From Roy of the Rovers to World War 1 – Joe Colquhoun
Nick Churchill on the extraordinary body of work of Swanage illustrator Joe Colquhoun
Published in September ’14
Although Charley’s War was described by The Word magazine as the ‘greatest British comic strip ever created’, drawing it, was to Joe Colquhoun’s family, simply what he did for a living. It kept him fully employed for at least five, but usually more, days a week, alone at his desk in the attic of the Swanage home he shared with wife Mary and children Ian, Jane, Tracey and Kate. Charley’s War ran in Battle Picture Weekly from 1979 until Joe’s death in 1987 and followed the story of an underage British soldier called Charley Bourne who lies about his age to join up and is immediately thrust into the hell of the Somme.
The commemoration of the centenary of the outbreak of World War One has accelerated a growing resurgence of interest in Joe’s work in general and Charley’s War in particular with original drawings being exhibited at the International Comic Art Festival, in major shows in France and Holland and in Joe’s hometown, at Durlston Castle.
Written by Pat Mills, the strip tells of Charley’s frequently mundane and sometimes harrowing life in the trenches throughout the Great War and beyond, into the invasion of Russia in 1919 and eventually to a less successful story, penned by Scott Goodall, at the start of World War 2.
‘Joe was incredibly conscientious,’ says Mary. ‘He was always at his desk by 9.30 every morning and he worked right through until six or seven in the evening and often much later. The scripts would arrive and he would have to draw three pages a week, every week, for Charley’s War, plus whatever extra work he had taken on as well. He was always taking on extra jobs when we needed the money. If we ever took a holiday it was a nightmare for him as he would have to do all the work in advance.’
Jane, herself an artist, remembers her dad constantly working, invariably to a tight deadline, although she says he always had time for the family.
‘He never seemed to mind being interrupted even though it must have been terribly annoying for him. We knew he drew but we didn’t take much notice, if anything all these war stories were a bit of a turn off. Other people were much more impressed by his work; to us it was just what he did. The ironic thing is that if he was working today he would enjoy far greater recognition.’
Joe’s drawings for Charley’s War are widely credited with pushing the boundaries of art in comics, long before they were referred to as graphic novels and artists such as Jim Lee, Steve Ditko, Frank Miller and Alan Moore enjoyed superstar status among the cognoscenti. Joe’s use of heavy inks, busy backgrounds and predominately black frames, with his unflinching portrayal of emotion in men at war, established Charley’s War as the only overtly anti-war story of its era and directly influenced the darker tone of modern graphic novels.
Indeed, when Joe started working in comics artists were not even credited. ‘Dad’s name didn’t appear on the strips until the 1980s,’ says Jane. ‘I’ve been reading his diaries which go back to his school days and it seems he sort of drifted into drawing for comics in the 1950s after finishing art college. Even then he was told he was putting too much in the frames and he would never make any money out of it if he drew that much detail.’
In 1954 he became the first artist to draw Roy of the Rovers and also wrote the story for three years, despite professing to have no interest in football. In the 1960s and 1970s he worked for comics including Tiger (Football Family Robinson), Buster (City Jungle) and Corr!, for which he drew the all-colour Kid Chameleon in 1971 and The Goodies in 1973. He also created a Morecombe and Wise strip. His other strips for Battle included Johnny Red and Soldier Sharp: The Rat of the Rifles.
In one particularly sinister 1976 strip for Valiant called The Final Victim, Joe drew an over-worked comics artist who grumbles about short deadlines, late payments and demanding editors. In an effort to capture the perfect expression of horror the beleaguered illustrator goes on a killing spree, studying his victims’ faces as they succumb before burying them in his basement. As if it could be any darker, Joe’s fictional artist is a perfect self-portrait.
‘I’ve only just seen this one, but it’s definitely dad,’ says Jane. ‘It’s his desk in the attic, his angle poise lamp, the same dirty cups, the flares! We didn’t even know he’d done that one.
‘However, Charley’s War was certainly his magnum opus. There’s something about the mark making in those strips that is unlike anything else of that time. It brought together all his skills and was the strip he was working on almost until he died.’
For all the uncompromising action sequences, the bulk of Charley’s War reflects the drudgery of life in the trenches interspersed with outbreaks of terror. In the early strips much is made of Charley’s touching friendship with Ginger Jones. After many action-packed episodes Ginger is killed by a random shell while at ease and in three agonisingly poignant frames (shown below), Charley gathers his friend’s remains in a sack only to be accused of stealing by an officer.
‘I think a lot of the stories were aimed at adults, even though the comics were read by children,’ says Mary. ‘Pat Mills was a lot younger than Joe, a different generation and he definitely wrote them with a political edge.’
Charley’s War was re-serialised in the comic 2000AD, created by Pat Mills, and has since been made into ten books, which have been translated into French. Joe’s original artwork is highly prized by collectors and some is now included in permanent collections at the Tank Museum and on long-term loan at the Cartoon Museum.
‘The interest in dad’s work has been gathering pace for a few years now,’ Jane explains, ‘ever since it featured in a BBC documentary called Comics Britannia. There are collectors wanting to buy it and the French are really keen, but the only pieces we’ve sold have been to a genuinely dedicated fan. I’m sure dad would be happy to see his family benefitting from the sale of the archive, but we felt a real pang when we let some of it go.’
Joe’s diaries, unlooked at for years, are laced with clues to the man and his work. Mary and Jane have been unpacking these parcels from the past and through them are seeing Joe’s work in a new light. There are drawings of soldiers and footballers throughout the journals and also in Joe’s school exercise books, particularly his French grammar book: ‘He always said he wasn’t interested in fighting or football, but I suppose he was just drawing the things that boys of his generation were into,’ says Jane. ‘There are things he was drawing at 13 years old that crop up in his later work, especially Charley’s War. He had a nice childhood, I think. It was almost like a boys’ own comic strip of the day, full of adventures and trips with his mates. Later on he seems to be very disappointed as his mates started to get married and move away.’
Called up as an 18-year-old in 1944, Joe served in the Royal Navy during World War 2, mainly in the Mediterranean. He saw little action, if any, and somewhat resented spending his salad days swabbing decks in the sunshine. ‘Oh, he had a lovely war,’ says Mary, ‘if a bit boring. He writes about it in the diaries and letters home to his parents. He certainly wasn’t drawing on his own experiences in Charley’s War, but he was able to put himself in the shoes of men at war in extreme situations. He couldn’t do women though, couldn’t get the expressions right. He tried a couple of things for girls’ comics but they didn’t really work.’
The diaries reveal Joe had considered becoming a writer and completed a correspondence course in the Navy, but he also mentions wanting to be an architect and having a job where he could travel. In the event he enrolled at art school in Kingston, close to his parents’ home, and subsequently fell in to writing and drawing for an American-backed comic. When that didn’t pay he went to work for Amalgamated Press and the die was cast.
‘Dad was a bit remote I suppose,’ says Jane, ‘always busy. As well as the drawing he took the dog for walks, did all the DIY in a crumbling house, kept an allotment, took us to school, did his accounts and insisted on taking us out on a Sunday, but he’d always come back to work. It’s strange hearing from fans of his work because he’s held in such esteem by them, but to us he’s just dad. People used to say he was everyone’s favourite uncle and he was like that as a dad as well. He was a cuddly man, very kindly, funny too.’
This resonates with Mary who adds: ‘It must have been quite depressing at times to be surrounded by that much misery in the stories, but he hardly ever let on. He was a lovely dad. I was absolutely in awe of what he could do, I can’t do anything like that … I can make a cake though!’ ◗