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Graphic Novel Review: Charley’s War: Hitler’s Youth by Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun

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The eighth volume in Titan Books’ continued reprint of the hard-nosed British war comic, Charley’s War: Hitler’s Youth opens with an intriguing plotline. Chronicling the Great War adventures of young Charlie Bourne, serving as an assistant sniper on the Western Front at this point in the storyline, the series imagines a young Adolph Hitler as a corporal in the regiment on the other side of No Man’s Land. Moving between Charley’s unit and the Germans, delving into the psychology of the future Nazi who self-reportedly survived several major attacks during WWI, the strip works to avoid the cartoonish portrayal of Hitler that has characterized so many boys’ war comics – and to a large extent succeeds.

As reported in an intro by Steve White, the facts behind Hitler’s actual participation in the Great War have since become clouded by propagandistic efforts to either elevate or debunk his involvement along with the Gestapo’s destruction of many paper records from the first war. Still, research-minded scripter Pat Mills’ treatment of this monster-in-training rings believably. Though Titan Books’ description of the set gives the impression that our hero Charley will have a confrontation with the man, this never really happens: instead, we’re treated to sequences depicting Hitler as a fierce young soldier. When the rest of his fellow soldiers take advantage of a Christmas armistice celebration, for instance, the corporal remains behind, hunting rats in the trenches, stubbornly refusing to fraternize with the enemy.

Even with the temporary truce, Mills does not let the reader forget the grim realities of war; despite its appearance in a weekly boys’ war comic, “Charley’s War” decidedly did not indulge in gung-ho fantasizing. Thus, as both sides return to their trenches, the strips narration notes each soldier who won’t make it out of the war alive. “1918 would be the last and most terrible year of the war,” we’re told before the strip leaves Hitler and young Charley to follow the latter’s brother Wilf as he serves as P.B.O. (Poor Blinking Observer) for a half-mad bi-plane pilot named Morgan. Artist Joe (“Johnny Red“) Colquhoun clearly relishes the opportunity to get out of the mud: his flying battle sequences are lavished with loving boyish detail and explosive impact.

In writer Mills’ hands, the world of the P.B.O.s and their glory hungry pilots has its roots in the British class system, with observers being treated as expendable proles in the air. Captain Morgan, we’re told, has already lost three observers, and we get to see a fourth fall to screaming death in the course of battle. Just another poor blinking observer. . .

“Charley’s War” first appeared in three- and four-page installments as a part of the black-and white British comic magazine Battle from 1979 – 85, a remarkable run for so unglamorous a war comic. This current volume ends with two sequences returning to our title hero in the trenches. Hitler’s regiment, we’re told, has left, but there are still plenty of Jerries to fend off. To add to Charley’s woes, he’s also accidentally roused the enmity of a former comrade recently raised to officer’s rank. “He’s jealous of my success,” this new antagonist thinks, “the way I worked my way up from the ranks!” At times, it seems like the Bourne Boys’ war is less against the Germans and more against undeserved rank and privilege.

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About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.