Charley’s War: The Definitive Collection (Vol. 1) – “Boy Soldier”

Written by: Pat Mills
Art by: Joe Colquhoun
ISBN: 978-1-78108-619-3
Price: £19.99 (UK)

This Graphic Novel reprints the following Charley’s War stories:

  • Battle (January 1979 – October 1980)

To mark the centenary of the end of World War One, the Treasury of British Comics is releasing the definitive edition of Pat Mills’ ground-breaking anti-war epic, Charley’s War throughout the year. While the series has been collected before – most notably by Titan Comics – this three-volume “definitive collection” boasts remastered lettering by Jim Campbell to create a uniform look and improve upon the machine-lettered originals which now look extremely dated. The series also features full-colour spreads and cover art from the comic, which have been reprinted for the first time in English after appearances in the French collections of the strip. The collection also features an introduction and episode-by-episode “director’s commentary” from Pat Mills, allowing the collection to really live up to its “definitive” namesake.

As with the rest of the Treasury of British Comics’ output released so far, these reprinted collections are actually the first time that I am experiencing these classics, and it is exhilarating to step into the past and read these stories for the first time. There is a timelessness to Charley’s War that allows the series to feel fresh and exciting almost four decades after it was first published – Pat Mills, the godfather of British Comics and creator of 2000AD, produces some of the best work of his entire career here, alongside Joe Colquhoun’s powerful artwork. From this standpoint, it is easy to forget how much of a visionary Pat Mills was with this work, predating the likes of Blackadder Goes Forth to create a strong anti-war message that both entertains and causes the reader to think about the futility of war.

Meticulously researched and dripping in realism, Charley’s War is a stark account of the First World War that highlights the injustices of trench warfare. Despite its presence in a children’s war comic, Charley’s War doesn’t shy away from the more brutal elements of the conflict as we witness soldiers blown to pieces, sniped without warning and even, executed in cold blood. One particularly chilling sequence has Charley and his comrades trapped in a bunker by the enemy, who demand one British soldier exits every thirty seconds to meet their demise. Our hero Charley has to tunnel his way out to flank them, whilst his friends are faced with the horrific choice of sacrificing themselves every thirty seconds to buy Charley time to rescue whoever is left. There are plenty of intense moments like this littered amongst the 300+ pages in this collection, serving to remind the reader that “war is hell”.

Having studied both World Wars in secondary school and college, I have to say that Charley’s War helps convey the horrors of trench warfare much better than any text-book or cinematic film I have ever seen. I think it should be essential reading for history students as part of the curriculum as it is a culturally important piece of work, and just as humbling as visiting the many war-cemeteries in France. Joe Colquhoun’s artwork captures the dank despair of the trenches and the frantic fighting during the Battle of the Somme. Unflinching and horrifying at times, Colquhoun’s art is the perfect companion to Mills’ writing – as evidenced by this haunting sequence following the shocking death of one of the series’ supporting characters. While it may be a spoiler, it is one of the defining moments of this collection and demonstrates the adult themes running through this series.

This initial volume focuses on Charley’s participation in one of the bloodiest encounters in human history – The Battle of the Somme. I was struck at how effectively Mills conveyed the camaraderie between the working-class British soldiers, even in the face of extreme adversity, and how they bravely “soldiered on” through dismal living conditions and the constant threat of death from above, or over the top in no-man’s land. Sequences such as the debut of tank warfare were fascinating to read, educating and entertaining in equal measure.

In order to showcase the different elements of World War One, the strip does stretch credibility at times as Charley narrowing survives death countless times and at frequent pace, but Mills manages to ensure that the series never loses its gravitas and glorifies war. Some of the most galling moments in the series come from the cruelty of our own troops as uncaring doctors coldly send injured troops back to the front line and cowardly senior officers punish deserters with death. The hypocrisy is exposed by Mills and it still rankles over a hundred years later. The series stands the test of time, still relevant decades after its publication and the lessons held within can be applied to the wars that are still being fought today. The futility of war will never go away, which is why stories such as Charley’s War are vitally important.

I am so glad that I got the opportunity to read Charley’s War for the first time – it lives up to the praise and hype that it has accumulated over the years. While this may be considered “the definitive collection”, there is no doubt in my mind that Charley’s War is “the definitive war story” – I cannot fault a single thing about this collection! The story and artwork is absolutely sublime and Rebellion have done a terrific job at remastering the series for the centenary – Charley’s War is an example of the power of comics as a storytelling medium and deserves to sit alongside the likes of Maus, Watchmen, Sandman and V for Vendetta as iconic works of sequential art storytelling.

Score – ★★★★★

Charley’s War: The Definitive Collection (Vol. 1) – “Boy Soldier” is available in print from Amazon and The Treasury of British Comics’ Webshop.

Other reviews for the same series:

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