By Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun. Lettering by John Aldrich, Jim Campbell, Mike Peters, and Peter Knight. Reprographics work by Joseph Morgan.
The Battle of the Somme has been declared a victory, yet somehow the war refuses to be won. Charley Bourne saw his youth stolen in that offensive, but deployment at Ypres will teach him he still has plenty left to lose. Making enemies among his own ranks and watching his every decision prove ill-fated, Charley is pushed to breaking point. He is not alone, and getting sent to Etaples brings him to a training camp on the verge of mutiny.
This second volume of Charley’s War continues the Treasury of British Comics’ definitive edition trilogy. Almost everything said in the review for the previous book is worth repeating here. Mention must be made, however, of this reviewer’s confusion concerning the lettering. As discussed in the comments, the original mechanical type was revised by John Aldrich for the first Titan reprints. Those working on this edition have been updating any pages missed at that time, presumably due to the original artwork being unavailable. Many thanks to letterer Jim Campbell for his correction and insights. Mea culpa.
Returning to this review, the lettering, art, and writing once again combine to create a densely packed story. Pat Mills claims in his commentary that some readers bought the Battle anthology comic solely for Charley’s War. This prompted the creators to try and make their three pages alone worth the full cost of admission. That laudable dedication to the original audience is rewarding to those discovering the work almost forty years later. This volume even has twenty two more pages of comic than the first, at no extra cost!
As before, longer story arcs mix with smaller vignettes. This conveys the scale of the conflict without losing sight of the personal horror faced by each individual soldier. The risk of becoming numbed to gross mortality statistics is counteracted by scenes of more intimate danger. There is time for humour also, following the same comic traditions that brought us Roger the Dodger and Winker Watson. These moments are thrown into stark contrast by their environment, highlighting the insanity inherent in murdering an entire generation.
While the first volume boasted techniques that would fascinate the industry in the following decades, this book foreshadows the path of one comic auteur in particular. Though Mills was hardly a raw recruit, the length of his career still allows Charley’s War a place among his earlier work. In it can be found all the elements that would define his voice through the decades. In general terms, his contempt for warmongers and the British class system are plain to see. More specifically, Legionnaire Blue is easily identifiable as a predecessor of Slaine and Spikes Harvey Rotten. Today, Mills still lists Charley’s War among his proudest achievements, so those unfamiliar with these names have a perfect sample of his craft in this trilogy.
As this run of stories focuses on the deteriorating mental state of the allied forces, less time is given to the wider world presented in volume one. The acknowledgement of Europe dragging African forces into their war is welcome, though the absence of the munition workers leads to a conspicuous lack of women. They are relegated to the occasional glimpses of hard-working nuns and nurses. It can be argued, however, that there are times when no representation is better than bad representation, and we are spared the well meaning but jarringly dated attempts at feminism that mar some of Mills’ later comics. What the story lacks in these areas, it makes up for by rallying against toxic masculinity. The reader is encouraged to root for both deserters and conscientious objectors, while Charley begins to reflect on his priorities and reshape his understanding of the world. Mills has returned to this theme throughout his career, developing these early early seeds into the strongest aspect of his work.
Joe Colquhoun’s art continues is exemplary. Illustrating history always draws out inflexible purists, and modern history offers a wealth of photographic evidence on which such critics can hang their visual illiteracy. Colquhoun offers no quarter for any complaints. Whatever the script calls for Colquhoun draws with aplomb, week after week, year after year, all the while infusing his work with the full range of human experience. Of particular note is the expertly depicted torrential rain that continues throughout an entire month of comics.
The longer you read Charley’s War, the more you understand Mills’ dedication: “Of all the great artists I’ve worked with, he was the greatest.”