From the naivete of a soldier’s first day in uniform, to the harsh realities of shell shock, Charley’s War tells the uncompromising story of life in the trenches of World War I, through the prism of one young soldier’s dramatic and traumatic journey and the impressive path it follows through the lives of many. A Boy Soldier in the Great War collects volumes 1-4 of Titan Books’ previously published series (first published over 30 years ago and reprinted over the past decade by Titan Books), along with insightful essays and commentary.
This is an exceptionally good-looking book. Blah blah, don’t judge a book by its cover; whatever, because we all do just that, and this is absolutely a cover that, if I was wandering around a book store (as I have been wont to do) and saw it staring back at me from an overstuffed shelf, it would unquestionably stand out and warrant a gander. Then, once I picked the book up and actually had it in my hands, I’d feel the three-pound weight of this tome’s 320 pages sandwiched between a glossy, flexible hardcover and leaf through those pages to see incredible artwork begging me to buy it, and I would find it difficult–if not impossible–to not shell out the money to buy it. This is honestly a book that makes me want to rearrange my bookshelves so that the covers face out (this was also the case with the cover for The Art of Rio).
Before I do get to the artwork, it’s probably a good idea to spend some time telling you just how fantastic Pat Mills’ writing is in this series. Mills’ dialogue, character development, and story construction feel remarkably organic and genuine. I clearly do not know what life was like for young British soldiers during World War I, but after reading this, I now feel like I could accurately describe an approximation of what that life must have consisted of. Not only does the story just feel right, it holds your attention in a way that you wouldn’t expect a World War I tale to do. On top of what Mills was able to do with the plot and its characters, I absolutely love the interspersing of letters and postcards to and from home that sporadically litter the pages. The letters, which were apparently inspired by actual correspondence sent during the war, offer an eerie calm to an otherwise chaotic world; for example, Charley’s mother writing him about her cakes is directly juxtaposed with an axe-wielding soldier yelling “Kill!” The presence of these letters, and the authentic nature in which they are presented, provide a constant reminder throughout the book of the emotional dichotomy of life as a soldier.
Now, I said all of that to lay the groundwork for what I’m about to say: Mills’ exceptional recreation of life during World War I through text is surpassed only by the incredible accompanying artwork of Joe Colquhoun. These are black-and-white comics, so they don’t have the benefit of color to breakup any potential monotony your eyes might occasionally find, but the best artists working in black-and-white can use the sharp contrast to amazing advantage, and that’s what Colquhoun did with Charley’s War. Through shading, clean linework, and page layout, Colquhoun’s visual interpretation of Mills’ story perfectly captures the chaos of war and manages to be busy without feeling crowded. Although Colquhoun’s art does a magnificent job accurately portraying the explosions, weaponry, and scenery of the Western Front, what I love–and what I feel is what makes the artwork work so well–is how viscerally Colquhoun could force a feeling of humanity through his characters. It wasn’t until everyone started wearing gas masks that I really noticed this. Part of the inherent creepiness felt when viewing a person wearing a gas mask is how emotionless it makes their face look; in order to achieve that feeling, however, the expectation of emotion must first be created, and that’s what Colquhoun’s art does so well here. Looking into the faces of these soldiers, you feel the anger, the fear, the anguish, the pain; so when the gas masks are broken out, and you can no longer see those faces, the feeling is effectively disconcerting. That’s when you know an artist has done well in establishing the world within which they are working.
Beyond the comics themselves, this collection also includes two essays: one on the creation of the series and one on the series’ use of tanks, There’s also a republished interview with the late Joe Colquhoun where he touches on everything from his humble artistic beginnings to his reluctance to accept comparisons between Charley’s War and All Quiet on the Western Front, and lots more in-between. That’s plenty already, right? Well, there’s more; this collection also includes commentary from Pat Mills on each individual episodic comic in the book–of which there are 86.
In case, for some crazy reason, you can’t tell, I absolutely love this book. It’s phenomenal from cover-to-cover. If you love war comics, frankly, you probably already know all about Charley’s War; on the off chance you don’t, you definitely need to pick this up. If you’re a fan of action-heavy comics, this if for you; oddly enough, though, if you’re a fan of dialogue-driven comics, this is also probably for you. Charley’s War is the kind of odd hybrid of action, adventure, drama, and tragedy that’s only possible with a story about war; what allows it to stand out is the same quality you’ll find in all great war stories: although there is so much death, it’s not about the death; it’s about life and what war does to it.