Why there is nothing comic about a new graphic novel’s take on the shock of war and its traumatic fall-out.
ACTION is a euphemism for violence, routinely used by the military to cover the experience of combat. The word also refers to a genre of movies defined by gunfights and explosions, and it recurs throughout the history of comic books
– Superman himself was first introduced on the cover of an anthology called Action Comics in 1938.
Then came the Second World War, after which an entire division of this particular industry went on to show and tell eye-popping stories from that conflict for half a century, in titles such as Battlefield Action.
In the late 1970s, while UK comic books like Commando, Warlord and Valour were still turning out Allied propaganda for a readership born long after the Axis powers were defeated, the writer Pat Mills – the creator of 2000AD and so-called ‘godfather of British comics’ – reached further back, to the First World War, transmuting his extensive research into a long-running chronicle of shellshock and dehumanisation.
Illustrated in dense, inky detail by Joe Colquhoun, Charley’s War constituted an ongoing act of subversion in the pages of Battle Picture Weekly. Dougie’s War, a new book described on its cover as “a graphic novel about one soldier’s return from Afghanistan”, is so influenced by those artists as to reprint extracts from their work inside.
“To my mind, Mills and Colquhoun were the first to completely reject talking down to their young comic audience,” writes editor and publisher Adrian Searle, in a fine introduction that recalls his boyhood fixation on that particular strip. “Everything was in there, war in all its grotesque horror, madness and gallows humour.”
After researching the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on veterans of more recent conflicts, Searle commissioned Rodge Glass and Dave Turbitt to produce a modern answer to Charley’s War. Neither had any experience in comics – Glass is a respected Scottish novelist and biographer, Turbitt a graphic designer who works on the BBC’s Doctor Who. But between them, they have written and drawn a portrait of PTSD in four short chapters, although Glass labels them “episodes”, a term that evokes both psychiatry and serialised entertainment.
Dougie Campbell is a young Scottish soldier wounded by the same roadside bomb that killed his closes comrades. Discharged and invalided home to Glasgow, he can’t stop reliving the incident, and starts to feel a creeping envy for the dead. “Bastards,” he remarks to an oblivious barmaid, while the news on a pub TV plays footage of three more bodies being repatriated to the UK. “They don’t know how lucky they are. Dyin… it’s the only way to be remembered.”
In the sequence that follows, the panels can’t contain the artwork and the text boxes run red as Dougie flashes back to the moment of the bombing, and his friends’ ghosts arrive to close him up in a coffin.
Throughout the book, Dave Turbitt finds effective ways to illustrate the sheer psychic disruption of PTSD, the sudden intrusion of nightmares into waking life. His most powerful images find a minimal modern equivalent for Joe Colquhoun’s expressionism, which scarred the young followers of Charley’s War with its visions of screaming skulls and wraiths draped in the Union Jack.
That comic was the first of its kind to realise the psychological capacity of the medium, to capture heightened states of fear and confusion on the page to trace the altered and warped realities of combat, it might indeed be best and simplest just to draw them.
Rodge Glass, however, may have set himself an impossible task, in attempting to speak for the serving soldiers and veterans he met while preparing to write his first graphic novel. “Dougie’s War is based on facts, but is a complete fiction,” he explains in his afterword.
“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 Iraq, the Falklands, Northern Ireland, the former Yugoslavia.”
This is an honourable project, partly fi-nanced by the Scottish Veterans Fund and specifically intended to reach teenagers who might be thinking of joining the army.
As Glass recently told the Sunday Herald, “Raising awareness among young people about the real consequences of war can only be a good thing.” It doesn’t necessarily make for good art or literature, though. The best comic books are both, of course (at this point, we can surely disregard the few remaining adults who will cover their ears, shake their heads and shout “no no no” to the very idea), and Dougie’s War often reads more like a pamphlet on mental health when compared with some of the works that inspired it.
In the same afterword, Glass namechecks Pride Of Baghdad, a graphic novel by Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon about lions set loose from the zoo by the US firebombing of that city in 2003. Also, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, an autobiographical comic (and later film), about the author’s coming of age in the Iranian Revolution. And Waltz With Bashir, the recent animated documentary by Ari Folman and David Polonsky, who used a subtle composite of journalism and symbolism to render Israeli soldiers’ dreams and memories of the massacres at West Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in 1982.
Glass doesn’t mention Joe Sacco, the American writer who invented his own form of cartoon non-fiction with books such as Palestine, The Fixer, and Safe Area Gorazade. Actively irritated by the limitations of straightforward reporting, Sacco spent most of the 1990s visiting the residents of besieged neighbourhoods in eastern Bosnia and the West Bank, then sketching out their first hand accounts of torture or mass execution. On the page his drawings sit within panels of verbatim transcription, often showing the author and his subject simply talking at a table, creating a document of both oral and pictorial history.
Dougie’s War, by contrast, is a fiction that somehow feels more obvious and less strange than the reality it tries to describe. Drafted into existence to echo the experiences of living people, Dougie never quite becomes one himself.
His background rings true enough: another young Scot raised in relative deprivation, he joined the army in the absence of alternatives, finding purpose, even freedom, in deployment, only to lose it again on leaving the uniform. But his character remains a vague cipher of generic and domestic signifiers.
If Glass had even given him a Glasgow team to support, Dougie might have taken on some specificity. As it stands, his voice itself seems to waver between an indistinct local dialect (“I didn’t mind the rain pishing down”) and a facile narrative drone that lies flat on the page.
“Out there, I was needed. Now, I was nothing. It made me want to kill something. And why not? It’s what I was trained to do.” Multitudes of ex-servicemen might attest to feeling the same way, if only they were willing or able to talk about it, and many of them told Glass that PTSD is still compounded by the army’s culture of silence.
This is the brutal irony of the condition – the profound isolation of each sufferer may actually have been shared by generations of surviving soldiers, across every war in living memory, and beyond. But even the few who Adrian Searle quotes at length in his companion article manage to articulate their predicament with great clarity and urgency.
“I used to get nightmares from Northern Ireland,” says a veteran named ‘Tam’, who also experienced combat in the Falklands. “I think it was the heightened tension… When I got home I found it difficult to settle, wanted that buzz again. It’s like two sides of the same coin, when you’re out there and feel that fear, the adrenalin’s running, you don’t want to be there, but when you’re not there you miss it.”
It’s a lot to ask of any fictional character to embody this antagonism, and probably too much for one as thinly and literally sketched as poor Dougie Campbell. Tam’s reminiscences, or those of a Scottish infantry major identified here as ‘Norrie’, who describes a rocket coming towards him in Basra with the strange, sluggish speed of a paintball – “Just quick enough that you can’t get out of the way” – might have made for a more exciting story, and therefore a more effective one.
Because, for all the other factors at play in army recruitment, young men are still joining up for more or less the same reason they buy comic books: to see action. But mine is, of course, only a civilian’s perspective. And to give Dougie Campbell the last word, “Civvies just didn’t get it.”