Book Review from the August 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard
Charley’s War: Volumes 1 to 10, Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun, Titan Books
Charley’s War has been described as the best British comic strip ever produced and it is difficult to disagree. It can be heartily recommended for younger people as an easy introduction to the First World War and for adults as a gripping read in itself.
The strip originally ran in Battle from 6 January 1979 to 26 January 1985 and follows the teenage Charley Bourne from his enlistment in early 1916, through the bloody battles at Somme and Passchendaele to the end of the war and beyond. It is a dramatic but realistic portrayal of life in the trenches, and through flashbacks and other devices deals with other less well known aspects of the war – the war in the air, at sea and on the home front, the experience of the French at Verdun, the Etaples Mutiny, and the intervention in Russia. It even features a conchy, though not a socialist – they were, alas, rare birds indeed.
Naturally various narrative devices of the genre are used in order to maintain attention and pace but the strip is never a standard boy’s own tale of daring do. Charley is treated as a real person, with a past, as a worker on the buses in London, a future, on the dole in the ‘30s, and a family life, father, mother and sister, and later a wife and children. It is easy to pick holes, e.g. its all too free adoption of the ’Lions led by Donkeys’ approach, which neglects the physical constraints of the fighting environment (could all the Generals on all the sides really have been such idiots?), and the occasional dubious historical details (although there were some horrific evil weapons in use, the acid sprayer used to melt soldiers depicted in the final book almost certainly never existed). However, the shock and power of the story lines overcome all niggling objections.
Charley’s War has been reproduced over a period of years by Titan in high quality hardback editions, which does the highly detailed art of Joe Colquhoun proud. The books have restrained but stylish black covers, which will not embarrass the non-genre purchaser. The reprints come complete with lots of finely crafted background information and excellent introductions. The full set is now available and is heartily recommended.
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