Charley’s War – Background

Charley's War: JudgementReader’s Note: This foreword to the site, originally written by Neil Emery in 2004, has been left pretty much as he wrote it, in respect to his memory…

Welcome to the all new and revamped, the first and only website on the net dedicated to Charley’s War – the best story in the British war comic Battle Picture Weekly, and later, Eagle.

Charley’s War is arguably the most important British comic war story ever. The script was written by Pat Mills with artwork by Joe Colquhoun. It started in early 1979 (the 200th issue of Battle Picture Weekly) and revolved around the exploits of Charley Bourne; a 16-year-old idealistic kid who lies about his age so he can leave his job at the bus garage and join Kitchener’s army as it swelled with volunteers, ready for the “Big Push” of summer 1916 (the debacle better known as the Battle of the Somme).

Charley very quickly realises the real facts of the most horrific War of the Twentieth Century and turns very much the anti-hero when all of his mates are cut down on the first of July, the first day of the Somme.

Battle: First Charley's War CoverThe story tracked Charley’s fortunes right through the Great War, documenting his experiences on the Somme, Ypres and the final Advance of 1918. This thread of World War One action was backed with historical research by both its creators that bordered on obsessive. Many accused Mills of using it as a vehicle for his left wing political views, as the narrative showed much of the “black history” of the war to end all wars. None of the story was anything other than one hundred per cent truth which kills such accusations stone dead. It’s irrelevent from what angle the story was projected if all it contained was true. It was cleverly narrated in the beginning by Charley’s own badly spelled letters home to his family in East London. As well as being tragic in places and ironic in others these letters were an insight into the character from a completely original angle. This down to earth, uneducated feel of the character was reflected by the backward facing ‘S’ within the story’s title banner.

As a character, Charley Bourne was almost illiterate, naive beyond belief and certainly knew his place in the class-dominated hierarchy of Edwardian society. A strange Hero indeed! Yet there was something endearing about him that you just can’t put your finger on. He was the personification of stoic resignation that existed at that time.

The story had a huge following and became the most popular in the comic in a short space of time. In a jingoistic “blood and guts” 10p comic for boys, in which all of its other stories were typical glorified comic fare, that fact alone was quite remarkable. Before long the letters page became almost a Charley’s War fan club, and the grandchildren of Great War veterans wrote of it showing the story to them, a story which met with many positive responses. High praise indeed.

After the War ended an older Charley Bourne was posted to Russia to help the White Russians fight the Bolsheviks in 1919. (An often overlooked and unknown facet of World War 1).

The story continued into the beginning of the Second World War when, due to a falling out with IPC over his research budget Mills bowed out to concentrate on the new story for 2000AD: Slaine. He had intended to bring Charley’s War into World War Two and tell some of the darker history of that war too but, in the end writer Scott Goodall took up the mantle with Joe Colquhoun and it continued (without its previous edge) until its eventual rushed end in 1986.

This website was built because after extensively searching the net for Charley’s War or Battle I found it totally lacking so decided to build one, simply because it’s criminal for one not to exist. Believe me, I’m not usually the kind of person who just sits down and says “Hey I’ll build a website.” It would have to be something very special for me to dedicate so much time to, considering I had no knowledge of building a web site whatsoever (and am generally the type of person too lazy even to praise a site I’ve really enjoyed in the guestbook!)

Charley’s War is that special.

It’s the first attempt at web design for me, so I ask you to forgive the imperfections and if you can offer any constructive criticism it would be gratefully received. (although one regular couldn’t bring himself to saying anything against the old site because he said it was done with so much passion it would have felt like drowning puppies). Its content will be an ongoing project and will change, improve and grow over time.

One thing I can promise is that for all its faults, it’s passionate and done with an energy that the subject deserves. It really is a labour of love; I just wish I’d done it earlier.

Charley’s War was a huge part of my childhood. After 22 years from the golden era of the comic and story alike I can still remember snippets of script and flashbacks of the artwork as if it were yesterday. When recently I bought some old copies from eBay it was strange to see it was 1980 and I was only ten!

As we’ve seen, Charley’s War is an Anti-War story which ran in a pro-war comic. Think about that for a minute – it’s quite a concept, isn’t it? Mine was the last generation to be reared on stories of World War 2 heroics by characters such as Battle‘s D-Day Dawson and the like. Fearless and invincible as they fought Hitler’s evil empire with a cigar in the side of their mouths, and de-riguer leather jacket. These were Characters whose lives seemed to start and end with War and their own personal glory, in stories that were generally lacking anything to do with fact.

When Charley’s War appeared it changed everything, with its honesty and realism. It was sometimes ironic, sometimes funny, sometimes tragic and always arch. Years later my interest in history and in particular the Great War (sparked by Charley’s War) led me to read most of the classic contemporary accounts of the conflict: the Siegfried Sassoon trilogy, Robert Graves’ Goodbye to all that, Carrington’s A Subaltern’s War etc. and I was amazed just how detailed and historically correct the story was. Pat knowingly instilled some knowledge in his readers but more importantly sparked a thought process of their own, leading them into a direction that was simply the right one!

It seems trite to include it here but Wilfred Owen’s line in Dulce Et Decorum Est springs to mind: “You would not tell with such high zest to children ardent for some desperate glory the old lie, Dolce et decorum est (It is sweet and glorious to die for one’s country).

If you’re discovering Charley’s War for the first time you may be forgiven for thinking ” What a load of fuss for a comic strip” But if you read on, you will see that Charley’s War is anything but just that. The story is still as popular and so fondly remembered today because of many many things: its sensitivity in dealing with such a hugely emotive subject such as the Great War, its honesty, its messages of the futility and horror of war, its comments on class, its anti-macho stance and its refusal to allow another generation to forget the huge waste of life being just a handful.

The two main ingredients that made Charleys War so good and so special were writer Pat Mills and artist Joe Colquhoun. Pat must have researched the Great War to incredible lengths to add the realism and angles to it that he did. There is a detailed page about his choice of subjects and key plotlines within this site as well as an exclusive interview about Charley’s War which Pat very kindly granted me. His other work has been much documented in more recent years due to the Judge Dredd movie. His place in the comic industry is legendary and he is one of the most prolific writers in his field.

Personally, (and I have and will be again, kicked to death for this) I am not a fan of comics and never have been. Even when I used to read Battle as a kid I only read Charley’s War. The other strips didn’t interest me at all. 2000AD was lost on me completely, apart from a few classic Dredd sagas such as ‘The Hunter’s Club’ etc. I am at a lost to know what a ‘fanboy’ is and the mentality of most diehard fans of modern comics is alien to me. Apart from a bit of Nemisis the Warlock drawn by the great Kevin O’Neil, I’ve read nothing of Mill’s massive volume of work. I will one day because I know I may well be missing out. I have a sneaking feeling though that nothing will strike me ever again like Charley’s War did.

Maybe it was Joe’s art, maybe it was the script, I dont know. All I do know is that it stands alone in its medium. Perhaps the phenomenal success of Dredd, and the shadow it casts on Mills’ earlier work is why there’s little information on Charley’s War. It’s remained, for years, a wonderful secret, but it’s time to share it.

I also fell in love with the artwork of dear Joe Colquhoun – a comic artist whose work has never been surpassed in my view and definitely the most underrated in his field. It’s a crime that this genius has been forgotten so quickly after his sad death some ten years ago. Joe unknowingly taught me, (and many others, no doubt) to draw through the hours I spent copying the characters in Charley’s War in biro and pencil. Joe made every single frame something to get lost in. The characters were so real they could almost jump out the page, their expressions sometimes left no need for lettering.

The extensive panoramas of the Western Front were breathtaking and his attention to detail in uniforms, weapons and setting was at an equal level with the writing. The subject itself seems an impossible thing to draw ( the confined spaces of the trenches, the mud, the rain etc.) but yet Joe made these scenes look easy.

To this day, if I am drawing in any medium Joe’s style is in there looking back at me. Joe had been an excellent teacher and I went on from copying his stuff as a kid to an A-level and degree in Art.

I’m really not over stating the fact when I say Joe sparked my interest and taught me so much more than my high school Art teachers. There are some great examples of his work on this site and also a detailed look at how brilliantly researched all his stuff was. There is also possibly the only interview he ever did here, in which he discusses the business, and the strips he did over his long and varied career. I owe Joe a great deal and this website is the very least I can do.

Since I launched the old version of this site in 2002, a great deal of things have happened. From the first appearance on the web of Charley’s War information I was quite literally swamped with emails (I’m sorry, incidentally, to the very many I never had time to answer). I couldn’t quite believe the reaction, and neither could Pat Mills. Together, we started a campaign to get the strip re-issued. With me collecting and forwarding every email and query about a re-release to Pat and him once a month or so bundling them up and sending to Titan Books along with demands they re-issue at very least their two previously published titles. Titan shuffled their feet and waited.

In September 2002, only four months after the site was launched a new publication called Memorabilia magazine was issued, featuring an article concerning the recent interest in British war comics. At the time, the Charley’s War graphic novels released by IPC in the early 1980’s (books one and two) were changing hands on eBay for up to sixty pounds each. The article, by a guy called John Freeman (who later gave me some excellent advice for which I thank him very much) was about war comics in general, but as is the case with the genre it became a Charley’s War article in the main due to the size of the shadow the strip casts in its field. Pat Mills was interviewed for the article and he cleverly turned it into a vehicle to plug this site and explain about the reissue campaign. John Freeman very kindly mentioned the name of the site a few times – and me – and Charley’s War throughout the article. This exposure was a fantastic bit of luck and led to even further interest and even bigger email bundles landing on Titan’s desks via me and Pat.

Titan/Rebellion tentatively tested the water and announced that Charley’s War would be reprinted in the 2000AD spin-off Judge Dredd Megazine. To open the doors for it, Dave Bishop wrote an epic series about Battle called ‘Blazing Battle Action’. It was an epic piece which again could not avoid devoting a hell of a lot of it to Charley’s War. It ran some small panel size articles about the strip alongside such as ‘Charley’s War – how good was it?’ and Joe Colquhoun’s biography. Most of it was culled from this site, but David very kindly quoted me and acknowledged the site in practically every issue of the article.

The result of this epic was that when Charley’s War was re-run in the Megazine in prog 211 on 24th September 2002. The story had already grabbed the interest of the original readership and the younger new ones as well.

Charley's War: Among the DeadIn all, the entire run up to and all of the Battle of the Somme was reprinted – in total, 69 issues! The official 2000AD forum was buzzing with discussions being held about the merits of the reprints and if they date well. Generally, the reception was fantastic and soon after Titan coughed, stopped shuffling their feet and announced that they would be releasing the strip in Graphic Novel form, complete with a “director;s commentary” by Pat Mills’ (Initially the release was of two hardback editions and then the plan was to continue “until they are no longer economically viable”).

This same month of writing (November 2004) that promise became a reality and the first Charley’s War book release for 18 years has arrived (see review). The book is apparently selling well and the story is unsurprisingly as popular as it ever was. I was lucky enough to be asked to write a small piece for the book which, needless to say, I was over the moon to have the chance to do. (Thank you, editor Steve White and Pat Mills!)

As many people have pointed out, this new river of interest and a book release started with the tiny stream of the old site and I guess these new collections are indeed thanks to this site in many ways. If that is the case I’m immensely proud of that, but thank you to all those people who wrote all those emails to me. Although some went unanswered, none of them were written in vain – they were all, in my opinion, the main reason why Titan Books has done all this, so thanks for taking the time to write them all.

Now go and buy it so we can have the whole thing in books!!

That is the Charley’s War story to date. It’s held peoples interest and continues to,. It’s an interest that has spanned 25 years and that interest is due to Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun. Joe and Pat really were the Lennon/McCartney of the comic world, two geniuses working on the same project. In the mid 1980s Battle editor Terry Magee wrote: “One history professor wrote to me and equated Charley’s War to All Quiet On The Western Front as an important social document – so well written, so well drawn, worthy enough to be included in any college curriculum of art history.”

High praise indeed-and yet no website? Well, here’s my modest effort for Pat and Joe…

Neil Emery, Winter 2004


Charley’s War created by Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun


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