Written by Pat Mills. Art by Joe Colquhoun. Published by Titan Comics.
War comics are a genre that never really appealed to me. They seemed to have a dated quality to them, which were not particularly accurate to what actually happened in war. Although, this is until I read Charley’s War – A Boy Soldier in the Great War written by Pat Mills and drawn by Joe Colquhoun. For those unaware of the Charley’s War, it was a strip that was published weekly in the British magazine Battle Picture Weekly from 1979-1985. Although, unlike all the war comics at the time that were pro-war adventures, Charley’s War had an anti-war stance and showed the horrors of trench warfare in World War I.
Charley’s War – A Boy Soldier in the Great War collects the first 4 volumes of the strip and begins with Charley, 16 years old at the time, recruiting himself to go to war. At the time his attitudes to war is that it will be an adventure and the war will be over soon. Although, what he doesn’t realise is that he will be fighting in the Battle of Somme – in which more than 1,000,000 men were killed or wounded. The majority of Charley’s War – A Boy Soldier in the Great War takes place during this battle in which we see plenty of his heroics, from him saving his mates from the Germans to escaping from German capture.
While the war is made exciting through the heroic elements, Charley’s War is also very critical of World War I. It is with these critical elements that makes this comic series stand out from all the other war comics. While death and destruction is all around, Charley’s War goes further by criticising the tactics of both sides. It shows not only the poor decisions made but also the inhumane tactics used, such as poison gas. The series also introduces the reader to many corrupt officers who act as antagonists through the strip. Some of these officers will put Charley and other soldiers in intentional danger, while one even uses Charley’s unconscious body as a human shield while moving from trench to trench. A lot of the negative elements of war are also the ones that created the most emotional reaction. Charley loses friends all around him, often in sudden moments. After a while this takes a toll on Charley, other soldiers and even the reader.
The attitudes and misconceptions of war in the general public are also explored in great detail throughout the strip. Early on in the strip this is done through letters from Charley’s family in which they do not quite realise how horrible it is in the trenches. There is one letter from his aunt which I thought summed it up the best in which she is complaining about first world problems that the war has caused back home, while this is juxtaposed to a rather bloody battle.
As it was originally published weekly, Charley’s War is broken up into small 4-5 page chapters. In a collected form this works well as it is fast paced with the story not dwelling too much on one element for too long. This fast pace also works well for the action and on a few occasions I found my heart racing. Many of the strips ended on cliffhangers and I often found myself wanting to find out what happened next.
Published in black and white, Joe Colquhoun’s high contrast art is full of detail. He manages to show World War I in all it destructive force through the muddy trenches, the body and shrapnel littered No Man’s Land and regular explosions. His characters look great too with plenty of detail put into their facial expressions and throughout the trip you see the their faces age significantly – even after a few months.
As extra content, Charley’s War – A Boy Soldier in the Great War comes with a series of articles and commentary. The articles at the start are great for those who are not too familiar with World War I and help give a context before reading. If you want to know more about the creative process then the commentary by Pat Mills will be right up your alley.
Overall, I would have to say that Charley’s War – A Boy Solider 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 Solider in the Great War is a great read and highly recommended. I can’t wait for the next collection.