The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 145 | The Sequential Art of War: Joe Kubert’s Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1965

Leaving Proof 145 | The Sequential Art of War: Joe Kubert’s Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1965
Published on Friday, August 31, 2012 by
Today’s Leaving Proof installment sees the debut of what I hope will be a regularly recurring sub-feature focusing on military history-oriented comics. The late, great Joe Kubert’s Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1965 takes center stage in our inaugural feature on The Sequential Art of War.

Perhaps no other comic book artist is more identified with the war comics genre than the legendary Joe Kubert. His illustrations have graced the pages of landmark war comics such as E.C.’s Two-Fisted Tales and a large portion of his reputation rests on his work on various DC Comics-branded war comics starring World War II tough guy Sgt. Rock, the hard-charging, no-guff-taking senior NCO of Easy Company that he co-created with writer-editor Robert Kanigher. It’s not that Kubert actively sought out war comics work or that he had any special bias towards military-themed comics. As the military veteran (Kubert served in the U.S. Army during the early 1950s) recounted in a 2010 phone interview with Bookslut.com

… my business is one in which if you find success, you keep repeating it! I took on the war stories in the early ’60s—Bob Kanigher was my editor and writer [at DC Comics] at that time—and the stories I did apparently sold magazines. So I was given more. It’s not because I had a particular interest.

A Book Forty Years in the Making

“Tales of the Green Beret” strip dated July 17, 1966, by Robin Moore (writer) and Joe Kubert (artist)

The war comics work just kept coming for Kubert, and not just from DC Comics, either. In 1965, Kubert began illustrating Tales of the Green Beret, a Chicago Tribune comic strip featuring fictional adventures of the U.S. Army Special Forces (informally referred to as “Green Berets” for their characteristic headgear) in various locations around the world, but with a special emphasis on the then-ongoing conflict in the former French Indochina. As part of the promotional campaign for the strip’s entry into syndication, Kubert did a special illustration in 1967 depicting the actions of a recently-returned Green Beret who had been awarded the Medal of Honor. A distinctive assignment to be sure, but one that would be eventually forgotten by the increasingly busy Kubert—he started a nine-year stint as DC Comics’ director of publications that same year—until he received a letter in 2007

I got a letter from a retired colonel named Bill Stokes. He’d been in charge of a Special Forces unit—twelve men—who’d been in the village of Dong Xoai and experienced an attack that just decimated the whole area. He was still in contact with these soldiers who were still around, as well as their families, and he sent out kind of a long dissertation on what they’d gone through—including pictures, illustrations, and photographs.

One of the illustrations he had was one I’d done forty years ago. It was an old newspaper print—rough and smudged. This guy knows nothing about cartooning, nothing about comic books, and doesn’t know me from Adam. He saw my name on the drawing and contacted me to ask if I had a clean copy of it. This was a drawing I’d done forty years ago! God knows what’d happened to it. I said if he sent me the picture I’d be more than happy to redraw it.

When he got the drawing back he asked how much he owed me for it. I said I didn’t want any money, but I would appreciate if he’d sent me a copy of the material you’re sending to all the guys who are left. He sent me a copy, and it contained about thirty pages of material. When I read this thing and saw these pictures, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I thought: This is a story I really want to do.

The work that resulted from that chance collaboration is Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1965, a uniquely-formatted graphic novel published by DC Comics in 2010 that stands as one of the finest examples of contemporary war comics and a beautifully crafted tribute to the heroic actions of Detachment A-342 of the 5th U.S. Army Special Forces Group (Airborne), the supporting U.S. Navy Seabee Team 1104, and their Montagnard and South Vietnamese allies during the Battle of Dong Xoai.

An Unbounded Exercise in Graphic Storytelling

The first thing readers will notice about Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1965 is that it doesn’t look like a typical comic book or graphic novel, not just in terms of the loose, shot-straight-from-the-pencils aesthetic and the use of unlined text boxes in place of dialogue balloons, but also in how the pages are constructed. In illustrating the book, Kubert eschewed the use of traditional comic book panel borders, opting instead to employ empty space in defining the boundaries of scenes. It doesn’t sound like that big of a difference until one actually sees the pages. Panel borders normally define the extent to which an artist draws details in the contained scene and panel adjacencies dictate, to a degree, reading direction. Without panel borders, Kubert uses the lack of outlying detail to demarcate the dimensions of a scene, giving the whole affair an almost dreamlike-texture, with scenes occasionally impinging on each other and the visual narrative sometimes taking a more variegated course.

That “soft” look is offset by the rough line art. The unfinished, almost utilitarian, quality of the illustrations—guide lines and volumetric figures are clearly visible in many of the pages—gives the portrayals an immediacy not unlike that seen in the on-site wartime sketches of notable military artists like Leonard Smith and Hans Liska. The overall effect is that the illustrations effectively communicate a firsthand experience of the events drawn from imperfect, pieced together, forty year-old recollections that nonetheless embody the vital, subjective truths at the heart of the collective memory of the soldiers of Detachment A-342.

The book features its fair share of quiet, even reflective, character studies and scenes of everyday life

 

but it is really in the battlefield scenes that Kubert impresses, playing with light and shadow, exhibiting his fine control of facial expression and gesture, and displaying a masterful flair with crowd scenes.

  

Authenticity and Subjective Truth

The book is described as being “inspired by true events” and not as a “true story.” As Kubert explained to Newsarama’s Michael Lorah during the book’s launch two years ago

The only reason that book is not called a true story is because I didn’t know what the guys were talking about to one another, so I had to improvise on the dialogue. When Bill [Stokes] had contacted the guys that were survivors, I think there were maybe two or three guys left out of the original twelve, they felt uncomfortable with some of the dialogue that I put down and preferred not to have their names used, which I certainly respected. So for that reason the book is called ‘a novel based on a true event.’

The tone of the writing in the book is straightforward and almost-clinical, lacking in the kind of heightened melodrama readers might be accustomed to in war comics and war-themed popular culture in general. Kubert addressed this issue as well

… when I first met Bill Stokes and we were talking about doing this, he said, ‘Joe, I want you to do the story, but we were not heroes. Please don’t make this a comic book story with superheroes.’

… some people have mentioned that perhaps the dialogue and the stuff that I put as far as descriptions were too pedestrian and maybe too laid back, maybe not as dramatic as could be. That was because Bill’s behest to me that I don’t overdo it. And this was from him and the guys that he communicated with.

The book, in fact, devotes a good number of pages to showing Detachment A-342 doing the type of civil-military operations that, important as they are in counterinsurgency work, don’t have the same kind of hold on the popular consciousness as the jungle combat seen in numerous comics and films about the Vietnam War. Tasks like medical treatment missions and teaching missions to improve local communities’ levels of public healthcare and sanitation are particularly emphasized.

 

There are moments of high combat drama in the book, of course, but these come about organically and within the context of the historical account, and one never gets the sense that Kubert is draping the dirty and painful business of close-quarters infantry fighting in sensationalistic, jingoistic sheen.

  

Internal bureaucratic and command conflicts as well as the maltreatment of suspected communist spies by elements of the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Viet Nam) are hinted at in the book but—appropriate to the book’s remit—aren’t explored beyond token acknowledgment of their existence.

 

In many ways, the issues that beset the ARVN and its U.S. military advisors as depicted in the graphic novel and recounted in greater detail in the book’s extensive supplementary text material (prepared by the surviving members of Detachment A-342) were symptoms of larger, systemic problems with the United States’ and South Vietnam’s joint counterinsurgency operations in the mid-1960s. Unreliable intelligence, a lack of trained local personnel, corruption, political in-fighting, unrealistic expectations, and arbitrary strategic goals all undermined the war effort. Additionally, a certain level of distrust born from deeply-ingrained cultural mores and Indochina’s long colonial history hamstrung smooth cooperation and sharing of military intelligence between the ARVN, the Montagnard-dominated CIDGs (Civilian Irregular Defense Groups), Cambodian anti-communist fighters, and the U.S. military advisors.

Despite the fact- and history-based approach to the book, Kubert and the men of Detachment A-342 show little interest in going over the whys and wherefores of the conflict, to the book’s ultimate benefit: Such material is well-trodden ground better discussed elsewhere. Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1965 is ultimately about gallant soldiers wholeheartedly trusting in their training and especially in each other to see their mission through to the end, and the book deserves to be mentioned alongside Fax from Sarajevo and Yossel: April 19, 1943 as Kubert’s most important war comics output.

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