Thursday, 23 October 2014

Last Day in Vietnam: A Memory by Will Eisner Review

World War 2 was Will Eisner’s war though his association with the military would last for decades. He turned instructional manuals into comics to make them easier to read for army personnel, and his work took him to new theatres of war like Korea and Vietnam in the 1950s and 60s. In one of his last books, Last Day in Vietnam, he revisited these warzones to tell some brilliant short stories of the people he met. 

The title story is the longest, a point of view tale where the reader is escorted by a soldier on his last day in Vietnam before returning to America. We see the infrastructure, the dead faces of the soldiers in the field, the terrifying explosions on the horizon, the beauty and the menace of the jungle, and the constant threat of death everywhere. And yet it’s not all doom and gloom as Eisner mixes in some light humour and a few sharply observed portraits of the men he met. 

The other stories are brief snapshots of soldiers, told with a virtuoso eye for comics storytelling. The Periphery sees a man stagger into a bar after seeing his son blown up in front of him, though he doesn’t speak and is also tucked away in the corners of the picture, or the periphery of the page. The dialogue and the focus is on the group of jaded journalists talking about the war. 

The Casualty is a silent comic (possibly because the main character has been deafened) who recounts sleeping with a Vietnamese hooker only for her to get up when he was asleep, slip a live grenade under his bed and run off, crippling him. Ever the romantic, he nevertheless finds another Asian woman to be with by the end! 

A Dull Day in Korea looks at a southerner who talks about hunting back home in America and how he misses being with his dad on those hunts. It’s a brilliantly captured portrait of a lonely, angry man in the middle of nowhere in his own head. 

Hard Duty is a wonderfully drawn comical look at a very strong soldier who comes across as intimidating but he’s the only one who’ll visit the nearby orphanage to play with kids from US soldiers/Vietnamese women. 

A Purple Heart for George is the final and best story. A tale from Eisner’s time in WW2, the story follows George, a man who tries to transfer from his unit because he wants to die – but only when he’s drunk. His friends in the office get in early to tear up his application, secretly saving his life every week. And then one week, they aren’t around… 

I love Eisner’s drawing style. His later work, post-Spirit, is totally without panels but it’s almost like there are invisible panels on the page – the art looks very fluid but it’s also incredibly controlled. The figures are well placed in a scene, the choreography is real but still remarkable and very visual. A good trick to see the quality of an artist is to just look at the images and seeing if you can understand what’s happening on the page without reading the script - Eisner’s art is this good every time. 

As Matt Fraction notes in his introduction, it’s astonishing that Eisner sat on a story like A Purple Heart for George for so many years without putting it out earlier, though it’s even more impressive that, even at the end of his life, Eisner was still crafting comics this good. The shortness of the book is what keeps it from being up there with his greats, but Last Day in Vietnam is still an utterly brilliant book that entertains and informs as much as it instructs in the art of comics. It’s easy to see why the most prestigious award in comics is named after him.

Last Day in Vietnam: A Memory

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