Tuesday, 28 January 2014

On "Charley's War" By Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun

With TooBusyThinking drawing to its end, I thought I might - for nostalgia's sake - post some pieces here that were originally written for elsewhere. The love-letter to Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun's Charley's War which follows was originally published at Sequart, who've been astonishing good eggs over the past few years. To my shame, I discovered this morning  - as I should have expected - that the article was in serious terrible need of a substantial overhaul. As a result, I've done my best to make it just a touch less awkward.

To my complete surprise, Pat Mills himself once spoke kindly of the original piece. It was heartening to know that I'd at least succeeded in expressing my admiration to him for what's probably the greatest British comic strip of all time.

There's an awful lot of Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun's Charley's War to be getting on with, and you have to be careful where you start. An epic, action-laced and heartrending tale of the First World War told in 3 and 4 page instalments, it appeared in the UK's Battle Picture Weekly from January 1979 to October 1985. Now collected in 10 handsome volumes by Titan Books, it's a unique and outstanding brew of conscientious research, exhilarating storytelling and firebrand radical politics. In our current age of Tory revisionism and donkey's apologists, Charley's War is as vital and inspiring as it's constantly enthralling. Yet for all the acclaim of comics creators, professional historians and media commentators, it's still unlikely to appeal to the readers groups of the book-chattering classes. Designed to thrill and snare an audience of largely pre-adolescent boys, Charley's War is anything but a polite and self-consciously literary critique of the war. Browse carelessly in the wrong place and you might even imagine - for a panel or two - that it's peddling atavistically pro-war propaganda. That it's anything but a typically blokeish tale of valiant combat and national virtue demands  more than a browse, a cluster of preconceptions and a snap judgement or two to discover. Yes, the second part of the battle between Charley's unit and Colonel Zeiss' Judgement Troopers might at first suggest gung-ho heroics set in an exploitatively squalid setting. Hiss as the ugly and dishonourable Hun bears down on the gallantly plucky Tommies. Cheer as the last ditch stand by our ragged British squaddies buys them a moment to recuperate. Boo at the perfidy of the Germans as they lure our lionhearted lads into a trap! Roar at the indomitable spirit of our lads as they pause for one last inspiring cup of tea! What, beyond its still conspicuous brutality matched with a scrupulous attention to historical detail, is there to tell Charley's War apart from decades-worth of xenophobic, battle-glorifying tales?

But take a second glance, and Mills has made it plain that Zeiss and his comrades have been brutalised by their time on the Russian Front. Not the beastly Other then, and anything but an expression of jingoism and warmongery. Where the stereotypes of mass-market boy's tales of World War One appear in Charley's War, it's always with an eye to energetically deconstructing them. To look again at the faces of the British soldiers going over the top in Colquhoun's panels is to encounter a broad range of unambiguously terrified individuals. These are no handsome, muscular, adventure-happy men, but faith-shattered volunteers hoping for one more moment of life while dreading the possibility of the same. Around them Colquhoun has eloquently depicted the purgatorial detail of trench-warfare; the casualties, left for the enemy to finish off, as they cry for their mothers; the wounded screaming for the explosions to stop; the exhausted few survivors slumped amongst mounds of corpses, while young Charley Bourne himself declares "my knees can't stop knocking, Sarge". As grim and bloody a chapter as this is, there's nothing at all of prurience, nationalism or machismo on show. Even when depicting an exhausted Bourne emerging from hand-to-hand combat, Mills and Colquhoun's are always focused on expressing a loathing for war, an unconditional sympathy for the men condemned to fight it, and a loathing for the classes who create and perpetuate such inexcusable horrors. What other creators might frame as penny-dreadful fearlessness is here cast as an unavoidable and hideous ordeal. No matter how plucky, resourceful and endearing Charley Bourne is shown to be, he's anything but an unshakably patriotic hero fit for a recruiting poster. Instead, he's a working class survivor whose finest qualities are empathetic rather than martial.

Yet there is an undeniable tension between the storytelling traditions that Mills and Colquhoun were using and their tales' emotional and ethical content. No matter how complex and sophisticated Charley's War undeniably is, it's also marked by the kind of clunky exposition which its weekly format and youthful audience demanded. To read a run of its episodes in collected form is to ultimately feel somewhat battered by the constant reiteration of the who, why, where and what of it all. Similarly, subtle characterisation is combined with melodramatic and even occasionally mawkish set-pieces, which allowed each week's episode to generate the intensity necessary to keep a prepubescent readership from drifting away. Put simply, there's no escaping the fact that these are pithy, boy-fascinating stories. That the creators of Charley's War were at the very same time pushing the bounds of what they could and couldn't express emphasises both their ambition and their skill. On a week to week basis, their strip was contending against a host of other action/adventure features. Even as the readership for the weekly comicbook was catastrophically declining,  competition demanded that Mills and Colquhoun's stories were intense, spectacle and saturated with cliffhanging jeopardy. Yet over the longterm, they were also creating a comic whose range and sophistication was - and most probably still is - unmatched. Theirs was emotionally literate and politically engaged art even as it was purposefully crafted to prosper in a laddish marketplace. As such, it's impossible not to be constantly aware of the constraints of the form of the boy's war comic, while simultaneously noting how Mills and Colquhoun were deliberately and inventively subverting and extending its traditions. Utterly unpretentious and passionately populist, Charley's War flourished on the dismissed and often actively despised periphery of popular culture. No matter how the contradictions produced by that mix of economics and ambition might now appear, it was that very isolation from the mainstream which gave the strip its unique mix of qualities. Where else in the first half of Thatcher's baleful reign were tens of thousands of schoolchildren being so regularly and compellingly inculcated against the myths of the diehard right? Working well under the radar of both Hampsteadised critics and moral-panic purveyors, Mills and Colquhoun were free to address a mass audience in ways that no other medium of the age would permit. Despite constant, fierce and wearying battles with the powers-that-were at IPC Publications, writer and artist were still able to deliver six years and more of fiercely iconoclastic storytelling

As such, Charley's War also helps to illuminate the ways in which armed conflict had been peddled as entertainment to children and adults alike. Even as Mills and Colquhoun were creating new methods to represent decades-old horrors, they were also being quite obviously limited in what they could show. Yet so consistently powerful and affecting is Charley's War that it succeeds in suggesting the very qualities that censorship denied it. So purposefully gruesome and convincing is the world they describe that no-one could suggest it lacks realism or pathos. The absence of far greater degrees of body horror, the lack of swearing and sex, the omission of references to some of the soldier's most intimate needs; all of these are intensely evoked even as they're conspicuously absent. The result is a comic strip which pushes at the bounds of the acceptable while vicariously suggesting the forbidden realities of the War To End All Wars. In doing so, Charley's War was from the start both a leftist portrayal of the conflict and a deconstruction of decades-worth of war fictions. At all times both a children's feature and an astonishing affecting historical saga, Charley's War functions as two very different forms of storytelling all at the same time. To the mind that would draw a condescending distinction between comics and literature, boy's fiction and meaningful content, it's little but a combat soap with pretensions. To a less snotty sensibility, Mills and Colquhoun produced - as Brian Aldiss once wrote of Philip K Dick - great art in a popular form.

As such, their characters are both broadly-drawn caricatures and, over time, complicated and compelling individuals. Similarly, events which appear to teeter on the edge of generic derring-do quickly coalesce into a vast and intricately detailed portrait of the Western Front. These stresses between comic book form and content, surface and meaning, the individual episode and the long-running saga, censorship and artistry, help to mark out Charley's War as something exceptional. Out of these contradictions came not just a war story of remarkable breadth and depth, but a tale that could be concurrently smart and vulgar, analytical and passionate, exciting and deeply touching. In short, both writer and artist trusted their audience to be smart and emotionally literate, and the response was of confirmation of their faith. Even when Mills' loathing of the upper classes led him to present the likes of Lieutenant Snell, a villain so insidiously irredeemable that he seems to have wandered in from Monty Python or Black Adder, it's impossible not to be carried away by the sheer energetic commitment of the storytelling. When Snell knocks Charley Bourne out so that he can use the boy as a human shield against enemy snipers, the reader's caught between recognising the absurdity of the scene and remembering exactly why it is that Mills is so understandably full of loathing. To loose track of that relationship between weekly melodrama and the strip's emotional and polemical purposes is to run the risk of defining it as at best well-meaning and competently turned-out kid's stuff. But to stay awake while reading one short, dynamic chapter after another is to be constantly reminded of the ways in which literature and genre fiction are anything but mutually exclusive qualities. (Though the argument that the likes of crime thrillers and even science fiction can be art is largely won, the case for a war comic aimed primarily at pre-adolescents might still encounter considerable resistance.) In many ways, Mills and Colquhoun's greatest triumph was to produce a masterpiece which retained everything of the boy's war comic that the high-minded might consider vulgar and contemptible. Rather than making their work more polite and more superficially considered, they crafted a strip that was - and remains - as alive and vigorous and eye-catching and confrontational as the very best of pop culture typically is.

Yet none of that would matter at all if Charley's War wasn't quite simply a fascinatingly bleak, humane and deeply moving story in its own terms. The brilliance - and it is brilliance - of Mills and Colquhoun's storytelling matched with the strip's moral purpose is so pronounced that Charley's War's appeal has lost nothing in the quarter century since it last appeared. It's episodic form constantly threatens to undermine its worth, and yet nothing of the sort occurs. There's few enough tales told in any form that create more and not less satisfaction and anticipation as events progress. But much of Charley's War's fascination comes from how Mills and Colquhoun examined character and situation over time from a variety of different perspectives. Put simply, Charley's War relies upon the reader persevering so that all those bite-size, child-friendly weekly episodes can be woven together into a complex and smart-minded narrative. The typical boy's strip of the day tended to re-establish the same simplistic fundamentals of personality and set-up week after week, presuming that the audience was ever-changing, forgetful and disinterested in anything other the most pressing of immediate dangers. But Charley's War stands in complete contrast to the majority of its fellows. Even as each week's chapter carefully re-establishes the basics of the strip's backstory, Mills and Colquhoun worked to layer more and more complexity and depth into their tales. Characters were fleshed out and transformed from stereotypes to individuals, and that's a process which simply dipping into the stories won't reveal. Over the months and years, Bourne develops from a not-too-bright but fundamentally brave and decent proletarian lad to a haunted, savvy survivor of the Western Front and beyond. By the same token, his sergeant, who seems every inch the wax moustachioed square-basher, gradually becomes revealed as a modest and compassionate man who has to privately work the terror out of his system before every battle. Matched with this process of character development is the fact that no comic has ever equalled Charley's War’s capacity to appal with its undeniably disturbing body count. Characters who've become more and more real over the weeks and months can be mutilated and slaughtered without warning in the space of a single frame. It’s an approach which constantly accentuates the capriciousness and barbarism of war. No cast member beyond Bourne himself is too familiar and apparently important to be guaranteed survival, and there’s an telling anxiety which hangs over even the most apparently innocent of shots.

That method of constantly reiterating and layering character also applies to the way that the events of the war are described. Though each individual episode tends by necessity to be organised around a familiar litany of jeopardy and cliffhanger, spectacle and suffering, the cumulative effect of the process is anything other than ennui. The first year and a half of the strip deals with Bourne's experiences during the Battle Of The Somme, and it's remarkable how wide and detailed is the panorama of the front that's portrayed. The back-breaking weight of research which both Mills and Colquhoun undertook is obvious in every single frame of the strip. Charley's struggle to do the right thing while attempting simply to survive takes him from signing up to the bus-lined roads leading to the front and the trenches themselves, through no-man's land to the German lines, and then beyond to where the conflict hadn't yet devastated the landscape. We're shown the hospitals and marshaling yards, the camps and mass graves, the punishment details and the execution squads, the cavalry and the tanks, the gas attacks and the profiteering, the sniping and the bombardments. No other narrative work on the War can match the way in which Mills and Colquhoun map out what today might be playfully called the psychogeography of the Somme. The ever-blurring cliches of how the war is typically discussed, the dubious conclusions of rightist historians, the heartbreaking memoirs of the men who fought in the conflict, the snapshot reductions of the front as presented in history lessons and pop fictions; Mills quite deliberately referenced them all, playing out his weekly dramas so as to respect the (un)common soldier while challenging received truths and King-And-Country reworkings. By the time the shell-shocked, unconscious Charley is laid out as one of a line of seriously wounded men waiting to be transported to the army hospital at Etaples, the reader has been taken through a journey the likes of which can't be matched in any other form.

I can think of only two other British "adventure" comic strips which could conceivably be ranked with Charley's War in terms of quality and importance. Yet neither Frank Hampson's Dan Dare or the work of John Wagner and his host of fellow creators - including, of course, the key figure of Mills himself - on Judge Dredd can match Charley's War for ambition, emotion or ethical force. Although Mills and Colquhoun's work was marked by the inevitable suggestions of peaks and troughs which come with such a long-lived and demanding assignment, it remains the most consistently excellent of all its few peers. For the reader willing to immerse themselves in Charley's War, I’d recommend with as much enthusiasm as I can the tales set during the Somme, which stretch across the first two collections from Titan Books and end after the opening third of volume 3.

That there once was such a purposeful, well-crafted, committed and fundamentally decent-hearted project seems hard to come to terms with now. Today's comics have nothing that can match Charley's War as a sweeping historical epic, and that ought to make us all think twice about how far the medium has come since the strip's final chapter appeared.

The hard-backed “Charley's War” collections are published by Titan Books. The same company published the first softback - and now out of print - reprint volume of the strip, the cover of which is shown directly above.

If this piece was of any use to use in killing a dead moment, then perhaps you'll consider visiting Sequart. The following link will take you to my contributions to the site, but you may just be best wandering around what's a fine comics destination packed with good reads. It would be good if I could throw a few more reader's Sequart's way, for they've been exceptionally kind to me. (They don't need any more hits, of course, but I'd like to contribute a few to the total.) Why not click on here and go take a look around?



  1. Ive heard a lot about this strip, tho must confess Ive never read it, myself. Wasn't there a BBC documentary several years ago about British comics and this was mentioned as being very realistic of the horrors of war, and didn't talk down to its readers about what truly went on.
    What an absorbing article of yours, one of the best of yours Ive ever read.

    1. Hello Karl:- Thank you for saying two things that have instantly reassured me that it was worth spending time rewriting the above. I'd not intended to, and I didn't really have the time, but I do greatly admire the book and so it seemed that it was worth doing so. If you enjoyed the post at all - thank you for saying so! - and if you've not read CW yourself, then I've no regrets about the rewriting at all :)

      I think you're right about the Brit-comics documentary. But then, it wouldn't be a programme of any worth if I didn't laud this strip. I must see if a copy of the show is available. Thank you for reminding me about it :)

  2. Thank you for resuscitating this article, Colin! Your original piece caused me to seek out the first Titan volume. I would likely have kept following the series were those hardcovers not so thin yet so expensive.

    1. Hello Michael:- Thank you for implying that the volume you did buy was worth the reading :) I can fully understand why the format might seem to be thin for you. It reflects what was, for decades, one of the standard sizes in the UK for comics collection, so I guess I take it for granted. Also, I suspect that Titan probably aren't making a great deal on the series, so perhaps the format is a way of maximising profit and keeping the programme going. I could suggest that the stories are so compressed that they function like concentrated orange juice - there's far more there than might at first appear. But the truth is, I really do understand your concern. I hope you find some cheaper copies, because the second and third volumes are improvements on the first. Good luck!

  3. A brilliant piece! I did my own tribute here: http://cinetropolis.net/the-great-unmade-charleys-war/

    1. Hello There:- Thank you! In my turn, I most certainly enjoyed your piece, which was smartly capped by the quote you used from Pat Mills' talk at the IWM;

      “When newspapers become more like comics, that’s when comics have to become more like newspapers.!