Friday, January 29, 2016

Recommended Reading for 1/29: The Other Side

Jason Aaron's writing seems to be haunted by the Vietnam War. Wade Rouleau, father of Dashiell Bad Horse, the lead of Aaron's opus Scalped, is a Vietnam vet, as is Earl Tubbs, the lead of the first arc of Aaron's current breathtaking Southern noir, Southern Bastards. Aaron also had a healthy run on mainstream comics most famous Vietnam vet, Frank Castle, in his Punisher MAX series. But early in his career, Aaron wrote a series set firmly during the Vietnam War, The Other Side, and it stands as one of his best works to this day.

Billy Everette is a young man drafted into the Marines to serve in Vietnam. Vo Binh Dai is a North Vietnamese villager who gladly joins his countries army to aid in the liberation of South Vietnam and the unification of his country. They are two men from different worlds, with very different motivations, but they are both bound for the same place, the muddy no man's land of Khe Sahn. The story of the mini-series follows them both from their training to their arrivals in country, to their first sights of bloodshed, and to the final moments of their time at war.

It's very easy for a writer telling a war story to tack on a very pat statement about how everyone on both sides of a war are really the same under it all and that we should remember that before killing each other. And I'm not saying Aaron doesn't explore our common humanity, but he does it with story and not grand speeches. While both of our leads are sympathetic characters, are both human, and are really the same, just young men thrust into a conflict bigger than them, Aaron never relies on cliches and stereotypes to tell his story. They might be broken by the war, and they'll never be the same, the one who lives anyway, but there's no speech about the folly of war. The book is too grounded in the way people are for that.

Billy Everette does everything that he can to not go to war, and when he gets to basic, he's awful at it. He can't shoot, he pisses off his drill instructor, and he... sees things. He is followed by a dead soldier without a jaw. And he hears his rifle talking to him, telling him to kill others or himself. And as he goes to war, this gets worse. He sees more and more of the dead who have come before him.

Vo Binh Dai marches south to war because it is what his family and his gods would want him to do. He carries the watch his father took from a French soldier at Dien Bien Phu. He marches, confident that he is doing what is right and that if he dies, he will die for a good cause. And as things get worse, as his brethren die on the march, he begins to have visions. Visions of tigers, of dragons, of gods.

The question of whether the visions of either of our leads are real or something their own minds have conjured is left to the reader. The book is gritty, realistic, and it's easy to immediately write all of it off as a mind broken by the horrors of the world around them. And that's a perfectly valid. But there are moments, moments where the line between fantasy and reality is a little thinner. Aaron plays with this kind of heightened reality in his grittier work in other places; the half-mad Catcher in Scalped also has visions, ones that prove oddly incisive and prescient. And so maybe there's something here to this, something we can't touch or understand.

I admit to an initial Western bias, as I don't believe in the gods that Dai worships, thinking that he is seeing things while Everette's ghosts, something more in my mental wheelhouse, those could be real, or at least more than simply a coping mechanism. And the realization that I was casting a cultural judgement because of my own beliefs made me rethink every reaction to Dai's statements, statements that are outside my normal cultural understanding, and to empathize more fully with his character.

The faiths of the two characters are so different, with Dai confident in his pretty much to the end while Everette questions the existence and beneficence of his god. A letter from Everette's mother that talks of the local preacher, her prayer group praying for him, and that he is doing God's work, is used as narration, and when we see Everette reading it, he is in a room filled with the horribly wounded spectres that follow him. And the reaction of the other soldiers when he asks about God are telling as well. The old saying about there being no atheists in foxholes goes right out the window, with a line that stuck in my head, "God don't live in I Corps, man...just us grunts do."

But for all their differences, there are commonalities. It's amazing to see how both the North Vietnamese and the Americans accept the non-humanity of their opponents, thinking them cannibals or worse. There are soldiers on both sides who don't want to be there, who seek some way to escape the war. And on both sides, the conditions are horrible, lonely, full of trenches, disease, and the constant fear of death, be it from a Viet Cong sniper or an American air strike.

The sheer raw visuals of the book bring the horrors of war into sharp relief. Cameron Stewart is an amazing artist, whose work shows a style that can adapt to the grittiness of Gotham City when he worked with Ed Brubaker on Catwoman, to the surreal with Grant Morrison on Seaguy, to the nostalgic and warm in Multiversity: Thunderworld. His work on The Other Side is some of the best I've seen of his, grounded it reality at most times, showing battlefields littered with bodies, rats everywhere (and lord that made me shiver, because I hate rats), and people with looks in their eyes of rage, hurt, and loss. The dead who follow Everette are horrifying things, missing parts, burned, and reminding us at all times of the cost of war. But there are strange moments of beauty as well. The tigers that Dai sees are drawn to look truly majestic, as are the gods in his visions. The scene that stands out as the perfect blend of horror and beauty is a butterfly flying through the battlefield, its lovely wings juxtaposed against all the horror around it.

I read The Other Side in trade, and I want to quickly mention the backmatter and associated essays, because there's some really interesting stuff in here. I'm old enough to remember when most trades had some sort of interesting features to stand them apart from just buying the floppies, versus the opposite now, and this book has some great features. Cameron Stewart's photo journal of the trip he took to Vietnam to get the proper reference for the work features both pictures and words that get you inside both his trip and his thoughts. Aaron's piece is absolutely fascinating, a remembrance of his cousin, Vietnam vet and writer Gustav Hasford, best known for writing The Short-Timers, the novel that became the film Full Metal Jacket. Aaron's story of his relationship with Gus is great, and it makes it more clear why this book is so powerful and important.

War comics aren't usually my speed. The Golden and Silver age ones often present a simplified version of war, while the modern ones can be so gritty and real that it's painful to read them. And The Other Side is painful. It's a story that has no winners, only losers, only those scarred and killed by war. And that's what makes it important to read. Sometimes you need to be reminded of how ugly war is, how imminent death is for those who aren't sitting and reading comics. And be reminded, as Captain Dale Dye USMC (ret.) mentions in his introduction, that those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. And The Other Side presents a past that no one wants to repeat, in a way that will hold you riveted from page one.

Doing my research, I was surprised to see The Other Side is currently out of print. However, a book from two such well known creators won't stay out of print too long, and it should be easily located at most better comic shops.

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