Title: Charley’s War: Hitler’s Youth
Author: Pat Mills, with art by Joe Colquhoun
Publisher: Titan Publishing
Volume: Volume 8, $19.95
Vintage: October 2011 (not sure of the original run of these particular strips, but it was some time in the early-mid 1980s)
Genre: Military comics, WWII
Charley’s War follows the young Charley Bourne during his time as a soldier over the course of WWI (and to WWII under another writer). As a British soldier, Charley finds himself involved in various major events of the war, including the Third Battle of Ypres and the British Army Mutiny. By the time of Hitler’s Youth (volume 8), Charley is back on the front lines in the winter of 1917, fighting in the trenches in close proximity to the Germans. Among the German soldiers is a then unknown soldier named Adolf Hitler. A stickler to rules and regulations, Adi (as he is called by his fellows) often has criticism for those who don’t keep in line. The Austrian has a fierce devotion to Germany, and gets violent on anyone who speaks ill of his adopted country. In the German trenches, Hitler is the top runner of his regiment. On the British side, Charley is the number two sniper alongside expert marksman Len Southgate. With orders to tag the runner, Charley and Len keep an eye out for the young man’s distinctive facial hair. We get an early look at Hitler’s devilish luck as he continually dodges or falls into situations that result in narrow escapes from death. As Charley and Len begin taking out Germans one by one, the Germans retaliate with a sniper of their own, and a battle of snipers begins. Things get tense once again when the British open fire on a café where Hitler’s unit is enjoying their last night in reserve before going back to the front lines. To retaliate, the regiment joins an upcoming raid at Hitler’s urging. Many die on both sides, and the raid amounts to little more than some revenge for the Germans. On Christmas Eve, one of the German soldiers receives news of the birth of his son. Fueled by this good news, the soldier, Bruno, initiates a Christmas truce with the British. Miraculously, the British and German troops gather together on the middle ground between the trenches (No Man’s Land), where they exchange addresses, drinks, songs, stories, and play games. Except for Hitler, who refuses to fraternize with the enemy, and spends his time reading political books in the dugout. The story shifts gears to Charley’s brother, Wilf, a gunner-observer in the air force. Wilf’s job is to fire the guns on a Bristol F2B for the pilot Captain Morgan, known for his aggressive flying and frequent turnover of gunners. Wilf becomes annoyed when Morgan takes the credit for his gun work, but isn’t in the position to complain. However, when Wilf saves his life and the plane, Morgan’s respect for him grows, and he begins teacher Wilf the skills to become a top notch observer. Wilf suffers a set back while flying with another officer as Morgan recovers from an injury. Lieutenant Costello, during an artillery spotting mission, becomes fearful of the incoming German planes and pulls out before the job is done, but blames his cowardice on Wilf’s skills, resulting in a demotion for the innocent Wilf. Morgan gives him another chance, but during an air fight, Costello pulls out of the battle, and an angry Morgan gives chase, until Wilf manages to talk some sense into him. Meanwhile, Wilf’s friend, a mechanic named Janker, unintentionally causes the death of a well respected pilot and gunner team when he lazily patches up their plane so he can take a trip into town. Although he is aware of his friend’s mistake, Wilf decides to stay quiet, and continues with his training in reconnaissance photography. Though wracked with guilt, Wilf none the less accepts a promotion and gains his observer’s wing. The other gunners and mechanics take Janker’s punishment into their own hands, and Morgan vows to punish Wilf for his part as well. The story shifts back to Charley at the Western Front, where heavy raids have been occurring nonstop. Charley, still on sniper duty, gets on the bad side of The Scholar when he opens an incorrectly delivered package. The man clearly has it in for Charley now, and nearly gets him punished on a false charge as the volume wraps up. The collection is followed up by strip commentary by Pat Mills, which details the inspiration for some strips, historical context for others, or commentary on the artwork within the book, as well as other notes.
The first thing I noticed about this series is just how very British it is. There’s a lot of British slang in the text; I almost felt like I needed a dictionary to sort some of it out. I believe the proper description for that is authentic. The next thing I noticed was how incredibly detailed the art is. The comic is in black and white, so it relies heavily on some really masterful inking and shading by Joe Colquhoun. There is an unfathomable amount of depth and detail in these pages, printed spectacularly on glossy paper. There’s a note on the copyright page that says the source material used for this book is quite rare, and notes that the reproduction quality varies as a result. The book looks so good I didn’t even notice. Titan did an amazing job, as every page is sharp and clean. The only real criticism I have about the art is that I sometimes found myself confused about which side I was seeing, because there’s not much to differentiate between the Germans and the British. Since it’s in black and white, they all sort of look the same, though that’s not a knock against the art itself. The easiest way, I finally realized, is to note the soldiers’ helmets. I’m not sure why I didn’t pick up on that right away. It’s all very realistically drawn, though fortunately the gore level is extremely low. There are bodies blown around by grenades, and bullets whizzing through bodies, but there aren’t any organs spilling all over, or body parts flinging around. Some people might prefer that, especially as it is a war comic, but I don’t think it’s necessary and would rather not be distracted by that. Charley’s War is about the people, the individual soldiers, their experiences, their fears, their victories. I think bloody, gory violence would detract from that. The horror of war can be shown in other ways, and Mills and Colquhoun have no problem doing so. They’re also good about pointing out the little, often forgotten tragedies, like a group of soldiers who suffocate from wood smoke as they try to keep warm without giving away their position to the enemy; a pilot and gunner who die when their plane crashes as the result of botched maintenance; or the harsh punishment soldiers received for screwing up on duty (including one who was tied up on a stake and nearly shot in a fire fight until he was released by a fellow soldier concerned for his safety). War isn’t always fire fights and bombings, and the slower side of war is captured perfectly in the trench warfare that plays out in the first part of this volume. Two armies, dug into the ground during a brutally cold winter, snipers taking out soldiers one by one rather than scuffles between groups of troops. Lots of waiting, lots of lying quietly for hours, young men trying to keep warm and keep up their morale any way they can. It’s a great contrast to the air fights in the second part of the volume, which are fast and high risk, but with soldiers who operate out of a stationary base rather than holes dug in the ground, and who only meet their enemy in the sky. The subtitle for this collection is Hitler’s Youth, and while Hitler as a character plays a large role in the story, I would not consider this a serious introspective on him as a person of interest. Mills touches on some very specific aspects of Hitler’s personality and lifestyle, including his otherworldly luck, his interest in the occult, and his fierce devotion to Germany. Some of his close ups with “important” and “telling” dialog unfortunately come across as silly and a little forced. Little is really known about Hitler’s time as a soldier during the first World War, which is talked about in this book’s foreword by Steve White, so Mills was trying to work him in with very little to go on, and it shows. The overall dialog also suffers a bit from the period the comic was written in, though honestly I think it’s aged very well. At any rate, pitting Hitler against Charley was an interesting way of tying the stories of both groups of soldiers together, and there are some very chilling and foreboding moments, despite my initial reaction. Hitler was well known for escaping death on a regular basis, even early on in his military career, and Mills and Colquhoun make use of this several times, giving Charley and his trench mates multiple chances to take the future dictator out, and allowing Hitler to become more and more sure of his destiny. Where this volume (and the series as a whole, I assume) really shines is in its depiction of the camaraderie among the common soldiers, the grunts who do the dangerous jobs, the thankless jobs, and who provide support for their higher ranking and higher class officers. There’s very little time spent on the top ranks, unless it’s to show how far above the average Tommy they are; for example, the rather lavish Christmas dinner the British officers receive, unbelievable in a time of war, especially in the front line trenches. Fans of war comics and stories of the common soldier, Charley’s War: Hitler’s Youth is for you.
Review copy provided by Titan Publishing.