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Trading Up: Charley's War Volume 9: Death from Above

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One of the greatest anti-war war comics you will ever have the privilege of reading, Charley’s War should have a place on every discerning comics fan’s bookshelves.

With Volume 9, Death from Above, Titan’s reprint run of the seminal Pat Mills/Joe Colquhoun Great War strip Charley’s War reaches its penultimate edition. This collection marks a number of movements in the series’s focus and emphasis as, significantly, Charley leaves the trenches for the final time and the First World War’s aerial and naval conflicts are also examined via sideways narrative shifts that feature Charley’s aerial observer brother Wilf and his sailor cousin Jack.

These compilation volumes have been steadily reprinting the weekly strip originally published in the British Battle Weekly, in all its titular incarnations, in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. Widely regarded as the greatest and most influential British war comic ever published, Pat Mills’s damning indictment of the conditions and barbarity of that conflagration, and the litany of moral outrages inflicted on the working class men who fought in it, remains as powerful and important now as it was thirty years ago when it first awakened the eyes of British boys – conditioned by years of black and white, gung-ho military heroes – to the true horrors of (relatively) modern warfare.

When we were first introduced to young Charley Bourne in the opening volume of Charley’s War the naive 16-year-old had lied about his age to join up and found himself thrust into an appalling scenario in the trenches, the like of which he could never have foreseen. In the two years (story time) that our protagonist had been fighting, the readership has seen callow youth become experienced and hardened soldier as Mills has used his scrupulously researched project to highlight and explore some of the many atrocities of the Great War.

Death from Above contains a couple of mini-arcs for other members of the Bourne family; one abruptly comes to an end for dramatic reasons while the other, as revealed by Mills in his annotations at the back of the book, fell foul of the readership of the time’s interest and was abruptly curtailed by editorial command. There’s something almost inevitable about the conclusion of the story of Charley’s brother Wilf, whose time in the aerial theatre of war is revisited once more here, but the segment featuring Jack Bourne’s involvement in the Battle of the Falklands is a fascinating diversion and the premature end of this story thread leaves you wondering exactly where Mills and Colquhoun would have gone next with Jack’s tale.

As for Charley himself, our likeable protagonist finds himself invalided out of the trenches and erroneously accused of using a self-inflicted wound to inveigle his way back home to Blighty. It’s a move that gives Mills a chance to focus on the war on the homefront and the social repercussions of the fighting in Europe. And it’s also one that will have serious ramifications for Charley with a development in his life that would have been practically unheard of in a boys’ picture weekly of the time!

While this period of Charley’s War takes the action off in a number of alternative and new directions it’s a point where the comic was also building on and mining its own history. Old faces reappear as their personal stories are advanced: both the villainous Captain Snell – Charley’s long-term nemesis – and his shifty black marketeering brother-in-law Oiley make memorable appearances in volume 9, setting up the now eagerly awaited last collection of Mills’s time on the strip later in 2013.

There are only so many superlatives one can use to describe the peerless brilliance of Joe Colquhoun’s art throughout these collections. Much has been made of his atmospheric, unforgettable re-creation of the terror of the trenches and battlefields of the First World War. In this volume, though, we also have some stunning imagery of naval warfare as well as dramatic renditions of the struggle in the air. But what struck me the most about Colquhoun’s layouts here wasn’t the astonishing re-imaginings of historical conflicts or the careful and intricate reproductions of military machinery. Instead it was the visual characterisation of Charley’s War’s sprawling cast of players. A nuanced look, or a moment of slightly caricatured rage, speaking volumes about a character’s personality. Truly amazing work.

Of all the British comics work that Titan has reprinted over the last few years – and from Dan Dare to Jeff Hawke there’s been some groundbreaking material covered – I would argue that Charley’s War remains the most significant run the publisher has re-presented for a potential new readership to enjoy and marvel at. One of the greatest anti-war war comics you will ever have the privilege of reading, Charley’s War should have a place on every discerning comics fan’s bookshelves.

Charley’s War Volume 9: Death from Above is available from Titan Books priced £14.99 in the U.K. and $19.95 in the U.S.

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