It’s the eve of Remembrance Sunday and it’s a day when most nations stop for a moment, pause and reflect on the horrors of war and remember the dead. There were many comic strips with narratives fashioned around the two World Wars, most of them portraying gung ho heroes, the context always patriotic and the enemies invariably the ‘ultimate evil’ which must be fought.
What is Charlies War and Why is it Important?
Pat Mills has a way of challenging elements of historical and societal thinking in a way that very few comic book creators can. Charlies War isn’t a war story, it’s an anti war story and that’s important to note. It ran in IPC Weekly comic magazine Battle Picture Weekly from 1979 until 1985. It’s a frighteningly well researched piece of literature, illustrated throughout it’s entirety by the magnificent Joe Colquhoun. Pat bowed out of the series as it stretched to the Second World War, and the entire focus of this article is on the collected edition of the strips entitled Charlies War: A Boy Solider in the Great War.
This collection tells the initial stories following a young lad Charlie Bourne who, like many teenagers of the time, lies about his age in order to be allowed to enlist and fight for “King and Country” . Charlie is thrown into the Somme and his idealistic sentiments regarding warfare and patriotism are challenged and demolished by the true, real, hard and bloody realities presented during conflict. Through Charlies eyes we are given an authentic portrayal of life in the trenches, of betrayal, of madness, of tender moments and heartbreaking moments of sheer horror.
It’s not just Charley’s changing attitude we see during the strip, letters from Charley’s family appear during the early sections of the narrative showing that they don’t know how horrific life in the trenches was. In one series of panels, the reader is juxtaposed between a fairly mundane letter from Charley’s aunt complaining about the effects of the war were causing back home with an intense battle, brutal, something Charley and his mates faced at common intervals during this campaign.
Fresh Historically Accurate Portrayal
This is unlike most War comics of the time because of the level of research involved in this series. You LEARN about the war through this story, you LEARN about the sheer absolute bloody hell about the war through Joe Colquhoun’s intense black and white detail. You see the poor bastards slough through the mud and through the shrapnel, you can feel it as you read the comic…
As stated before the narrative is certainly not a pro war comic, it’s critical of World War 1, this is the important difference between this and other comic war stories and must be highlighted. It’s critical of the tactics used by both sides, not just poor decisions, but the inhumane tactics used, such as poison gas, officers casually shot foot soldiers for sleeping on the front line after exhausting hours watching for the enemy and malnutrition through poor food.
Also unlike many War Stories of the day, we see corrupt British officers, one complete bastard knocks Charley out and uses his body as a human shield while moving from trench to trench. There’s also a shock factor in the story, as established characters, Charley’s mates are killed, often in sudden moments with no warning to the reader. We see madness brought on by war, guilt and dark anger.
This is a totally unique perspective and is something which, is, unfortunately suppressed today. We are continually told – Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori – it is sweet and right to die for your country. But reading through this, I say it is sweeter and more noble to live for your country and for the statesmen and woman of your country to work harder to avoid conflicts which destroy the lives of their fellow human beings.
The artist Joe Colquhoun must have had an incredible passion for historical accuracy, the weaponry, the depictions of the trenches, the horrific brilliance of the violence. It’s captivating and authentic – that’s a term that I utilise over and over again for this work – authentic. There’s a haunting quality – when looking at the expressions on the soliders faces as they face sheer bloody horror, time and time again, losing friends, moving to a place beyond fear and approaching madness, it’s all there, it’s etched on their faces in amazing clarity. As Charlie progresses through this narrative, there are heartbreaking scenes where the artist depicts his eyes in such a way that the fear and loss are palpable to the reader.
I’m going to use the work Authentic again – deeply, deeply authentic. This is a story that Pat brings to life with the accuracy of the details woven through this writing skill. Pat has had so numerous stand-out moments in his career and continues to do so – but this story is perhaps on another level to anything else he has written since. Having read this, I’m looking forward to the day where Pat pens a history book, there’s such a wealth of knowledge which infuses through these characters and empathy. I truly cared about Sergeant Bill, about Charlie – I felt like I was sharing that trench with him, I hated Snell the corrupt officer who abuses his position and values no-one else but himself. Hate is a strong word for me, but I truly detested that man. The writing made it all so very personal to me and real. It challenges the class system and any authority that would ask a fellow human being to die on the battlefield.
It’s incredibly powerful.
It’s important to read this as we head towards another commemoration of the Somme. We need work like this to wake up, to stop portraying War in some sort of positive, heroic light and understand that it is evil, that there is a better way in order to resolve conflict.
It’s something that should be encouraged to be placed in the War History sections of libraries and used as a way of educating children at schools. It’s been described as an anti-establishment view of the conflict – but I hesitate to say that, I would rather emphasise the truth of the message of the narrative.
It’s available from Amazon