I read bits and pieces of Charley’s War as a kid, in copies of Battle picked up from jumble sales and charity shops, but I was never a big fan of war comics, so I didn’t exactly follow it. The episodes I did see made a big impression on me however. Even given Pat Mills’ considerable influence on the British war comic, it was quite unlike anything else in print at the time: for all that Mills made the strips and magazines he worked on as subversive and as violent as he possibly could, war stories for boys were always about derring-do, about the ability of singular, heroic figures to solve problems with violence. In Charley’s War the violence is the problem, and nothing is ever solved.
I’m sure that Rebellion’s most recent, lavish re-issue of this seminal strip is not coincidentally aligned with the upcoming centenary of the armistice that ended WWI, and reading it now could not have felt more apposite. For a generation of comic-reading kids, brought up on the John Wayne style heroism of the traditional war story, this is where they learned that the Great War was a terrifying disaster in which class was as much the definitive source of difference as nationality. Nobody who read this story ever wished to change places with any of its protagonists. It is still hard to believe that this stuff was ever published in a weekly boys’ comic. I was on the verge of tears through most of it, so harrowing and so unjust are the experiences of its characters; aside from the necessary survival of its eponymous focaliser, every other character is at risk of random, meaningless extinction in any panel, a risk in no discernible proportion to the extent or depth of their characterisation.
The strip is the work of two master storytellers, who, according to Mills’ commentary, never met, and only spoke on the phone on a handful of occasions. You would have thought they were locked in a room for weeks on end thrashing this out, so beautifully is text married to image, but that was the nature of the industry at that time. Joe Colquhoun did not live to see his work accorded the recognition it deserves, dying in 1987 at the age of sixty, less than a year after the last episode was published. His art belongs to an earlier era, with its meticulous accuracy and gestural dynamism married to an approach to faces that shifts smoothly from pathos to caricature depending on the needs of the moment: his work on Charley’s War reminds me of nothing so much as Will Eisner’s 1970s experiments in using the comic strip as a serious storytelling medium, in books such as A Contract With God and Life on Another Planet. The art’s narrative power and flow are astounding.
Mills had, by this time, a great deal of experience with the weekly three or four page format, one which imposes severe limitations on a writer, and Charley’s War is notable for the narrative continuity he manages to achieve despite them. It is usually only the first panel or two of each episode that reiterates the last, and other than that Mills makes no real attempt to achieve narrative closure within each episode, although the story always breaks into some sort of logical chunk across those three or (later) four pages. 2000AD is the last of the British weekly anthologies still in publication, and its stories are now simply graphic novels published in weekly chapters, but in the late 70s and early 80s it was a major commercial requirement that any member of the target audience could pick up a comic and be immediately able to grasp and enjoy any of the stories in it. Mills, as ever, pushed at the limits of such editorial requirements wherever he could.
This story is motivated by a deep sympathy for the plight of ordinary people, but also by a keen critical awareness of the source of their ills, and anger at the officer class is palpable in almost every episode. For Mills and Colquhoun, the First World War was a catastrophe visited on Europe’s working classes by its rulers, not a struggle among nations, and they pass up few opportunities to show what the opposing soldiers have in common, or to call the British military hierarchy to account for the suffering of its front-line troops. The series’s central aim seems to have been to set the record straight, to de-glorify war and to lay the blame for it at the feet of the ruling class. That this could have been permitted in a war comic still seems extraordinary, but Mills made sure there was plenty of action in every episode, and Colquhoun made sure that the characters leap off the page and drag the reader right into the thick of it. Boy Soldier is a powerful, moving book, that creates an unparalleled sense of time and place, and probably represents the apotheosis of the British war comic.