Any discussion of great war comics has to include Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun's epic Charley's War. This sensational British import is one of the most fascinating, moving and realistic war comics ever. Charley's War is a meticulously detailed and surprisingly unsentimental tale of a young man who goes off to fight in World War I and the horrific and amazing events that happen to him.
We all know intellectually that war is a terrible experience and that death and mortal injury are a never-ending, mind-numbing, constant threat to everyone who finds themselves in the middle of it. But there's something about the power of really intelligent storytelling that gets the reader right in the middle of the action in a way that few other art forms can approach. Colquhoun depicts life in the trenches as an ugly, muddy, hell of a place. Snipers are ever-present, ready to shoot when they see the slightest flash of light in a trench or when the mood strikes. There's a fascinating sequence where a British sniper attacks a small club directly behind the German lines, bringing death to people who are just trying to relax for a moment while trapped in a literal hell on Earth.
Trapped in that club is a very young Corporal Adolf Hitler, who Mills and Colquhoun depict as an extremely eager and intense young man who is thoroughly committed to the German cause in the war. His fellow soldiers comment frequently on Hitler's deep passion for the Kaiser and his strikingly deep patriotism that contrasts with most soldiers' wish to just survive the horror of war and live to fight another day. In one scene two of Hitler's fellow soldiers have this conversation: "Hitler's always doing other people's jobs. What's he trying to prove?" "Must want another Iron Cross."
It's really spooky to see Hitler depicted as a fictional character in a mostly realistic comic story, but his presence really adds a feeling of verisimilitude to the already very realistic setting. And the fact that the creators emphasize Hitler's amazing string of good luck as a soldier only adds to the horror and intensity of the war.
Despite the fact that each story in this book is just three short pages, the creators pack a whole lot of interesting content into each chapter. We learn a lot about life in World War I simply by watching the events that unfold for Charley and his regiment. One sequence shows the almost surreal events of the Christmas Armistice of 1917, when British and German soldiers laid down their guns in favor of group dinner, friendly soccer games and boxing matches. The soldiers even exchanged personal information and promised to meet up with each other after the war. This event really did happen — I just heard about it on the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast — and it's remarkable to watch it in black and white.
The second half of this book shifts away from Charley staring down Hitler in the trenches of France. We watch the story of Charley's brother Wilf, who is assigned as a PBO — "Poor Blinking Observer" — in the Royal Flying Corps. This assignment allows Mills and Colquhoun to explore a bit of aeroplane porn as we watch a series of aerial battles that are often spellbinding in their intensity.
Wilf lives through some horrific events as an Observer, whose duties include photographing battle scenes, sending Morse code messages back to base and occasionally shooting at enemies. The attention to detail in these scenes is striking and impressive. Not a rivet seems out of place on a plane, and we readers get to learn a lot more about the planes and events that they encounter. No event seems to end without some tragedy or horror, and no moment of Wilf's life seems to be without politics.
Rounding out this remarkable book are feature articles. One gives brief historical context to Hitler's involvement in World War I while another provides "director's commentary" on the stories that emphasizes their historical realism. Pat Mills' comments provide real insight into the stories that he tells in the comics, and emphasizes interesting details that I would not otherwise have known. This is exactly why director's commentaries are so interesting.
This latest volume of Charley's War is another brilliantly created and historically real exploration of the horrors of World War I. It's a must for any fan of war comics or of history. This is as good as comics get.
Jason Sacks has been obsessed with comics for longer than he'd like to remember. He considers himself a student of comics history and loves delving into obscure corners of this crazy artform. Jason has been writing for this site for about seven years and has also been published in a number of fan publications, including the late, lamented Amazing Heroes and The Flash Companion. He lives in north Seattle with his wife and three kids.