The ‘Nam: A War Comic About People
American war comics, over the past sixty years, have been political in a couple of interesting ways. Back in the '40s and onward, war comics were generally aimed at children, so nuance wasn't even remotely on the radar, and very patriotic and flattering portrayal was the order of the day.
Our superheroes, who often wore flags on their chest, fought against racial stereotypes the world over. I don't mean against the idea of racial stereotypes, either. They fought against some pretty offensive-looking people. It was okay, though. They were fighting for America.
As comics grew up, an anti-war message began to creep in. Sgt. Rock, Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert's classic World War II infantryman, often starred in stories that ended with "Make war no more." An unsubtle sentiment, but an honest one. Rock and his Easy Company put a more human face on the idea of war. They were full of personality, fallible, and they died. Kanigher's official line is that Rock died at the end of World War II, which simply hammers home the idea of "make war no more."
In 1986, we got another angle on war. Marvel's "The 'Nam" was written by Doug Murray, drawn by Michael Golden, and edited by Larry Hama. Murray and Hama both were veterans of the Vietnam War, and rather than making a statement about an extremely controversial war or musing about the nature of life and death, "The 'Nam" focused on just one thing: the people involved.There are no grand statements to be found in "The 'Nam," and no overwrought metaphors. We see everything from the point of view of the soldiers on the ground, and it's all done in real time. Each issue of the comic pushed the clock forward 30 days, and characters moved in and out of the story as their tour of duty required.
The stories told in "The 'Nam" are real, though with the addition of fictional, or fictionalized, characters. They're largely based on accounts from people who were actually there on the ground, in addition to major events that punctuated the war. There's nothing romantic about "The 'Nam" for just this reason. There are no John Rambos moving in with two guns blazing, cutting down the enemy by the dozen. There are just a lot of scared kids and the world they live in.
Private First Class Edward Marks and the rest of the gang were ably illustrated by Michael Golden. Golden was an inspired choice of artist, able to render military hardware, uniforms, and armor with just as much skill as he put into the almost cartoonishly expressive faces of the soldiers. Ed's wide-eyed surprise as he discovers what it's like in Vietnam, and uneasiness at the world he's got to live in, rings true. He feels like someone we could know.
In the end, "The 'Nam" is pretty political after all. It just came at it from a different angle than most war comics. By eschewing the temptation to make a grand statement and focusing on just the men involved with the Vietnam War, "The 'Nam" manages to make its characters feel like people, rather than tools to prove a point. You feel it when these guys go into the jungle and you're happy when they go back into the world. When they curl up in the fetal position after coming under fire, it's genuinely sad. You care about Ed and his brethren.
"The 'Nam" is a well-remembered classic, but has been out of print for ages. Luckily, Marvel's taken the first ten issues of this lost classic and reprinted them in a new trade paperback, "The 'Nam" Vol. 1, and issue #1 is currently free online. If you want a look at a war comic that comes at its subject matter from a more human angle, "The 'Nam" is your best bet. It's funny, exciting, and underneath all that, really kind of heart-breaking. Above all of that, it's just a plain good read.