There is a corner of the British comics industry that is forever devoted to the portrayal of warfare. A family of macho-sounding titles, among them Warlord, Warrior and Commando, won several generations of devoted fans by mining the rich seam of combat to produce stories that presented war as a series of thrilling adventures. Most of these comics have long since ceased publication (Commando, easily identifiable by its distinctive 7 × 5½ inch format, alone remains), and reached a peak in popularity during the ’70s, when the participants of the Second World War had reached middle age.
This timing is significant. Most of the comics’ stories were drawn from Second World War theaters, and of those chiefly the European and African ones. With the war still well within living memory and the cohort of combatants at the levers of society’s power, the tenor of the comics had to reflect the received public view of the conflict. For the Second World War this was easy. The causes of the conflict were reasonably well-established, as were its aims, and the scenes of fighting were varied enough to generate pages of vividly-drawn scenes that, added together, would outlast the war itself. The stories usually ran to a common theme; plucky British soldiers enagaging in acts of derring-do against cartoonishly cruel German enemies who spoke an odd pidgin consisting of the phrases ‘schnell’, gott in himmel’ and, as a descriptor for their opponents, ‘Britisher’. The tone was jingoistic in a way that writers can afford to be when the enemies are Nazis.
One of these comics was Battle, edited at that time by Dave Hunt, who asked one of his popular artists, Joe Colquhoun to collaborate with future 2000AD creator Pat Mills on a story set in the First World War. The artist was concerned for the project’s prospects. ‘God almighty,’ he said, ‘how are you going to make any subject matter out of something as static as trench warfare?’ The presence of action was one concern, the subject matter as a whole was another, even larger, one. The First World War was not like its sequel, either in its prosecution or in the place it held in the public imagination.
For several decades, though primarily after its half-centennial in the ’60s, the First World War had come to be seen as a cruel mistake of history. The trenches, which were not the only locus of fighting, dominated the general image of the war (indeed, ‘the trenches’ remains a common synonym for the war as a whole) and became regarded as factories of death, a concept that wasn’t helped by the years of stalemate that they represented. Those who fought came to be seen less as soldiers and more as victims and the war seen not so much as combat as a slow process of industrialized death. This idea was consolidated by the rows and rows of limestone graves that gave the war a sepulchral quality that made it seem as though it was fought exclusively by corpses.
Consequently, Colquhoun’s fears were understandable. Nevertheless, they proved to be groundless and Hunt had a confidence in the creative team that proved to be entirely well-placed. Mills not only found page after page of intense action that reflected the historical realities of life and death in the trenches, he also managed to do something rather more subversive at the same time. The story that they produced, Charley’s War, manages the difficult feat of remaining true to the war, containing drama and presenting them in a largely unvarnished way (the absence of swearing an understandable concession) and creating page after page of thrilling drama that reconciles the terrible excitement of war with intelligent questions about its consequences. In short, Mills and Colquhoun produced an anti-war story in a pro-war comic.
Sixteen-year-old Charley Bourne arrives on the Western Front in June 1916, shortly before the Battle of the Somme, the first day of which remains the bloodiest twenty-four hours in the British Army’s history. In some respects, he is the ideal soldier. Young (still strictly underage but the authorities were happy to overlook this, such was their need for men), naive and capable of handling himself in a punch-up, Charley is a typical recruit, a little bit uncertain, a little clumsy, but capable of getting on with the job at hand. Young Charley makes an excellent companion on the journey that Mills and Colquhoun take through the trenches. He’s plucky enough (and occasionally stupid enough) to involve himself in the thick of the action, of which there is plenty, and callow enough to ask questions that have a quiet wisdom in their naiveté.
Early in his deployment, he asks his Sergeant, the dyed-in-the-wool soldier ‘Ole Bill’ Tozer, if ‘he should hate the Jerries’. It’s a disarmingly simple question that manages to unpick the absurdity of all wars. Charley has no native quarrel with the men in the opposing trenches, many of whom have more in common with him than do the men who sent them to France in the first place. Charley, a well-meaning and decent lad, has to learn to hate the Jerries from scratch.
Many of them earn his ire. Several Germans are depicted engaging in artfully cruel tactics, including using releasing an irritant gas to prompt the British soldiers into removing their gas masks and breathing in a second wave of poison, or summarily executing a group of men trapped in a closed trench. The sadistic Colonel Zeiss, who brings a squadron of hardened ‘Judgment Troopers’ from the Eastern Front remains a startling personification of the psychopathy of war.
Zeiss is cruel not because he is German but because the war permits him to be. The cruelty is not all on the German side. Indeed, some of the comic’s most powerful sequences are those in which the officer class deliberately brutalizes the men in their charge on either side of the conflict. The central component of the comic’s anti-war message is that the real enemies are not the men you shoot but the ones you salute. Mills even-handedly presents this argument on both sides of no-man’s-land and depicts young Germans suffering at the hands of their leaders just as much as the British. The question of class was and remains an important one. The conventional narrative of the war was that the actions of foolish upper-class officers callously and needlessly sent brave but helpless working class youths to their pointless deaths.
This tendency fostered the (almost certainly apocryphal remark that the British army comprised ‘lions led by donkeys’. This view has been challenged by modern historians who point out that the average officer was just as young as the men he led and, below a certain threshold of rank, living in the same parlous conditions but was far more likely to be killed. Mills acknowledges this fact with characteristic subtlety. Charley may come up against a caricatured villainous toff in the form of the champagne quaffing, careless and prejudiced Captain Snell, but he also serves underneath Lieutenant Thomas, a decent, honorable sort who genuinely cares about his men and, crucially in the world of the trenches, ‘knows when to look away’.
Thomas is just as much a victim of his situation as Charley. The comic is made all the more effective by Mills’ fearlessness in killing characters off. Several characters are given room to develop and to endear themselves to the reader before being cruelly removed, often in events that come without warning. The sense of sudden, unbidden death is everywhere. I would advise the reader not to get too attached to any of the characters, were it not for the fact that to do so would rob the comic of its power. Mills’ characters, even those who appear in passing, are fully realized individuals; real men and boys far more vivid that the rows of silent graves would suggest.
Mills provides an avenue for forgiveness of the sterilized viewpoint. An early device is Charley’s poorly-spelled letters home to his family. They begin by studiously avoiding any real description of the war, partly to spare his family the grisly details and partly as a means of Charley’s own mental escape. Eventually, the letters cease. As Charley says ‘I can’t tell them what it’s like out here. It’d only upset them’. There is a hint of the public response to this absence of words.. Few people really want to think too hard about the realities of the First World War, it’s just too upsetting. Better simply to look at the rows of clean, white gravestones.
For this reason, the comic format is particularly suited to the topic, and much of the meaning is carried through Colquhoun’s startlingly effective monochrome illustrations. His depictions of weary despair on the mens’ faces is exquisitely painful. When, on his seventeenth birthday, Charley looks at his reflection and remarks that he ‘looks like an old man’, the words are almost redundant. We can see every step of his descent etched into his face.
The illustrations, many of which are inspired by contemporary photographs, add weight to Mills’ point that the war was the ‘First Science Fiction War’. He cites its steampunk confusion of old and new technologies and tactics and the fact that the war contained history’s final calvary charge and the first use of tanks (still then called landships). In one scene, German soldiers resort to using arrows (here dropped from early aircraft rather than deployed by bowmen). In others, Colquohoun’s illustrations show officers wielding swords and men fleeing from merciless clouds of gas. A sniper protects himself with improvised armor, looking like a hellish mediaeval warrior. These details pull the comic out of science fiction and into horror in which the trenches are depicted as a landscape of dread, with skulls and skeletons simply part of the day to day scenery.
Ultimately, the greatest horror is this day-to-day ordinariness. Charley spends most of his time in the forward trenches but even on his sporadic returns to the relative safety of the secondary lines and even back to London, he cannot escape the danger or the emotional impact of the fighting. The war is all-pervasive, invading men’s dreams and infecting their relationships with their families and with one another. Charley finds a spirit of camaraderie in the army, a fellow-feeling that provides some of the few moments of comfort, but there is no real rest, no real safety. The war is everything.