Jason Aaron on “The Vietnam War in Comics: The Good, the Bad and THE OTHER SIDE.”
Jason Aaron has a book that was released today called The Other Side from Vertigo Comics, which is about the Vietnam War. He has a very cleverly titled blog called Jason Aaron.
The Vietnam War in Comics: The Good, the Bad and THE OTHER SIDE
Hi, I’m Jason Aaron, writer of THE OTHER SIDE, a new mini-series from Vertigo about the Vietnam War, and I’m here to enlighten you on some of the highlights and lowlights of that war’s portrayal in comic book form. Here they are in chronological order.
1. Iron Man in TALES OF SUSPENSE
Throughout the 1960s, several prominent superheroes would sign up for tours of duty in Indochina, but there’s only one who’s very origin goes back to Vietnam. In TALES OF SUSPENSE #39 from March 1963, millionaire industrialist Tony Stark got himself injured by a booby-trap in the jungles of Vietnam while demonstrating his high tech “transistor-powered” weapons to the U.S. military. He was then captured by Wong-Chu, the yellow-skinned “red guerrilla tyrant” of Vietnam, who ordered Stark to build weapons for the Commie cause. Instead, Stark built a suit of armor he used to blast the Commie bastard back to the stone age. And thus, Iron Man was born.
2. JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #117
In 1965’s JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #117, Thor blundered into the middle of the war and helped a crazed, Commie commander see the error of his ways. “It was Communism that made me what I am-that shaped me into a brutal, unthinking instrument of destruction!” raved Hu Sak, as he aimed his pistol at a huge stockpile of bombs. “To Communism, may it vanish from the face of the earth and the memory of mankind!”
3. Captain Hunter in OUR FIGHTING FORCES
THE OTHER SIDE is the first Vietnam War comic that DC has published in decades. Believe it or not, their last full-fledged Vietnam War title was actually one of the first published by anyone. In 1966, Captain Hunter “smashed through the blazing Viet Cong battleground” in the pages of OUR FIGHTING FORCES #99. A former Green Beret searching for his POW twin brother, Hunter was armed with a wicked right jab and an endless repertoire of witty battle cries, like “Good night, Charlie!” “It’s sleepy time, Charlie!” “Peek-a-boo, Charlie!” “Surprised, Charlie?” “Nothing like Karate to straighten things out, Charlie!” and “Going somewhere in a hurry, Charlie? The fun’s just beginning!”
No disrespect to writer Robert Kanigher, who was after all the godfather of DC war comics, but there’s no denying that Captain Hunter’s exploits were riddled with the type of racist stereotypes and ridiculous plots that became synonimous with so many of the early Vietnam War portrayals. The Viet Cong are portrayed as either slant-eyed sadists or yellow-skinned buffoons, much like their buck-toothed Japanese counterparts from World War II.
In addition to blatant exploitation, these issues also stink of just plain old stale writing. Issue #101 is the prime example, as evidenced by these descriptions of Captain Hunter’s mysterious female guide, Lu Lin: “Your face tells me as much as a jade carving!” “That Oriental kewpie doll isn’t risking a thing!” “What could I say to someone as cool as green jade?” “Despite the killing she had seen, Lu Lin’s eyes were cool as green jade.” “Then I heard a voice as cool as green jade” “Can’t make out that Oriental kewpie doll” “Only an Oriental kewpie doll, in whose veins blood ran cool as green jade wouldn’t blink an eyelash” “Lu Lin appeared cool as green jade”
When Captain Hunter failed to catch on with readers, his daring mission ended after only seven issues. As far as we know, he never found his brother, but at last sighting the lovely Lu Lin was still “cool as green jade.”
4. BLAZING COMBAT
The first truly memorable portrayal of the Vietnam War in comics came courtesy Warren’s short-lived BLAZING COMBAT magazine. Most all of its stories were written by the late, great Archie Goodwin and drawn by such luminaries as Gene Colan, Russ Heath, Alex Toth and John Severin. And it also boasts some amazing covers by the great Frank Frazetta. Unfortunately, some of the book’s imagery (most notably a scene where Vietnamese peasants are burned to death) proved too inflammatory for audiences in 1966, and the series lasted just four issues. These days, the original issues of BLAZING COMBAT command high prices, but back in 1993, Apple Comics reprinted the stories in two volumes, and those are a lot easier to come by.
5. SGT. FURY AND HIS HOWLING COMMANDOS KING SIZE SPECIAL #3
“This is the BIG ONE! It’s the soul-searing saga you thought you’d never see… the Howling Commandos in action today!”
So proclaimed the cover of 1967’s SGT. FURY AND HIS HOWLING COMMANDOS ANNUAL #3. In its bid to become “the most talked-about work of war-mag wonderment ever published,” this 50-page travesty featured a cameo by President Lyndon Johnson (who talks like a bad version of a Mark Twain character), Viet Cong fighters who looked like Mexican banditos (and like most other comic-book VC of the era, spoke fluent English, their favorite phrases usually consisting of “Die, American swine!” and “Death to all Yankee imperialists!”) and a ridiculous plot to sabotage North Vietnam’s creation of a Hydrogen Bomb. Fury’s well-formulated plan consisted of the Howlers disguising themselves as Vietnamese refugees (a ploy that’s perpetrated merely by donning different hats), infiltrating the city of Haiphong and detonating the bomb. “There she blows!” the Howlers joked, as their plane soared above the mushroom cloud. Stan Lee presents… Nick Fury executing thousands of civilians! Excelsior!
6. SUPER GREEN BERET
Tod Holton was an all-American teenager who was given a magic, glowing beret by his uncle. Whenever he donned the beret… SHAZAM! Young Tod was transformed into an adult super soldier, much like Captain Marvel in fatigues. As Super Green Beret, Tod was able to use his magic powers to aid the American troops in Vietnam by making “magic monkeys” appear to throw coconuts at the Viet Cong or turning hand grenades into pineapples. Published by Lightning Comics, SUPER GREEN BERET only lasted for two issues in the spring of 1967. So unfortunately for all the GIs in Vietnam, Super Greenie Beanie was nowhere to be found come Tet 1968. Probably could’ve used some of those magic monkeys of his in Saigon or Hue City.
7. THE ‘NAM
Obviously, the most successful Vietnam War comic book was Marvel’s long-running series THE ‘NAM, which debuted in 1986, right in the midst of the whole late 80s Vietnam War revival. A spin-off from Murray and Golden’s “5th to the 1st” stories from Savage Tales magazine, the series ran for 84 issues, but never matched what it had in the first six issues, when writer Doug Murray was paired with artist Michael Golden. The various Punisher appearances are a particular low point.
8. VIETNAM JOURNAL
VIETNAM JOURNAL #1 was unleashed upon an unsuspecting populace in November 1987, courtesy of little-known Apple Comics. Borrowing a phrase from Full Metal Jacket screenwriter Gustav Hasford, Don Lomax’s vision of Vietnam had come to “mangle frail civilian sensibilities.” Comic-wise, I’ve still never seen anything so horrific as the horribly burned chopper pilot from Vietnam Journal #7, whose leg comes off in a medic’s hands; the meticulously-pockmarked landscape and the bullet-riddled bodies of Viet Cong in issue #4; the tangled mass of soldiers clinging desperately to a chopper’s rope ladder in #5; the poor grunt who’s been shot in the face on the opening page of #6; the bayoneted baby in #13; or the last three issues, #14-16, which are, without a doubt, the most brutal and disturbing comics I’ve ever read. Even today, VIETNAM JOURNAL is one of the most gritty and brutally honest war stories ever published.
9. HEARTS AND MINDS
An Epic graphic novel written by Doug Murray and illustrated by the great Russ Heath. Superior, in my opinion, to Murray’s work on THE NAM.
10. THE OTHER SIDE
And then there’s this new Vertigo mini-series, featuring gorgeous art by Cameron Stewart and amazing colors by Dave McCaig and witty banter by yours truly. Be the first kid on your block to get a copy.