Sunday, August 12, 2012

The horrific strangeness of Charley's War

One of the perks of being a librarian is that every so often, something crosses your work space which is tied directly to your personal interests. Certainly, whenever something related to comic books arrives, I take a few (or more than a few) moments to appreciate the item. However, when it comes to the occasional black & white British war comic... I'm happy to move them along the assembly line to one of my colleagues.

My ever-insightful friend Colin Smith talked about the apprehensions regarding such material in a brilliant article about Charley's War found here. Certainly it reflected on my own reluctance to crack open a British war comic; they look cheaply made and have an air of being either immensely juvenile or exploitative. Trusting in Colin's summation of the series, I felt I owed it to myself to try at least the first volume of Charley's War, as collected by Titan Books.

The artwork of Joe Colquhoun took some getting used to, but I think by the second chapter of the book I was already immensely impressed at the amount of detail placed into recreating World War I in all its misery. The odd typeset font was even more challenging, but one grows accustomed to it. What I found most impressive was writer Pat Mills' efforts to make war believeable; it isn't all chest-thumping heroics or hell on Earth - moments such as when the naive Charley mistakes smoke from shelling for poisonous fumes feels authentic.

As the rain falls on the just and unjust alike, there's a memorable sequence where a German flamethrower kills the men operating it. Scenes such as these reinforce the brutality and senseless aspects of war, but make it seem slightly ridiculous as well. The horrific strangeness of war.

Surely the strangest and most surreal part of Charley's War are the letters to and from home which are constantly at odds with the events going on in the battlefield, never more so than a letter from Charley's abrupt and clueless Aunt Mabel.

Reading this first volume, I think the series was best served in its original format, serialized in a late 70s British war anthology series. Although combining the episodes together maintains the flow from chapter to chapter, probably the series' power with its original audience lay in not knowing how the series would pan out; the anthology could go on publishing for years and years, but there'd be no guarantee Charley's War would be within their pages; surely if Mad Mick or Pop could die so suddenly and easily, Charley Bourne could be no exception to the rule; knowing Charley's story carries on for another 100 pages at a time over a dozen more volumes deflates some of the tension of whether Charley survives; then again, as Erich Maria Remarque observed, even those who "escaped shells, were destroyed by the war."

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