Charley's War: A Boy Soldier in the Great War by Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun

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Charley's War: A Boy Soldier in the Great War by Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun

Category: Graphic Novels
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: The go-to book for World War One comics, as the initial hefty chunk of this mammoth saga gets us through the Somme battered and bruised.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: August 2014
Publisher: Titan Books
ISBN: 9781781169148

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The answer, it seems to me, when writing war stories, is to take something we can all imagine – the young lad signing up and finding out the real truth behind the glorified propaganda of his masters – and still making something unexpected out of it. People have to die in unexpected ways, because that's what war is. Soldiers have to face misery, because that's what war brings them. The writer has to be a godlike entity able to give the power of victory or defeat to either side, because the common or garden soldier character certainly can't. In putting all this and more into a comic for boys, where it had previously been thought a WWI story with the rigid and static nature of trench warfare would be neither visually nor dramatically appealing, Pat Mills both challenged himself and won many over with his brilliance. Young Charley certainly gets to know the misery, unexpected death and people in command of his fate. And with the dramatic narrative artwork here, so do we.

It's very interesting to see the history of this book, since it was first serialised at the turn of the 1980s. In those days, as counter-intuitively anti-war and defiantly against all glorification of battle it might have been, it did indeed feature in weekly strips in a comic for war-hungry young boys, eagerly alighting their eyes on dramatic poses and cheering on heroic figures. Since then, such is its emphasis on the verity and horror of the war, the comic has only grown in esteem, so that nowadays it's collected in solemn trade paperbacks, with authoritative essays on the ways and means of its production and of warfare. The original logo, with the backwards S to marry with Charley's original badly-scrawled, semi-literate postcards home, has been replaced by regal fonts, subdued presentation of echt photo covers, poppy emblem prominent.

This volume declares itself to be the complete first four volumes of the original reprints in one, although it seems to be only the initial three. As a purchaser you have to pay your money and take your pick, for while this stiff paperback will take up much less shelf space, it is a fair bit smaller than the original Titan individual hardbacks, so the reprinting of the strip – however superbly it's been done – is a bit reduced. Which kind of defeats the issue with such detail in each and every panel – it's easy to see why Colquhoun was struggling sometimes with three pages a week to produce, and really up against it when the strip expanded to four. Not for him a tracing of a reference photo, but a real down and dirty look at the trenches and every other aspect of Charley's chequered life.

Of course the character of Charley is a stand-in, a bit of a stereotype of many fictional characters portraying one of many stereotypical real-life characters. He's got himself to the front at an illegally young and naïve age, and here he is at the Somme. The whole ten-book epic will take him and us well away from such routine dramatisations of war, however, but here he's generally stuck in the thick of it – losing comrades, eating muck, and suffering the swings and fortunes of all young men in the trenches as their commanders gained an inch here, lost a yard there…

We too seem to have such a halting experience when reading this collection, for it was definitely designed to be read bit by bit, week by week, and the constant going over of old ground every three pages is quite wearing at times. Each episode had to end with a punch and the sequel start with the same punch, just drawn slightly differently. Bless the artist, but four pages suits us better as we read a more fluid and engaging story. There's also very much a sense of us losing track of which one is actually Charley, as he can often be in the background of images, and with his face aging well before its years due to the war he can often be indistinguishable from other grunts – which is surely designed to be the case.

But what the book rests on for me is the writing. Using brilliant research and verifiable documentation Mills produced something to prove to anyone that they don't know all the war stories imaginable. Even those tired of these current years' centenary publications will see something new and something very, very valid on these pages. Like I say, this has stopped being as subversive as it once might have been, especially when taken out of context of a daring-yet-censored weekly and put into the prestige publications we get these days. But it's not once stopped being engaging, surprising, thoughtful, characterful and valuable.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

Line of Fire : Diary of an Unknown Soldier (August, September 1914) by Barroux is a different kettle of fish; while able to tell us pretty much a similar story it's non-fiction, and styled very, very differently.

Buy Charley's War: A Boy Soldier in the Great War by Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Charley's War: A Boy Soldier in the Great War by Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Charley's War: A Boy Soldier in the Great War by Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Charley's War: A Boy Soldier in the Great War by Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun at Amazon.com.


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