Below are a few short video clips of me giving a talk about Charley’s War to visitors at the French Museum of the Great War in Meaux a couple of weeks back. The museum had previously invited me to talk at a major exhibition of Charley’s War artwork in 2014 – with the French national media in attendance – and they kindly invited me back to do a follow up this year as their guest of honour. It was a great and emotional event.
Meaux, near Paris, is the equivalent of, and has the same status as, the Imperial War Museum, only it’s more anti-war and and it’s very poignant. The museum is designed to be a totally immersive experience from the moment you approach its grim, yet futuristic facade and it works. Only too well. Believe me, there are rooms in Meaux which, without showing anything graphic, you dare not linger in because you will not be able to hold back your tears. Just thinking about one such room chokes me right now. It has a similar effect on everyone.
Needless to say, the Imperial (!?!) War Museum ignored Charley’s War in the centenary years. In fact the comic book received hardly any British media attention and a TV series option, taken out by a major film production company, failed to find an outlet. So it’s good to know that, by comparison, the French can talk with relative freedom and truth about WW1 – something we’re simply not allowed to do in the UK. And I’m thrilled that Charley’s War should have such importance in France. It’s what Joe Colquhoun’s wonderful art deserves. In fact, judging by the huge turn-outs for signings, I suspect Charley’s War actually sells in greater numbers in France than in Britain. I can’t be sure of this because Rebellion, the British publishers, have chosen not to tell me the number of copies sold in the UK, but that’s certainly my impression.
And this recent experience reminds me of how the British Library pointedly excluded Charley’s War from their major exhibition of influential British radical comics back in 2014. This impressive and well attended exhibition, opened by Jonathan Ross, was ‘Comics Unmasked’, curated by John Dunning and Paul Gravett in collaboration with the British Library. No reason was ever given to me why Charley was excluded. At first, I thought it may have been because of the middle class, elitist tastes of John and Paul. Perhaps it was too ‘down-market’ for them? After all, Charley’s War is very working class and gritty, in its words, art, presentation and characters. It knowingly – both in story and art – puts content ahead of style. This is because it was aimed at a mass market audience of 10-15 year-old boys and their no-nonsense tastes very much reflect my own. I believe style should arise naturally rather than be contrived or an end in itself. Consequently, Charley is not a series for aficionados of arthouse comics.
Or the other reason for the exclusion was censorship. It has to be one or the other. You decide.
It could hardly be that Charley’s War was not radical or important enough to be exhibited. Because Charley’s War is recognised nationally and internationally as a unique and savagely critical attack on the war crimes of the State. Sadly unique – I do so wish there were more of us exposing its lies. To quote Alan Moore, writer of Watchmen, ‘None (have come) even close to matching the depiction of inhumanity and misery conjured up by Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun’s masterful Charley’s War.’
From the awkward vibe I picked up from an embarrassed John Dunning that night as he failed to explain why Charley was missing, I believe it was censorship.
Of course censorship is something no one will ever admit to – it’s always hard to prove – and that’s why it works particularly well in Britain. The excuses usually offered are often very elegant and it’s hard to get past them. Even though we know they are a lie. The BBC, for instance, said they couldn’t show the anti-war series Monocled Mutineer because of contractual problems and costs. The anti-war statements of the last soldier of the Great War – Harry Patch – were carefully edited out of the media. And so it goes on. The list is endless and it’s scary. But only by exposing how censorship works can we ever stand any chance of the truth being told.
So the censorship of Charleys’ War was just a very small part of the State-ordered media blackout on anti-war stories and films about WW1. I described this in detail at a lecture I gave at Liverpool University in 2014.Subsequently the blackout became far worse and it is now provable beyond any reasonable doubt. Not least in the British Library, where I checked their bookshop in 2014 and I was dismayed to see there wasn’t a war resister book in sight! Not one! Yet the heroic stories of Alice Wheeldon, Sylvia Pankhurst and conscientious objectors need to be widely circulated. Not to mention the courageous German Kiel mutineers who really put at end to the Great War. Not the butcher General Haig, who was busy planning military campaigns for 1920 and even 1921.
From looking through the books in the British Library in 2014, it was clear they were only promoting the State’s revisionist view of the conflict and excluding any book that challenged it. The State’s view is that the war was a tragic, patriotic, necessary and noble conflict ‘to defend gallant little Belgium’, and Germany was entirely responsible for the slaughter. Yes, terrible mistakes were made. but there was no other way. This is not only a provable lie but a deep and dark betrayal of our forefathers. World War One was calculated mass murder instigated by the British State for imperialist objectives. See for instance, Hidden History by Gerry Docherty and Jim MacGregor. Their important and well researched mainstream book was ignored by the media. There were no reviews in any of the nationals. And that’s another censorship technique used by the State to suppress the truth in Britain. Simply ignore the truth.
I suppose I should see it as a compliment that the British Library and its curators should exclude Charley. The humble story of a boy soldier, printed on ‘bog paper’ in a downmarket comic called Battle, is dangerous? Really? Really…? And it is still useful to see those rare occasions when the State is provably caught with its censorship hand in the till.
But normally the servants of the State have their elegant excuses and bullshit ready. On that occasion, however, John Dunning seemed lost for words. Surprisingly, I was, too!! I was so shocked and gutted by either their blatant snobbery or blatant censorship – I didn’t know which – I just didn’t know what to say. But seeing my ashen and grim face that night, John and a representative from the British Library finally reassured me that they were going to do a major exhibition on Charley’s War ‘later in the year’. Because ’such a great story really deserves its own space, Pat.’ I fell for it and was temporarily appeased. Of course it never happened. Although Lisa, my wife, was present and, like me, remembers the offer very well, so it’s no good denying it now. It’s also worth noting how censors will skilfully use such diversions to fob-off ‘difficult’ creators like me.
Another censorship tactic – conscious or unconscious – is to allow limited opposition to the status quo. To hold an event that is only attended by a small number of people. Or publish a book or comic that will only appeal to a minority rather than a mass audience. This gives the false illusion of free speech and dissent. Thus, around this time, it was absolutely fine for me to interview Tardi (the brilliant artist who is the equivalent of Joe Colquhoun in France) and Joe Sacco, because those events were for a small ‘arts’ audience. My interview with Tardi was in an upstairs room in Foyles. I’m glad I did it, but what Tardi had to say would never reach the wider British public. Similarly, in Dundee recently at the V&A, there were excellent presentations about the local experience of the Great War, but it was for a limited, mainly academic audience, and no one was looking at the cause. How did this terrible conflict really come about? As a bemused Jim MacGregor asked me at the time, why doesn’t anyone ask that all important question? Why? Thankfully, they had invited me and I was able to demonstrate through my new story Ragtime Soldier (the successor to Charley’s War) how Scottish soldiers at the Battle of Loos were knowingly murdered by the State. And the reason why. I use the word ‘murdered’ deliberately, because ‘manslaughter’ does not do justice to that evil event.
Against this background, you can perhaps see why it was definitely not okay for Charley’s War to be shown to a mass audience at the British Library. Maybe Charley is that dangerous. Because it’s a story that has changed – and will continue to change – the lives of its readers. Many children from military families have told me how they didn’t didn’t join the army specifically because they had read Charley’s War. The State is not going to like that. It needs new generations of cannon fodder. It’s why it reacted so savagely – through its surrogates The Daily Mail and The Sun – when Darren Cullen produced the hard-hitting and very watchable film Action Man Battlefield Casualties which to date, has 3.8million views on Youtube.
In particular, Charley has inspired countless readers to become history teachers. I like to believe these teachers are taking a critical standpoint – as in Charley’s War – and encouraging their pupils to search for the truth and question everything, in particular the history national curriculum.
But perhaps I am also being a little disingenuous myself. After all, when I wrote Charley’s War, I consciously set out to subversively attack the State for its war crimes in the Great War. Crimes which – as long as they remain unacknowledged – are a dark curse on our country’s national karma, poisoning the present and the future. A curse that hasn’t gone away in a hundred years. So I can hardly complain if the beast bites back in its own equally subversive way, denying it is doing any such thing, and suggesting its critics are victims of paranoia. ‘Plausible deniability’ – alongside Pontius Pilate buck-passing – is at the heart of British censorship and those concerned are very good at it.
Certainly academics are very aware of my intentions and there have been numerous scholarly articles analysing and describing Charley’s War’s importance and the motives of its writer. Here’s a quote from one of them: ‘Representing the Great War: Violence, Memory, and Comic Form.’ It’s by James F. Wurtz, Indiana State University.
‘Charley’s War was not simply thematically subversive, but its self-conscious use of the limitations and advantages of comic form allowed (and allows) it to stake a clear position against the capitalist and imperialist impulses of its historical context.’
James is absolutely right. And it’s why the three parties concerned needed to be ‘Unmasked’, because we have to speak out when that all-important truth is deliberately suppressed. Shame on them all – especially the British Library.