One of the finest war comics of all time comes from England. Charley’s War is one of those comics that might hover under your radar until you discover it; after you read a few pages from this outstanding series, the scenes will remain seared into your brain.
Charley’s War is a meticulously detailed and determinedly unsentimental tale of a young man who goes off to fight in World War I and the horrific events that happen to him during the war. I previously reviewed volume eight of this series, giving it a five star review, and this tenth and final volume also gets that rare rating from me.
There are a few things that set Charley apart from its peers. First, and maybe most importantly, it tells the story of one specific man: our young protagonist is a working-class man whose experiences in the war have toughened him to its effects but not to his own humanity. He’s a small, obscure man caught up in the decisions of the nameless, faceless generals. Just as importantly, he experiences all the major events of the war himself, in a way that humanizes the war and gives it a very personal context.
By having a working-class kid at the center of this comic, and placing that kid right in the middle of the action, we move beyond a book that’s “merely” a moving chronicle of a very specific man’s experiences at war and move into a vision of young Charlie as an icon, as someone who is both very specifically himself and very specifically iconic. Writer Pat Mills, an icon himself of British comics, is masterful at bringing Charley Bourne’s world alive on the printed page and giving readers a visceral feel for the futility of war.
Mills was teamed throughout the series with artist Joe Colquhoun, who delivers rough-hewn, muscular brushstrokes that are both frighteningly real and intensely impressionistic. Like his closest American counterpart, Joe Kubert, Colquhoun’s art has the ability to convey the realism of the battle scenes and the futility of one man’s involvement in that battle. So much of his art is imbued with a sense of fury, anger, impotence frustration mixed with a love of country and a sense of duty among these very specific individuals.
This latest – and final – volume is a perfect explanation of why the series is so powerful. Though all the soldiers know that the war is winding down, they also know that they have to fight on, have to continue fighting the Germans (and the Russians, as I’ll get to in a minute) – and in a memorable passage, be captured by the “Krauts” and forced to undergo torturous conditions at their hands even though everyone involved knows that the war is basically over. That creates a shocking and powerful dichotomy in the minds of all involved and becomes an ever more effective reminder of the pointlessness of war.
In one of the most outstanding passages of this book, the peace treaty has already been signed that ended the War, and all should be quiet on the Western front. But the insane Captain Shell is convinced that he and his men have to go out in a thunderous blaze of glory, in a hail of gunfire that may nullify his life, since life as he knows it will be over when he’s out of uniform. Colquhoun’s art seems even more vital and nihilistic in this section of story, as the utter pointlessness of the armed conflict is shown in all its terrible detail.
Even on that famous eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month when war ended, Charley finds himself with his gas mask on, charging a nest of Germans in a completely pointless exercise. It seems this poor workingman can never win. While we’re shown crowds in London dancing in the streets over the victory, poor young Charley ends that day choking a man – and with another war right in front of him.
By January 1919 Charley is back at war, in maybe the most fascinating passage in this book. I’d never known that the Allies and especially the British sent troops to Russia in an attempt to stop the Bolsheviks from taking power. The agonizing second half of this volume shows Charley in the middle of a battle that is impossible for him to win; worse than that, it’s a battle that isn’t even driven by the abstract concept of patriotism or the goals of his nation.
Instead, he’s sent to Russia to fight boys who are even more like him than the German troops he had been fighting, young and old men who just want relief from the war. In an amazing passage, the British troops get shelter from an old Russian mystic type who resembles Rasputin. The mystic and his fellow men of a monastery provide refuge for the poor young men, but pay the ultimate price for that mercy.
Again Colquhoun shows himself a master of comic art, with gorgeously stark portrayals of the implacable Russian winter, an unforgiving environment where desperate men try to fly planes and blow up trains.
When the British military finally decides to give up on this futile adventure, it comes all of a sudden, in a caption that’s disembodied of any humanity, like a news item announced in a dull evening newspaper. Just like that, our young hero is mustered out of the Army, back to real life, after an experience that has been as faceless and inhumane as any job on a factory or slaughterhouse.
The final irony that the book delivers is too bitterly caustic to spoil here in this review, but it provides the perfect coda to this bitterly sardonic series.
Charley’s War is one of the truly great outstanding war comics in part because Pat Mills’s research is scrupulous and because he’s outstanding at building characters with which readers can identify deeply.