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World War One In Comics:

Tardi on Mills, Mills on Tardi

Next week, Jacques Tardi will make his first public appearances in London, in fact in Britain, as part of Comica Festival. He’s chosen to be here, rather than say in Paris, over the period of remembrance leading up to Armistice Day, November 11th. Tardi (above, photo by Véronique Huyghe) is passionate about exposing the lies and lessons behind the First World War through his remarkable graphic novels, most notably It Was The War of the Trenches and his latest, Goddamn This War! with Jean-Pierre Verney, both translated into English by Fantagraphics.

On the evening of November 11th itself, Tardi will join his wife, singer-singwriter Dominique Grange (photo above by Verney), in a riveting audio-visual performance of songs, readings and big-screen projections of artwork (samples below), accompanied by accordionists from the Accordzéam ensemble. The evening is based on his graphic novel Putain de Guerre! and takes place in the Ciné Lumière at the Institut Français in London.

The night before, Monday November 10th, Tardi will be in an unmissable Comica Conversation entitled Goddamn This War!, talking with Pat Mills, writer of the acclaimed series Charley’s War, illustrated by the late, great Joe Colquhoun. Originally serialised weekly in the boys’ war comics Battle, this story of the harrowing realistic experiences of an ordinary under-age soldier is being collected into handsome hardbacks from Titan Books and a four-volume omnibus this year, Charley’s War: A Boy Soldier in the Great War, with many pages re-scanned directly from the artworks.

The series has also proved very popular in France as La Grande Guerre de Charlie, published by Delirium Editions. As well as as the hardback editions, Delirium have also released a portfolio of high-quality prints of some of Colqhoun’s finest pages (above). For the latest French volume, Tardi has written a powerful introduction, translated below, a sign of his strong endorsement of Mills & Colquhoun’s masterpiece.

As part of the French commemorations of the First World War, a selection of Colquhoun’s stunning original artwork is on display until January 4th at the Musée de la Grand Guerre in Meaux. Mills visited this for the opening in October (below) and finally met Tardi for the first time (photo by Laurent Lerner). Pat Mills shares his thoughts about the experience:

“There’s some eighteen pages of Joe’s original art on exhibition at Meaux. They are spread out throughout the museum with a French version next to the original. Each page has been carefully selected to highlight a particular aspect of the war and the artefacts on display. The idea is to appeal to young as well as older visitors. The tone of the museum is superb. It’s grim, nothing jingoistic, and yet it’s cleverly designed to appeal to the young. So there’s one room which creates a virtual reality effect where you feel as if you’re in the trenches. The French national press arrived and we toured the different rooms and I commented on the pages.

“The enthusiasm for Charley’s War in France is astonishing. I’m pretty certain it’s now outselling the British edition after only being published three years ago. Thus I signed over 70 copies of volume one in a day at a signing in Le Mans last week. They have also produced beautiful portfolios of Charley’s War art. The contrast with museums and officialdom in France and the UK is striking. I believe it is because that Michael Gove attitude of turning WW1 into a noble sacrifice is still the government’s perspective. The revisionist historians’ view on the war is sinister and Orwellian, thus encouraging new generations of youth to make their noble sacrifices in Afghanistan and elsewhere. When they show British anti-war films, I’ll maybe be convinced otherwise. But the contrast between France and the UK on Charley’s War could not be more marked.

“Meaux is a huge museum of the Great War, easily the equivalent of the Imperial War Museum in London. Astonishingly, it’s nearly all artefacts from the collection of Jean-Pierre Vernay, Tardi’s researcher on his graphic books on the Great War. I met Tardi in Paris after the Meaux opening and he invited me to join him and Vernay on their future exploration of the underground remains of the trenches today! Tardi is as passionate on the subject as me. He has been researching the British Bantams soldiers whom he has discovered were physically abused in the war. A fascinating and impressive author.”

Here is a short video with Mills during the press viewing of the exhibition - with an appropriate soundtrack of Edwin Starr’s War (a song unlikely to be played during British commemorative ceremonies):


Web Exclusive:
Here is my English version of the introduction by Tardi to Volume 7 of Delirium’s French editions of Charley’s War, with thanks to Jean-Paul Jennequin, the series’ translator, for vital assistance:

To the officer staff, on that map with the little flags, it’s clear! The attack will be a success! ... The whole business is virtually sorted! ... They’re going to get it up the ass! On the battlefield, they are not playing the same tune. It’s that familiar music from the big guns made by Krupp. The decisive attack - on which the outcome of the war depends - turns out badly in the stinking bowels of the earth and Charley is growing weary. The victory, expected in a couple of blows, does not show its face.

We are far from the honourable staff officers who, without qualms, crush men from another class than their own - the poor ... Thousands of poor guys, sacrificed on the altar of certainties, equalled only by the incompetence and complacency of these decorated types full of themselves!

Charley is at the bottom of the ladder. He’s not particularly strong or intelligent. He’s an ordinary tommy. That’s what Pat Mills tells us in the introduction to the first volume of Charley’s War. So this is the story of a little guy who, after some severe training with blows of the cudgel, is sent to the fire to destroy the chaps on the other side who are, in fact, no more than wild beasts, vile and cruel, and Charley goes there with a good heart! We’ve stuffed his head full, and it works. The Huns are barbarians who must be wiped off the map.

Later, “historians” with diplomas and in the pay, fabricate an official, definitive history (although constantly reviewed and corrected in light of recent entirely convincing elements) which confirms that, as one would expect, this war, unwanted by the Triple-Entente, was inevitable. It had to be done and of course had to be won, since this was the “Right war” and the “Right” was us! We told Charley - the proof is marked on the emblem of the crown - “God and my lawful Right”, and in French as well ... So! But they had not explained that he was not fighting to maintain civilisation, nor that “God is with us” was engraved on the belt buckle of the Germans ... So God was having a good laugh at someone’s expense… But whose? They also had not told him that he was fighting neither for God nor for the King, but to fatten the manufacturers! What’s more, it would be the ‘Der des Ders’ or ‘The War To End All Wars’ so he’d have to do his utmost to wipe out those bugs on the other side!

And so it was for thousands of Charleys who would give their skins for the glory of God, the Empire and his gracious Majesty, the King of England! ... And speaking of the Empire, that made up most of the world! Oh yes! Millions of people, really enthusiastic and appreciative, would cross oceans by the boatload to come to Europe to give a salutary thrashing to the Jerries, shoulder to shoulder with their benefactors ... It was quite normal, after all the United Kingdom had done so much good for those primitive tribes by being their owner, father, teacher… and executioner. So here once again was a huge crime perpetrated with the most scandalous impunity!

We could put forward exactly the same thing with regard to France, its colonies and the “dark force”. The bearded ‘poilus’, also abused, had their skulls stuffed at Republican school and every Sunday at Mass, before going to the slaughter of innocent enthusiasm, like their British allies… like the Germans!

Forget the “hereditary enemy” and Joan of Arc. We are now allies for the worse. It would be more accurate to speak of “associates” of the moment, in a commercial enterprise built with the bones of Charley and the skin of his dual French and Republican counterparts. The frog-eater looks a bit askance at this ‘Britiche’, whose language he doesn’t know, who looks down on him with contempt and whom he would happily punch in the mouth.

But how did they get through this hell? Ah, that’s the big question left unanswered! ... Nevertheless, people have their ideas: God ... Country… Family…  So many ugly formulas promised a bright future for us, the French! Charley, you shit yourself in your pants, when at any moment a white-hot shell can pull off half your skull. Your “flat beard” won’t protect you, you know. Charley, you are merely a subject of His Gracious Majesty who, snug in one of his palaces, looks at an officer’s map on which you do not figure any larger than a flea!

The drawings of Joe Colquhoun tell us all this. War from below, the war of the poor, war that goes straight to my heart. He shows it, supported by copious research. “Who cares about research? It’s the essence that counts!”, the pedant would say. So I reply: “I ​​don’t see how research would do any harm ... Details, objects play their role, dammit!” I’ve read so many times: “And they departed in their helmets in August 1914, in their uniforms of horizon blue ...! “… They left wearing red pants in the green fields… Without socks, their feet in their new big boots, dressed up as targets ... And they fell, their noses in the poppies .. . These details carry some criminal significance. You can be sure that the minister won’t talk about them in his lousy commemorative sales pitch…

Charley was in a brown uniform, his equipment was better quality, but, in Picardy, a lot of his friends fell in large quantities anyway ... It was Waterloo!

What about Ernst, whose trunk has just ended its days several meters from his legs? Mr. Krupp doesn’t give a damn!

The Great War in Comics presents an excellent choice of Charley’s War originals at the Abbott Hall Gallery in Kendal till December 6th, organised by the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. They are displayed alongside artwork by Charlie Adlard from the graphic novel White Death, written by Robbie Morrison and re-issued this year by Image Comics.

Posted: November 6, 2014


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Featured Books

It Was The War Of The Trenches
by Tardi

Goddamn This War!
by Tardi with Jean-Pierre Verney

Charley’s War: A Boy Soldier in the Great War
by Pat Mills & Joe Colqhoun
(Titan Books)