Next to 2000AD itself, Charley’s War is perhaps Pat Mill’s most well known creation. While he’s also written the likes of Savage, Slaine, Defoe, ABC Warriors etc I personally think that Charley’s War is quite rightly considered one of his best works. Printed in the war comic Battle, Charley’s War was a huge risk to take. Having an anti-war story in a war comic is always going to be risky, especially when the comic is aimed at 10 – 12 year old boys. Add to that the removal of the artist from an allready popular strip to focus entirely on Charley’s War, then the comic was perhaps seemingly unlikly to succeed. But as anyone who has read it will tell you, Charley’s War did not just succeed, but it became one of the greatest British comic strips of all time.
If, like me, you have even a passing interest in the First World War then you’re sure to love Charley’s War. Right from the start of this first volume it’s clear that this isn’t going to be any prosaic Commando style war story, with seemingly invincible British soldiers “taking it to the Bosche”. No, here we have a main character who has very little in the way of intelligence (as brilliantly portrayed in his letters home), is certainly nothing out of the ordinary, and is perhaps one of the least likely people to become a soldier. In that respect he is very much your typical “Tommy Atkins”, just a working class boy who was called away to fight. The supporting cast are all well fleshed out characters too, such as Smith 70 and his obsession with anything techincal, and the tragic figure of “Lonely” who has been traumatised by his experiences in the trenchs. The German’s are written for very well too. Rather than be portrayed as evil monsters to be overcome, they are instead portrayed as the German equivalent of our soldiers (which of course is what they really were). There are perhaps some stereo typical characters thrown into the mix however, such as the cockney Sergeant and the upper class officers, but the reason they’re stereotypes is because they often were as portrayed here, the officers in particular.
While Mills provides a fantasticlly well researched script, a lot of the praise must go to the late Joe Colquhoun’s superb artwork. Every panel expertly evokes the feeling of the First World War trenches, with loads of detail being put into the backgrounds of every panel. I can’t begin to imagine how long it must have taken to draw the Charley’s War strips, but a quick flick through any volume will give the impression that the artwork must have been highly labour intensive. It’s a testament to Colquhoun that in a strip with such a large cast of characters, every character is easily recognisable and distinguishable from the others.
If there’s one niggle I have with this first volume it’s that some of the dialogue does feel quite dated. Being written in the 1970s there’s a lot of characters saying things which people just wouldnt really say or even think, for example describing what they are about to do when in a fight with an enemy soldier. Still this doesn’t detract from the quality of the story by any means and must just be viewed as a byproduct of the times it was written in.
As both an anti-war story and a comic strip, the first volume of Charley’s War succeeds tremendously. This is exactly the sort of thing which would be perfect to give to any school children who are studying the First World War at school, as everything from the script to the art is pretty historically accurate. If you read Charley’s War on it’s original run then I would still recommend you pick this up, as not only does it remain a classic comic strip, but the added extra of Pat Mill’s commentry provides a fascinating insight into his thought process when writing the strip. I can’t believe it took me so long to start to read Charley’s War, particularly considering I allready had an interest in the time period. So if you’ve been thinking about picking up this first volume for some time, then I recommend you get of the fence and purchase a copy asap.