Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The 'Nam Volume 1: A Comic Review

The 'Nam Volume 1
Marvel Comics
Writer: Doug Murray
Penciller: Michael Golden and Wayne Vansant
Inkers: Armando Gil, Bob McLeod, Pepe Moreno, John Beatty
Colors: Golden, Phil Felix

I was going to do a post looking back at 2009 but I realized I have nothing much to say about the year and its comic book controversies. I’m not even sure what my “Best of” list would contain other than all the volumes of Nana and 20th Century Boys published during the year, a few archive books from DC, Dark Horse and Marvel, and Love and Rockets New Stories 2. The biggest mainstream event of 2009 as far as I was concerned was not "Blackest Night" or some similar crossover or any creative-team change at the big companies but the return of Xi’an Coy Manh and Dani Moonstar to monthly adventuring in New Mutants.

But right at the end of the year, Marvel hit me with this—the long overdue return to print of The ‘Nam, their ongoing series from the late 1980s. Remember the late 80s and its 60s revisionism? A look back finds Prince and Tears for Fears doing psychedelia… De La Soul as well. And the release of the Beatles’ catalog on CD for the first time.

This led to a spate of so many movies about the Vietnam War they became a genre unto themselves. Marvel Comics was right there with Vietnam-vet Doug Murray providing punchy, realistic scripts—within the limits of the Comics Code of the time, that is—and Michael Golden combining realistic renderings of combat equipment with slightly cartooned figures. The ‘Nam takes place in “real time,” meaning each story occurs roughly a month or so after the last.

According to editor Larry Hama's introduction, the plan was for the initial protagonist, a na├»ve and genuinely decent everyman figure named Ed Marks, to experience a 12-month tour or duty in country, then rotate back to “The World,” and other characters to take his place. Readers would learn the ins and outs of combat the same way our young infantrymen did—one soaking wet boot step at a time.

As much as I love Sgt. Rock and Easy Company and the Losers, Warren's groundbreaking failure Blazing Combat and other vintage war comics, The ‘Nam beats them as a realistic depiction of war and yet it's strangely sanitized. The new realism inspired by movies like Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down and the Band of Brothers miniseries plus “shock and awe” imagery from the local news may cause readers to find The 'Nam almost quaint with its clean imagery (the inking by Beatty is especially slick and tasty). There’s a little blood and no gore, most killings taking place tastefully off-panel.

This expurgation extends even to the soldiers' language. One character uses the acronym “REMF” rather than the whole phrase (the book offers a helpful glossary in the back so you know what things like “11Bush” and “hat up” mean) but for the most part “Cripes!” is the curse word of choice. Murray’s humane depiction of his characters and deliberate use of G.I. jargon combined with Golden’s eye for detail more than make up for some of the self-censorship and give the reader a taste for what it might actually have been like to spend a few months humping the boonies and being dusted off by slicks for guys in their late teens and early 20s caught up in this Southeast Asian quagmire. Our pal Sgt. Rock might be able to bring down Stukas with rifle grenades, but Marks’ comparatively restrained attempts at heroism are only scoffed at by his fellow grunts as a little “too John Wayne.” You do that stuff for real and you only get yourself and your friends killed. And in that The ‘Nam more than holds its own after 20-odd years.

Golden makes sure almost all the characters look appropriately youthful and confused, except for the grizzled vets—the bloated, corrupt Top, a kind of African American Sidney Greenstreet in tiger-camo and Staff Sergeant Polkow, a muscular hulk on impossibly tiny legs. Marks himself is sort of blandly blond and wholesome, a fitting masking agent for young readers. As he matures and learns the ropes, Golden gives him increasingly longer hair; I’m not sure but I think at the time, the army experimented with allowing soldiers a bit more individualism in terms of hair length and mustaches. Or else they just didn’t have any military barbers at the firebase.

A stand out story takes us into the psyche of America's enemies, as told by a "Kit Carson scout," a former Viet Cong who has never given up his fight for freedom despite switching sides. Through his tale, Murray gives readers a broader view of the conflict, putting Marks' story into context. From the Japanese occupation and French collaboration to early OSS/CIA misadventures (we basically invented the Viet Minh, who later became the Viet Cong we fought so futilely for so long... glad to know we don't do that kind of crapola anymore) to the early days of America's involvement, Murray fits it all into a concise and emotionally moving narrative, giving humanity to what had been faceless, anonymous figures in previous issues and deftly conveying the political complexities without condemning. As always in these early issues, the focus is on the every weary ground soldier, be he American or Vietnamese.

Throughout, and despite Comics Code limitations, Murray and Golden manage to provide a “you are there” feel for Vietnam combat circa 1966, and it's meticulously researched. Marks’ 23rd Infantry regiment really exists and served as part of the 25th Infantry Division “Tropic Lightning” with the distinctive jungle leaf/lightning bolt shoulder patch-- and apparently they actually engaged in the actions depicted in the series.

The book contains 10 solid issues of The ‘Nam, just enough to get to know Marks and his buddies, but it leaves you strangely hanging as he breaks 90 days and declares himself “short” in the last story. I think adding a couple of more issues and completing Marks' tour would’ve been helpful, but this is one of the finest war comics, a matter-of-fact antidote to the heavyweight soul searching and self-evisceration of flicks like Platoon or Full Metal Jacket, but without the self-justifying defensiveness of Hamburger Hill. And it contains none of the surrealism/absurdism of the blatantly pro-war epic Apocalypse Now. At least as long as it features Golden’s art. I’m also not sure how long Murray lent his expertise and writing skills to the series, because this comic was hard to find locally back in the day. I missed a few issues here and there and after Michael Golden left I also made my exit as a reader. The next time I checked, Marvel had finally destroyed Murray’s carefully crafted verisimilitude by sticking the asinine Punisher character in a story.

An ongoing complaint I have with these types of reprints is with the colors. I wish they’d remastered them somehow. This book is essentially a reprint of the 1999 trade (even the Hama introduction comes from that version) and the colors seem a bit too garish on this slick paper. I wouldn’t want them to over-model it with computers but they could have toned it down just a bit to match some of the look of desaturated newsprint while still maintaining the clean whiteness of the page for something more naturalistic. The recolored cover looks fantastic, with painterly tones that make Golden’s artwork pop, and there are some gorgeous cover reprints in the back. There’s even Pepe Moreno’s stark photorealistic illustration for the last trade printing.

I'd been banging on in this blog for a while about how we needed this vital series available again in affordable form and now here it is! Thanks, Marvel. Sometimes you do the sweetest things for me!

1 comment:

M.Dorosh said...

I saw the first issue by accident in a comic book store down the street from my high school, and was instantly hooked. Best war comic ever produced, bar none. Glad to hear that it is still being discussed, and being made available to new readers. The release of Ken Burns' new documentary series may provide even more interest for this excellent title.