...reading comics from the year i was born!
by Doug Murray, Michael Golden, John Beatty, Phil Felix
Marvel’s 'The ‘Nam' was not a great series in 1987. The structural concept behind it is sound: each issue takes place one month after the last and focuses on either a specific real event or some broader aspect of life as an American solider in the Vietnam War. That’s actually a pretty cool approach to historical fiction, having a serialized story that moves forward in time at the same rate as its publication, telling standalone tales that come together to paint a larger and chronologically accurate picture of an entire conflict. Problem is, most of the stories told in this specific title—particularly in the way they’re told—just aren't hard-hitting enough to leave a mark.
'The ‘Nam' is strangely detached from its cast, never attempting to get into the nitty gritty of their battered and broken psyches in the face of war. They may at times be amazed at what they see, even horrified by it, but at best that reaction is fleeting. There are very few long-term consequences; even when one of the main characters actually dies (most of the “good guys” get to go home unscathed), he is mourned for only a small section of the following issue and then largely forgotten or at least ignored. Also, none of the characters are ever developed or explored fully enough for the reader to have anything solid to latch onto. The closest thing to that is the gradual education of protagonist Ed Marks, who shows up in the debut an ignorant greenie and steadily becomes an experienced and talented soldier, but even in that growth there’s not a lot of emotional payoff. Marks is just never an interesting or three-dimensional enough guy for there to be a reason to get all that invested in his journey.
At first, the issue feels like any other, opening with the usual cast of characters out on a mission, searching for enemy activity or territory. And they find it quickly, in the form of an underground tunnel system, a tactic utilized fairly often by the Viet Cong. So the “tunnel rats” are called in, soldiers who specialize in exploring these tunnels and clearing them out of any remaining enemies or traps. One of them is injured as soon as he gets down the hole though, so a volunteer replacement is needed, and as the main character, Ed Marks steps up so the reader can follow him into the darkness.
All of this set-up only takes five pages, and they’re boring in the series’ typical fashion. Not until Marks and full-time tunnel rat Frank ‘Fudd’ Verzyl get underground does the issue really get going, because once they’re down there everything changes. For starters, the energy shifts, as there is an immediate nervous tension between the two men creeping and crawling through cramped, dark, unfamiliar paths. As the experienced one, Verzyl is constantly chattering at Marks about the right and wrong way to do things, explaining the various dangers of the tunnels as they arise. Marks, meanwhile, is clearly terrified, unsure of himself in this new setting and fully aware of how unprepared and ignorant he is. He makes mistakes, shining his light in the wrong direction and causing too much noise, and Verzyl reprimands him as quickly and directly as possible. Murray writes a nice, natural exchange between them, a sort of incessant jabber that displays their increasing anxiety and at the same time legitimately educates the reader on what the VC tunnels were like.
This first part is fairly strong, but it is in the shorter second story that the issue does its best work. Narrated by his commanding officer, it’s another tale of Verzyl exploring a tunnel system, but this time he foolishly does it by himself, and faces an unexpected horror that leaves him a psychologically ruined man. The tunnels in question are abandoned, which is why Verzyl’s willing to go in solo, assuming it’ll be a relatively easy and safer-than-usual exploration. And it is for a while, until he comes upon a boarded up room with some muffled noises coming from it, and assumes he’s found a hidden Viet Cong soldier. He busts through the boards expecting an opponent, and is met instead with a swarm of starving rats that overrun him in an instant. Trapped and alone in a tiny space with a horde of vermin trying to eat him, Verzyl desperately digs to the surface by hand in a total panic. But by the time he gets free, the damage is already done, and he’s been transformed from the daring and capable young man seen earlier into a shattered maniac who can barely communicate.
Michael Golden is the artist for most of the first year of 'The 'Nam', and I think he was a poor choice for a war comic. His figures are too close to being caricatures, with their over-sized eyes, mouths, and other assorted body parts. It makes it hard to take them entirely seriously. His lines are rounded and smooth, which adds an overall softness that only lessens the impact of any action. Battle scenes are Golden’s weakest point, drawn from such strange angles and distances that there’s often no way to tell what’s even going on. Bullets whizz and bodies contort, but who’s shooting, who’s being hit, and where they are in relation to one another is sometimes wholly indecipherable. I don’t know if it’s large casts, combat, or both that trip Golden up, but the results are obscure at best.
Again, though, like with the writing, the second story is the true highlight of Golden’s art. For Verzyl’s breakdown, having an exaggerated, cartoonish element to the character’s expressions is actually quite beneficial. Yes, even in his darkest moments, Verzyl’s eyes are too big for his head and his face looks like it’s made of rubber, which all looks a bit goofy. But in the context of a story about him losing his mind completely, this heightened style makes Verzyl into the physical embodiment of madness. He may not look realistic, but he does look like the internal process of going insane made human, and that’s much better for the narrative at hand. His inner turmoil is brought to the surface, so the reader gets a better chance to understand it and experience it with him. Similarly, when the rats first attack, Golden manages to make them look more grounded, while at the same time playing up Verzyl’s fearfulness to the extreme. The contrast between his distorted facial features and the rats’ creepy realism is excellent, showing visually the disconnect between his mind and reality that is already beginning to form in that moment.