Sunday, November 21, 2010

the 'Nam vol.1 pt.5: final thoughts

In re-reading these first 10 issues of Marvel's The 'Nam, initially published in 1986-87, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed them. It was such a tough place for the creative team to be: producing a war comic about a time in our history that many people wished to forget, and having to do it under the auspices of the Comics Code and a large publisher like Marvel within a 22-page limit. And, just to make things interesting, they want each issue to take place in real time, so those 22 pages showcase the story for a given month. Not an easy task. But I think they did an admirable job, considering the constraints and the fact that Doug Murray was, in fact, a rookie writer.

There are times when I cringe a little bit - the fact that, for the most part, the American troops are righteous in their mission while any time they find it necessary to shoot a civilian, these always tend to have been VC in disguise (and I could be forgetting if there was an unwarranted killing early, but I am referencing the tunnel rat issue, #8, where Ed Marks and the tunnel rat kill the Vietnamese girl who has a grenade taped to her body). Things are just a little too clear-cut as far as the conflict. From what I have read, it was terribly confusing, and that isn't something we feel in reading these initial issues.

I also found it a bit troubling that the two American characters who seem to be the most perverted by their time in Vietnam were minorities - the Top Sergeant and Ramnarain. Yes, we do have a white soldier try to frag Sgt. Polkow, but that was more subtle and not as overt as the other two soldiers. Maybe I'm nitpicking - probably am - but in this more enlightened world, it just seems to stand out more to me.

That said, I was impressed with all the aspects of the war Murray, Golden, et al. were able to showcase in these first ten issues. The Kit Carson scouts, the tunnel rats, the atrocities (on the VC side at least), the street economy, and I was impressed with the characterization of Ed Marks through these issues. You can see subtle changes from month to month. And there are some very moving moments in these issues as well. Overall, I think they did a fairly good job of giving readers a starting point, which was something Murray hoped for, and understood to be the best possible outcome for a 22-page corporate comic book.

I don't know if this was in the collection, but I was surprised - and found it a bit confusing narratively - to find the "tunnel rat" issue split into two different stories that involved the same character. The second half of that issue - the "5th to the 1st" story - must have been a third installment from the series of features Murray and Golden had done for Larry Hama's b/w war magazine, Savage Tales. Only two stories ran in the magazine before they were offered the opportunity to do The 'Nam as a regular monthly. For anyone curious about those (were they in the collection?) this shows how they were laid out, with a voice over in captions relating the story. This also exhibits the more "adult" nature of that feature, as we see the tunnel rat kill his Lt. I was surprised this actually got into the regular book. I can't imagine editorial allowed something of this nature to be showcased again in the run, though I admit I could be wrong on that count. It would have been nice if they'd been given the freedom to tackle some more of these problems in the book, but there were too many interests involved to allow such a thing - and, of course, sales to be considered.

finally, Mike Golden's art. There were many readers who felt that his cartoony style did not fit the serious nature of the book. And though I can understand that sentiment, I think his art worked very well in the book. It's a little hint of manga, before manga landed with its full force over here, in that he exaggerated facial expressions and body language in order to convey emotion, and did it very well. And, Doug Murray made a good point in favor of Golden in the Comics Journal interview I referenced above, stating that he felt Golden was a good choice for the book because of two factors.

  1. One, he has a high level of detail, and accurately depicted the hardware used by the soldiers, including remembering to make every fourth round loaded into a 50-caliber a tracer (I know I am remembering this wrong and cannot find the quote).

  2. Two, Golden is able to make each character instantly recognizable. The problem, as Murray put it, for a war book is that everyone is wearing the same things - camo fatigues - and if you don't have a good artist they all blend together. With Golden, you certainly never got that. His soldiers were all individuals and you always knew who was whom.

For these reasons, I think Golden's work on the book is essential and no doubt helped that book rise to the top of the sales pile early on.

Anyway. Overall, a good book, one that I think is important for a number of reasons. it would be interesting if, at some point down the line, the Comic Geek Speak guys were able to read Don Lomax's Vietnam Journal for a BOMC and compare it with this. And with Transfuzion recently reprinting all 16 issues of the original series in four trades, that might be a possibility.


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