Last year, I chatted to Simon Ward, who edited the tenth volume of Charley’s War for Titan Books. Some quotes from the conversation were used in an article that was published in the last issue of Comic Heroes magazine. Anyway, I thought it would be a good idea to present the full, unedited transcript of our conversation online in case it was of interest to comic fans generally and/or of use to scholars of comics.
Charley’s War, which has been collected in ten volumes by Titan Publishing (and a new omnibus collection of the first arc, A Boy Soldier in the Great War), tells the story of Charley Bourne, a naïve young soldier who is trapped in the madness of World War One. This seminal comic strip, by Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun, ran in Battle Picture Weekly from 1979 until 1985.
In addition to Charley’s War, Simon Ward is the editor on Modesty Blaise and The James Bond Omnibus. His recent film books include Alien: The Archive, Planet of the Apes: The Evolution of the Legend, RoboCop: The Definitive History, Chappie: The Art of the Movie and the forthcoming The Art of Mad Max: Fury Road, out next month.
Matthew Badham: Why do you think that Titan chose to reprint Charley’s War?
Simon Ward: The relevance of Charley’s War has never gone away and it seems to get increasingly revisited. We think it’s such a key work in British comics.
Charley’s War, really, in terms of the realism, pacing and what it covered is viewed to be unique and it’s increasingly getting higher and higher up on people’s most important comics list.
We get a lot of post about the strip, from people who want to talk about the comic and how pleased they are to see it in print. We’ve always had good relationships with its writer and c-creator Pat Mills and artist Joe Colquhoun’s’s daughter, Jane, too.
[Editor’s note: Titan’s publication of Charley’s War came about in response to both suggestions from Pat Mills to publisher Nick Landau, but also because of the work of the late Neil Emery, who set up the now Egmont-endorsed Charley’s War fan site, recently merged into downthetubes. It was Neil’s interest in the saga, creating his original fan site, which played a significant role in revitalising interest in the series and persuading Titan Books to reprint the saga].
Matthew: The Titan collections are very nicely presented with a fair amount of supplementary material. I think the company has done a good job.
Simon: We did some tidying up of the artwork, because Joe’s artwork is just so wonderful. It’s so detailed and he packs so much into a panel. It amazes me that he can get so much into it while keeping the pacing.
Pat Mills mentioned to a previous editor on the line, John Freeman, that Jane had told him there was some of her father’s work in her attic. Moose Harris, who’d been scanning pages of Battle for us and tidying them up at that point, went down to her house to take a look – and discovered that thanks to Pat’s insistence his artwork be returned, Joe had pretty much every page of the strip. So he began scanning pages from original art, and Volume Eight was the first to see the results of this.
Some of the art is on permanent display at the Tank Museum in Bovington, and the Estate has loaned art out to various events and galleries in the UK and abroad] in the past couple of years
Since then, we’ve taken the decision to re-publish new volumes with new scans from the existing art to present the strip in its best possible light, working with the Colquhoun estate to get there. Charley’s War – A Boy Soldier in the Great War – was the first of these
The way we market it, meanwhile, is quite sombre and serious. While the comic is filled with quite a lot of humour, we think it’s unique in the way it sits there as a very exciting but also solemn and reflective document of World War One.
Matthew: What can you tell me about the supplementary material you have in the collections?
Simon: What we’ve done in the re-packaged volumes is include features by other writers, like Steve White, who for Volume 10 wrote a bit about the Spanish Flu and how that tied into the War. He’s also written about Woodrow Wilson. We’ve done these little historical documents in each volume, that place the events in the story in a historical context.
And of course Pat writes these wonderful commentaries, for each volume, which talk about his research and what he did. How he got the information for his stories. Why he wanted to shine a light on certain things. There’s some lovely things that I’ve learnt.
Matthew: It sounds like it probably appeals to a wide variety of different audiences, from historians to those who grew up reading it, to other comic fans who are discovering it for the first time. But, at its heart, it is an adventure comic, isn’t it
Simon: I think Pat’s was quite keen that this should be a comic that appealed to children. It is an adventure, you’re right. It’s educational and it’s thrilling. It’s filled with cliffhangers and excitement and it’s non-stop. So, I think that it has an appeal for the younger audience, and there’s not much like that out there any more. But a lot of the letters we get are from older readers who remember Battle, who are revisiting it and just love to see it again, so a whole lot of different people are interested in it. And, like you say, there are historians reading too.
Matthew: Pat did eventually leave and another writer, Scott Goodall, took over, but you’re not reprinting his strips.
Simon: As far as I’m aware, there are no plans to reprint those at this stage. We’ve dealt exclusively with the first cycle, covering Charley’s experiences in Russia and the beginning of the 1930s.
Matthew: That must have been hard for Pat; to move away from something that he’d invested so much work in and hand it over to another writer. My understanding is that happened because of an argument over the strip’s research budget, although I might have got that wrong.
Simon: Pat’s talked about this in interviews for the Charley’s War website some time back. If you look at the last volume we did, Pat does touch on how he moved away from it but was happy for Joe to continue drawing it. But for me, Pat and Joe working together is what really made Charley’s War what it was.
Matthew: Joe’s character work was very good, wasn’t it?
Simon: Yes, that’s right. The way you see Charley age over the years is so subtle. We believe it. Charley and his cohorts all look like real lads.
Matthew: What do you think did Pat and Joe bring to Charley’s War as a team?
Simon: Pat obviously wanted to write about the Great War and he did that as purely and respectfully as possible. That was his passion and I daresay that was Joe’s passion as well.
What Joe does with his inks is incredible. The amount of detailed action he gets in. Pat and Joe perfectly complemented each other. You read Pat’s thoughts on how they worked together and it was a wonderful friendship, I think. They get so much action and humour into the strip. The last arc, where they’re in Russia and the characters are jokingly messing about and then suddenly one’s dead. Laughing and joking, and then tragedy. It’s realistic.
Pat and Joe understood that and how to give you those heart-breaking scenes. They understood how to layer the humour and the violence. I just think they had a story they knew from the beginning and knew how to communicate it. A story they wanted and needed to tell.
My thanks to John, Joe, Simon and Moose for their help in getting this interview out to a wider audience. I’m also grateful to the team behind Comic Heroes, who gave me some nice gigs during the lifespan of that magazine.
• The 10-volume “Charley’s War” series from Titan Books and the first omnibus collection, Charley’s War – A Boy Soldier in the Great War, are available from all good book shops. A full list of the books is here on downthetubes
Charley’s War created by Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun. Charley’s War © Egmont UK