1983-1995 (the Copper Age) was the height of my comic book collecting, and a great time to discover the medium. Starting with Larry Hama’s GI JOE: A REAL AMERICAN HERO for Marvel and gradually segueing into TRANSFORMERS and GROO THE WANDERER, I started frequenting comic shops and began to pick up anything that caught my eye. The mid 80’s saw the release, in rapid succession, of Frank Miller’s WOLVERINE (with Chris Claremont), DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, Alan Moore’s V FOR VENDETTA, THE WATCHMEN, and THE KILLING JOKE, and other positively seminal works in the field.
But I don’t wanna talk about them. I’m by no means a scholar or expert. I got out of comics for the most part when I started college, only popping in now and then since to pick up the occasional trade collection, LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, SIN CITY, THE WALKING DEAD, a couple CAPTAIN AMERICAs, THE ULTIMATES, stuff like that. All those books have been written up and dissected by far more qualified people than me, and you can look them up anywhere on the internet.
I’ve decided I’d like to revisit comics I’ve kept in the long white boxes in the back of my closet, titles that for whatever reason may not have been the most popular, and indeed, were likely forgotten for the most part, or mostly went underappreciated. I don’t know that I’m talking about rarities, or anything. I wasn’t really an underground comics guy. I’m talking more about mainstream gold that for whatever reason floated off down the creek. Stuff like Andy Helfer’s take on THE SHADOW, THE LAST AMERICAN, MARSHAL LAW, Steve Gerber’s FOOLKILLER miniseries from the 90’s, John Wagner’s BUTTON MAN, and Evan Dorkin’s MILK AND CHEESE.
Are ya with me?
OK, so I’m instituting a new feature here on Delirium Tremens, DT BACK ISSUES. Like DT MOVIEHOUSE, it’ll probably be infrequent, but it’ll give you something to read about besides Merkabah Rider, the Van Helsing Papers, Buff Tea, and anything else writerly I’ve got coming down the pipe.
Assistant Editor Tim Tuohy, in his introduction to the final letter’s page of the series, said THE ‘NAM was referred to as “The Great Experiment” around the Marvel offices.
What an inventive and daring experiment it was! Larry Hama of GI JOE and Doug Murray came up with the idea of doing a realistic comic book about the Vietnam War, not a Sgt. Fury or Sgt. Rock actioner, but a real deal straightforward, grunt’s eye view of the war. Further, it would be told in real time, meaning when a month passed between issues, a month passed for the characters in the book. Given that a tour of duty in Vietnam lasted one year in the 60’s, that meant after twelve issues, the characters introduced in the first issue would rotate back to the United States, and a whole new cast would take over the story.
America was a little Vietnam crazy in the 80’s, and me being 12 years old in 1987 when I picked up my first issue (#11 – just LOOK at that cover! How could I pass up such a great looking book?), I was no different.
Rambo was the most famous Vietnam vet, and it seemed like every cool, moody character in comics and film had a background in the war. The Punisher, even Stalker, Snake Eyes, Storm Shadow and Scarlet from GI JOE had been to Indian Country (no surprise, given Hama was a vet).
And some time around that year, my buddy Ricardo leant me a VHS copy of Platoon, and the movie just blew me away.
I was gung ho for Vietnam. I wanted to learn everything about the VC and POW’s, M-60’s, Hueys, and humpin’ the boonies. So I picked up The ‘Nam #10 and #11 at my local comic shop.
It was the issue right after a major character and the best friend and mentor of the at the time main character Ed Marks had been killed. It opened with Ed drinking his sorrows away at the post bar while his friends worried over him, and then depicted an action in Saigon with US grunts acting as liaisons with South Vietnamese police.
To my eleven/twelve year old mind, it was totally baffling, and yet engrossing. Like Ed, I had no idea what the heck was going on. I was thrust into this strange world where absolutely nothing was explained. A civilian opened fire on a Vietnamese politician and the police responded by lighting up a crowd with machinegun fire. What had happened? Ed demanded to know, but he got no answers, so neither did I. In another scene, Ramnarain, one of the other soldiers, is shown selling something to a guy on the street. When Ed asks what he thinks he’s doing, Ramnarain’s response is “Just trying to make a little P.” What? Was he making fun of Ed? I had no idea. The lingo was as dense as the storyline. Most comics would have the little asterisks at the bottom of the panel explaining everything or the writing would put the word in such a context that you could figure out the meaning. Not so in The ‘Nam.
At the end of the book I discovered a handy lexicon with definitions of all the slang and military terms (P is money, of course), and letters from actual Vietnam vets and kids like me both expressing their admiration for the first ten issues and lamenting the death of somebody called Mike.
Adding to the uniqueness of THE ‘NAM was its art, which I now recognize as being just glorious, a perfect, but to me (at the time) unheard of melding of cartoon/caricature human figures and astoundingly accurate and detailed equipment and backgrounds. Just look at the exaggerated figures. It’s the same kind of reality-disconnect you experience seeing Roger Rabbit interacting with Bob Hoskins, but here, it jars you, puts you a bit on edge. The characters look too pleasant to do each other violence. Then an orphan kid in line at a dinner sponsored by the Army pulls a grenade out from under his shirt and blows a GI into chuck.
This was the art of Michael Golden, a guy whose other work I’m not familiar with, but keep meaning to hunt up. His tenure ended not long after my own readership began (actually in the eleventh issue, I think).
The book was taken over by Wayne Vansant. A lot of people complained that his work presaged a drop in quality, but I disagree. He may not have been as stunning as Golden, but his art still fit the book like a combat boot, and he did the lion’s share of the work on it, mostly unsung, for a number of years, barring a few guest stints. Around the same time the book went from newsprint to a higher quality paper. This made for more vibrant colors that showcased Vansant’s work, but I think, tamed the book just a tad. The murk of newsprint had stood in for the haze of combat, the mystery of a place where anyone could decide to turn on you at any moment, and only the guys in OD Green beside you could be counted on (and sometimes not even them).
True to its promise, the characters rotated out, and new characters were brought in. Unfortunately this fascinating method of storytelling was abandoned, sometime around the infamous issue #41 or thereafter, and we never found out what happened to a lot of the guys like Andy and Daniels, Light, and the old timer Martini that had grandfathered in from the Korean War.
#41 was said to be an attempt to boost sales. It featured The Avengers on the cover, bursting through a map of Vietnam and proclaiming “GUESS WHO’S BEEN DRAFTED?” (look at the little HUH? bubble sprouting out of the GI in the upper left hand corner – was that Doug Murray himself?)
It turned a lot of people off, obviously. I don’t think Doug Murray would’ve done this story unless somebody higher up in Marvel were leaning on him, but on the other hand, I also think that anybody who dismissed THE ‘NAM because of this issue probably saw this in a catalog or on the shelf and scoffed without reading it.
The Avengers don’t REALLY invade Vietnam. How this all came about was, in a previous issue, a misfit private named Aeder had joined the unit (which I should mention, was the 23rd Infantry). Aeder was not a good soldier and didn’t fit in well with the others. Plus, he was constantly reading comic books. A few issues prior to #41 he developed a relationship at the local ville with a Vietnamese girl, and was often being caught by Ice Phillips (the squad’s sergeant) AWOL. One one such excursion, VC guerillas burst into Aeder’s girl’s home while they were lying in bed, and gunned them both down.
In #41, Phillips is about to catch his chopper home, it being the end of his tour. Martini walks in and finds him sitting on Aeder’s cot, going through his old comics. They imagine what the war would be like if superheroes existed and could intervene. That’s it. It’s all Phillips and Martini just smoking and flipping through funnybooks, imagining. No big deal.
Subsequent letters columns EXPLODED with negative feedback on the issue, but re-reading it, it really made me wonder if anybody had read the thing. I was not offended by it in the least. In the end, Murray lasted as the writer only another ten issues before the second attempt by Marvel to bolster sales of the book with a universe crossover happened.
This one was well received, and generally, it made more sense. As I mentioned, Frank Castle was already established in his own book as a Vietnam vet. What we saw in this two parter was kind of a prequel to the Punisher, with Marine Corps sniper Frank Castiglione taking on a VC super sniper. A bit into the Sgt Rock mode, but not a bad story.
When it was over though, Murray had been replaced by Chuck Dixon, who abandoned the pre-established real time model and left the 23rd altogether to hop all over Vietnam and tell the stories he wanted to write. He opened with one of the best story arcs of the series, a five parter called The Death Of Joe Hallen, about a Marine’s return home, his disillusionment with the world, his return to Vietnam, and his eventual metaphoric ‘death,’ really a death of spirit. At the end of the arc, Hallen isn’t killed, but after his attempted murder of a fellow soldier (a junkie private named Roeder who mistakenly shot and killed Hallen’s friend as they were coming out of the jungle) is stopped by a couple of MP’s, he is dishonorably discharged and sent off to prison.
After a very slight lag in quality in Murray’s final issues (mostly the look of the book by a couple of fill in artists), the book experienced a renaissance, with Dixon really pulling out the stops. He even revisited the classic squad lineup of the first twelve issues, showing what they were doing (Ed Marks was a war correspondent, Sgt. Polkow a cop, etc). Of these, the biggest and best surprise was Ramnarain, the wheeling and dealing disgruntled private who was last seen when he was captured by the VC some forty issues previously. In a two part story in 59 and 60, a downed pilot is put into a POW camp and steadfastly refuses all attempts at interrogation by the camp commandant. By night he confides with another prisoner, talking through the wall about home, his experiences, etc. The next day the Vietnamese commandant gleefully throws all the info he shared with the GI in the pilot’s face, and as he is dragged out by the guards, the pilot curses the GI for passing information. The guards open the GI’s cell, revealing Ramnarain. Then they pick him up and carry him out. Both legs and an arm have been amputated.
Yeah. Yet it still managed to deal with issues of racism, drugs, prostitution, CIA torture, civilian massacre, the murder of incompetent superior officers by troops (fragging), the self-immolation of Buddhist monks, the protest movement back home, and the general climate of chaos of the war. Twice, it even told its tales from the point of view of the Vietnamese, ARVN (South Vietnamese Army), NVA (North Vietnamese) and VC guerillas.
There are really too many memorable issues to talk about in depth. Most everybody remembers the Tunnel Rat issue, in which a GI explores a VC tunnel complex and winds up getting trampled by a horde of rats. There was another Punisher storyline (a third was planned and released after the book was cancelled at #84), issues about the American withdrawal and abandonment of its southern Vietnamese allies, and a couple backup stories set at home where a group of the old characters banded together to find their old crooked Top Sergeant who had gone bad in the real world and murdered one of their little brothers in a drug deal (though Dixon slightly effed the continuity up a bit, ignoring the fact that Top had returned to Vietnam after his initial arrest on bribery charges….also at one point Ice Phillips was inexplicably called Ice Eisenman).
THE ‘NAM opened up the war to me in ways no history book or class ever has, to the point where I learned even more on my second read through. Originally billed as an eight year limited series, it missed its goal by only twelve issues, succumbing at last to flagging sales and the gatefold foil covers of its competitors.
The INCOMING letters column was as educational as the book itself, and hosted spirited debates between combat veterans and war protestors, provided service information for vets and served as a bulletin board for comrades looking to reunite with old buddies, or sons and daughters looking to hear from anybody who had known the loved ones they’d lost. At times the letters printed were more emotional and moving than any fiction Murray or Dixon or any of the other writers ever came up with.
It really was an important comic book, a total anomaly in any collection. 84 issues offering a holistic, illustrated view of a war most schools won’t teach you anything about.
In the last INCOMING, Lizabeth Collier, who I believe was a frequent writer to the back pages, closed out the series saying;
“Don’t allow yourselves and your work to walk off the scene, forgotten. For now, my thanks for your work.”
I couldn’t say it any better.