley’s War was the first strip to stand up and say that actually, it isn’t even necessary, either. It was an emphatic, pointed attack on the establishment that permitted and enabled the chaos. Certainly, including anti-war themes in comics wasn’t a radically new approach - Harvey Kurtzman’s Frontline Combat had taken a similar viewpoint almost 25 years earlier - but Charley’s War took it to new levels for an ongoing strip with regular characters, especially one with characters as sympathetic and wonderful as these.
In the strip’s first episode, we’re introduced to Charley Bourne, a poorly-educated Londoner, sixteen years old, who decides to lie about his age and enlist. This puts him in the front lines just a few weeks before the Battle of the Somme. From there, it’s an exciting, heartbreaking look at life in the trenches, with missions into No Man’s Land punctuated by gas attacks, new technology, cowardly officers, ratcatching, squalor, despair, mud and, somehow, a little optimism and hope.
Bourne’s world is realized by some of the very best art that any war comic has ever been fortunate enough to see. Joe Colquhoun captures everything in his pages, filling his backgrounds with the intricate details of the trenches. There are absolutely no shortcuts in Colquhoun’s compositions; every panel is just packed densely with linework. Nor did Colquhoun ever get around depicting the grim violence of war via panels with a pair of helmets in the air instead of soldiers getting shot, as you often saw in 1970s American war comics.
Pat Mills was very lucky to have Colquhoun to illustrate his scripts. As noted above, the artist had spent two years drawing the adventures of Johnny Red, which was left in the capable hands of John Cooper. Mills himself had actually been away from Battle for some time, after launching the comic and devising its initial seven series, and was writing Ro-Busters for Starlord, later to be folded into 2000 AD, while researching this story. He wrote the series until January 1985, penning 294 episodes before a dispute over researching fees ended his involvement with Battle, leaving writer Scott Goodall to continue the story for a further 86 installments of an older Charley fighting in World War Two.
Mills’ run on Charley’s War is arguably the highest point in a career just full of peaks and pinnacles. There’s a humanity to this series that’s very unique in comics, with both the British and German lines filled with believable, sympathetic, terrified characters. The terror is perhaps the most important part. Fear of death makes people act without logic or sense, and when coupled with power, it turns people into monsters, willing to act with inhuman cruelty towards others. The British officers who happen to be stationed far behind the lines are inured against the carnage in the trenches, but the men they have in harm’s way abuse their power constantly. Charley narrowly avoids being shot in the head for falling asleep on sentry duty at one point, and is sent on punishment detail to be strapped onto the wheels of a huge cannon at another. When the trenches are overrun, Charley’s company, in an underground bunker, is ordered out one at a time for individual executions, a scene of needless brutality that illustrates how desperate men can resort to inhuman cruelty to relieve stress.
Charley’s War is a mostly linear story, beginning in 1916, but it takes a fascinating detour about 18 months into its run to tell the story of “Blue,” a deserter from the French Foreign Legion, and his experience at Ft. Vaux at Verdun, a few months before Charley enlisted. In this storyline, Charley, while on leave, meets Blue in London while he’s on the run from military police, and agrees to hear his story. It’s an amazing tale of desperation, with the men trapped under siege for weeks without reinforcements and supplies running low. It’s so bleak that, when Charley returns to the front, it’s almost as though Mills was showing mercy to the readers.
Titan Books has been collecting Charley’s War in a series of annual hardcover albums, each of which reprint 25-30 episodes. They’re gorgeous editions, and full of supplementary information including new forewords and episode-by-episode commentary by Mills, and historical background to the war. The reproduction is mostly very good, although some of the episodes from 1980-81 which originally had color pages suffer a little bit from the grayscale treatment. The sixth of these books was released in October of last year, and they have been so successful for Titan that they have slowly expanded their line of reprints from the comic’s archives, issuing a Best of Battle omnibus last year, and planning to release the first in a proposed series of Johnny Red hardcovers in the spring. The Charley’s War series is one that every good library should own, and should not be too difficult for curious readers to track down.