Saturday, June 05, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 122 (6/5) -- Charley's War, Vol. 1 by Mills and Colquhoun

It's always tricky to come upon someone else's classics years later -- they so often don't live up to the hype, or just the love from an audience that saw them appear fresh and new. Even if a story is thirty years old, we're reading it now, so everything we've seen over those thirty years -- all of the responses and follow-ups to that classic -- rolls into our reading of the older work. Sure, it's not fair -- but who ever said that art was fair?

Certainly, no one ever said that about war.

Charley's War stands in relationship to the UK war-comics field pretty much as Harvey Kurtzman's EC war comics (Frontline Combat and Two-Fisted Tales) did to their American counterparts -- impeccably researched, clearly anti-war stories illustrated with an equally high level of attention and skill, received with enthusiasm but never as lucrative as more slapdash, jingoistic efforts. Charley comes a generation later -- this volume collects the first 29 weekly installments, published in Battle during 1979, and the strip itself survived through 1985, to see its main character safely through the Great War.

Charley's War is very different from Kurtzman's work in very British ways, though: writer Pat Mills insists in his introduction on the importance of class differences (always a live-wire issue in the UK), and our hero, Charley Bourne, is a stereotypical British "Tommy" -- nearly as dumb as a box of rocks, but ferociously loyal to his mates and stalwart and true more than anything else. (Charley's traits, of course, are clearly supposed to be those of the great British working class -- he's tough rather than effete, dogged rather than smart, loyal rather than self-serving -- all in opposition to the nasty aristocratic Lieutenant Snell.) An American story would have made Charley smarter and more individual, since the great American myth is of one man winning out -- the great British myth is of pulling together.

Charley, in the best tradition of war stories, runs off to join up in the infantry in the early summer of 1916, when he's only sixteen years old himself. He quickly finds himself in the trenches of northern France with a colorful group of characters -- though, remember that this is WW I, so don't get too attached to any of those characters. This book runs through two months -- the subtitle is "2 June 1916 - 1 August 1916" -- as Charley and his fellow soldiers prepare for and then fight the bloody battle of the Somme.

Mills provides muted thrills along the way, as even an anti-war war story must have excitement to it. And artist Joe Colquhoun has a careful, detailed style -- reminiscent, a bit, of Joe Orlando's EC Comics work in a similar vein -- that shows all of the things it needs to show without ever looking over-fussy and comes to life during the battle sequences. Colquhoun also has a real gift for individualizing his characters, which is a much greater trick than it might seem -- all of these men are in identical uniforms and helmets!

Charley's War is a strong work, and a clearly, truthfully anti-war depiction of the nastiness of the one war everyone agrees was a senseless waste. I don't think it entirely lives up to Mills's glowing description of it in his introduction, but a man must be allowed to think highly of his own work, so I don't fault him on that.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: The Indelicates - Be Afraid Of Your Parents
via FoxyTunes

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