“Charley’s War”’s portrait of World War One’s blood-soaked trenches and callous authority figures attempted to subvert the typical war comic to deliver a pronounced anti-war message. Thanks to Titan Books’ ongoing reprint efforts, a new generation of readers can become acquainted with the English weekly serial war comic that often condemned one’s military system as equally vicious as the opposing army’s soldiers.
Series writer Pat Mills is probably best known to American audiences for his scripting of “Judge Dredd” and “Marshal Law.” Artist Joe Colquhoun is ironically unknown to American readers despite his thirty years of work in the United Kingdom comics industry.
“Charley’s War” constantly takes apart the romantic illusions regarding military conflict. Chance rather than a superior degree of alleged valor sometimes proves more decisive in assuring a victory. Military discipline is less a matter of maintaining military cohesion and more a platform for indulging in sadistic behavior. The commanding officers consider personal career advancement of greater import than keeping the men under their command alive. Lieutenant Thomas, an officer who does show concern for the welfare of his troops, eventually winds up being executed for cowardice.
The series’ titular lead character is thus less a performer of great acts of heroism than a witness and survivor of the savagery of man at war. In contrast to other war comics heroes, Charley Bourne is only a semi-educated working class youth who becomes an ordinary English infantryman. His service in the trenches of World War One is not marked by physical or mental indestructibility. Instead, he may slay German soldiers in battle, but he also gets wounded by shrapnel and suffers a mental breakdown.
It may be hard to imagine how six months of trench warfare transforms good-hearted Charley’s personality. But a telling panel in the current volume captures the decidedly different reactions between the civilian Vickie and the soldier Charley to “thrilling” footage of the Battle of the Somme.
Shortly after this small moment, the titular “Blue’s Story” begins. Blue is a French deserter seeking Charley’s aid to avoid capture by the military police. The English soldier doesn’t see why someone else should be allowed to avoid the trench warfare that awaits Charley. To convince our hero to change his mind, the deserter tells the on-leave soldier of his participation in the Battle of Verdun. Meanwhile, the sinister military police officer known as the Drag Man has mounted a hunt to find and arrest Blue as well as anybody caught aiding him …
Blue, with his anti-authoritarian personality, gave Mills the perfect mouthpiece to express his contempt for military commanders. Charley would never think of talking back to a superior officer. The French soldier, though, was literally born to disobey authority figures. Showing his contempt for Lieutenant Volmar, aka Monkey Face, is second nature to Blue. Jack Nicholson’s anti-authoritarian character from “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” provided the visual inspiration for Blue. But Colquhoun makes Blue expressive enough to stand as his own man.
For this storyline, Charley becomes a secondary character while Blue effectively dominates the dramatic spotlight. Despite Blue’s generally mysterious background, one can tell he lives by a pronounced code of honor. This sense of honor is the altruistic sort, where a fellow soldier’s life matters more than unhesitating obedience to an officer’s orders.
Mills’ hopes of eventually doing a spinoff series starring Blue never materialized for lack of an artist equal to the caliber of the late Colquhoun. Had that happened, Blue’s future exploits would have provided an alternate history of 20th-century warfare. One idea for an unrealized adventure would see Blue fight for the Russian Bolsheviks.
In a way, re-telling the forgotten and obscured history of World War One is one of Mills’ and Colquhoun’s major aims in “Charley’s War.” Amnesia or apology does nothing to prevent the occurrences of future Great Wars. Instead, such attitudes promote complacency or the self-deception of war as an activity with little consequence for society. Steve White’s prefatory essay on the Battle of Verdun reminds readers that the ten-month long battle took place 150 miles from the outskirts of Paris. The French government deliberately suppressed from its people news of Verdun’s French casualties, which was somewhere between 360,000 and 550,000. The prefatory material for this volume of “Charley’s War” reprints steers clear of drawing parallels to the American adventure in Iraq.
Readers unfamiliar with either the Battle of Verdun or previous episodes of “Charley’s War” need not worry. The present volume contains a couple of background articles designed to bring new readers up to speed.
More politically correct readers may accuse Mills of covert racism with his story’s portrait of the Senegalese warriors. While Mills’ dialogue may be slightly questionable, he makes it clear the French military officers displayed real racism by treating the black soldiers as machine gun fodder.
“Charley’s War” does share some aesthetic sentiment with the Samuel Fuller film “The Big Red One.” Both creative works argue that the only glory in war is surviving it. But “Charley’s War” continually challenges the vast indifferent edifice that sprang up to manage the business of war. If the comic serial doesn’t dismantle that structure, it at least exposes its workings to popular view.
Historical distance has unfortunately not dimmed the need to hear the message of “Charley’s War.” The media still treats the willingness to send men out to die as a relevant characteristic of a future President of the United States. Recruiting sergeants still take advantage of young men’s naivete to meet their recruiting goals. What matters now is whether modern audiences will pay attention to the truths of Mills and Colquhoun’s classic serial.
(“Charley’s War: Blue’s Story” is available at Comix Experience, 305 Divisadero, S.F.)Filed under: Archive