Celebrate Will Eisner Week 2013 with us as we examine an interesting episode in the comic book legend’s illustrated Vietnam War journal and look back on his work on the US Army’s Army Motors and PS magazines.
March 1–10 marks this year’s Will Eisner Week, a ten-day celebration promoting graphic novels, literacy, free speech awareness, and the legacy of the one and only Will Eisner. In venues all over the United States—The University of Massachusetts, Henderson State University, Tufts University, The Animation Guild in Burbank, The Minneapolis College of Art and Design, the Savannah College of Art and Design, and the Art Institute of Portland among them—lectures, panel discussions, exhibitions, film screenings and other events will be held discussing the impact of Will Eisner on comics and sequential art as well as the man himself.
Here in our little corner of the comics community, we’ll be looking at a particularly interesting anecdote Eisner drew from his US Army-sponsored tour of South Vietnam in 1967, as well as revisiting his work on Army Motors and PS, the Preventative Maintenance Monthly magazine. Let’s get started, shall we?
In the title story in the 2000 graphic short story collection Last Day in Vietnam—reissued today, incidentally, in a new hardcover edition by Dark Horse Books—Eisner recounted a harrowing, but simultaneously humorous, event during a 1967 trip to South Vietnam as a ranking civilian employee of the US Army. I’ll leave the larger arc of the story for readers to discover in the book, but there’s a specific five-page sequence within Last Day in Vietnam that caught my eye that I thought I’d share with you. While onboard a Huey being given an aerial overview of the area around Bearcat Base Camp northeast of Saigon by a cheerful Army National Guard major, their pilot unexpectedly put down to pick up a quartet of strange passengers (NOTE: click on images to view in larger size):
There are three things I initially want to draw your attention to in this sequence. The first is Eisner’s excellent use of the first-person perspective, which he utilized throughout the story to draw the reader intimately into the action. The second is how Eisner used the outline of the helicopter’s cabin opening almost like a panel frame, albeit one simultaneously circumscribed by the art that it is supposed to contain—just masterful, subtle stuff. Third is Eisner’s control of facial expression, pose, and gesture: Everything from the major’s shrug to the “thousand-yard stare” exhibited by the combat-weary passengers scans easily off the page and makes an immediate impression on the reader.
But who were those passengers in transit who melted into the jungle as quickly as they appeared, never to be seen again in the story?
Judging by their uniforms and the fact that they had a dog with them, it’s clear that they were part of a combat tracker team (CTT), a small, highly-trained unit of soldiers paired with a tracker dog and tasked with re-establishing contact with enemy forces, reconnaissance, and the search and rescue of lost personnel. What’s particularly impressive about Eisner’s depiction of the team is the care and attention he showed to all the important little details despite the brevity of their encounter—Eisner illustrated the episode from memory, decades after it happened, at a time when there wasn’t really a lot of reliable historical information readily available in the public sphere about the Vietnam War CTTs. He accurately drew them as wearing non-standard “bush hats” (a.k.a. “boonie hats”), which were, along with slouch hats, the preferred headgear of the CTTs. The weapons they’re carrying? It might look at first glance that Eisner made a mistake in drawing such extremely stubby M16 assault rifles, but again, the illustrations are actually quite accurate to the time period and the unit in question. Those aren’t supposed to be M16s at all, but Model 605 carbines, produced in very limited numbers up to 1967 and issued to units that needed smaller, lighter, and more maneuverable weapons. Tying it all together are the team members’ haunted expressions, standing in sharp contrast to the bonhomie of Eisner’s escorting officer: In just one five-page sequence, one panel even, Eisner managed to express so much about the physical, mental, and emotional toll close combat takes on the infantryman as well as the gulf between the grunt and the REMF. Last Day in Vietnam might be a partially fictionalized account of one of Eisner’s experiences, but its historicity is nonetheless intact and evident of his respect for the “subjective truth” and authenticity of artistic depiction.
That Eisner illustrated military equipment and soldiers so accurately shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone familiar with the Spirit creator’s career history. Drafted into the Army in 1942, Eisner served as an illustrator on Army Motors soon after receiving his warrant officer’s appointment, using the facility with cartooning and visual storytelling that he developed working on The Spirit as an instructional tool in the service of teaching preventative equipment maintenance.Eisner left the Army in 1945 but soon returned to its employ in 1951 as a civilian, launching PS, the Preventative Maintenance Monthly, the successor publication to Army Motors, serving as its lead writer, editor, and illustrator. The original incarnation of PS was published continuously for 20 years, and Eisner’s 1967 tour of the front in Vietnam was actually a research trip so that he could see firsthand the most pressing equipment maintenance problems faced by soldiers in the field. It was during his years working on PS that Eisner began seriously developing many of his ideas regarding what he considered to be the “universal language” of sequential art. He noted that many South Korean and South Vietnamese soldiers working with the US Army in overseas bases in South Korea and South Vietnam were able to pick up many preventative maintenance lessons from “reading” PS, even though they might have had little to no knowledge of the English language or exposure to comic books. Eisner would later codify his theories on the putative “grammar” of sequential art in his landmark intructional book Comics and Sequential Art. (Some of these ideas are discussed in more detail here.)