This is an absolute gem; one of the underrated classics of British comics.
This is a powerful, moving and sometimes archly funny series concerning the adventures of Charley Bourne, a naive and not too bright 16-year old Cockney lad, who lies about his age to join the army who arrives in France a few weeks before the first day on the Somme. This volume contains the opening episodes in a series that ran to nearly 300 episodes and rarely dropped the pace or the story-telling power.
If you remember the series from your youth, it will not disappoint. It retains all of its old powers to entertain as well as shock, and stands up very well to the test of time to more cynical, adult eye. The beauty of it, is that it didn't condescend to its original audience (which would have been 8-13 year olds). If you are reading this for the first time, then I am sure you will find it rivetting. Each frame is packed with information and details. It is often sly and subversive, especially when the genre was filled with a diet of gung-ho war stories of the Boys' Own variety. It gave a pretty authentic sense of what the war must have been like as a soldier.
It is filled with mordant humour, but also some quite exceptionally poignant scenes. What lifts this story out of the mundane or the worthy is a humanity. You care about Charley and his mates. They feel real, their characters develop, there surroundings feel authentic. Charley is not always very heroic (and more inclined to bitterness and apathy as the story develops), though he has the decency and humanity that is lacking in the war itself.
There is a lot of mordant and bleak humour - a soldier dies in a shellhole next to a skeleton, and if you look carefully the artist has put in an open and discarded Fray Bentos bully beef tin, no doubt chucked over the lip of the nearby trench by a comrade.
A corpse's arm sticks out of a trench side offering the Charley a `landmark' to help them navigate home. During trench repairs, another character complains that this is no kind of life `even the earthworms have snuffed it' under the intense shelling, holding up a lifeless worm as evidence, moments before they unearth a corpse.
In a much later story, a character brutally finishes off a wounded German because he looks like his old school teacher and he adds, he didn't like his school teacher much.
The story throws up unusual aspects of the war. It dealt with the tunnelling under Messines years before it becames more widely known through Sebastian Faulks's BIRDSONG. It also dealt with the British Army mutiny at Etaples a good two years before Paul McGann played Toplis in the BBC television's `THE MONOCLED MUTINEER'. More surprisingly for a war story in a boys comic, it offered long periods of inaction and boredom, and a period on leave at home (though this did involve a neat double-narrative that dealt with a deserter and the French battle of Verdun). The action was often brief, bloody and intense, which seemed to mirror the reality of the war in which two weeks of the year might be `in battle'. The writers would think nothing of devoting 3-pages to a mind-numbing fatigue of some kind, a scrounge for firewood in the dead of winter, an adventure pointing out the absurdities of army bureaucracy in which nothing can be obtained unless you have a `chit', a route march, delousing, or a game of the illegal gambling game `Crown and Anchor'. There was one episode where much of it is spoken in `backslang' to confound a particularly jobsworth NCO (backslang: a street slang that was common to East End and South London traders for years). But it was always engaging and surprisingly sophisticated.
This is loving drawn and wonderfully written by two collaborators at the height of their powers. The final compliment came from some of the old soldiers who regularly wrote into the comic after their grandsons had shown them the strip, and commented on its authenticity.
I sincerely hope that Titan keep going with the series. It gets even better. It also deserves not to be stuck away under the rather po-faced and pseudo-serious `graphic novels' section. It is far richer than that.