BY JENNIFER M. CONTINO
Now, people fight to not have to go into battle, but during the first World War, teenagers were lying about their age or getting permission from their folks to join the battle. Sixteen year-old Charley Bourne is one of those lads who couldn't wait to defend his country from the attacks. He lied about his age and found himself thrust into the Battle of the Somme. In the trenches with other British soldiers, Charley admirably struggled to survive. Pat Mills
spent over five years chronicling his trials and tribulations in Charley's War
. The series is being reprinted by Titan Books
, so now's the perfect time for a history lesson with Mills about this compelling series. THE PULSE: Although Titan Books is releasing handsome hardcover editions of Charley's War now, your originally worked on the story in the '70s right?
Late 70s to early 80s [Editor's Note: the series ran in Battle Picture Weekly from January 1979 to October 1985] THE PULSE: What inspired you to take a young lad like Charley and show how he fought for his country in the first World War?
Anti-war films like Oh, What A Lovely War. THE PULSE: In the '70s there probably were a few World War I veterans still living, when you were working on Charley's War did you have the chance to talk to any of them about actual situations? If so, what was memorable in your mind about the way those men recalled that horrific time?
My grandfather was a policeman in World War One and objected to arresting deserters as part of his job. Therefore he joined up and served in the trenches for the duration before returning to being a policeman after the war. My cousin told me this story and it had a profound effect on me. It has a very anti-establishment message - my grandfather's contempt for doing a revolting job, yet remaining "within the system".
My ex-wife's grandfather also served in the trenches in 1918. I asked him about the brutal treatment the MPs gave the soldiers in the trenches. He said it was absolutely necessary because the soldiers were such hard bastards. This suggests how far our ancestors had been brutalised by the war THE PULSE: Whom, if anyone, did you base Charley on?
I see him as archetype ... a classic and typical soldier ... an innocent whose courage and patriotism was betrayed by an evil military and political establishment which still to this day covers up the full truth of the Great War. In Britain there is a trend towards rewriting the past and saying the Great War was necessary and the Generals did their best etc. I find this very sinister and sad. THE PULSE: What were some of the challenges in those confines of grabbing readers attention and keeping it as your story unfolded?
It was tough to write a story in the trenches, which meant I had to try harder than in a war of movement. Once I'd made the effort, it got easier. Fortunately I had an artist of genius in Joe who could bring every scene alive.
I truly believe he is amongst the World's top ten comic artists... and there's a simple test... Who else could depict the conflict with such pathos, comedy, detail, compassion, horror and fantastic characterisation? Who could make ordinary people look like the heroes they really are.
I can think of very, very few artists who could match him living or dead.
And even fewer who would want the job. That's how remarkable and talented Joe was.
Will Eisner, I think, would be one name that comes to mind. I loved his Contract with God and I really should get his later books. A brilliant artist for similar reasons - because he cared so much about the people he drew THE PULSE: How did you research something like this? Now, people can type up names on Google or other search functions and find instant information, but in the '70s there wasn't a service like that ... did your local libraries have a wealth of information?
I bought tons and tons of books. And borrowed more. I also used genuine magazines and postcards still available at that time THE PULSE: This was a very compelling story, one that most of us can appreciate. What were you the most surprised to learn about the era while chronicling Charley's journey through the trenches?
Just how far the British soldier was betrayed by the miltary establishment. In particular - the British army mutiny of 1917 at Etaples. I think this country came close to revolution - something establishment historians are quick to play down these days. (The film the Monocled Mutineer about this event is unlikely to ever be shown on British television because of the uproar when it first came out)
Recently a Sandhurst (that's our West Point) lecturer trashed Charley's War in a commentary - trying to dismiss it as the work of two old hippies from the Vietnam War generation (Joe served in the navy in World War Two so he was hardly a hippy) influenced by dangerous lefty films like Oh, What a Lovely War (starring Richard Attenborough?!) . I was happy for Titan Books to include his deconstruction but they decided against it.
Anyway - I'm flattered that the establishment took the series seriously enough to want to rebut it. It suggests I got close to the truth. Although I suspect the betrayal was far, far worse. Many soldiers were like my grandfather - they decided in the words of the song "We'll never tell them." THE PULSE: What was it like doing a World War I comic when there was hardly anyone else creating strips in that era? There were a lot of WWII comics ... but it seems as if, aside from one or two comics, WW I wasn't written about as much ...
It stands alone. The reason is simple ... all my peers in British mainstream comics want to write and draw super heroes .This is probably because they grew up reading super heroes, but I didn't.
To me the soldiers of the Great War were genuine super heroes. THE PULSE: Speaking of, when WWII seemed like the popular time to write about, what made you choose WWI to set your tale?
I created (with John Wagner) the war comic Battle in which Charley appeared. I wanted to push the boundaries. It also gave me a chance to pursue my particular perspective which is...
In this business you spend a lot of time thinking about what makes a hero? You might as well write about genuine heroes rather than fake heroes.
To give you another example, a character I'd love to have written about ...
In the States you have General Butler who wrote War is a Racket. He was America's most decorated general but he was anti-war ... he was on the side of the protestors in the Depression etc. He also was against a fascist coup d'etat against Roosevelt by corporate big business.
To me he is another super hero ... a truly great man ... and I feel these are the guys who are worth writing about as heroes. I believe someone in the States is doing a graphic novel version of War is a Racket (sadly I don't have details to hand ) and I am so thrilled to hear this! Way to go!
Continuing on this theme ...
The implications of how you can have a hugely successful anti-war story like Charley - has never been explored by my peers or other comic companies. They were British kids aged 8 - 14 who were reading Charley and preferred him to the usual action stuff. That's an amazing thought.
If Charley had super powers, of course there would be ten copies of him by now. It just shows what a cultural cul de sac mainstream comics are THE PULSE: Your strip became widely popular, why don't you think others imitated you and did other comics or strips set in that era?
Apart from the reasons I've given above, it's also because it's damned hard work. It's much easier to give a guy super powers and not research his world. And few modern artists would put as much work into the story as Joe did. I do believe he had a genuine magic gift ... he cared so much for the characters he was depicting.
I mean, as evidenced by comic genres now, when something becomes popular, it seems everyone and their brother tries to do a take on it ....
That's so well observed. And Charley is a cul-de-sac. Like I say, it's a sad statement on our industry. There is a lack of interest in truth based stories including girls comics - which easily outsold male comics and would do so again today. Charley was heavily influenced by my writing for girls comics, because it's about emotions and people. It owes almost nothing to male comics. I love telling macho fan magazines that and seeing the interviewer wince! The bottom line is the mainstream industry in the UK and the US is predominantly run by male fantasy fans so it reflects their preferences .
They are not - in Britain at least - catering for a huge swathe of readers who aren't interested in fantasy. I was stunned the other day when I gave a talk at our Cartoon Museum on Charley's War and it was packed
with Charley's War fans who were mainstream and didn't care about super heroes or science fiction or 2000AD etc. So there is real life out there, too!
I was also thrilled when two guys came up to me seperately after the talk and said they both came from military traditions and decided against joining the army after growing up reading Charley. I only wish the artist Joe was still alive to hear that. Joe never received (and never sought) any recognition from his peers in his lifetime, but that to me was worth a hundred awards.
In my view, comics should be up there with music and film and literature, challenging us, but it rarely happens. I know - for example - of few Anglo-American equivalents of Persepolis. I guess someone somewhere must have done a graphic novel about the conflict in Iraq or Afghanistan, but I'm not aware of it.
I'm actually currently trying to have the great British girls comics creators remembered because their stories were about true emotions and therefore they are closer to Charley than male comics. So I'm interviewing Jenny McDade who wrote Bella (about a girl gymnast like Olga Korbut/Nadia Comanech); John Armstrong who drew it; a hugely successful story in the 1970s. But unlikely to be remembered in the Histories of Comics as who cares about the other 50% of the population.
That said... Titan Books will publish collections of girls comics soon - so not all is lost! THE PULSE: How common do you think it was for youngsters like Charley, just barely sixteen years-old, to go into battle like he did?
Very common. Victor Sylvester - a famous British dancer - was a case in point. He joined up when he was sixteen. I think he was forced to be in a firing squad and shoot a deserter while still a teenager. (A scene I featured in Charley) I believe he had a nervous breakdown as a result. THE PULSE: What were the challenges of capturing the emotion of Charley and the feel of that era?
It was so easy because I had a such a brilliant artist in Joe. He could convey so many subtle moods, characterise everything and everybody in the most exquisite detail. That is such a gift and I do feel it needs wider recognition.
He was such a modest man, too. When I finished Charley, I offered him Slaine. But he said - no. He said he had no imagination! But he had such empathy, such compassion, such insight - if that's not imagination, I don't know what is. I truly believe he was a genius. Sometimes I would not even look at his finished art because I could lose an entire day just staring at the detail in his work. I'm sure many readers did the same. THE PULSE: What did you enjoy the most about working on a project like this?
I worked on Charley's War for approximately eight years. Apart from the delight of working with one of the world's greatest comic artists, my other especial pleasures were 1) I was writing about truth. And history is my thing; it's what I excelled at when I was at college. Really, I should have been a history academic - but the fates decreed I should be a comic writer instead. So it was allowing me to pursue my history bug! 2) I could write about some of the anti-establishment themes that interest me.
My only regret was I didn't know - at the time - the real
cause of the Great War, still largely covered up today. Comedian Robert Newman tells it all on Youtube ... A History of Oil. Yep ... the reason was ... Iraq.
If I'd known, I'd have had Charley go off to Iraq in 1920 when the British - under Churchill's orders - dropped poison gas bombs on the Iraqui people. Weapons of Mass Destruction. Thankfully, there's an American artist who is doing a self-published series covering this called "Rebellion"THE PULSE: What was it like working with Joe Colquhoun on this project for so many years?
The happiest working years of my life. Strangely, we only talked maybe four times and never about the story. He never required any changes; he was a true professional. I was nervous of talking to him further in case I broke the magic spell that was over us. And our Editor. He took Joe off a hugely popular number one story - Johnny Red - to draw Charley, an untried story about World War One. Could you imagine an Editor doing that today? No chance!
I think it was a magical time and a magical story and one Joe and I were meant to do.THE PULSE: What do you think of the Titan reprints? I think the cover images have been very striking ....
Absolutely. They are beautiful presentations. However, I've told them it would be useful if the books looked a little more separate to each other ! You have to peer hard to recognise volume 1 from volume 3, which can confuse. But that aside, I couldn't be more happy. Not least to give me an opportunity to do a commentary in the back of each volume.THE PULSE: What projects are you currently working on in or out of comics?
Lots of fantasy! Well ... it's all there is. So I have to adapt it to suit me! Thank God I haven't fallen on hard times and had to do super heroes, not that I expect the phone to ring from publishers in that area! Mind you, I wrote a Marshal Law text novel just out from Titan "ORIGINS" where he kills a lot of them! Now that was sheer pleasure ... I think I need to write a few more Law novels ...
However ... Last year I did a film treatment about the day cannabis was banned in Britain in the 1920s following a scandal involving three working class prostitutes - sisters - found doped up in a Chinese laundry with a dead Chinaman. I loved doing that because it was in the tradition of Charley's War - in fact, that's why the tv company commissioned me because they'd read the series. I had a scene where one of the prostitutes blags her way onto the ballroom, during the 1919 Victory Ball, and dances with Ivor Novello. Pure Charley's War! The lives of "ordinary" people are so interesting to me.
Currently I'm writing American Reaper - a screenplay for Xingu Films - about identity theft in the future. That kind of science fiction I'm comfortable with. And Volume 9 of Requiem - Vampire Knight , a French graphic novel series. In both, I manage to pursue some real life ... For instance in Volume 9 of Requiem I have J. Edgar Hoover and his - er - interesting personal life. Fascinating guy!
The fifth volume of Charley's War
is in stores now. All images: Charley’s War © 2008 Egmont UK Ltd. All Rights Reserved.