02 April 2010

Guest Reviewers Month: Grant Goggans on 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.

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