Notes: This interview was conducted by the original Charley’s War site’s founder, Neil Emery, sometime in the 2000s. It’s been tidied and images added to it in recent times.
When I contacted Pat Mills way back when I started this site, I was told to be careful. “He don’t like fans and is known to be a bit prickly to say the least,” I was told.
Well, I thought, I’m not a comic fan at all, so hopefully I’ll be all right if I’m just honest about how important the story is to me. I fired off my email and received one back within the day. He was touched by it and thought it amusing I’d admitted in my mail that I’m totally ignorant to his other work, and thrilled that someone had picked up on the sentiments he tried to put into Charley’s War at the time.
From that day onwards, he has been great to me and a big help with finishing the site properly. And in return I’ve forwarded all the emails I’ve got praising the strip and him and Joe’s work on it. I hope from that he now knows that it wasn’t just me that he got through to, but a multitude of 30-somethings who remember it with just as much fondness as I do.
On this page is the truely epic interview which my ‘couple’ of questions turned into, a wealth of information about Charley’s War, World War One, Joe Colquhoun and the comics business. I know it’s become quite famous because I’ve seen bits from it and the entire thing in one instance in four different corners of the net.
Pat threw himself into helping me in every way possible, and god knows he’s probably one of the busiest people going, so thank you Pat – you are a true gent, sir.
Neil Emery: Charley’s War is a great anti-war, anti-heroic story that seems to fit the period it’s set in perfectly. What sparked your interest in the First World War?
Pat Mills: I watched the film Oh, What a Lovely War – maybe six times – when I was in my early twenties and also the stage play. It moved me enormously. I felt there was a great comic story to be had, too. Because there isn’t the movement and visual spectacle, I knew it would have to be written more carefully with greater emphasis on characters.
Only Joe was capable of this. When Battle‘s editor Dave Hunt took him off Johnny Red to do Charley, I knew it was going to work.
I can’t sing Dave Hunt’s praises loud enough. He was the editor and it was an incredibly brave, dangerous, even foolhardy thing to do. Because Johnny Red was phenomenally popular. There is no editor in modern comics who would ever risk anything like that today. It could never happen. They are far too cautious – and usually Dave was! The significance and importance of Dave’s decision cannot be emphasised enough. We all owe him an enormous debt of gratitude.
He knew how to put creative teams together – a gift that few modern editors have.
Neil: It was done with so much passion and intensity..
Pat: Yes. It sometimes puzzled and even disturbs me that I still feel the same passion today. It is something I should take a closer look at!
Neil: I just wondered whether you had personal-reasons for doing it – a relative of yours killed for example.
Pat: No. I did discover, however, some time after I started, that my Grandfather was a policeman in World War One. He hated the idea of arresting deserters. Bear in mind, he was a policeman in a small Essex seaside/ port (probably Harwich) so that gives you an idea of the size of the problem – something the history books don’t talk about. Perhaps as a port, deserters were smuggling themselves on board ships – I do not know.
Anyway, it wasn’t why he joined the police force, to do the army’s filthy work; so he resigned as a policeman. He became a cook in the army and served on the front line. It’s that kind of working class attitude and courage that I enormously admire and which I set out to chronicle in Charley’s War. It’s why I mentioned (I think) in an intro… the letters home of the ordinary soldiers like my Grandfather. Which were so emotional and therefore – in my view – poetry. Alongside the poems of the officer class.
That always annoyed me, because the impression kids get today is that only the elite write poetry. That a way with words is essential. And this is a deliberate attempt by the establishment – and often teachers – to disempower ordinary people. It’s not bad luck – it’s totally deliberate.
I totally disagree with their elitist snobbery. I have been moved to tears by illiterate letters from the trenches, which compare with Graves, Sassoon and Owen. I had a neighbour who was a Cambridge Don and from a privileged background. He told me the letters home could not be regarded as poetry because they were not intended as poetry. What total snobbishness!
A letter (from memory) which said from a soldier to his young wife something like: “Bing! go a bullet – maybe get that man. And you just feel like you’re gonna get the dirt. But you know, dear, you mustn’t worry, because I’ll be all right etc.” The day such letters are respected alongside the university educated poets is the day our schools will be teaching the reality of war. I doubt it will happen.
I’ve lived in an army town and the stories soldiers have told me of more modern conflicts suggests things have improved, of course, but still have much in common with Charley’s day. Charley is the ordinary, working class, illiterate but courageous soldier of his generation who was sacrificed by an odious class system.
[The quote that Pat remembers is from the book A Place called Armageddon – Letters of the Great War edited by Michael Moynihan and deserves to be here in full. It’s a letter home by Tommy Boorer to his sister, and is written out verbatim including original spelling and grammer. “there are times out here when we would rather be gone than have to put up with condiscons that we sometimes get out here at times when the germans be bombarding and the boys get knocked over one by one and they cant hit back. But it beyond me to explain the scene,see the boys come along they be crying like children and shaking like old men,still shells do burst in the air and scatter death and distrakion or a fellow may be in a gay mood and forget there is a war and walk out of cover or straighten himself up (specialy f he be a big man) after he be cramped in a dugout (for they not be built for comfort|) and show himself above a parapet –
“BING” go a bullet, maybe catch that man. Well Nance hope for the best, a soldier (catholic) is forgiven his sins by dieying on the battlefeld so that is a comfort and it be better to be a DEAD HERO than a LIVING COWARD, when we are not fighting here it seem you are working and you always get the dirt. But never mind girlie you are far braver than us for you have to take what is given but us we can out and forget it and if we goe… well under we are gone.”]
Neil: Was he based on anyone in particular or just a typical youth of the era? Did you try to make the character easy for the readers to relate to?
Pat: Not really. I have a half working class/ half middle class background; so I was able to draw on my working class roots to a certain degree. But I think he was in many ways a typical youth of the period. I wanted the readers to identify with him – absolutely. To appreciate the drama of war; but not to be seduced by it; and to sense some of its horror.
I recall talking some years later to a soldier who served in Northern Ireland who had some grim experiences – not least the brutality of the British Army establishment itself when he was a prisoner in their glasshouse in Northern Irelands border country. These were experiences our cowardly media refused to publicise. I asked him why he joined the army. He said it was because of reading war comics. As the co-creator of Battle, I was not especially comfortable about this!
In some ways Charley’s War was my attempt to reverse the direction of my creation. I wanted to counter-act the danger of war comics, helping to recruit cannon fodder for our country’s appalling military attacks on other lands, which continue to this day. I always felt that Charley’s War had relevance for today and my intention was to carry Charley through World War Two, via his son, and then into Northern Ireland, via his grandson. Because I feel the murderous forces that sent a generation to their deaths in 1914 – 1918 didn’t simply vanish, they just became more sophisticated and covert. Much better at suppressing information. And modern technology does not require the mass sacrifice of our soldiers anymore – although these same forces are still able to slaughter Iraqis and Serbians without complaint.
My deliberate attempt to get the reader to relate to all sides of the conflict in Charley’s War, to see the other person’s point of view (e.g. the Germans and the French), is pursuant to this theme.
Neil: So you think the exploitation of soldiers in the First World War happened in the same way in the second?
Pat: More covertly. But it amounts to the same thing. There were serious scandals about World War Two. Notably Dunkirk – with officers running away, soldiers arriving back in Britain throwing their rifles out train windows and saying, “That’s it. We’re finished. It’s all over.” Before the Blitz, the authorities didn’t make shelters for London’s East Enders (the most likely target with the arsenals and docks). They made coffins. Which is disgusting.
I suspect that some parts (the wealthier parts) of London were avoided by German bombers to begin with. Mayfair shows few signs of post-war buildings when I’ve walked around it. There was a serious mutiny of British soldiers in Italy.
Many people (even today) suffered from collective amnesia, remembering the propaganda image – rather than the reality, including the high crime rate, the rapes in the blackout and the collaboration of the upper classes with Hitler (which will probably always be hushed up). So ordinary people attacked a very well respected author in the 1960’s who tried to tell the truth. They wanted to remember the bullshit image. My own family would darkly hint at things, but I could never get them to talk – although my stepfather did admit to British soldiers shooting Italians running away in the back. Not the usual image of the heroic Tommy. But the truth is always better, even if it presents our soldiers in a negative light. And the authorities were much better at covering things up in World War 2. They learnt their lesson from World War 1 and were skilled at hiding their darker deeds.
I intended to write Charley’s War into World War 2. I asked the editor for a research budget so I could interview veterans, because I knew I wasn’t going to get it from books. And I knew there was a real chance to dig up the dirt on that war, which I have a bit of a nose for. They refused, so I quit. Another writer took it over and the story died within a year, I think. Joe died maybe a year later.
I don’t like to think about that last tragic chapter too much. The narrow-sightedness of the editorial at that time compares badly with the vision of Dave Hunt, the commissioning editor.
Neil: Do you not think that there is such a thing as a just war? However rare these may be, I can’t help thinking that World War 2 was one. I mean – Northern Ireland, Iraq, Korea, Vietnam, Aden, etc., etc. I can understand, right up to Afghanistan and Gulf War the sequel right now But do you not think there is ever anything such as a ‘just’ cause? or a just war?
Pat: It’s a difficult one Neil. Because I had a Serbian girlfriend at the time of the Kosovo crisis and she wasn’t too thrilled at the idea of cruise missiles whizzing past her family’s tower block in Belgrade; or British or American uranium tipped bombs exploding, causing cancers for future generations of Serbian children, including perhaps her own young nephew… all in the aid of possibly saving Albanians in Kosovo, depending if you believe the British press, which I don’t.
Where World War Two is concerned, naturally it is a just cause – in terms of liberating Europe from oppression. But the official line doesn’t normally include the enormous amount of Trading with the Enemy (a title of a book)… Gold relayed through Switzerland to the United States, stamped Buchenwald; Standard Oil supplying German U Boats with oil; Ford supplying armoured cars to Germany and the rest. Plus the financing of Hitler by the Western nations industries and banks. (I featured some of this in Marshal Law, another series I write).
All this is seen as incidental and unfortunate. I believe it is deliberate and central and what’s been unearthed is merely the tip of the iceberg. War can boost the winning side’s economy – and I’m sure is why the USA regularly goes to war. So if there is a conspiratorial agenda by rich vested interests, why should young working class men die for it? The tragedy of cannon fodder didn’t end in 1918, it just became more ….sophisticated.
Neil: I thought it was interesting in Charley’s War that the Germans were not always the villains in the story. At times they became almost comrades (Kat, for instance) The Germans seemed most of the time to just be there and having to stay alive, with the same problems and fears etc. as the British. The enemy most times were the commanding officers (Snell and the scholar etc.) and the civilians at home (Oily, etc.). Almost an enemy within. Was this idea something that developed as the story went on, or was it one of your intentions when you started out?
Pat: Absolutely. The German system probably made the Germans more likely to obey as we’re so fond of saying in this country, but their young men were no more monsters than ours and I’ve always been aware of this. Inspired by Sven Hassel novels, I initiated the first German hero story when I created Action in 1976 – Hellman of Hammer Force (written by Gerry Finley Day). I had to really press the publisher for permission because he was nervous of a possible backlash. In fact, one of my current stories (for a French publisher) is about a German soldier in World War Two who ends up becoming a vampire.
Without getting too esoteric, I would say I feel as much connection with this German soldier as I do with Charley. I loathe the class system, symbolised by Snell, the establishment and world forces that turn generations of young men from all over the world into cannon fodder. I felt this way long before I wrote Charley’s War and nothing has changed my view since.
In recent years I’ve visited a number of countries and cities that have confirmed this view. Specifically – Berlin, Sarajevo, Iran, Lithuania. Thus, in Iran they will tell you how Britain and America stitched their country up. In Bosnia, the Serbians will tell you the same. And many other places in the world. I don’t believe they’re all paranoid and whilst these countries and peoples have their own issues and problems, I think they have been exacerbated by Britain and America. That’s why in Charley’s War, I featured the 1919 Invasion of Russia by Britain and America – a “little ” war that is downplayed or ignored in our history. I think if in 1919, Russia had invaded Britain we would have a pretty negative attitude towards the Russians. And Britain’s 1919 Invasion of Russia is not some isolated maverick incident or odd ball mistake – it’s part of a calculated and very deliberate continuum of thinking and global strategy that continues to this day. Hence the impending possible war on Iraq.
Neil: I look on you and Joe Colquhoun’s work on Charley’s War as a sort of Lennon/McCartney of the comic world!! Two geniuses working on the same team. Did you pick Joe specifically for Charley’s War or was it a happy accident? Because he was working on Johnny Red at the time wasn’t he?
Pat: You are very kind, Neil, but yes – if you get the right team anything is possible. Alas, all too often, I’ve been stuck with artists who are nowhere near as talented as Joe. The credit must go to Dave Hunt the editor. Johnny Red was fantastic – a lesser editor would have kept Joe on that story.
What impressed me about Johnny Red were the incredible scenes of the Russians as heroes. It was a tribute to their astonishing courage and suffering at Stalingrad and Leningrad. Those graphic pictures were so moving – so bloody moving.
Frankly, I didn’t care for Johnny Red himself – a Brit leading the Russians felt a little patronising for my taste – although it was probably the only way a comic story could have featured Russian communists as heroes. Full marks to writer Tom Tully and Joe for doing the story. Joe deserves equal recognition for his truly fantastic work on Johnny Red. I would love to see Joe’s Johnny Red episodes collected.
Anyway, I’d just finished creating 2000AD and I wanted to do something new and special. After the success of German stories such as Hellmann, I wanted to try something even more challenging – and so I wrote a story about a Japanese war hero … Samurai, with artist Cruez. The publisher was even more nervous this time, but reluctantly agreed. (He was quite reasonably afraid that the Burma Road veterans would complain).
Frankly, I didn’t get Samurai right. I couldn’t get inside the Asiatic mindset and there simply wasn’t the research material available. The story was popular enough, but Dave Hunt felt I could come up with something better and create a new number one story. He knew World War One would appeal to me because it was the riskiest subject of all time because it’s static and non-visual. To tempt me, he suggested Joe as the artist. This tempting process was and is very common in comics. Thus Dave also tempted Carlos Ezquerra away from his creation Judge Dredd to draw El Mestizo for Battle. Dave was damn good at this – sometimes, as in the case of Ezquerra, I was miffed that he’d lured away a 2000AD artist. There was a lot of fairly friendly rivalry going on!
Anyway, I jumped at the chance of working with Joe! I was so impressed that Dave would take Joe off a highly popular story – Johnny Red – and put him on such a risky venture. Joe liked the idea and so we were in business.
At some point you might want to get Dave’s view on all this, although I have no idea where he is these days. Also, sad to say, I asked Joe when Charley was coming to an end in World War One if he wanted to do Slaine – a character I still do for 2000AD. He said he felt happier staying with reality and drawing Charley in WW2, albeit with another writer (because I’d resigned, for reasons I will explain another time). In fact he’d have done an astonishing Slaine.
Joe was an incredibly nice human being who some editors in the 1960s and 1970s took advantage of. As earlier interviews show, he was shunted around on different comics and stories; on at least one occasion against his wishes. Because he was not treated well (with the very notable exception of Dave Hunt), this made me pretty tough in my dealings with publishers and editors, because I saw that being a nice guy simply didn’t work.
My generation of writers and artists tended to be tougher because we’d seen how his post war generation of creators very understandably didn’t fight back and were badly treated. Consequently I’ve fought extremely hard for royalties, copyright and credits you’ll note Charley’s War starts without credits and it was only after my forceful intervention that by-lines were introduced much later.
Interestingly, the writer and artist generation after mine is also not noted for its campaigning attitude on rights, etc., perhaps because they are Thatcher’s generation and she created a similar sense of insecurity which the post war generation suffered from.
Pat: Yes, there was an American storylines in Charley’s War. By then, though, the editor was censoring me – not Dave Hunt, but Terry Magee. He wanted to tone down a scene where a black American soldier was being given a hard time time by white American soldiers . He said “it might offend people” I replied – who would it offend? The Klu Klux Klan? Similarly, I showed black French soldiers – Senegalese – being used as cannon fodder.)
Neil: Talking of controversial story lines, what would you have covered had you continued to write Charley’s War as it continued into the Second World War?
Pat: If I’d had Charley return from Dunkirk, I would have featured some of the darker aspects… with British soldiers throwing their rifles out the windows and saying to Hell with this; we’ve had enough. To my mind, this doesn’t take away from their courage – on the contrary, it gives an idea of what they went through and what was really going on, as opposed to the propaganda image.
You can see why I hesitated to carry Charley’s War on into World War Two and ultimately refused when they wouldn’t give me the support of a research budget . It would have been explosively controversial. Even now. Thus, when The Monocled Mutineer was televised, Tory MP’s complained; the BBC backed off and it has never been repeated.
That was the great thing about Charley’s War: we slipped through the wire. No one paid any attention to a comic and that, of course, was my intention…
Neil: How did the process work? Did you meet with Joe regularly, just at the beginning or at all? Did you sit down together and formulate the look and basis of the characters?
Pat: This will astonish you, but I probably spoke to Joe no more than maybe five times over the whole period! Maybe less. It was traditional for the writer to create the story and often to send it in without knowing who the artist is, or without reference to him.
Before you say how antique that is, take this on board: THAT STILL HAPPENS TODAY! And has happened to me quite recently.
In this case, I knew it was Joe – but that was it. It was actually seen as a little unprofessional to spend too much time talking to the artist. Editors often get paranoid that writers and artists are ganging up on them or planning to head off elsewhere. With some justification – it does happen. I don’t agree with any of this, but I can understand it.
Joe came up with brilliant work and it seemed to me, he had done this without talking directly to me. So I didn’t want to mess with the magic; we had a fantastic formulae , I felt it would be foolish to rock the boat. And… Having started 2000AD and dealt with many young, unprofessional, angst-ridden artists who would spend considerable time agonising over their work, you cannot imagine the RELIEF… THE SWEET RELIEF!… of working with a professional who just got on with it and delivered on time. There was none of the shit I’d had to put up with along the lines of “I can’t draw this.I can’t draw that.”
Whatever I gave Joe, he drew… No ifs, no buts, no misery, no angst.
And I would see his characters on the printed page and respond to them. Seeing his Smith 70 and Young Albert, for instance, encouraged me to develop their characters further and the same for many others. I cannot stress how important Joe’s professionalism was to me. There was no fear of him pissing off to go round the world, having a nervous breakdown, going off to work on a different story, being poached by America etc.
Let me give you a comparison to Joe. Some few years ago, an artist who no one will be able to identify (so no one should even try – cos my lips are sealed!) was drawing very, very brilliant artwork but was getting slower and slower. He told me he hadn’t got a girlfriend and was desperate for one. He also didn’t like some of the elements in my story – or rather he didn’t know how to draw them, so he was working himself into a state , instead of just getting on with it.
It ended up with my girlfriend spending hours on the phone counselling him and suggesting ways he attract the opposite sex! She was even wondering if she had some friends she could introduce him to! (Or maybe I was begging her to!)
Needless to say, he didn’t pull. Eventually this poor, sex-starved wretch completely screwed up, didn’t deliver, and I had to repay my cash advance to the publisher when they cancelled the story. And not just my cash advance, but his advance as well. (The publishers in question wanted to work with me again, but had written the artist off, so I had no choice but to cough up) I was not a happy bunny, believe me!
Now the relevance of this is… compare Joe with this hopeless neurotic who is by no means unique in modern British comics. (It’s why an editor once printed some business cards for me “Pat Mills Artist Therapy always available.”!!!) Compare him with Joe, happily married, secure, confident, producing genius work, week after week, year after year. Never complaining. Never commenting. Always on time. Drawing everything with equal magic. The total professional. And God – there must have been episodes where he must have thought , “This isn’t one of Pat’s best ” . Or… ” I think Pat’s got that wrong.” …. or… “I don’t like drawing tanks” or whatever.
Can you imagine how brilliant that felt for me as a writer? He had total trust in me. I didn’t have to be an artist-therapist with Joe, I could just get on with what I was paid to do – writing!
And when certain prima-donna fantasy artists were obsessed with Eagle awards and fandom, and competing with each other, and angsting and behaving in ways I could not repeat, there was Joe quietly and modestly working away .And remember with Joe, for the first couple of years or so of Charley’s War, he DIDN’T EVEN HAVE A BY-LINE (until I had words with the editor) – so no one even knew who he was!
Neil: Charley’s War was almost a mini-revolution in Battle. Did you get a lot of stick from your peers at the time for it’s political stance?
Pat: Charley’s War was always seen as a maverick, a one-off, by the powers that be and my peers. They didn’t especially understand it or want to imitate it. It certainly didn’t create any similar stories that I’m aware of. So, in a way, it was a revolution that failed. And I got no stick at all for it.
This kind of reflects the convenient and popularly held view – which I don’t agree with – that World War One was also a one-off, maverick, tragic phenomenon. Maybe I also had no problems because Charley’s War was extremely popular, so they didn’t actually care what I was saying. And World War One can really only be treated in that way. It was so obviously evil. So everyone makes an exception for it and accepts it will have to be critical. The World War One poets and novelists also made it ‘respectable” to criticise it. It’s become a subject for literature and historical study in schools. (So long as it sticks to an agreed “tragic” antiwar agenda … avoids conspiracy allegations … and doesn’t dig up any of the really controversial stuff, like the British army mutiny)
This ‘respectability” reminds me of the cartoon I believe I quoted in the Titan intro to Book One. I think the cartoon was by Reading in Punch. World War One soldiers are going over the top and one says to the other, ‘I shouldn’t really be here. I don’t write poetry.” And I think I may have said already how a Cambridge don once said to me the letters of the working class soldiers were not poetry – even though they were incredibly emotional and had me in tears – because “they were not intended as poetry”.
Now – by comparison… I have had all kinds of stick from peers for some of my later, more contemporary “war” stories. They followed the Charley’s War rules, characterisation and style and were my way of continuing the revolution you refer to. So let me talk about them a little… and you’ll get some idea of what goes on behind the scenes and the kind of people I was also dealing with on Charley’s War. Take Crisis, where I wrote Third World War in a fairly similar way to Charley. For me, Third World War is the same war as 1914 – 1918, fought by other means. An extension of the misery that was visited on the British people in 1914 – 1918, only now inflicted on people in the Third World, which can also include parts of Britain.
I was memorably and furiously lectured by one famous comic artist on how I should be writing entertainment, not politics. This could have also been because Third World War came out a few months before a story of his which had a similar main character but was more “entertainment orientated”. Perhaps it was sour grapes on his part, but he was very angry and really gave me stick for writing politics.
Another example. This one illustrates the shallow, commercial thinking that was also around then and at the time of Charley’s War: I did a Crisis Amnesty International issue featuring a kid in the Gaza Strip during the Intifadah, for which I interviewed a Palestinian psychiatrist. I also wrote about a planned mass execution of black people for rioting during a demonstration in South Africa, in the course of which a policeman was killed.. I focussed on a the last days of a rioter on death row. For me, he was a black Charley Bourne. Just before the issue came out, South Africa repealed the death penalty, which was great.. So we added a footnote saying this. It made for a dramatic eleventh hour happy ending. But a member of the editorial team said “Damn … why couldn’t they have repealed the death penalty after we came out on the newstands.” (So the readers could still write to the South African government – which was the original intention). He seemed to have forgotten these were thirteen real people on death row, including a grandmother. They were not comic book characters. To ignorant people like this, it’s only about making money, about commercial success. Clearly he didn’t give a damn about what the Amnesty story was saying.
Charley’s War was a commercial success so they left it alone. If it wasn’t so popular, I’m pretty sure they’d have trashed it for being political and not “entertainment”. But I was always expecting trouble – and my friends would constantly say to me, ‘How on earth did you get away with last week’s issue?” I really thought someone would pull the plug on me when I wrote about the British army mutiny – but there wasn’t a murmur. The same with the British invasion of Russia in 1919. Not a squeak.
And you must remember also that the publisher himself, John Sanders, (responsible for a vast number of titles) was a kind of maverick character himself who enjoyed controversy which probably explains why he unleashed me to create Battle, Action and 2000AD. Although we had our differences, he rarely pulled me up on content. Thus on one memorable occasion, I introduced a German hero in Action, the first to ever appear in comics. He was all set to throw it out, then he listened to my spirited defence, and finally said “You’re right. Let’s do it.”
The people below him, though, were not of the same calibre. Coming back to “politics” in comics, I believe you can be entertaining and commercial and have something powerful to say, too. So I don’t agree with the famous Hollywood mogul’s quote, ‘If you’ve got a message, use Western Union.” It’s great that Charley’s War readers also believe, as I do, that comics can compete with Western Union, and I’m encouraged by them and greatly value their response and support then and now As always, I do believe so much of Charley’s success is down to Joe. I firmly believe that if he had drawn many of my subsequent stories, like that Amnesty story I’ve quoted above, he would have made them equally popular. That’s how important and special and gifted the man was.
Finally… I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but this seems a place to say this: when John Wagner (Judge Dredd writer) and I created Battle, we were both very reluctant, at first, to do a war comic. Remember we grew up in the radical 1960s and early 70’s and so it seemed a backward step to us. But, because Warlord was out, and we had to compete, we reluctantly made Battle an all-war comic. I guess we took the King’s shilling ourselves. We tried to modify Battle a little with realism, and working class heroes (A rarity at that time – they were usually officers), but I always felt kind of guilty about creating a war comic.
Some years later, when I was researching Third World War, I interviewed one soldier, who served in Northern Ireland and ended up in a military prison. (This soldier was to partly form the basis of the eco-terrorist and Army deserter Finn in Third World War). I asked him what made him join the army. He said it was because he loved “the green” (the outdoor life) and also because he read war comics as a kid. Charley’s War was my way of making amends to myself for creating such a war comic.
Neil: Were you surprised when it became popular with readers? It must have made you feel that you had really achieved something worthwhile. I remember most of the letters page usually sang its praises each week.
Pat: It was naturally great and one can never be complacent but I was reasonably confident.You see, comics were nowhere near as competitive as they are now. That is to say, they were still riddled with traditional thinking and, essentially, it was myself, John Wagner (the writer of Darkie’s Mob and Judge Dredd) and Gerry Finley-Day (Rogue Trooper and Rat Pack) who were moving things forward. Tom Tully (Johnny Red and Harlem Heroes) was a very good, but traditional writer So the prime rivals at that time were essentially whatever they came up with.
John had decided to take a huge risk and do a ship story – HMS Nightshade, which I think appeared the same issue. Traditionally, ship stories never work (Coffin Sub in Action and Flight of Golden Hinde in Battle had bombed – I felt for other reasons ) and John fancied the challenge. He researched it at least as heavily as I did Charley’s War, but was hampered by having two artists. It didn’t work out – but not for lack of effort on his part.
Later, I tried to break the ship jinx on Charley’s War by doing the World War 1Battle of the Falklands. I figured with the topicality and Joe’s background in the navy, plus other members of Charley’s family – like Wilf and Blue – working it should be okay. No. The readers didn’t like it. The editor specifically rang me – the only time ever – to tell me to steer back to the trenches.
I was dissappointed because I had been hoping to do the Battle of Jutland – an astonishing and hideous event that really needs to be chronicled – and the Falklands had been the warm-up. This would also have given me more time to do further research on the final year of World War 1 and the opening year of World War 2. It wasn’t to be, sadly. To date, no-one has ever made a ship story work and hit the spot with the readers.
Why this is , I don’t know – I loved Das Boot and the classic films like Sink the Bismark, but in comics it just doesn’t happen.
Neil: Something I really love, looking at the early copies, was the idea of Charley writing his own simple narrative in the form of his letters home. I was wondering why you stopped doing those so early on?
Pat: I’d have loved to have kept it going. But it was difficult to sustain the irony or to maintain Charley’s simplicity with momentous events. And the realism – as conveyed by genuine soldiers letters home, which I possibly drew on – but may have limited the dramatic thrust (an ongoing pressure of British weekly comics that is still there today) That’s why I used post-cards from time to time which were a useful alternative: the heartbreaking “tick the box” if you were ill/okay/on leave and the humorous Bruce Bairnsfather – Well if you knows of a better ‘ole… go to it. So quintessentially British.
The idea came from when I’d worked on a girls romantic magazine with John Wagner. We were both extremely impressed by a story called The Private War of Nicola Brown, which was drawn by Maroto, quite a famous artist and written by John Cornforth. John had used a diary format and thiswas an attempt to follow in its footsteps. Hence why a diary features in HMS Nightshade, I think.
Neil: I read somewhere that its re-runs were censored in the dying days of battle-action-force. How did you feel about this?
Pat: You’re possibly right Neil, My views on anyone who censored Charley’s War in the re-run era are fairly unprintable. I can only recall, some time early, during the origination period, editor Terry Magee censoring the black soldiers being ill-treated by white Klu Klux Klan members because he thought it might offend people. Like who? The Klu Klux Klan?! and he baulked at a scene where I had a bored Charley fishing for rats with a length of barbed wire and a piece of meat – something that went on. He presumably thought that was revolting. So? And he also deleted a scene where Charley shot a comrade rather than let him drown in mud – which again happened. But, because I got away with so much – like the British army mutiny – I thought, hey – let it go. Don’t sweat the small stuff.
Neil: Personally I stopped reading it at the end of the World War One. How did you feel about it carrying on into the second?
Pat: My view is reasonably straight-forward here. If one of us – as creators – wants to keep going, then that has to be respected. Joe needed to keep it going, so that was fine with me. I would have loved to carry it on into World War Two, but – because I feared I did not have enough knowledge to sustain my usual savagery and they wouldn’t give me a research budget – I declined. Scott Goodall , who continued it into World War 2, was a traditional writer (he’d written a couple of series with Joe before). Sadly, there was no way he was going to give it any edge, although I’m sure he did his best.
My enduring memory and the true ending of Charley’s War is in 1933 – where Charley on the dole and he’s thinking tomorrow is another day and things can only get better . He walks off into the grimy sunset of London’s East End as a newspaper announces: “Adolf Hitler made Chancellor of Germany”. That, to me, sums up Charley and the betrayal of his great, uncomplaining but tragic generation.
Neil: And lastly, is there anything that you can remember that I haven’t covered that you would like to add.
Pat: Can’t think of anything Neil, But if you feel there’s something these replies have opened up, do ask some supplementary questions. Also, if you feel your site readers might want to ask some questions I’m happy to answer them.
As several readers have rightly commented , Charley’s War readers are very different to normal comic so-called “fans”, some of whom are far from normal! (Believe me!). I have so much time and respect for Charley’s War readers’ genuine passion , warmth and interest, which is refreshingly free of the “asshole” factor that unfortunately goes with certain science fiction “fans”.
For this reason, and because of the important subject matter, and not least because of wonderful Joe, I , too, view Charley’s War in a very different way to some of my other stories and want to ” give something back” to the readers by being as pro-active as I can be.
I’d like to thank Pat Mills personally for the time and energy that he put into answering these questions. He could have answered them in two sentences, but really took the time to write something that is an insight into the world of Comics as well as his own mind. It goes to make it a mini-epic which is brilliant. Thank you Pat. I’m sure I speak for all Charley’s War fans when I say that…
Pat Mills: A Stripography
Any complete bibliography of Pat Mills’ work would be impossible, however here’s a rough one from Wikipedia. His Comics work includes…
MACH One (18 episodes in 2000 AD between # 1-64, 1977-78)
Flesh (in 2000 AD # 1-19, 1977)
Judge Dredd (in 2000 AD # 2-3 & 19-20, 1977)
Shako! (in 2000 AD # 20-35, 1977)
The Visible Man (in 2000 AD # 47-52, 1978)
Judge Dredd: The Cursed Earth (co-writer, in 2000 AD # 61-85, 1978)