The seminal graphic novel from Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun, Charley’s War was first published in the British magazine Battle in 1979. Unlike a lot of American comics at the time, Charley’s War appeared in Battle Picture Weekly in small scenes each week, giving readers only a taste of the story as it happens, like movie serials of the past.
Now, Titan Books has gathered them into beautiful hardcover editions with great extras like commentary on each scene from Pat Mills that gives a bit of insight into what they were thinking on each scene, along with lost covers of Battle Picture Weekly that are nicely reproduced for fans in the back of the book.
Charley’s War is the story of Charley Bourne’s tours of duty on the front lines of World War I. In previous volumes, Charley has been through a lot in the 18 months since joining the Army at 16 years old. His younger brother Wilf joins the flying corps a year after his brother leaves, and in a previous volume, they run into each other. Here, Charley is on the front lines, and directly opposing him on the battlefield is Corporal Adolf Hitler, who had survived a few different scrapes with death by 1918.
Wilf, trying to make a name for himself, in the flying corps, is a PBO (Poor Blinking Observer) for the death defying pilots. Ensconsed in bureaucracy and double dealing from his own peers, Wilf just struggles to become a full-time Observer for the reckless Captain Morgan, even though it may get him killed. Meanwhile, Charley spends his days with expert sniper Len Southgage, learning to take out Germans from his trench, firing on Hitler’s regiment.
The book is decidedly anti-war, mostly due to the harsh realism of the war that the book achieves, and the unflinching brutalism of human behavior that is so naturally depicted. Like the war itself, no character is safe, no matter how familiar they may become. It manages to balance moments of light comedy along with big, fiery explosions of high tragedy.
The stark, detailed black and white art by Joe Colquhoun is timeless, and it exposes the raw emotions of the characters, so the visual impact to the reader is nearly as great as it is on the characters involved. The observer’s eye he draws with exposes the characters as real people, there are no heroic poses, and any triumph by our favorite characters seems to be quickly marred by indescribably tragedy, much like a real war.
Incredibly researched, and written with an eye to educate, without patronizing the audience, Charley’s War is the rare comic book that actually attempts to say something, and it does so to great effect. Mills and Colquhoun have made the rare step into true art, defying the comic book format’s need for commercial success. However, quality will always win out in the end, and that has become the case with Charley’s War. Thirty years later, their work still rings true, educating younger audiences in a medium they’re comfortable with. These hardcover editions from Titan Books is the best way to experience them by far.