Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
Every day this year, I will be examining the first pages of random comics. Today’s page is from The ‘Nam #24, which was published by Marvel and is cover dated November 1988. Enjoy!
I guess this is a famous issue of The ‘Nam, because this is the one in which the photographer gets the picture of that Vietnamese dude shooting that guy in the street. But that’s not on the first page, so let’s forget about it!
The ‘Nam in 1988 was a relic of Jim Shooter’s oddball tenure at the company (oddball in that Shooter threw a lot at the wall to see what stuck, and quite a bit was excellent), but it also sold well enough to last five years beyond this year. Doug Murray, a Vietnam vet, wrote the book for a long time, and he decided to do this story, about the beginning of the Tet Offensive. As this is a Marvel comic from the 1980s, we get narrative boxes, in which Murray helpfully explains the date, that Tet is important to the Vietnamese (but, weirdly enough, not what Tet actually is), that both sides agreed to a truce, and that the truce isn’t going to last. Murray gets the date wrong, according to Wikipedia – the attacks actually began on 30 January, but I guess it’s not too big of a deal. (The famous photograph was taken two weeks later, in fact, while Murray implies that it occurs on the same day as the rest of this action.) Anyway, Murray needs to get us into the story, and while more people probably knew about the Tet Offensive in 1988 than do now, he probably thought that there were lots of younger people who didn’t know what was going on in 1968. It’s certainly a good guess.
Vansant and Isherwood don’t have to be too fancy on this page, because they’re just putting the players in their spots before setting everything in motion. Strangely enough, it takes Murray quite a while before he confirms that we’re in Saigon, but we are, and Vansant begins the book with a regular street scene, trying to imply how normal the situation is. Even so, we still get the soldiers in the middle of the block, which helps point out that even this relatively quiet scene isn’t completely normal. The dude smoking the cigarette in the foreground is Teo, who will participate in the attacks and eventually be the one who escapes to tell the tale of how his comrades died. At this point, we don’t know that he’s important, because he seems to be in the panel just to anchor the foreground as Vansant leads us back to the purple van on the right, which becomes the focal point of the page. In Panel 2, we see the soldiers have turned the corner and Teo is riding his scooter toward the van, and Vansant shows the people in the van more closely. Once again, Teo helps balance the panel and lead us from the left to the right. Panel 3 continues the motion, but there seems to be a mistake. In Panel 2, Teo seems to be turning right, which would mean that he would move off-panel and be in front of the van. Yet in Panel 3, we clearly see him through the windows behind the van. So is he tilted to his right in Panel 2 but then swings back around and turns left, which would put him behind the van in Panel 3? I don’t know, and it’s not too vexing, but it’s a bit odd. By Panel 3, Vansant has moved from the exterior of the van right into the cab, where we find the four men holding their guns, ready for action. It’s a nicely balanced panel, and I understand why Vansant put the scooter in the background – it not only completes the switch from Teo in the foreground and the van in the background to vice versa, but it continues the idea of Saigon being “normal” right before the attack, as someone zipping around on a scooter is perfectly normal. Felix, the colorist, picks a good color for the men inside the van – the blue is in stark contrast to the bright colors in the street, and it makes the soldiers look both scarier and more removed from the “normal” world they’re about to crash into. What’s oddest about this page is that Murray doesn’t stick with the van – he actually follows Teo on his scooter, which is really why the scooter in still visible in Panel 3. But why would Murray and Vansant even show us the inside of the van? Well, it does build tension and give us a sense of impending action, but it is somewhat weird. On Page 3, we return to the men inside the van, but the way the first panel is drawn, the perspective is from so far away that it’s hard to realize that the van is the same one we just saw on Page 1. It’s bizarre.
As strangely laid out as the next two pages are, this is a pretty good one (if we ignore the fact that Teo seems to not be where he should be). It gets us right into the story – Murray has too much to cover to waste time! – and it immediately makes us wonder what’s going to happen. Mission accomplished!
Next: Well, some of us still buy a soon-to-be-cancelled classic series, and we have the issues to prove it! You know what’s coming – in fact, you can find another first page from this series in the archives!
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