Charley’s War: Hitler’s Youth

Charley’s War was a comic that ran in Battle Picture Weekly beginning in 1979, although it was set during World War I. The title character was a boy soldier who lied about his age to enlist and wound up taking part in almost every major battle of the war. He was a mechanism to show grunt-level action and occasional atrocities for the boy comic audience.

In this volume, it’s December 1917 and we start by meeting Hitler, a corporal picking fights and overreacting with exaggerated patriotism against his own comrades. Although the book is named after him, he fades out of the story after a bit, with no conclusion to the appearances shown here (but we all know he survived).

On the British side, Charley is training as an assistant sniper. A later lengthy section, taking up half the book, also shows us Charley’s brother Wilf, who’s a gunner in the flying forces. His story is disturbing in showing how disloyal the pilots are to their fellow soldiers, even firing on each other during an aerial fight. Wilf is ambitious, wanting to learn more and improve his standing, but his mates tell him not to bother and keep his head down to avoid getting the wrong kind of notice, demonstrating the class-based nature of British society, even during wartime.

The art is detailed and dark, focusing on the muck and daily tedium of ground-level battle. The material was reported extremely well-researched, and it feels authentic, even though the chapters are each only three pages long. There’s lots of death, and not much story, other than seeing who’s going to get shot this week and how Charley manages to survive. There’s no resolution by the end of the volume, just more tedium of the soldier’s life, attempted revenge (by an officer with a grudge), and life-or-death consequences.

History buffs will find this volume an unusual take on familiar material. The book opens with an essay about Adolph Hitler’s early life in Austria and his career in the German army, and writer Pat Mills provides some short, sometimes self-indulgent comments looking back at the comic episodes. (The publisher provided a review copy.)

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6 Responses to “Charley’s War: Hitler’s Youth”

  1. Diana Says:

    Glad to see you writing about this underrated series. Mills did some strong characterization in the series, though based on your remarks, that may be lacking a bit in this specific volume, which I’ve not yet read.

  2. Nick Says:

    It’s interesting to see this book get reviewed on the other side of the Atlantic – as a Brit who grew up reading it (albeit in reprints), it’s a comic that resonates strongly with me and I’m always happy to see it get more coverage. As a whole, the series deserves every bit as much attention as “It Was the War in the Trenches” has received, I believe.

    I was pleased to see you’d picked up on the art; one of the things about it that made it work so well here was that it was very different to most of the rest of the art appearing in war comics, which was cleaner, less detailed, and so appeared more sanitised. It really added to the sense that the story was something different to the rest of the war comics at the time.

    The short chapters are down to, as the title of the magazine implies, them being published weekly. So the reader would get about 12-15 pages in a month, all told. Again, as a Brit, I’m used to this, so it’s interesting to see how Americans react to it. Does the compressed storytelling the format needs not work so well from that perspective?

    Finally, I’d note that the apparent lack of characterisation can probably be put down to the fact that volume collects strips from some way into the series run, so by this point the characterisation is building on top of what has gone before, which works well for people who’ve been reading it since the start, but I imagine less so for people who come in at this point.

  3. Johanna Says:

    Diana, as Nick says, I think the characterization may be something that reveals itself to the reader over time. This series overall strikes me as one that you want all the volumes if you want one. Nick, that also ties into your comments on storytelling — it wasn’t that I felt items were left out (there was only one instance where I had to go back and reread, because there was quite a jump between one installment and the following), more that there would never be a clean break between books.

    I certainly appreciated the chance to sample something so different from American comics, especially when you take the time period of publication into account.

  4. Nick Says:

    Having a clean break between books seems to be to be a curiously American thing, especially from the past few decades, where it’s become even more obvious that arcs are designed to fit into neatly packaged collections. With comic strips like Charley’s War, and with manga in Japan, the material is clearly written for serialisatio, so when the eventual collections come out, it’s the page count more than anything else that defines where the breaks between each volume are. This is something a lot of people I know struggle with when it comes to manga.

  5. James Moar Says:

    Charley’s War was likely written with no expectation of a collected edition, so its not fitting into cleanly-divided volumes isn’t too surprising.

  6. Johanna Says:

    Oh, definitely. I should have elaborated that I meant that mention as a backwards compliment — readers should be aware that if they buy one book, they’ll likely want to continue with more.

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