Without wanting to assume too much, war comics may be a hard sell to your average reader of The Social Review. With their heyday in the 60s to the 80s, they’ve nearly disappeared without a trace now, perhaps seeming a relic of the past. Worse, the very descriptor “War Comic” is going to make many on the left – and Social Review readers – uncomfortable, bringing with it connotations of glorification and jingoism. The names of the comics themselves (Commando, Warlord, Victor) only go to reinforce this impression.
It’s more complicated than this, of course. War comics were also one of the very few art forms to be explicitly aimed at working class boys. Their stories were about war and violence, but they were also about heroism and comradeship and, most of all, about people.
In many cases, the initial accusation wasn’t entirely unfounded. There was an element of jingoism in certain strips and their glorification of war so effective that the British army saw fit to change its own recruitment tactics to appeal to war comic fans. The strips were of varying quality. Bandits at 12 O’clock’s tales of air combat are exciting enough that even the most ardent pacifist risks finding their heart pumping. On the other hand the less said about Scourge of the Japs the better (that is not a strip dying out for a reprint). Regardless of story or quality it is fair to say that the vast majority of strips followed a pattern of patriotic goodies and baddies.
This is where Charley’s War fits in.
Charley’s War is something else entirely. An overtly anti war strip in the war comic Battle Picture Weekly, it was like nothing we’ve seen before or since. Written by Pat Mills (of 2000 AD fame) and drawn with excruciating realistic detail by Joe Colquhoun, the strip ran from January 1979 to October 1986.
The story is set in the World War One period and follows Charley Bourne, a young soldier who signs up for the army and is instantly sent to the Western Front, just in time for the Somme campaign. Charley is only 16 and the recruiting sergeant deliberately turns a blind eye to his age. This is a good example of how Charley’s War can be quite subtle, operating with several meanings. The obvious point here is that the comic is quietly illustrating how the rules cease to apply at times of establishment crisis. But significantly, this speaks directly to Battle’s core audience. Charley’s War would have been read by a large number of teenage boys. The kind of teenage boys who would imagine that they too would lie about their age in order to go to war. Charley’s War humours those expectations only to subvert them, all the time speaking in a language its readers will instantly understand.
This was not a comic that shied away from the true horrors of war. The conditions in the trenches were depicted accurately and the sheer brutality of the war couldn’t be escaped. It took an approach to character death that makes George R R Martin seem lenient in comparison.
The entire story was heavily researched, with a strong focus on historical accuracy. I’m unashamed to admit that I learnt far more about the realities of World War One from Charley’s War than I did at school.
Unlike many war strips, we see Charley not just at the front, but on the secondary lines and back home on leave. This human element brings home the sheer tragedy of events at the Front all the more strongly. You can’t help but care about Charley and his mates.
It’s also a highly class conscious strip. While there are nasty characters on the German side, there’s an equal number on the British. Frequently we see that the real victims of those vicious characters (often upper class officers) are first and foremost those they command. The villainous Lieutenant Snell (a man so heartless he’s willing to use Charley as a bullet shield) is perhaps the exemplar of this trope.
All of this may make Charley’s War sound irredeemably grim, which to some extent it can be. Yet there are parts that backend the grimness: camaraderie and heroism, action as exciting as that you’d find in any conventional war strip, and even moments of comic relief.
Importantly, it never forgets its audience of working class kids, it never talks down to them and it never falls into the trap of being a lecture.
It’s for this reason that Charley’s War is one of the most effective anti war comics ever created. The vast majority of anti war art has aimed squarely at those already opposed to wars, or at least the war in question. From Oh What a Lovely War! to Crass this has been the general approach followed. It’s produced some great work, but I’d politely suggest that Charley’s War is likely to have been far more effective in putting off working class boys from joining the army.
And so the review should end there, with a strong recommendation you read this seminal anti war work and pick up the new collected editions from Rebellion Publishing.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t. Because there are specific issues surrounding comics and workers’ rights to consider.
In 2019, Pat Mills wrote a lengthy and damning post about the way Rebellion treats him and other creators. Read it yourself, but the allegations include: Using one of his books as a loss leader to launch a new series, with all the associated financial burden of that falling on the creators with no compensation; Deliberately withholding the number of units sold from creators; Rebellion taking a staggering 90% of profits from each book sold, leaving just 5% for writers and 5% for artists; That other creators are afraid to speak out because they worry that it will stop them getting work from Rebellion in the future.
I’m sure I don’t need to point out the irony of having to talk about economic exploitation in a review of a book that is, at least in part, about the exploitation of the working class Tommy.
There’s no easy answers here. To the best of my knowledge, Pat Mills has not called for a boycott so that would be an inappropriate response. Those wishing to salve their conscience may want to pick up both Charley’s War and Spacewarp (the latter being Mill’s creator owned property with fair compensation). Certainly comic book fans may want to consider picking up the issue of fair compensation on social media and across the community (and it’s worth remembering that this happens just as egregiously with other comic book creators). This is not a fight creators can or should be having alone.
Charley’s War is a great work, tackling themes of class exploitation with courage. It would be best if we could make our enjoyment of it as unironic as possible.