Trading Up: Charley's War Volume 8: Hitler's Youth

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The latest volume of Mills and Colquhoun’s Great War classic sees an appearance from a young German soldier by the name of Hitler and follows Charley’s brother Wilf as he joins the aerial conflict as a pilot’s observer…

Debuting in the late ‘70s in the British war comic Battle, Charley’s War was a weekly strip that gave a brutally frank account of the experiences of a young Tommy, Charley Bourne, in the horrific trench warfare of the First World War. Written by the legendary Pat Mills, and illustrated with a brutally brilliant realism by Joe Colquhoun, Charley’s War was unique in boys picture paper publishing for eschewing the usual tales of gung-ho, wartime derring-do and providing, instead, a grim depiction of the true nature of the Great War from a working class lad’s perspective. Mills was never afraid to make cutting political commentary along the way, and in his hands Charley and his sprawling cast of supporting players were as likely to meet their ultimate fates through the incompetence of their commanding officers, or the gross injustices meted out on them in the name of discipline, as they were at the guns of the enemy.

This latest volume sees us through the time period from pre-Christmas 1917 into 1918 and comprises two main storylines. In the first arc Charley has found a new position in the trenches as a sniper while behind the opposing German lines a young Corporal named Adolf Hitler is making his presence felt amongst his colleagues. Under the control of a less skilled writer this “meeting” could have seemed somewhat self-indulgent; engineered for shock value over story integrity. That is not an issue here. Mills’s use of Hitler is a stern and disturbing reminder that, no matter how appalling the atrocities we’ve been witnessing over the eight editions of Charley’s War so far, no lessons will be learned and the cycle of conflict will simply exacerbate in a few short decades time.

As well as a memorable portrayal of Christmas in No man’s Land, this segment of the epic concludes with a truly haunting sequence foreshadowing the grim realities of life expectancy in the trenches which is undoubtedly one of the most evocative sequences in all the volumes to date. Haunting and powerful, it’s one of those key moments of this long-running saga that will stick in your mind for years to come.

The second storyline presented here gives Mills an opportunity to take one of his intermittent diversions from his titular protagonist and focus on a different area of the conflagration. Unlike many American war comics – and it must be admitted some UK ones too – wherein the main characters would find themselves fighting in just about every theatre of war and every major campaign by war’s end, Charley’s War embraces a far more realistic narrative stance. So when Mills wanted to examine the Great War’s aerial conflict he brought in Charley’s brother Wilf as a pilot’s PBO (“poor blinkin’ observer” to use the full authentic slang of the time) for a story arc of his own. As meticulously researched as the land battle plotlines, the conditions Mills depicts these men fighting under are stark and disturbing proof that fact sometimes really is stranger than fiction.

On the visuals, Joe Colquhoun’s layouts are full of intricate detail and humanistic perspective. His art is striking in both its historical accuracy and minute attention to characterisation. Under this creative team every single player is a rounded and believable individual in their own right, however brief their on-panel appearances may be. Previously, compilations of Charley’s War have been scanned directly from the pages of copies of Battle, resulting in some uneven reproduction at times. Some pages have been of noticeably inferior quality than others, and those occasional pages that were in colour (covers or the sporadic times the strip was awarded the comic’s colour centrespread) have been conspicuously murky in appearance. In volume 8, however, over sixty pages have been reproduced from Joe Colquhoun’s original art and the end result is stunning, providing a clarity of presentation that is, perhaps savagely ironic given the subject matter, quite beautiful in appearance.

Titan have a wonderful track record with their British weekly reprints of providing a wealth of extras in these handsome hardcover collections. Volume 8 of Charley’s War is no exception. There’s another introductory essay from Steve White giving a historical overview and background perspective of the time period that this collection covers, as well as a brief look at the different production standards between art shot directly from Colquhoun’s originals and that scanned from thirty-year old copies of Battle. Most interesting, however, are Pat Mills’s own annotations of the scripts which provide some fascinating insights into not just his source material for certain elements of Charley’s War but also his honest thoughts on the sometimes heavy-handed, sometimes simply ridiculous, editorial interference on the strip.

If you’ve never come across Charley’s War before I implore you to investigate this comic strip masterpiece further. I could argue it was one of the greatest British comics of all time or I could argue that it was one of the greatest war comics of all time. But neither would be sufficient. Simply put, and all hyperbole aside, Charley’s War is one of the most important comics of all time full stop. Once read, never forgotten.

Charley’s War Volume 8: Hitler’s Youth is published by Titan Books priced £14.99 in the U.K. and $19.99 in the U.S.

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