Charley’s War: Hitler’s Youth

Hitler's Youth

B

There will always people for whom World War II and especially Adolf Hitler provide a source of endless fascination. Perhaps it’s because Hitler seems like literally the most evil person to ever exist — people feel the need to analyze and unpack this larger-than-life figure who caused the world unimaginable misery. Those people will likely be captivated by the contents of this eighth volume of the 1980s serial Charley’s War reprints, subtitled Hitler’s Youth. This book presents the story of a young Adolf in the trenches of the German frontline of World War I in the last days of 1917. Adolf’s story is set against that of British soldier and titular hero Charley Borne; writer Pat Mills (2000AD, Judge Dredd) presents a balanced view of each side of the battle in scripts that seem like historical documents. As we follow two battling units of soldiers into the last year of the Great War, we get a pretty nuanced, interesting picture of what it might have felt like to live on that front line.

Unfortunately, how to situate Charley’s War historically was one of my only qualms with the book. Mills’ script is not only very matter-of-fact but also written in past tense, making this book read like a historical transcript. That, coupled with a lack of background and contextualization of the series in this volume from publisher Titan, makes it difficult to immediately size up just how much of what we’re reading is actually true — moreso because Titan does include an interesting essay by Steve White (who’s given no credits and doesn’t turn up in a Google search — is he a writer, historian, fellow comic creator?) about Hitler’s early days and rise to power that makes all of Adolf’s scenes seem very real. I suppose it’s not necessarily a problem that Charley’s War blurs the lines between reality and fiction, especially when the things here could have happened even if they didn’t, but given the really nice job Titan does with packaging this book (besides White’s essay, strip-by-strip commentary from Mills in the back) I would have liked to know a little more about the original Charley’s War series, since this is the first I’d ever heard of it.

Even without the context, though, the art in this volume — provided by ex-Royal Navy member Joe Colquhoun — is fantastic. For me it’s definitely the book’s biggest selling point. The whole book’s in black and white, but I think that actually adds to the detail on the page. Colquhoun’s pencils are gritty yet complicated, and he’s equally adept at conveying quiet moments in the trenches as he is at grand dogfights. Also, as best as I can tell he’s inking himself. What results feels very raw and honest. I’m most impressed by Colquhoun’s ability to capture distinct figures not only without color but with every character dressed basically the same. Throughout this book you never really lose sight of your principal characters or even the main supporting ones, which is really impressive. His work on Hitler, especially, commands your attention; here the historically real feel of this script lends Colquhoun’s art a lot of weight, and vice versa.

Mills’ commentary at the end of this book suggests that these comics have become more popular in recent years than ever before (probably due in no small part to Titans’ reprints); some academics have even begun incorporating them into World War I studies, he says. I think that, with the right context, Charley’s War could provide a very compelling study of life during wartime. I know I myself learned a little something; I was especially fascinated at how warring soldiers would call an unofficial truce on Christmas and actually get together to play games. Even given my few reservations regarding historical depiction, well-researched and incredibly drawn elements like that make this book a treasure.

tags: charley's war, hitler's youth, joe colquhoun, pat mills

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