Thrills and white poppies

It’s subtly positioned and easy to miss, but beneath the volume number, and below Rebellion’s logo on the spine, on each volume of this beautifully re-issued Charley’s War omnibus, is a white poppy. Nobody reading this could possibly miss Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun’s intentions, but the old Titan Books editions had the traditional red poppy on its covers, despite all of its associations and the series’s obvious anti-war message. Given the continuing jingoistic character of public discourse around the First World War (or ‘The Shit War’ as it has been suggested it be called, in contrast to ‘The Great War’), this takes a certain amount of courage from a publisher.

This incredible story always kept close company with comics that took the opposite approach, depicting war as a great lark characterised by individual heroism and exciting adventure. It was a remarkable achievement to put such an overtly pacifistic series in a boys’ war comic anthology at a time when publicly challenging the dominant narrative on either World War was frowned on more severely than it is today – although it was also absolutely characteristic of Pat Mills’s approach at the time, and once established it became Battle’s most popular strip.

It would be superfluous to repeat what I’ve already said about the first two volumes, and given that this was a weekly story in a children’s anthology there’s not much new to say, other than to tell you what the story does – which would seem pretty redundant. This volume begins with Passchendaele and continues to the end of the war and beyond, following protagonist Charley Bourne to the British Expeditionary Force supporting the Whites in the Russian Civil War. It takes detours along the way to explore the war in the air and at sea, and features a brief epilogue in 1933, the year Hitler comes to power in Germany, revisiting a couple of prominent characters in civvie street. Although the strip did continue after this point, Pat Mills stopped writing it, and as far as I know those later (WWII) episodes have never been anthologised.

Joe Colquhoun’s art throughout the series is exquisitely precise, and virtuosic in its mastery of every aspect of the comics artist’s craft: visual storytelling, layout, three dimensionality, character representation, humour, movement, the works. He was also a meticulous researcher, a characteristic which is particularly noticeable in his dugout and domestic scenes, and in his handling of vehicles. Mills writes to counter a dominant narrative, and presents the war explicitly as something that was done to ordinary people by a callous and irresponsible ruling class; the majority of officers are portrayed as idiots, and no opportunity is spared to highlight the injustices of military life. He is equally meticulous in research, and draws on first hand accounts as well as historical writing on the ‘big picture’. Never forgetting his audience, he makes the stories exciting and compelling, without ever making the reader think they might like to be there; Colquhoun’s approach to figures supports this perfectly, presenting dynamic action with effortless skill, but never putting soldiers in the heroic power poses so characteristic of comics of the time. It still amazes me that this pair of artists managed to produce a commercial comic with the requisite thrills and fan-service, that was at the same time an explicit critique and a heartbreaking account of ordinary lives.

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