Underground And Over The Top is the latest in Titan's annual Charley's War reprint series and it follows the story of First World War soldier Charley Bourne from May to September 1917.
The book covers two full stories with the beginning of a third. Charley has been posted to tunnelling duty as the British dig mine shafts towards the German guns at the Messines Ridge and the story takes place mainly underground as the troops get closer to their objective - setting massive amounts of explosive under the German positions. After Messines the book returns to the trenches with the Third Battle Of Ypres, now better known as Passchendaele, as heavy rains turn the front line into a quagmire that is as dangerous to the troops as the enemy are. The book finishes with Charley's unit being pulled back from the front line to the huge training camp at Etaples, a camp where the regime is so brutal that the men are on the verge of mutiny, and a meeting with an old friend.
For the sake of transparency this is where I will point out that the editor of Titan's Charley's War series is now our own Chief Tuber, John Freeman. That said the format of the series of books was set five years ago with the first book and, since they are both a critical and commercial success, there is no reason for any new editor to change the format and John doesn't. From the classy black and white photo cover with its red poppy, through the scene setting feature on the Messines tunnels to the "DVD commentary"-like notes of writer Pat Mills at the end, the format still works and continues to work well. How many other hardback comic reprint book series that Titan have started have faltered after the first or second publication? Yet here is Charley's War still going strong on its sixth book.
Of course a lot of that is down to the strip itself. Widely considered to be one of the best British comic strips ever published, Pat Mills heavily researched scripts combine with Joe Colquhoun's intensely detailed artwork to create something that perhaps becomes more that the sum of its parts. The Messines tunnelling section has every opportunity to be dull, after all Charley's War readers signed up for combat not digging. However Mills includes a conscientious objector within the unit which leads to much discussion between the characters of the ethics of killing while Colquhoun goes as far as producing a cutaway panel to show just how close the British and German tunnellers were getting. The Passchendaele story returns to the more familiar territory of the trenches and hand to hand fighting this time in heavy rain which falls for four consecutive week's episodes. The final story sets the scene for the Etaples mutiny with hard, pointless training and a band of deserters raiding the camp.
The biggest issue with the reprints of Charley's War from this period of its publication in Battle is the fact that it often was printed on the cover or in the centre spread and those particular pages were therefore in colour. As this book is in black and white and reprinting from the weekly comics rather than the long lost original artwork, the formerly coloured pages are soft in their reproduction with their text picked out in a darker black. The original black and white pages are reproduced better than the last Charley's War book in which the hard blacks lost much of the subtlety of Colquhoun's art and while the blacks in this edition are not always solid, the reproduction of the B&W pages represent the original publication in Battle better.
Classy story telling and classy art combined with thoughtful text articles mean that Charley's War - Underground And Over The Top remains as impressive as its forebears and the only real complaint is, as ever, that we will have to wait a year before the next one appears.
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