Review by Frank Plowright
Pat Mills covers a significant amount of ground in this collection spotlighting events during World War I from January to late April 1918. Among other aspects we have a naval sequence, the first tank battle, a wartime court martial, an investigation of what we’d now consider Post-Traumatic Stress, the final day of trench warfare, and some surprising personal developments for Charley Bourne.
In order to spread his narrative net so far, Mills writes shorter stories than has been customary for Charley’s War. The catastrophic error of Gallipoli for instance, is covered in a single episode, one soldier’s death serving to highlight the tragic mistakes resulting from poor planning and deaf ears.
A funeral, a wedding and an encounter with an old and unreasonable enemy draw Charley Bourne away from the trenches for several episodes. Even these, though, are hardly oases of tranquillity. Mills twists the knife of tension superbly in the early episodes when Charley faces a court martial for deliberately injuring himself to avoid service, and a trip home always means another encounter with odious and exploitative Oily, as ever brilliantly characterised. When last seen Major Snell was presumed to be removed as a threat to Charley, but he’s back, Mills mixing comedy and threat in a manner less melodramatic than their final encounter in The End, the following and concluding volume.
Joe Colquhoun’s extensive detail again benefits from the reproduction afforded by access to the original art for many pages. In his accompanying notes Mills refers to Colquhoun as “Britain’s greatest adventure comic artist of the 20th century”, and the sample page of mounted German cavalry officers and their gas masks is a stunning composition justifying Mills’ high praise. Yet that’s only one of dozens of examples that could be equally highlighted throughout Death From Above. The pages depicting the sinking of HMS Monmouth astound. For all the humanity in his work, Colquhoun’s efforts depicting World War I technology always go beyond the call of duty.
It should be reinforced that while Mills escalated his ambition infinitely beyond his brief of a weekly dose of wartime drama, he also never forgot this was to be an adventure strip for boys, and this results in what’s surely the most painless comic strip education ever. Equally throughout Charley’s War Colquhoun’s depiction of ordinary fighting men never veered into cinematic heroism. Whether English or German, they remained resolutely un-posed.
Anyone wanting to sample a single volume of Charley’s War is directed to Death From Above. The title’s rather a misnomer for a graphic novel that showcases Mills and Colquhoun’s version of World War I at land, sea and the air, is spliced with personal drama, both tragic and elevating, and characterised by moving scripts and brilliant art. Anyone not enjoying this chocolate box selection of the strip isn’t going to find much to love in the remainder. Their loss.