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Comics & Conflicts:

Comics Go To War

Pat Mills is one of the guests at Comics & Conflicts, two days of exceptional events at the prestigious Imperial War Museum London, on Friday and Saturday, August 19th and 20th. It marks the IWM London’s first major acknowledgment of the significance of comics to report and represent stories of war, combining a day-long international academic conference with one-off in-conversations, panels, a workshop, a free screening of the excellent documentary Comics Go To War, book signings and exhibits, including original artworks by the late great Joe Colquhoun from Charley’s War, generously loaned by his widow. It’s organised by Ariel Kahn from the ReWrite Centre for Research in Creative and Professional Writing at the University of Roehampton, Alex Fitch from Panel Borders on Resonance FM and Paul Gravett, director of Comica, the London International Comics Festival.

Pat Mills wrote in his 1982 introduction to the first of two paperback reprint volumes from Titan Books about his breakthrough while developing Charley’s War, his remarkable, researched serial for Battle in the trenches of the First World War. It came when he ran across an anthology of ordinary soldiers’ letters. Mills kept a note of a tender letter written by a soldier to the widow of one of his comrades, named Bert, who had been killed in combat:

“...How sorry we are for you and the kiddies, for it is not us fellows that get the brunt of this war but the folks we leave at home… There are times out here when we would rather be gone than put up with conditions…  when the Germans are bombarding and the boys get knock[ed] over one by one and can’t hit back…  The boys come along crying like children and shaking like old men, still the shells burst in the air… and if a man is not thinking, then ‘bing’ go a bullet, maybe catch that man. And when you are not fighting you are working and it just seems you will get the dirt. But never mind, dear girlie, you are far braver than us for you have to take what is given… If we go under we are gone… Don’t let in spoil your Christmas for it won’t do no good, for Bert would not like it if he was there…”

Charley’s War by Pat Mills & Joe Colquhoun

Mills chose to convey the working-class reality of soldiers in the Great War initially through the letters sent home by Charley, the under-age recruit not much older than many of Battle‘s young readers. The vulnerable humanity of the troops in the trenches underpins Charley’s War. Mills will be talking on the Friday 19th, 4.20-5.20pm, followed by a signing of the Titan hardback collections now reprinting the series in full.

Another major guest writer of comics also attending Comics & Conflicts is Garth Ennis. He’ll be chairing and contributing to a panel on The Image and Reality of War on Friday 19th as part of the conference sessions, and will be interviewed by Alex Fitch of Panel Borders of Resonance FM on Saturday 20th. Born in Belfast, Ennis made a powerful debut writing Troubled Souls in Crisis, drawn by John McCrea, and dealing unflinchingly with contemporary IRA terrorism. Ennis has gone on to blur the boundaries between the realities of war and the make-believe worlds of superheroes or zombie horror, notably with The Punisher and Phantom Eagle at Marvel and as writer/director of the Avatar movie Stitched, released this summer direct to DVD. For DC Vertigo, he was able to base his War Stories on more plausible situations and believable protagonists, while retaining his penchant for macho banter and bonding, pitch-black humour and outbursts of gruesome violence. His eight tales in this series, each complete in around 56 pages, recall D.C. Thomson’s 64-page Commando Picture Libraries, still being issued in the UK today. But Ennis delivers the sort of adult, unglamourised traumas, moral dilemmas, anti-authoritarian rebellion and four-letter foul-mouthing, that could never be countenanced in the sanitised, simplified heroics of Commando. War Stories would certainly not inspire many youngsters to rush out and enlist for some action-movie thrills.

Garth Ennis’ War Stories: art by David Lloyd

Ennis is always especially expert at staging the emotional clashes and climaxes. In J for Jenny, illustrated by V for Vendetta artist David Lloyd, two Royal Air Force officers come to loggerheads over the high civilian casualties (half a million Germans in all) caused by the RAF’s saturation bombing of the every industrial city in the Third Reich. Lieutenant Page is driven by vengeance after finding his whole family dead from German airstrikes:  “There was a direct hit on the house. Nothing left of my wife and daughter. My wee boy was blown right through the upstairs window. He was lying in the middle of the Newtownards Road with the innards hanging out of his belly.” To which Sergeant Stark replies bluntly: “Those are the things that we do every night.”

In Screaming Eagles, drawn by Dave Gibbons, an old American paratrooper sat on his porch is asked ‘What was it like?’. The comic we read tells the truth that he can never tell his children and grandchildren. Three last survivors of his regiment of 140 join him in a completely unofficial and often absurd spree of excess when they miraculously capture a German general and take possession of a palatial stately home. This last act of indiscipline is intercut with full-page flashbacks showing how he cannot forget how his company has been decimated, remembering how each of them died, remembering them by name. Angry at the waste of lives, this sergeant tells one of his last surviving men , “I don’t mind the war. But I hate the fucking army, Tommy.”

This is war in the raw and Ennis at his best, relating both the bravery and the brutality of those who served, and on both sides, not only the Allies. He has pursued this further in his Battlefields tales for Dynamite. In his Afterword, written in February 2004, for War Stories, Volume 1, he explained, “Perhaps the true drama of any war story lies in its basis in reality, more so than that of any other genre. Whether the stories themselves ring true or not, we know that these things happened once upon a time. We know that the battles were real, that the effect they had on our world was real, that the people who fought and died in them were very real indeed.”

Another route to reality is via autobiography and Comics & Conflicts welcomes the gifted Canadian graphic novelist David Collier, whose latest book, Chimo from Conundrum Press, relates his experiences re-enlisting in the Canadian army and going through basic training for a second time at the age of forty. Collier’s ambition was to serve in the newly relaunched Canadian War Artists Program. He peppers this first-person, stream-of-consciousness narrative with entertaining and enlightening digressions and detours, historical and personal, including recalling his first three-year contract in the army and following his goal to be sent out to Afghanistan to cover the war there thwarted by an incapacitating knee injury. Collier is a perceptive observer, adept at capturing “the essence of [his] times… with pen and paper”, as he concludes his story. “For my adult life, drawing pictures has been it for me. A friend used to say that I was autistic, but drawing was the one thing I was good at. It was because of drawing that my military career was largely positive. I was drawing on the first day of basic.” The young Collier had been commissioned to create a new cartoon every Monday for The Cornwallis Ensign army newspaper and several of these gags are reprinted here. Collier will be talking at IWM London about crafting his comics and shaping his military perspectives on Saturday 20th, as well as giving a practical workshop that day for other aspiring cartoonists.

Chimo by David Collier

As a sign of the times, the potential role of comics as autobiography and art therapy has been recognised by the Pentagon, of all people. Their fringe-science wing Darpa (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) launched the ‘Online Graphic Novel/Sequential Art Authoring Tools for Therapeutic Storytelling’ programme this year to “develop user-friendly authoring tools to help Service Members express combat-related experiences through personal narratives in a graphic novel/sequential art format that will enable them to process their memories and emotions through healthy, constructive activities.”

Their official description of what has inspired this proposed adoption of sequential art is revealing: “Art Therapy and narrative are both useful techniques for helping individuals traumatized by life experiences process memories and channel emotions through a healthy outlet. Narratives related to experiences do not necessarily have to be veridical representations of history. A good example of channeling emotion and memories related to combat experiences into storytelling is Joe Haldeman’s, Forever War published in 1974 and winning both the Hugo and Nebula Awards in which Haldeman translates experiences and feelings related to the Vietnam War into a Science Fiction theme. Graphic novels/sequential art have rich traditions of high-quality artwork and rich storytelling related to combat experiences as exemplified in the 1951 series, Frontline Combat and the 1966 series, Blazing Combat. Considered political in their day for their stark portrayals of war, both are now considered hallmarks of the genre both stylistically and in the emotionality of their content. Likewise the recent work of Garry Trudeau has chronicled the road to recovery following combat injuries with both humor and sensitivity. The current effort is aimed at providing authoring toolkits to allow Service members and Veterans to relate their own stories via a graphic novel/sequential art format of equally high quality.”

The goal is to develop web-based software and a library of artwork, icons and other templates to help troops write and draw their own comics. Whether the programme gets underway and whether the results will conform to the military’s promotional image or be palatable for public consumption remains to be seen. In the news today, a soldier from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders who fought in Helmand is being investigated for slicing fingers of dead Taliban fighters to keep as war trophies. His experiences might not be exactly on-message if he were to adapt them into comics.

Doonesbury by Garry Trudeau

The impact of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) looms high in Comics & Conflicts, with Martin Barker and Roger Sabin examining its effects on the cast of Trudeau’s Doonesbury daily newspaper strip on Friday 19th, and a panel on Saturday 20th morning with creators of two comics on this theme. Publisher Adrian Searle instigated the graphic novel Dougie’s War. Searle was influenced by Charley’s War, which represented ‘shell shock’, whose effects were first catalogued by the medical profession during the First World War, and by the death, one year before he was born, of his ex-Navy grandfather from pneumonia brought on by alcoholism. As Searle writes, “Many, many Scottish families have similar stories: men of my grandfather’s generation returning from conflict, unable to talk about their experiences and with no understanding of how to find help, instead choosing to self-medicate with alcohol.” Searle talked to other ex-servicemen about their exposure to PTSD and from this developed Dougie’s War, part funded by the Scottish Veterans Fund.

Dougie’s War by Roger Glass & Dave Turbitt

Writer Roger Glass also did plenty of first-hand research as he explains in the Afterword: “That means Dougie’s War is based on facts, but is a complete fiction. It appears to be about one person, but is really about hundreds of them. On one level it’s about conflict in Afghanistan, but it’s informed by tales of Scots who have served all over the world: in Irag, the Falklands, Northern Ireland, the former Yugoslavia.” The graphic novel’s lead is one Dougie Campbell, a Scotsman and PTSD victim returning from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, who narrates his impressions and emotions, feeling adrift and unappreciated, forced to stay over at his sister’s place while the authorities drag their feet finding him a place of his own. Even then, his downward spiral is not halted. He can’t escape what he saw and what he did. “Out there, I was needed, Now, I was nothing. It made me want to kill something. And why not? That’s what I was trained to do.” Dave Turbitt draws with urgent economy, using the second colour red to represent nightmares and hallucinations Dougie cannot exorcise from his head and a vision of his being placed inside a flag-covered casket with full honours, like the ‘brave boys’ in the funeral processions at Wooton Bassett. Heading there, he drunkenly assures a couple in the crowds lining the street, “I’m gonna be remembered.” But ironically, his tragic end never makes it into the papers, because the space was needed for obituaries of more famous celebrities. On Saturday 20th, Searle and Turbitt will be talking about their highly charged, highly relevant graphic novel and signing copies.

Obsolete by Mikkel Sommer

Joining them will be rising Danish artist Mikkel Sommer, whose own fictionalised take on the aftereffects of PTSD resulted in Obsolete, a graphic short story in Nobrow’s 17x23 collection. Told mostly without words in strong images of loose, expressive lines and blocks of limited colours, it movingly charts the descent caused by PTSD of a damaged American ex-soldier, haunted by the deaths he has seen and caused, which stare back at him in the bathroom mirror, driving him to pills, self-harming and self-destruction, burning his passport and unpaid bills. In a last desperate act, an army buddy joins him in holding up a bank which goes horribly wrong. In its modest 24 pages, Obsolete is understated but insistent and memorable, opening and closing with two balancing overhead shots of the prostrate protagonist. In one turn of the page, we realise that the red tiles of his kitchen remind him of the bloodshed he has witnessed.

Philip & Helena:
The front and back covers of Eileen Cassavetti’s original notebooks.

On Saturday afternoon, Eileen Cassavetti and her daughter, cartoonist Francesca Cassavetti, will be talking about Philip & Helena, a hand-lettered, hand-drawn romantic story which has been reproduced from Eileen’s original notebook created in January 1942, while she was serving in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). She portrays a very different impression of life in World War Two than the usual tales of rationing and making do. Her two lovers, “by nature always a little outside life”, have accepted their “war jobs” but as pacificist Quaker Philip says, “I still don’t hate anyone - I’m only so heart-sorry that it should ever have happened again.” Eileen Cassavetti describes the fascinating everyday details of their romance from high tea at Fullers and their love of books to the luxury of their hotel in Ballater.

Francesca explains further: “Philip & Helena is completely autobiographical, which is what makes it so poignant. The style may seem a little overwritten and flowery but it was written in another age by a young girl steeped in poetry and literature who had just suffered a terrible loss. The details make it a fascinating document - it seems that people in the forces had access to a slightly better diet than we are used to hearing about. It illustrates that even in these extreme circumstances, young women were preoccupied by the same things (clothes, parties, falling in love, food), but so many must have had similarly tragic endings to their romance.” If you’ve ever been head-over-heels in love, you can’t help warming to their eloquent tenderness for each other in such terrifying times, and to the pain of their parting: “I do know that for me you are the embodiment of all the good and true and beautiful ideas in the world - and while I have you I shall never lose my faith in goodness and love prevailing over evil and misery.” It’s easy to be cynical about such “gushing” today but these are the sorts of feelings and hopes that sustained so many people through the darkest days of the war.  Eileen has kept her notebook close to her ever since she wrote it. This facsimile may well find a way to your heart as well.

War: The Human Cost

On the same panel, another UK self-publisher and cartoonist, Brighton-based Sean Duffield, has released War: The Human Cost, a 260-page A5 squarebound anthology of expressive, humanist comics by artists from 19 countries to reveal the truths behind conflicts and the unethical practices of those who profit from it. Limited to 750 copies, with £1 of every book sold donated to the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, this is a landmark project. It gathers from across the globe accessible, compelling graphic reportages and reflections on the price we pay as individuals, societies and human beings for the conflicts that besiege our world. The subjects and approaches vary widely but are consistently arresting and informative. Duffield will be joined by contributors, Daniel Locke and Ben Naylor, to discuss the book and sign copies afterwards.

A last-minute bonus, just confirmed, is the presence of David Blandy, who will also talk on the Saturday morning panel about Child of the Atom, his short film and related comic designed by Inko. David’s granddad was in a Japanese POW camp and would have died there probably if the bombs had not been dropped on Japan to end the war. As Blandy puts it, “There is a familial myth that my late Grandfather would not have survived being a Japanese Prisoner of War, had the atomic bombing of Hiroshima not occurred. So it could be argued that I owe my existence to one of the most terrifying events of human history and the death of 110,000 people.” In his moving 14-minute autobiographical film, Blandy takes his daughter to Hiroshima, filmed by his wife, and intercuts the filmed documentary footage with an anime collage developed with UK-based Japanese artist Inko, who will also attend.  They have also published a small press comic related to it. Child of the Atom will be screened at 4.30pm as the opener before the Comics Go To War feature.

The sheer diversity and quality of stories about war and its impacts told in comics, graphic novels and manga deserve to be explored and celebrated. Come and support Comics & Conflicts, an event which represents a vital stage in this long-overdue process of cultural accreditation and recognition in Britain.

Posted: August 9, 2011


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Article Links

Comics & Conflicts
Imperial War Museum
19 & 20 August, 2011

Charley’s War
Dougie’s War
War: The Human Cost

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British Comics
War Comics

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Featured Books

Charley’s War
by Pat Mills &
Joe Colquhoun

Child of the Atom
by David Blandy
& Inko

by David Collier

The Long Road Home

by Garry Trudeau

Dougie’s War
by Adrian Searle
& Dave Turbitt

by Mikkel Sommer

War Stories
by Garth Ennis
& Others

The Human Cost

edited by Sean Duffield