Comics and the First World War.


This essay was originally submitted as part of "The Great War, Experience and Writing".

Tell Wilf that War is not the big game what he thinks it is. I do not want to friten you so i won’t say no more...Except I think its WRONG to use poison gas.... becos it is such a CROOL way to die.

(Pat Mills, Charley’s War)

For a medium so obsessed with the portrayal of conflict and violence, it seems amazing that comics have neglected the First World War so thoroughly. Why is this? As the Nineties generation of comics artists and writers vies to produce the most offensive or subversive comic it seems strange that when many taboos are being challenged, comics makers should ignore the potentials of the Great War. There is only one comic which has fully tackled the implications of WW1; Charley’s War by Pat Mills. But does this comic merely stop after rehashing the old and familiar war tropes of horror, Hell and pity without presenting any further ideas? Modern comics pride themselves on their liberality and shock-tactic narratives - however this technique often reduces them to becoming merely offensive and puerile.Charley’s War could arguably be an early example of this. To reach this point, comics have undergone radical changes since the end of the second war, but they also seem to have evolved in a consistent way where their fixed discourses of behaviour and speech clash with those depicting war as a terrible disaster. Can comics about the First World War successfully escape this trap, or do they merely conform to accepted patterns of representing the Great War?

In many ways comics have become rooted in set patterns and this includes neglecting what is seen as the old-fashioned genre of war comics. Conflicts on an international scale are avoided (unless they involve spandex and aliens). War comics are no longer a fashionable or acceptable means of storytelling within comics, but WW1 presents such an ideologically different perspective that it is odd to what extent it is avoided, even shunned. The only war comic currently in circulation (fig.1)is so far removed from early depictions of comics conflict as to be almost unrecognisable. Usagi uses the apparently inoffensive placement which substitutes animals for men (so-called "Furries" comics) and has a timespace distanced from contemporary understandings of war - Fourth century Japan. It is the only comic in circulation printing an ongoing war story, but its non-human characterisation acts to diffuse tension created by the realistic and very aggressive subject matter.

Although comics were available during the war, they had low circulation and mainly consisted of insertions in newspapers. The comics discussed here do not involve these, and precede from the "Golden Age" era onwards. Comics were well established by the Second World War but it was afterwards that they really started to evolve, as writers such as Stan Lee and John Byrne started to create a synthesis between comics’ art and scripts. Central to this was the creation of "superhero" characters such as Captain America (Lee/Buscema, Marvel Comics 1968), who were specifically linked to the Second World War. WW2 became an integral part of comic narratives, although they specifically avoided issues such as the Holocaust. The central focus in any war comic is usually fighting, not the political motives behind the action

"War’s Never Been so Much Fun." Early War Comics

War comics as a specific genre appeared from the late 40’s onwards, however they were positioned almost exclusively during or after the second world war. The formulaic nature of these comics was rarely disputed. Within the comic genre it is virtually impossible to escape the ideas of Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale, (1968, Texas Univ Press) and this is especially true of war comics. They usually comprised a squad of exactly seven men including the following - hard bitten senior officer, rookie soldier, old "father figure", best friend (usually heroically sacrificed after fifty-odd issues), coward, villain, and hapless victim. The war comic was also a strictly no-girls allowed medium; prisoners were usually other soldiers or secret agents in need of liberation. By the Fifties, war comics had a steady purchase base on news-stands, and their own format (rather than traditional 28 page stapled issue), making them instantly recognisable. Publishers did not see the need for the creative input used to maintain the sales of fierce competitors DC and Marvel. Consequently they were badly drawn and even more badly written, reverting to hackneyed scripts and speeches which encouraged militarism,gallantry and little brainpower. (figs.2-4)

The popularity of war comics remained unchallenged for thirty years in this format, and they kept being published in a virtually unchanged way until the advent of Battle, Action and 2000AD in the late Seventies. In many ways, the comics presented a narrative which was very similar to pre-war boy’s literature. Indeed, steady sales figures did not demand a need to change this formula. War comics provided new arenas for the ideals expressed by authors such as G.A. Henty and Frank Richards as they included the additional bonus of illustrative narratives. These pre-war ideals and concepts experienced little critical scrutiny; one of the key motifs in the subversive potential of comics being the perception by canonical and critical bodies that they are badly written and aimed at children. Unfortunately in the case of the war comics this meant that very little originality or skill was required to become a comic writer or artist.

Throughout this period, WW1 as a narrative’s subject was consistently avoided. There are several reasons for this deliberate neglect. Firstly, the war proved extremely problematic due to previously established literary ideologies. The Great War was seen almost exclusively as a hell of mud and destruction. Crucially, this forum had no place for acts of individual heroism, which was an essential basis for most war stories. To convert the myth of the war as a slaughterground for the innocent was seen as offensive in a way which seemingly did not apply to subsequent wars. The perception was that the well known scale of casualties and destruction was unsuitable for conversion to the warcomic formula. This expounded individual heroism, militarism and military prowess, manliness, courage, and most importantly, a good ruck at the conclusion of the narrative resulting in clear delineations between victors and vanquished. The Great War as described by the central body of war poets, artists and writers simply did not contain these elements.

First World War stories which do appear at this time attempt to circumvent warcomic rules. Figs 2-4 demonstrate examples of early WW1 stories


Geographically, they are both placed away from the trenches, the story from Commando going further by creating a pre-war introduction for further excusative power. The two soldiers involved are friends, one German, one a British ex-pat. Their reactions to the war (fig 2) purposely animalise the German; Hans, and sentimentalise the English soldier: Tom. Tom is therefore justified in enlisting, as the German’s’ behaviour demonstrates how his race reverts to barbarians - Tom now has a justified reason to kill. Fig 4, from later in this story highlights another problem with WW1. Trench warfare takes the reader uncomfortably close to real killing. Although acceptable to portray violent situations in comics, the aftermath is rarely depicted. The readership of war comics at this point were assumed to be children - it was not considered socially or morally acceptable to expose them to the actual implications of warfare. This problem of confrontation is more easily avoided by the transient locations of most war comics. Bodies are left behind as the narrative’s geographical location shifts. In Commando, this problem is dealt with doubly. The discussion of weaponry discounts the damaging bayonet in favour of a club (unlikely to kill) and a revolver (a quick kill). The third panel shows the only example of guttering, highlighting the officers revolver further. Eventually, a grenade is used which eradicates all traces of potential bodies. The taking of prisoners implies less potential killing, emphasising the allies’ humane behaviour. The second and fourth panels depict confrontational situations, both conspicuous again for the lack of tactile aggression and defracted by the conversations in the foreground. Explosions are reduced to speed lines and although death is implied (helmet, waterbottle) the bodies become amorphous. The Germans remain speechless until the scene shift in panel 4, decharacterisning them. Conversely, amongst the British there is class implication in the artistic positioning of the armed officer and his men

This structure is typical of the way war comics avoid direct referencing to agressive behaviour. Bodies become amorphous (similarly with computer games they often flash and disappear), the moral issue of murder is reduced and instead is replaced by ideals of chivalry, nobility, class strength and courage. Commando and Victor demonstrate the contrivances necessary to place these within the Great War, which already had well established ideologies negating them.

All war comics share a very specific language both in speech and captioning. This again interferes with acknowledged perceptions of the First World War and makes it extremely difficult for conversion to the comics genre. In The Great War and Modern Memory (1975, O.U.P.), Paul Fussell gives a list of terms used in WW1 (appendix 3). These were gradually reversed and exploited by the central body of war writers and poets. War comics however use them extensively without the irony that they had come to be associated. For example, an editors banner for Charley’s War was " The supreme courage of the "Bantams"... Britain’s short soldiers."(Battle, 29th Jan 1983). Given the assumed readership of idealist young males without other contact with war literature, it was presented to be taken literally. However, the creators and editors of the comics were obviously aware that should the comics come into contact with different audiences, particularly parents, they could be susceptible to censure. The editors were therefore containing their own stories to escape any problems, and so they avoided mixing the established discourses of WW1 with those of warcomics.

"The Devils in the Air" - Aces High.

The dearth of WW1 strips slowly began to change as comics gradually realised the potential of the war as a subversive medium. Aces High (1955, EC) was the first of these, and it is fair to say that it was more radical by associated reputation than in actuality. It is one of the only examples of a WW1 comic by American publishers. As with literature, the war seems to be a peculiarly British obssession. EC’s reputation for subversion arose when it practically sunk the comics industry with its "horror" lines and the controversy surrounding them caused The Seduction of the Innocent (Dr.F.Wertham, Rinehart, 1954). Wertham claimed comics were degenerate and violence inducing, the result being that all American comics had to be approved by the Comics Code Authority (CCA). As the EC line was undoubtedly coming under the most scrutiny, it responded by producing a series of increasingly bizarre titles, of which Aces High was the fourth. EC was trying to avoid the previous styles of The Vault of Horror and Weird Fantasy by choosing subjects which they felt were less violent and frightening. Although not immediately obvious why Aces High should fall into this category, the EC collaborators were again trying to use time to displace their readers and to bamboozle the censors by choosing either "real life" events, or total fantasy. Their previous war comic; Frontline Combat,(1950-55) had already fallen to the censors, making them aware that recent conflicts were unacceptable. Other comics introduced enjoyed relative success - Piracy and Valour (knights) did well. Piracy was even memorable enough to be pastiched in Watchmen, (Moore, 1986-7), the most influential comic of the Eighties. Aces High was not.

In choosing the location for Aces High, the collaborators again avoided trenches and concentrated their story on WW1 pilots, claiming

"we will learn to know and love and respect the men, both allied and Enemy, who flew (the planes). And we will do it in the cherished tradition of EC". (Prop Wash, #1)

Herein lies the problem with Aces High. It tried to meld the traditionalist discourse of "war is hell" with the comics positioning of "war is fun".

Fig 5 demonstrates how jarring this attempt was. The heroism expressed in the second panel is crudely bubbled to emphasis recollection, comprising a mishmash of terrible clichés. The next panel tries to contain this: "War is always the same my boy. It brings death and destruction and misery no matter where, when, or how it is fought.". This is disconfirmed again as the narrative shifts back "That’s what I want to be" and "Nothing really changes". The discourses shift and clash; neither is dominant as none of the panels use definitive closure - the hard inking to the right of panel 3 and the "thought bubble" surround to panel 2 break uncomfortably into the text. The last panel is "open", in which the grandfather and child are silhouetted to emphasise the aeroplanes in the background. This trite and incredibly unsubtle attempt makes Aces High confused and obscure to read; the reader is continually having to reposition themselves in regards to the narrative. This technique was even badly received at the time.

"the First World War.... isn’t a cute game; it’s Hell. The whole story is one long repudiation of every point that was previously stated to be the purpose of the magazine... no one will ever make much more than an inconsistent farce out of Aces High."(Larry Stark, Aces High, collected edition)

George Evans, the new editor of EC also identified faults with the artistic context:

"The whole period of WW1 combat flying, as it really had been, was lost in the wild pulp magazines that cashed in on the post-war interest: most of them carried "true stories of planes and aces" which were naively accepted and perpetuated into "history" and actually about as true as Alice in suggesting the planes and props, there seemed no realisation that from 1914 through 1918 a metamorphosis (in aircraft design) had taken place." (Aces High, collected edition)

It was this inconsistency that really failed the comic. War was not the "Hell" that critics expected, nor the technically accurate and exciting pulp fiction that readers demanded. The CCA furthermore prevented either angle from fulfilment - if war became too harsh, it would become too violent and be banned. If was too enjoyable, it would be glorifying murder. The other comics published in the series were either successful because they distanced their readers with greater timespaces, or they flopped. Aces High failed to do this because it referred to an era which already had it’s own iconography and discourses which clashed with what the EC collaborators were trying to achieve. Now that EC were under pressure from the CCA, they were trying to maketheir attempts at subversion more subtle, disguised by seemingly innocuous storylines. However, the reader was unable to suspend their disbelief far enough to become engaged wit the narratives within the comics, which were often in wild disagreement with each other anyway. As a result, Aces High failed to achieve either reality or fantasy, suffering an ignoble crash and burn after only ten issues.

Aces High’s problem was not only its censors, but the way in which it tried to ignore the development of the war myth since the 1920’s. EC wanted to circumvent this by paying no more than lip service to the dominant ideologies put forwards by mainstream war writers, but even comicbook audiences were aware that the First World War was regarded as a terrible and destructive tragedy. Readers expected EC to deal with this in the same way that Harvey Kurtzman had with Frontline Combat,(1950-55) a previous EC publication which whilst firmly believing that war was necessary, managed to bridge the gap and portray the second and Korean wars as vicious, tragic and dehumanising. It was this lack of comprehension that doomed Aces High.


"Cheer-oh, Ginger!". Pat Mills And the Rise Of British Comics

In America, the EC editors admitted that their warcomics evolved to compete with pulp fiction. They were then sharply curtailed by the censors and comics started to redevelop into the more recognisable superhero medium. In Britain, with smaller circulation levels and unaffected by the CCA, warcomics were created to compete with The Eagle. The Eagle(1950-69) was published by the Rev. Marcus Morris in response to Wertham’s claims. It was incredibly popular: moral, nationalistic and catholic (Dan Dare was almost named Lex Christian), promoting the "muscular Christianity" concepts which was so popular before the war. Other British publishers realised they could not copy the science fiction location of The Eagle without becoming libellous, so they instead used the past and concentrated on stories from British conflicts. To counter Dan Dare’s fantastical voyages, they focused on apparent verisimilitude and "true life" stories. Despite this, WW1 was still avoided; it lacked individual moments of heroism, and the loss of idealism and innocence associated with it did not sit well with the nobility and courage needed for ongoing warcomic narratives.

By 1975, the boy’s comics in Britain: Battle, Action and Victor, were collapsing due to disinterest. The Eagle had already folded, although it was re-launched in 1982 with limited success. The release of Star Wars (May 17th, 1976) dramatically shifted interests away from past wars to futuristic settings. The readership slump was also due to the rigorous hierarchy of Independent Publishers Comics (IPC), who had tried little originality or innovation for a decade. To counteract this Pat Mills was drafted in to revolutionise the rapidly sinking comics. Mills had trained at American rivals DC, where he had learned their style of narrative driven stories with problematic heroes at their core (the best example of this being Batman). Mills was a marxist, and intended to use his skills to remove the sentimentalism of boys comics and upset the simplistic notions of masculinity, militarism and jingoism which had become the staple for IPC lines. He was quite literally hidden in the IPC building whilst developing his stories, and by the time he was introduced as editor and writer for the newly revamped Battle, it was too late for the old guard to react. Pat Mills’ editorship at IPC helped revolutionise the British comics industry, where he wrote on Battle and co-founded 2000AD, arguably the most famous British comic ever and still the springboard for virtually every British comics artist and writer since.

"Tanks are no use! The Bayonet’s the Answer!" - Charley’s War.

Charley’s War was Mill’s first comic strips in Battle. It appeared from #200 (6th June 1979) and ran weekly until 4th October 1986. Battle subsequently reprinted the first issues in a censored format until the comic folded in early 1987. Charley’s War was pencilled and inked by Joe Colquhoun, already an acclaimed warcomics artist. It is probably the most well-remembered of the Battle strips, and given it’s content often confused with its more overtly subversive sister, 2000AD. During it’s run in Battle, the strip regularly had precedence on the cover (fig.6), and inside usually ran as the lead or secondary story. It was undoubtedly the most subversive and disturbing strip in the comic; the story behind the "Gotterdamurung" cover involved a pacifist being forced to press the button to detonate the mines on the Messines ridge. When the largest mine fails to explode, a senior officer (Snell) shoots the pacifist for disobeying orders, despite the fact that the failure of the explosion is obviously not the mans fault. This is typical of the multiple concepts that Mills would tackle in any one issue .

Charley’s War was relentlessly shocking and challenging , forcing the reader to re-evaluate their oppinions of war and it’s consequences. (Figs 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14,) demonstrate how Mills used the Great War as a backdrop for this. Sabin in Comics, Comix And Graphic Novels (Phiadon, 1997) acknowledges the huge advancements made in the presentation of Charley’s War

"War comics (from the 60’s onwards) more or less continued to trade in plot lines that stereotyped Germans as Hitler-worshipping thugs, the Japanese as screeching sadists, and the British as whiter than white warriors capable of beating off the most fearful odds (Dan Dares in uniform). This formula was never really challenged until the 1970’s and the arrival of Battle (IPC 1977), which featured more unorthodox material such as "Charley’s War", which expressed the horror and fear of the trenches in the First World War through the eyes of a young working class volunteer." (p.63)

Mills debt to revolutionising warcomics both here and with 2000AD is acknowledged, but does he go further? Charley’s War represents the war in an innovative light in the comic genre, but can his writing be extended beyond this point? It is apparent even from the most cursory look that Mills tried very hard to do so. The story focuses on an underage Kitcheners volunteer, Charley Bourne, who manages to survive virtually every major battle in WW1. However, the narrative focus is unlike most war comics as there is very little combat experienced. Charley is unusual as he is not a particularly heroic or exceptional person; he is merely there. The location of the comic was often not particularly dramatic, located as much behind the lines as in them - it is interesting that the image used recently to depict Charley’s War in Comics Journal #207 (fig.7) is virtually unique in being a stereotyped image of "over the top".

Although Colquhoun’s art used familiar imagery of the war, it was rare for any story to be driven merely by what the art depicted. The inking was heavy and messy, shifting the strip’s tone towards darkly cynical and humourous rather than aggressively militarist. Supporting this technique, the artwork was exceptionally well researched both geographically and historically, Mills using this accuracy to emphasis unusual aspects of the war experience in his narrative. The agenda for Charley’s War is intentionally problematic: the storylines are multifaceted, ideologically complex and involve issues of morality and unusual characterisation which were unique to the warcomics genre.

Mills eschews many of the traditional war comic motifs to create this atmosphere. In particular he repositions the enemy. For Charley Bourne, the Germans are merely the other side; throughout the comics he variously befriends German prisoners, saves several German lives and helps a deserter. The comic suggests that "Fritz" is largely inaccessable "over there" and depicted as equals. Charley’s real enemies are judged entirely in terms of class warfare. Charley is intentionally working class and "an ignorant lout" (Battle.4th Dec. 1982). In one issue he is considered too stupid to remain a stretcher bearer. His main nemesis is not a vicious Hun but the quasi-aristocrat Lieutenant Snell (fig.8.).

Mills neatly avoids the misapprehension that all officers are villainous and uncaring - those in the trenches with Charley are usually either sympathetic or comically portrayed, the author emphasising the outcome of different personalities reacting to war conditions. He also recognises the role of the "temporary gentleman" in that sympathetic officer figures are often also struggling against class prejudice. Snell is rarely in the lines and therefore distanced from Charley, although this fails to prevent his class antipathy from victimising the unfortunate private. The author is extremely careful in the treatment of Charley’s reaction to these incidents - Charley is not heroic, yet still empathetic. This is a useful trope because Mills uses it to attack images of manliness. For example, at one point Snell’s behaviour makes Charley enter a "battle frenzy"

Caption: Charley Bourne’s comrades are being blown to pieces by their own side!...But because the sadistic Snell has caused a fatal delay, Charley returns to a tragic scene, and what he sees, drives him mad with rage.

(Panel. Three dead British soldiers, one guttered with scrawled wound on forehead. Charley at machine gun nest, top right)

Charley: It wasn’t very British of you to die, me old mates! You should’ve held on until Lieutenant Snell finished his tea. (He fires the machine gun, face contorted)

(Panel. No-man’s land with shadowed and close art of Germans being shot. A light pencil overlay of Snell’s face dominates the picture)

Charley: And now that me mates are dead... I just want to kill Huns and imagine they’ve got Lieutenant Snell’s ruddy face!

Sheltering German: The Lone Machine Gunner is full of hate!

Charley: Got you right between the eyes...Sir!

(Panel. Charley in profile hunched over machine gun. Dead Tommies in foreground again. One recovering.)

Charley: Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill!

Recovering Tommy: (holding hand to face) War’s a funny old business!

(Book II, p.52).

It is this kind of portrayal of the war which makes Mills’ comic truly deviant. He introduces a dizzying level of concepts within the space of these three panels. They subsume typical views of war by either comics or traditional discourses by using irony, multiple veiwpoints, unsettling images of the protagonists sanity and sense of justice and class antagonism. Charley is not fighting again the frightful Hun, he is fighting with his own mental stability and the victimisation of the upper class who see him as just another grunt. Without any real focus for this anger, he reverts to slaughtering Germans.

Charley’s War employs two other challenges to the warcomics ethos. Colquhoun continually illustrates the consequences of war, and Mills spends considerable time debating the morality of killing amongst his characters, who include pacifists, "cowards", and deserters. Although nobody except Charley is particularly long-lived, these characters lend focus to some of the central story-arcs in the comic. These expand the simplistic formula expected and are done either gradually (as in the relationship between Charley and his cousin Oiley, who refuses to go over the top and is shot), or instantaneously. Fig.9. demonstrates how one panel in which Charley recognises the psychological toll the war is taking on his face has as much potential impact as an entire story


Mills’ depictions of the war were often not even particularly subtle to resonate since he had all the source material he required from traditional literary discourses of WW1 to exploit. Again, nobody paid critical attention to comics, so repetition of stories and "overlay", where the artist uses a lightbox to trace from a photograph directly into the panels, was uncommon but acceptable. This emphasis on accurate depiction can be seen in Figs.10 & 11, which both capitalise on the "mud and slime and vermin" conceptions of the war, previously so strenuously avoided by the comics medium. Garth Ennis singled out this exceptional employment of the war’s myth structure:

....a lot of it was very darkly funny...Pat Mills then was an absolute master at that sort of thing. There was one scene where Charley’s best mate Ginger is blown to bits, and it came as a surprise because this was still early in the strip that you weren’t used to Charley’s mates having such a huge turnover rate. They later on started to drop like flies. So when Charley turned up in the next issue clutching this sack, and an officer asked him what was in it and Charley walked past in a daze, and the officer persisted and eventually Charley said "My mate, sir. My mate Ginger" it was a genuinely touching and horrible moment. (Comics Journal #207).

Moments like this had a shocking impact on a readership that was supposedly only 8-13. The artwork was consistently full of grossly unpleasant dead bodies, with Coloquhoun resolutely avoiding the staple explosion/speedline technique that had hitherto characterised the genre, and Mills expanded on the central body of war writing to produce an even more futile, gristly and bleak depictiopn of the trenches.

Mills took this challenge to the readership even further with his split narrative technique. He used the device of a triple narrative, which assumed that the reader was no longer absorbing merely the simplistic discourses of warcomics.

Fig 12 demonstrates this technique. The devices of caption, letter and art/speech inside the panel all diverge, questioning the "truth" displayed by any of them. The caption details the standard "war speak", detailing the story in a dynamic and traditional form; "intent", "revenging" and "lightening speed" are typical examples of how war comics usually decipher actions. This exaggerates and stereotypes the situation within the panel. In this case, Charley’s "lightening" reaction is actually the ignoble deed of garrotting a German with a piece of barbed wire. Additionally, the soldier in the foreground, Lonely, is refusing to participate. There is nothing heroic in either Charley’s behaviour or that of his friends. As the strip progresses, Charley’s anger is redirected towards them: "I’m heartsick of your bellyaching" . Attacking the German is in no way praised or rewarded, in fact it acheives nothing because the soldier still manages to raise the alarm. The third narrative is deliberately the most infrequent in the strip: Charley’s letters home. It is these which really extend Charley’s War beyond the accepted readings WW1 in comic and literary form. The letters question the truth of both previous narratives (caption and action), and furthermore depict Charley as an unreliable narrator. Charley’s letters home are thus an extremely important device as they encapsulare Mill’s ulterior motives for using WW1 as a subject for the comic.

The letters nominally display the recognised civilian/combatant paradox which depicts the lack of understanding between the two "sides" of home front and soldier populations, but they also depict neither resentment nor enjoyment of the war. This is an unusually subversive attitude even in literary readings of the war. Charley describes the conditions in the trenches in a detached way, but as they are an exclusively personal account, they cannot help but contain the central issues affecting him: "One of my mates is WEEPER WATKINS.He cantt stop crying but hes the happyist bloke wot I kno"(Book II, p57.) .The letters intentionally point up Charley’s stupidity, and therefore his unreliability as a single recorder of the Great War. In the same way that Graves, Sassoon and Owen have produced a highly specific view of the war which neglects many of the central issues, Mills is aware that no matter how complex his storylines, he cannot depict a true perspective of the First World War with only one character and one situation. The view he does give is highly subversive, and he capitalises on this idea through his narratives, which demonstrate that the "truth" of any situation can shift even when it is supposedly taking place depending on who records it. This is an accepted concept in mainstream literature, but to the war comics audience, used to being told exactly what they were seeing and how to see it, this was a revolutionary concept.

The shift between narratives in Charley’s War is used to extend concepts of morality and deviance into the comics. Mill’s creates impossible paradoxes which both the reader and Charley are expected to resolve. This rarely happens; firstly because the plotting of the script is so tight, and moves form one story to the next extremely quickly, but also because it is accepted by Mills that in most dramatic situations in the War, there was rarely time for the sort of navelgazing that both the warpoets and the conclusions war comics deal with

. Fig 13 demonstrates this. Charley is ordered by Snell to shoot an officer for disobeying an order. The officer (Thomas) had ordered a retreat and possibly saved his battalion as a result. Charley refuses and throws down his arms. By the next page, he is arrested and given Field Punishment Number One. Then he is victimised by another officer. There is no dramatic closure here - the narrative merely moves on to another event. Mills expects his readers to form their own conclusions, and Charley is used as a dramatic pawn to achieve this - he can only react to events. His working class status and low intellect prevent him from creating situations, and although he is aware of the injustice of his situation, he does not behave "heroically" as most war comics would revert to, in order to save himself.



Oh, The Humanity. First World War Comics Post -Charley.

The impact of Charley’s War was enormous, enough to earn the continuing respect of writers such as Garth Ennis and Alan Moore, who included a tribute panel in Watchmen (1986-7), lifted directly from the shell-shocked face of "Lonely" (figs 14,15)

. This is one of the central turning points in Watchmen, and Moore was obviously tapping into his reader’s memories of trauma as already expressed in Charley’s War. Unfortunately it proved to be almost unique. Despite the success of Charley’s War, other company were still unwilling to trespass into the battleground of the First World War. Victor tried a similar strip - Cadman the Frontline Coward , but it still succumbed to the older war comic clichés and was clumsily executed. The officer Cadman always managed to "avoid being seen as an obvious shirker the quick thinking actions of his private, Tom Smith", but once again the positioning of Smith as a heroic figure deflected the impact of Cadman.

Later comics used the First World War sparingly. However, some deliberately chose the Great War in an attempt to intellectualise the comic genre. Enemy Ace (fig 16) not only tried to use the war to this effect, but also employs painted art and the graphic novel format to attempt this.

Comic writers often appear to assume that weighty subjects and "serious" artwork automatically lend them credibility, unfortunately they often do this extremely clumsily. Enemy Ace not only spouts an incredibly formulaic version of the "war is Hell" discourse, cobbled together with a few impressive looking quotes, but is virtually incomprehensible because of the poor standard of artwork. The artist uses fog or darkness to evade painting backdrops, and the story lacks connection with either the accompanying art or the reader. Again, the need for historical accuracy in comics involving the war is brought home when the plot, supposedly about Baron Richthofen, suddenly swoops into the trenches during the Christmas truce apparently so that "Der Baron" can embark on a lengthy and teeth-grindingly bad monologue:

"The war had changed me. I would never again be the same...on that field of death and faith in humanity was restored." (p.33)

Longshot, (fig 17) the most recent First World War comic, is typical of the independent (indie) comics genre; obscurely presented, dealing with more mature concepts than the mainstream products, and aimed at an older audience. Longshot includes the war as it is ostensibly a biography of the decline in British society since 1890. Again the sequences which depict the war succeed because the agenda of the comic is not merely to represent the Great War but to subvert the comics genre. It responds to the usual discourses of trench warfare in an original and humorous way, employing them to bring out ideas of nationalism and class rather than to give a straightforward portrayal of the conditions of the war. The panelling technique used gives the trench warfare scenes further impact as they include some of the only "special effects" in the comic.



Conclusion. In the End, the Good Guys Never, Ever, Ever Lose!

Comics are an extremely difficult area to research. There is little critique available, and even this tends to stick to a historical overviews, or the more recognosed genres of mainstream superhero comics. As a result of this, I have been unable to include pertinent critical analysis from secondary sources: it simply doesn’t exist.The essay itself has nessecarily become more of a narrative - comics are studied infrequently and have provided themselves with an extensive vocabulary which is often inaccessable to laymen, making it very difficult to use examples that stand alone, or make references to techniques or eras without explaining them more fully. To produce a more thorough study of the war comics genre itself would have demanded a much longer essay than this one. The rapid production of comics also means that the genre changes very quickly - comics from "The Silver Age" of the 1960’s are already antiques, and the comics business is both mercenary and fashion-driven trends and tastes change very quickly: a copy of Witchblade #1(1996) was worth £70 last year and only £25 this year. As this essay was being produced, DC comics announced the relaunch of their banned warcomic, The NAM.(Comics International, June 1999) EC comics are reprinting old copies of Aces High. A serialisation of Enemy Ace is being considered by Vertigo DC. There has simply not been room to speculate on the repercusssions this may have on the warcomics genre, and whether the warcomics genre is back on the rise.Within all of these changing patterns lies the position of warcomics using the First World War as a medium. There is no way of knowing if what I have said about them will stand as a general rule for the next century, or be hokum in six months time.

What remains from this speculation is the fact that so far, the First World War presents an immensely problematic discourse for comics because it clashes with the established comics ideology that fighting and wars are a matter of course. The morality and political implications of killing and warfare are rarely mentioned as the readers of comics are often encouraged not to question what they see, but rather to enjoy the notions of militarism, masculinity and nationalism that are enforced very blatantly in each narrative. Whereas other wars are geographically transient or based exclusively around mechanical warfare, the First World War already has an established body of Canonical writing that refutes these ideals. This literature furthermore centres on the human disaster and the loss of innocence experienced in the war. It is seen as a war fought primarily in the trenches., with close proximity to death and the aftermath of killing. War comics have therefore avoided WW1 because it cannot be subverted to their own narrow and formulaic methods. The facts of the war as a massive tragedy are too well known to be replaced with the jingoism often displayed in war comics, even for a youthful audience. Comics which do depict the war are often failures because they try to meld this discourses, or become too reverential to the established war myth (Enemy Ace, Aces High) without creating anything original. Readers expect a high level of historical accuracy in what they read, and again this clashes with the implications of murder and suffering which comics are loathe to represent. It seems that for a WW1 comic to be truly successful, it must be able to subvert both of these ideas. Furthermore, the key to this is to have more than one agenda; although the war is the subject of the comic, the focus lies elsewhere with issues of class, masculinity and nationhood. Longshot does this by aiming for an adult audience, and uses a unique method of art which avoids depicting...anything at all. It is a good comic but not a particularly serious one; the First World War is just one of the many events in Roland Gethers’ life, and by depicting everything with the same level of irony, Simmons looses his effect somewhat.

The only comic that has really subverted both the war comics genre and concepts of WW1 is Charley’s War. However in many ways the sheer intensity of the comic and the huge amount of different issues tackled by Pat Mills makes it very difficult for anyone to successfully follow him. Charley’s War is a genuinely original and deviant comic. It tackles issues that would have been found too offensive for mainstream publication under the auspices of a medium supposedly aimed at children. Because Mills knew that Battle would attract little critical attention, he could get away with presenting the war in a blackly comic way and irreverent manner which also encouraged it’s readers to question their reading habits, their attitudes to class warfare, the reliability of narration, the nature of heroism in a situation which could not possibly be conducive to natural human behaviour, and the moral implications of war. Charley’s War is subversive because it is not contained - it transcends it’s medium because it is so aware of what it is doing, it does not have to limit itself because it is already pushing the boundaries of respectful depiction of the war and aware that it can get away with it. This is not only why it is a successful depiction of the war, but also a popular and well-remembered comic in a genre which has come to expect shock-tactic writing and illustration as a matter of course and yet still praises Charley’s War for the innovative steps it took to enable this.





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Mills.P & Coloquhoun.J. Charley’s War in Battle #200 - 673 IPC pub. 1979-87.

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War is Hell, Cartoons of the War , High Diction (Appendix 3), Back to main page



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Appendix 2. Additional Terms.

1. Pencilling is the drawing itself, before it has been inked or coloured.

2. Inking is the addition after the initial pencilling of inks and shading. If you wish to profoundly annoy an inker, tell them that their job is really just a case of tracing. (This is possibly the greatest insult you can give in comicsland)

3. Pencils or inking which represent movement are Speedlines.

4. Closure may be the end of the comic, but it also refers to the means by which spaces are created between consecutive panels.

5. Overlap is very similar to guttering, but occurs when art from one panel overflows into another panel.

6.A Banner is a sentence running a the top of a page independent of the story, but describing the incidents on the page more fully than the title below it. E.g. "The Gun pressed against Charley Bourne’s Head is held by...A British Officer!" (BattleAction, 8th March, 1980).

7. A One-Shot is a comic story which runs for one issue only, and is independent of any other story.

8. A graphic novel is a comic that is designed to be presented in book form rather than an ongoing story.


9. A Furry is the ridiculous name given to a comic which uses animals insead of people for its protagonists.

10. Dates. These are the approximate dates for each "age" of comics; loosely based around the tenure of Stan Lee as chief writer of Marvel comics (approx. 1960-75)

Golden Age 1945-60.

Silver Age 1960-75.

Modern Age 1975-present.