DRAWN & QUARTERED
"The Other Side" is a terrifying war comic
There's a point, early in the DC/Vertigo comic series "The Other Side," when some soldiers in Vietnam scoff at war comics of the time. And yet there they are, out in the boonies, sucking up "Sgt. Rock," "Haunted Tank," "Star-Spangled War" and "Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos." The comics represent a kind of heightened reality, even as they provide escape. When you're in hell, reading about a hell that seems like a comic-book fantasy is one way to transport yourself. Or at least feel superior.
Make no mistake: Even though "The Other Side" is ostensibly about the Vietnam War, it's not your average war comic. It's more of a horror show, with some distinctly unsettling themes and superbly horrific images.
It tells the parallel stories of Everette and Dai, two conscripts on opposing sides. Everette has psychological troubles from the get-go, including ghostly, bloody corpses that hang around, insects that talk back and a rifle that keeps urging suicide. Dai, on the other side, is freshly energized with patriotic vigor and propagandistic zeal, but his naiveté is nearly as scary as Everette's waking nightmares.
While this is 2006, the story is set in 1968, ancient history for the 30-something creators of the comic book. Artist Cameron Stewart, a Canadian with a gift for unsettling tableaux, actually flew to Vietnam for firsthand research. And writer Jason Aaron has a unique connection to the war: His late cousin Gustav Hasford was a Vietnam vet whose novel "The Short-Timers" became the Stanley Kubrick movie "Full Metal Jacket."
Although there are echoes of that work here, Aaron's writing has its own blasted, bleak poetry. He maintains a Web site about his cousin's work that has become a crop-in chat zone for his war buddies, vets of the 1st Marine Division "ISO Snuffies," and Aaron credits their influence on the script.
War comics have always either sanitized conflict into banality or gone over the top in demonizing it. Rarely, the arena gives creators like Joe Kubert an excuse to explore characterization in the midst of excessive circumstance, but in this case the story is about people, not the nature of conflict itself.
"The Other Side" succeeds in doing both, and in a more personal manner that eclipses Marvel's 1980s stab at the same subject, "The 'Nam."
It's also a comic that demands a parental advisory. It's published under the Vertigo imprint, the "mature reader" wing of DC Comics, and they're not kidding. The hammering of four-letter words here adds another surreal element to a story that's already heart-of-darkness terrifying.
In other comic book news, courtesy Captain Comics, a k a Andrew A. Smith of the Scripps Howard News Service:
» This month's most important offering is a reprint: the second of Gemstone's hardback EC Archives series, "Shock SuspenStories" Vol. 1 ($49.95).
EC Comics was a groundbreaking company that was the first to approach the comic-book medium as something that adults could enjoy. EC pushed the envelope in genres such as horror, science fiction, crime, war, satire and psychological thrillers -- but had the misfortune of trying these things during the buttoned-down '50s, when everyone believed comics were for kids (or caused juvenile delinquency). EC began its grand experiment in 1950 but was essentially chased out of business by the draconian, reactionary Comics Code of 1954.
Last month's offering, "Weird Science" Vol. 1, reprinted the first six issues of that seminal sci-fi comic book, which came at the beginning of EC's run. This month's hardback collects "Shock SuspenStories" Nos. 1-4, which came closer to the middle (February 1952 to January 1953), when publisher Bill Gaines, writer Al Feldstein and artists Jack Davis, Graham Ingels, Jack Kamen, Joe Orlando, Marie Severin and Wally Wood were at the peak of their game.
"Shock SuspenStories" was technically a sampler, offering one story per issue in four genres for which EC was quickly becoming known (horror, "crime suspense," war and sci-fi), but almost immediately the book began substituting a "shock suspense" story that gave the title its name. And they truly were shocking for the time, usually stories condemning racism, anti-Semitism, police brutality, super-patriotism, the Ku Klux Klan and intolerance of all kinds. The moral lessons of these stories were considered radically liberal at the time, and might still be controversial in some quarters today.
If nothing else, it's a real shock to see what these men dared to print 54 years ago!
» Also, the Dark Knight teams up with comics legend Will Eisner's greatest creation in "Batman/The Spirit" No. 1 ($4.99). Created by Darwyn Cooke and the ubiquitous Jeph Loeb, this is a much-anticipated launch for a new, ongoing "Spirit" series.