Next to Frank Bellamy's Thunderbirds strips, Charley's War must rank up there as one of the most often reprinted British comics strips. Deservedly so, for not only is the saga one of the most superbly written and illustrated stories to have appeared in UK comics it also carries important messages about war that resonate to this day.
Now, Titan Books have packaged together the early years of the strip in a huge 320 page softback entitled Charley's War: A Boy Soldier in The Great War. Many of the pages have even been sourced from the original artwork, and the reproduction is excellent, on good quality paper, making this an essential collection.
Charley's War began in the pages of weekly war comic Battle-Action back in 1979. Written by Pat Mills and illustrated by Joe Colquhoun it tackled the drama of trench warfare in World War One. A series set in the trenches was not an easy subject to turn into a gripping war story for boys, but the creators produced the most remarkable strip of its time. Thanks to Pat Mills' diligent research and Joe Colquhoun's gritty, detailed artwork Charley's War looked authentic and engrossing, but the most important aspect was that this was an anti-war strip, published by the same company that had churned out ridiculous gung-ho stuff such as Captain Hurricane. Quite a coup for the creators.
Naturally, as Charley's War was appearing in a comic for young boys the extent of the horrors of trench warfare couldn't be fully shown, but even with such restraint, the strip contained tough stuff and pushed the boundaries further than any British war comic had before. Actually, saying the strip was aimed at boys does it a disservice. The level of the writing and artwork is high and allows Charley's War to be enjoyed by readers of any age or either gender.
To show the tragedy and futility of the war, the strip didn't shirk on its body count, with some supporting characters suddenly meeting untimely ends. The villains of the story ranged from a particular nasty German sniper to the loathsomely sadistic British officer Lieutenant Snell. Charley is the likable everyman of the strip who suffers countless hardship. In this regard the story is written very much like a strip in a girls comic or even a Dickensian novel, playing on the emotions rather than the simplistic cliffhangers of other UK boys serials of the day such as The Steel Claw or Adam Eterno. This element made Charley a more sympathetic and rounded character which undoubtedly added to the popularity of the strip. The scope broadened even more when the story began to show the home life of Charley's family as well, including his spirited younger brother Wilf and his shifty cousin Olly.
If the classic strips themselves were not incentive enough to buy this mighty tome (and they certainly are) the book has a few extras too. Up front, there's Neil Emery's ten page chronology of the series, which is superbly informative but is perhaps best read after the strips as it's full of spoilers. (It also covers the stories that go beyond this volume, so if you haven't already read the whole series, be aware that this reveals everything.) There's a four page article by Steve White on the evolution of the tank, and extracts from an interview that Stephen Oldman did with Joe Colquhoun back in the early 1980s for my fanzine Fantasy Express. (A note says that I granted permission for it to be used in the book but as I've always maintained, the copyright of the interview rests with Stephen Oldman. I merely published it.)
In the back of the book, Pat Mills has written an eight page commentary on the stories. This gives a great insight into the creation of the strip and shows Pat's huge respect for the incredible drawing skills of the late Joe Colquhoun.
Big as this omnibus is, it only covers less than half of the full Charley's War saga. Titan have previously published the entire series in 10 hardback books, and this collects the first four volumes. Personally I prefer this format to the hardbacks and their easily damaged dust-jackets, and I hope the whole series is collected in more giant softbacks such as this.
Charley's War: A Boy Soldier in The Great War is a bargain at £19.99 for 320 pages. It's stitched, not glued, which is a bonus as the pages can be opened wide with no fear of splitting the spine. If you've never read the strip before, this is definitely the book to get. And if you have read it before, this chunky, durable book is a great accessible format to read and read again.