When I think of a war comic I inevitably think of Joe Kubert with his long and successful runs on Sgt. Rock, Enemy Ace and other assorted battle tales or similar work by Russ Heath, Jay Scott Pike, Jerry Grandenetti, Ric Estrada or Ross Andru and Mike Esposito on some of those goofy Star Spangled War Stories written by Bob Kanigher that had the poor soldiers up against dinosaurs.
Then of course there’s the immortal Bill Mauldin with his Willie and Joe characters chronicling World War II and looking at the foibles of Army life from the perspective of the grunts, but in a decidedly ironic vein.
What I didn’t know was that there was a strip published in the UK for a handful of years beginning in 1979 called Charley’s War. What set this strip apart from those mentioned above, in addition to the World War I setting and the fact that it naturally featured the army of Great Britain, was that it was an unflinchingly honest portrayal of the horrors of combat from the point of view of a young (underage, in fact) enlisted man.
Charley Bourne is barely in uniform before his unit is off to the infamous Battle of the Somme, which lasted over four months and where more than one million men were killed or wounded. Charley is witness to everything from the arrogance and insular attitudes of senior officers to the terrible results of battle fatigue (one man tries to wound himself in the foot to escape further time at the front), horrible wounds, death and the inevitable proof of the old adage that all plans are rendered null and void upon contact with the enemy.
Through it all, as a fascinating contrast, the readers see the misspelled and heartfelt notes to and from his home in London. Much of the irony provided is from Charley’s younger brother, who wishes he could be in on the “action” and the problems shared by his other family members, which, of course, pale significantly in comparison to Charley and his buddies’ daily attempts to survive both the onslaught of German Army forces and the odd behaviors of leadership and other members of the unit.
Appropriately the strip is in stark black and white, lending further to the bleak atmosphere of the trenches and the battlefield. Joe Colquhoun’s illustrations are incredibly detailed and his ability to create just the right expressions on the soldiers is both inspired and haunting.
This is no jingoistic celebration of the glories of battle. This is the tragedy and suffering up close and personal and the effect is arresting.
Perhaps the best comparison I can offer is the film Saving Private Ryan. I’ve suggested to those who have not seen it that it’s the closest you can get to the battlefield without directly experiencing it.
Charley’s War is a true tour de force in storytelling and I give it a high recommendation both for the quality and the content. You won’t easily forget reading it.