By Pat Mills, Joe Colquhoun, and John Aldrich. Reprographics work by Joseph Morgan and re-lettering by Jim Campbell
A prank at his expense sees young Charley Bourne fired from cleaning buses, but there’s never an unemployment problem so long as there’s a war on. Kitchener points the way to the enlistment office, where Charley’s failure to lie about his age is politely overlooked. After the briefest training, Charlie trades family and home for the churning fields of France. The year is 1916, and hindsight provides us with a daily countdown to the Battle of the Somme.
For over a year now, the Treasury of British Comics have been releasing classic works from their recently rescued archives. The latest collection is Charley’s War: Boy Soldier, the first of three volumes reprinting a British comics legend. Famed for the scrupulous research undertaken by both writer Pat Mills and artist Joe Colquhoun, this story is a detailed history of the common soldier in World War One.
Although the strip will in time cover the whole span of the war, Mills begins with the wise decision to throw Charley into the thick of it. This allows the boy’s naïvety the foil of various degrees of disillusionment. From fresh recruits who have begun to see through the recruiter’s lies, to veterans old enough to have watched their own children die at the front, Charley’s unit is packed with engaging characters. Getting too attached to them, however, might prove unwise. As may be expected of a story set in the trenches, the mortality rate is grinding and relentless, to the point that it becomes more of a twist if a character survives than if they die.
Charley’s War was originally published in Battle, an anthology comic that gave weekly episodes of several war related stories. This forces a particular structure onto the writing. Many episodes have just three pages in which to present a satisfying story that also leaves you craving more. This was standard practice in British comics, so the creators handle the challenge with an impression of magical ease. They split the saga into smaller story arcs; from character pieces completed in a single episode to longer explorations of particular fields of war. This has the effect of creating chapters out of the smaller instalments that make for satisfying reading when collected together.
The limited space available to both artist and writer only serves to highlight the density of storytelling. It is common to see eight or nine panels on a page, yet at no point does the art feel forced into the frame or swamped by text. Even within these strict confinements, Colquhoun achieves a level of detail with his brushwork that would be the envy of many a dip-pen artist. The resulting fluid lines allow Colquhoun to move subtly from naturalistic backgrounds to more stylistic faces without the reader even noticing the change in artistic priority. Colquhoun’s art sets the emotional impact of each panel above all else, and it hits home every time.
Altogether, the script, art, and lettering combine to form something greater than the sum of these separate parts. Layers of contradictory truth are presented by each aspect of the comic simultaneously. Letters from home complain about minor inconveniences as soldiers in the same panel face slow and ignominious deaths. Replies from the front conform to strict government regulations, or else give banal lies in the knowledge that civilians could never understand the truth. Officers show stiff upper lips as their thoughts dwell on the upcoming carnage. The dead hang on barbed wire that provides perches for birds oblivious to the suffering. Bodies and skeletons float in the mud as soldiers try to raise each other’s spirits. Every detail serves to highlight the deceitful nature of war, the futility of the soldiers’ efforts, and the hypocrisy of their commanders. While today these may seem like basic techniques of the medium, the pages are filled with unsung examples of craft that following decades would see applied elsewhere and hail as revolutionary.
This is not the first time Charley’s War has been reprinted, and those who already have the series on their shelves may hesitate before buying another copy. There is good reason, though, for this edition’s label of ‘The Definitive Collection’. Joseph Morgan’s reprographic labours combine with modern printing and paper-stock to make the art cleaner even than when it was originally published. Jim Campbell has replaced some of the less clear original lettering, though plenty of John Aldrich’s original work is still visible for comparison. Both achieve the ideal of making the lettering almost invisible to the reader, a particularly impressive task considering how packed full of text the story is. In fact, each of the creators has filled every inch of the page with content, making it incredible value for money. At over three hundred pages for £19.99, you get each page of comic strip for less than seven pence. This is also the first time that the creators have been paid royalties for the reprint, making this not just an essential purchase but an ethical one as well.
And if you don’t have a copy already, there’s nothing holding you back. Just go treat yourself to Charley’s War.