Review by Frank Plowright
This second massive chunk of Charley Bourne’s World War I experiences takes him from March to September 1917, beginning with him recuperating at home after injury to the horrors of Passchendaele one of the conflict’s worst battles, during which almost half a million soldiers died. And that’s the lower end of the estimates as the true death toll can’t be worked out accurately. Pat Mills reflects the severity of the three week campaign by including very little of the bantering levity with which he usually broke up Charley’s stories, and the intensity provides one of the most powerful sequences in the entire series.
Before then Charley hears the story of a deserter from the French Foreign Legion, and through him the battle of Verdun, attempts to stop his cousin Oily’s latest plan for exploiting misery to make money, and is transferred to the tunnel digging unit. Both Mills and artist Joe Colquhoun strived for accuracy with the limited opportunities for research in the pre-internet age, and Mills’ notes at the back of the book comment on this (along with rage at the stupidity of the editors and several other associated topics). One aspect that may seem caricature is the behaviour of the story’s most obvious villain, Charley’s commanding officer Captain Snell. He’s a man so concerned with his own comfort that he’ll demand to have shower water despite it being the case that activating the squeaky water pump endangers life by attracting the attention of German snipers. Despite coming off as a caricature on occasions, Mills stands by his portrayal in his notes.
In his dedication Mills calls Colquhoun the greatest of the great artists he worked with. Colquhoun died early, only five years after completing these strips, and while he knew Charley’s War was liked by the boys who read it serialised in Battle, it’s a great shame that he never came to know the increasing regard in which his work is held as the years pass. He can’t have been paid enough to recompense him for the time he spent ensuring every detail was accurate, and even in strips where the detail isn’t as important, Colquhoun still poured in the love. An early sequence has Blue taking on a disliked fellow legionnaire in a dingy basement, but Colquhoun includes the brickwork, the piping, the fire buckets, the tattoos on Blue’s arms… it’s astounding.
The number of colour pages in the previous volume were limited, but by the time this material saw print from 1980 to 1982 Charley’s War was regularly voted the most popular feature in Battle. That meant it was run more regularly in what were seen as the anthology’s prestige locations, the few colour pages restricted to the cover and the centre pages. These aren’t subtle, and are reproduced complete with the ghastly yellow surrounding of the original comics.
These pages were previously available in the Titan editions Blue’s Story, Return to the Front and Underground and Over the Top. Anyone who already has a full set of Titan’s hardcover Charley’s War reprints may wonder if its worth their while upgrading on the basis of the superior reproduction in these new editions. Titan didn’t have access to original artwork, and the difference in reproduction quality can be seen by the sample art scanning the same page of art from the Titan edition and this one. Mills’ work concludes with Remembrance.