In today’s article: We revisit the Vietnam War through comics.
Yesterday, 30 April 2015, was the 40th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon, the event that marked the end of the Vietnam War and heralded the beginning of the reunification process (but not the end of the suffering) for a divided nation that had already endured so much for so long at the hands of both local strongmen and foreign governments. An in-depth discussion of the conflict—the whys and wherefores, its immediate and long-term repercussions on geopolitics and the environment, its horrific cost in human lives—is beyond the scope of our little slice of cyberspace here, but I do think it an interesting (important, even) exercise for comics fans to reflect on history at this time and take a look back on how the medium addressed the war and its surrounding circumstances.
The ‘Nam (Marvel Comics, December 1986–September 1993)
For many comics readers who were too young to have actually seen the Vietnam War play out on television as it happened (it was, as TV critic Michael Arlen called it, the world’s first ”living room war”), the conflict cast a long, if somewhat vague, shadow on the escapist exploits seen in the funnybooks of the 1980s. There was the Punisher, a former Marine sniper come back from his Vietnam experiences partially unhinged, taking on the self-appointed role of judge, jury, and Executioner after the death of his family at the hands of the mob finally sent him over the edge. The New Mutants series included among its cast of teen superheroes Xi’an Coy Manh, a.k.a. the telepath code-named Karma, the daughter of a slain South Vietnamese military officer who endured numerous hardships and tortures in her journey to find refuge for herself and her surviving family in the United States. The best-selling Uncanny X-Men introduced Forge, the mutant supergenius and mystic who lost the use of two of his limbs in an incident in Vietnam. And in the popular G.I. Joe comic, the G.I. Joe commando Snake-Eyes and the Cobra ninja Storm-Shadow shared a bond forged in the fires of the Vietnam War that transcended their current, competing allegiances. Every publisher and creator, it seemed, had a character or three whose personal history was linked in one way or another to the war in Indochina. (There was also Neal Adams’ Vietnam veteran superhero Skateman, but the less said about that character, the better.)
It wasn’t until the debut of Marvel Comics’ The ‘Nam in late 1986, however, that the Vietnam War got its first real major mainstream comics treatment. There had been other semi-autobiographical or fictionalized comics on the topic of the war before The ‘Nam but the vast majority of these were either published in black & white comics magazines intended for older readers or largely forgettable, interchangeable, jingoistic pap. The ‘Nam, on the other hand, was published, not under Marvel’s Curtis Magazines or Epic Comics imprints (where the publisher usually sequestered non-superhero material intended for adult readers), but as an honest-to-goodness Marvel Comic, and despite the topics and themes it dealt with, the comic had somehow managed to receive the Comics Code Authority’s imprimatur, clearing it for sale to readers of all ages on newsstands and spinner racks everywhere.
Advertised with the tagline “the way it was,” The ‘Nam‘s origins can be traced to 5th to the 1st, a serial in the short-lived, second volume of Marvel’s Savage Tales black & white comics magazine anthology, written by Doug Murray and brilliantly illustrated by Michael Golden. At the urging of Savage Tales editor Larry Hama, Murray created a proposal for an ongoing comics spin-off from the serial which was approved by then-Marvel Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter, a somewhat surprising development given war comics’ ongoing decline in popularity at the time.
The new series, now entitled The ‘Nam, had for its inaugural creative team Murray (writer), Golden (pencils), Armando Gil (inks), and Phil Felix (colors), working under the guidance of series editor Hama, The comic featured a novel structural conceit: Events in the comic progressed in real-time. That is, as one month passed between the release of each issue, one month would also pass in the comic’s setting, reflecting what Murray described in a 2001 interview as “the months of boredom punctuated by moments of panic” that typified his combat zone experience during two separate tours in Southeast Asia.
Veterans of the conflict, Murray and Hama endeavored to keep the series compliant with Comics Code Authority’s guidelines because they wanted children and teens to see the Vietnam War as they experienced it on the front lines, and not through the sensationalizing filters of film and TV, the sanitized perspectives of history books, or the convenient revisionism of partisan politics. Working with the Code meant that the salty language of the soldier had to be cleaned up to meet CCA standards and certain facets of the war had to be dialed down to a degree in the fictionalization, but these were compromises Murray and Hama were willing to accept if it meant that the comic could reach a much wider and younger readership.
None of this is to suggest that the comic went out of its way to avoid provocative topics. Quite the opposite, in fact. The ‘Nam pushed the envelope as much as it could within the constraints of the Comics Code. A long-running subplot introduced in the very first issue of the series revolved around institutionalized corruption perpetrated by a senior NCO and his cronies. Issue #18 (“The Bombs Bursting…”), actually depicts the “fragging” of a criminally reckless lieutenant by his enlisted subordinates. And true to the title’s remit of authenticity, the creative team did not blanch at depicting the violence, the drug use, the solicitation of prostitutes, and the casual racism that informed the setting and the period.
The ‘Nam told stories primarily from the point-of-view of enlisted American servicemen, and the series’ through-line is the brotherhood shared by the community of infantrymen. But The ‘Nam also had a small number of issues devoted to showing the war from Vietnamese perspectives ranging from that of civilians, ARVN personnel, Viet Cong fighters, and NVA soldiers, a thoughtful creative choice that stood in contrast to the reductive, hawkish tenor of many of the popular, military-themed entertainments of the Reagan era. Such was The ‘Nam‘s positive reception that it was actually accorded the 1987 award for “Best Media Portrayal of the Vietnam War” by the national non-profit group BRAVO (Brotherhood Rally of All Veterans Organizations), beating out much higher-profile projects like Oliver Stone’s Oscar-winning film Platoon.
Despite The ‘Nam‘s early critical and commercial success, it wasn’t all smooth sailing for the series the rest of the way. Marvel was in the midst of major office upheavals in late 1987 and by issue #11, Hama was off as the title’s editor, although he was kept on as a “consultant editor” until issue #35. Michael Golden, a huge draw at the time, would end up penciling only the first 11 issues and part of the 13th. Murray remained the regular series writer until issue #51, although he did come back briefly to contribute to the double-sized issue #75. The writer pointed to “changes in editorial policy” as the reason for his departure from the title, claiming that “[the new editors] wanted a book that was a regular comic book. They didn’t want real-time, they wanted to include superheroes, and I just didn’t want to do that.”
The publishing timeline backs up Murray’s contention: The ‘Nam #52, written by new regular series scribe Chuck Dixon, was the first installment of The Punisher Invades The ‘Nam, a two-part quasi-crossover featuring the Marvel Universe anti-hero. The Punisher would return to the comic several months later in a second The Punisher Invades The ‘Nam arc comprising issue #s 67–69, and again in The Punisher Invades The ‘Nam: Final Invasion, a 1994 paperback penned by Don Lomax, another Vietnam veteran and creator of the lauded Vietnam Journal comic, who replaced Dixon as the series writer halfway through 1992. This bound volume collected what should have been the series’ last three issues (The ‘Nam was cancelled in the summer of 1993 with issue #84, before Lomax’s planned final storyline could see print).
The first 30 issues of The ‘Nam and the two 5th to the 1st stories that originally appeared in Savage Tales have been collected in a series of three trade paperbacks. Also, a small selection of issues are available to read on the Marvel Unlimited paid comics-streaming service.
Our Army at War #233 (DC Comics, cover-dated June 1971)
The My Lai Massacre (also known as the Massacre at Son My) of 1968 was perhaps THE pivotal event in the war that turned public opinion against American military intervention in Vietnam, not just in the United States, but all over the world. As established by a military investigation, the massacre involved the mass killing of anywhere from 350 to 500 Vietnamese villagers by elements of the US Army’s 20th Infantry Regiment. The victims included men, women, children, and infants. There were indications that a number of the female victims were gang-raped and mutilated before they were killed.
The brutal nature of the crimes would have inspired global condemnation by itself, but that condemnation would turn to outrage as the results of the courts-martial of the massacre’s perpetrators were relayed to the public in 1971. Despite physical evidence and the eyewitness accounts of other American military personnel, only one of the 26 soldiers accused of participating in the mass killings and rapes was sentenced to imprisonment: A life sentence that was almost immediately commuted to what amounted to three-and-a-half years of house arrest.
In a bitterly ironic twist, it was three helicopter crewmen from the US Army’s 123rd Aviation Battalion—warrant officer Hugh Thompson, Jr., specialist Glenn Andreotta, and specialist Lawrence Colburn—who flew out surviving villagers and even engaged in an armed standoff against the massacre participants who ended up being ostracized by the military establishment and decried by some members of the US legislature as betraying the American cause in the region. It would be three decades before they would receive official government recognition for their heroic actions, far too late for crew chief Andreotta, who was killed in action less than a month after the massacre.
So what does a comic set in World War II have to do with these events? Everything, as it turns out.
Our Army at War #233 has for its lead short story “Head Count,” a tale written by Robert Kanigher and illustrated by Joe Kubert*, featuring their most famous comic book creation, Sgt. Rock of Easy Company. Set in the fictional Nazi-occupied French town of Alimy (an anagram of My Lai), “Head Count,” over the course of its efficient 12 pages, sketches out the narrative of Easy Company infantryman Johnny Doe, a sadistic, remorseless killer who thinks nothing of shooting unarmed, surrendering enemies or sacrificing hostages to get at his targets. Doe is eventually killed before he can chuck a grenade inside a building filled with civilians being used by German soldiers as human shields. Doe’s killer, however, is off-panel. Was he shot by Sgt. Rock? Kanigher and Kubert leave it up to the reader to decide, but there are enough clues littered throughout the story to suggest that this was indeed the case.
Reader response to “Head Count” was massive given the timing of its publication, as the legal process that would eventually exonerate the My Lai massacre participants played out in the media. The issue’s cover was even reproduced as the cover for the May 2, 1971 issue of The New York Times Magazine. Writing in the letters page of Our Army at War #236, Kubert—who also served as the comic’s editor—had this to say about “Head Count”:
Originally, the story was conceived along the broadest lines of the My Lai incident. We have not attempted to reach any conclusion, or determine moralities, but merely to present a series of fictitious events paralleling contemporary thoughts.
However, this much must be said. My Lai is not a product of the present time alone. Every war back to antiquity has produced its My Lai, as will every war in the future. Only when the brutalization of war will be no more, will the possibility of My Lai cease to exist.
For the next four years, new stories in Our Army at War (and its sister title, Our Fighting Forces) would be punctuated at their conclusion with a graphic reading “Make War No More” instead of the usual “The End.”
Readers looking for a recent reprint of “Head Count” are out of luck, though. According the the Comic Book Database, the story has only been collected twice since its original publication: In the America at War: The Best of DC War Comics trade paperback (published by Fireside in 1979) and in DC Special Blue Ribbon Digest #18 (published in 1982 by DC Comics).
* – Kubert is universally recognized as the ne plus ultra of the Silver Age of Comics’ World War II anthology artists, but he was actually too young to serve during World War II and see the conflict firsthand. He was drafted into the Army during the Korean War!
Other notable comics featuring the Vietnam War:
Vietnam Journal (Caliber Comics, original Apple Comics series began publication in 1987)
Written and illustrated by Vietnam veteran (and future The ‘Nam writer) Don Lomax, Vietnam Journal can be viewed as something like a non-Comics Code Authority-compliant, black & white, indie comics alternative to The ‘Nam, with a key difference being a stronger emphasis on standalone stories, at least with the earliest issues. Lomax wasn’t restricted by the constraints of the CCA, but the work is nonetheless tastefully restrained. Vietnam Journal isn’t afraid to depict the raw brutality of war, but never descends into gratuitous, glorified violence.
The publishing rights bounced from one publisher to another after the completion of the original series before eventually settling at Caliber Comics, which has made the entire series available on comiXology as individual issues and “digital trade paperbacks.”
Last Day in Vietnam: A Memory (Dark Horse Books, first published in 2000)
A collection of war-themed vignettes created by the legendary Will Eisner over the course of his time as a soldier in the US Army and his subsequent 20+ year career as a civilian employee of the Department of Defense, where he worked as the primary artist, writer, researcher, and editor of the Army’s PS, The Preventative Maintenance Monthly magazine. The book’s lead story is based on Eisner’s experience visiting the combat zone in 1967 while on a research trip for the magazine, and is rendered in an immersive first-person perspective.
The Other Side (DC/Vertigo, first published as a miniseries cover-dated December 2006 to April 2007)
Any comic that attempts to depict the Vietnam War from opposing sides of the conflict runs the risk of satisfying no one and offending everyone. See, for instance, the so-bad-it-almost-circles-around-to-being-good Hearts and Minds: A Vietnam Love Story, a ham-fisted, uncharacteristically tone-deaf, allegorical graphic novel by The ‘Nam‘s Doug Murray and acclaimed Our Army at War artist Russ Heath.
Thankfully, this was not the case with The Other Side, a finely-balanced, character-driven story told from the dueling viewpoints of a disaffected American draftee and a pathologically-driven NVA volunteer. Written by Jason Aaron, still a year away from consistently wowing critics on Scalped (he is described as a “rookie sensation” in the December 2006 edition of the Vertigo line’s On The Ledge editorial page), and illustrated by Cameron Stewart, who would go on to win a Shuster Award and an Eisner Award in 2010 for his webcomic Sin Titulo.