Saturday, November 13, 2010

the 'Nam vol.1: CGS book of the month club

I've neglected the blog here for a few weeks, but I hope to get back on track in this next week. We'll see. anyway. Over at the Comic Geek Speak podcast they released another one of their Book of the Month Club episodes, this one on Marvel's first volume of The 'Nam.

This was one of the first series I started to collect on a regular basis, and managed to compile a full run (except for the final Punisher special, ugh). Surprisingly, despite the fact that the initial thought was to have the series run in real time, with characters rotating back to "the world" after their 12-month tour, this first volume collects only the first 10 issues. I decided to re-read my original issues for this discussion, and was surprised how well they did hold up years later.

But I'm getting ahead of myself a bit. I also re-read the Comics Journal issue from 1990 that examined both this and Don Lomax's comics Vietnam Journal from Apple Comics. It was an interesting issue, including interviews with Lomax and Doug Murray, who was the writer on the 'Nam for its first 50 or so issues, with a couple of breaks due to editorial differences. My next few posts will discuss this book and include a number of quotes from that TCJ issue. To begin, here's my brief overview of the controversy that was going on in the letters' pages of The Comics Journal regarding Marvel's Vietnam book.

The 'Nam was taking some serious flak from readers of the Comics Journal, which probably helped inspire Gary Groth to have a Vietnam in Comics issue. The book was getting criticism from people who felt it was too juvenile, unwilling to tackle the racism and drug issues, nor able to discuss the horrors and atrocities that occurred. Also, the characterizations of later characters (particularly those after the initial year of issues) was derided as newer characters had a more gung-ho, Rambo-esque quality to them (I'm going by the commentary in this issue of TCJ, but am interested to read on after the first 10 issues and compare these initial characters to later ones). There was also the issue of all the "action" the soldiers in the book saw.

These are certainly worthwhile discussion points, and ones that the interviewer - Andrew Dagilis - brought up in his discussion with Doug Murray. Obviously, this was a Code-approved book, which meant much of what was criticized could not be brought up in the book, a luxury Don Lomax had in doing his Vietnam Journal comic for Apple comics without the need of code approval. But, where is the line? What should be allowed in what was, at least initially, a comic for adults? I think a major problem, using hindsight, is that The 'Nam should have been an Epic comic where adult situations necessary for a more realistic portrayal could have been tackled. But - and this is purely conjecture on my part - I don't know that anyone at Marvel expected The 'Nam to do well. Most likely, they expected it to fail, and threw it under the Marvel imprint. Surprisingly, it became a top 5 book, and was selling roughly 250,000 copies a month. (yeah, not too shabby).

And when it became popular, it became even harder to work in any of the grim reality that was true of the Vietnam conflict. Ironic. There also was an edict that Murray and company try to gear the book more toward a younger demographic (early teens) in order to pull in new readers. From our vantage point of the readers at the time, it would no doubt seem that Doug Murray should be the one receiving all blame for the juvenilization of the war through this comic. But, from the interview in TCJ I have, it's obvious he was trying to do the best with what he was given. Editorial had a stringent hold on the book, and the Comics Code loomed heavily above their heads. But Murray felt it necessary to do his best within these guidelines to portray as true a tale as possible in the book. Dagilis asks him a number of times, might it not be better to drop the book and try to clone it at a company that might allow him freer reign with the subject matter. Murray doesn't agree. Despite many arguments with editorial (at the time) he feels it best to continue on with his book and work in things at the edges whenever possible.

The biggest issue, for Murray (as I read it), is the fact that Murray was a novice in the comics business. After returning from Vietnam in the seventies and leaving the army, he tried his hand at writing. Being in New York, he found himself hanging around at Neal Adams's studio, where he struck up a friendship with Larry Hama. When Hama, as an editor at Marvel, was starting up his Savage Tales magazine, which would showcase b/w military stories, he called upon Murray, the only Vietnam veteran he knew who was a writer, to write him a couple of short Vietnam war stories that Mike Golden illustrated. From that, came The 'Nam, Murray's first major comics writing credit. if he'd had any experience in the comics business, things might have been different. He might have been able to use his standing to get some things pushed through editorial. Or, he might have left the book and started up another somewhere else. Thought that still seems like it might not have worked for a variety of reasons pointed out in the interview - particularly the dismal sales figures of The 'Nam's sister magazine from Marvel, Semper Fi, which showcased stunning artwork by John Severin. By the time Semper Fi was canceled with issue 9, it was only selling 13,000 copies, and I loved that book too. Could Murray have found the same success with a second Vietnam book? I doubt it. But that's all history now.
Back tomorrow with some quotes from that interview.



Steeven R. Orr said...

I remember seeing the 'Nam on the shelves, but never read it.

War wasn't my thing at the time.

I may have to go find the trade though.

I like hearing about the politics going on behind the scenes . . . it's got me interested. Thanks! :)

Chris Beckett said...

Glad to hear I piqued your interest, Steeven. I hope you enjoy the book. I was interested in the book as an historical document, as I'd heard about the Vietnam conflict, but never really knew much about it. This was my introduction, and, especially the early issues that have been reprinted, it was a pretty good one and led me to other things, including a number of non-fiction books and the "other" Vietnam comic, Don Lomax's VIETNAM JOURNAL, which is brilliant. If you find you appreciate the 'Nam, you might seek that out too.