It’s no surprise that comics have a long history with war. Many of the architects of comics served in the military during World War II. Just as much as the hard-boiled worlds of the pulps helped shaped early comic books, war served just as much of an inspiration. Jack Kirby and Joe Simon created Captain America just before being drafted, Joe Kubert’s best known character remains Sgt. Rock, and the marks of the military can be seen across the majority of Stan Lee’s Marvel creations.
Will Eisner, the godfather of graphic novels, served in the military during World War II as well. He was able to put his comic art skills to use, creating graphic training manuals for the base where he was stationed. Eventually in 1951, after the success of his Army Motors publication, Eisner launched PS, The Preventative Maintenance Monthly, an official training magazine for the US Army.
Last Day in Vietnam is Eisner’s 2000 short story collection of his military service.
His military career lasted three decades, from the time he enlisted in 1942 until 1972, when he left PS Magazine. During that time, Eisner travelled to both Korea and Vietnam during combat. Through that time, Eisner met a large swath of people, from top brass to the lowliest grunt, and collected stories, which he eventually published.
The book brings to mind another collection about Vietnam. Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried also deals with the war, telling stories of what it was like to be young and on the front lines. But where O’Brien’s book wrestles with how to tell his stories and deliver the truth, Eisner allows his subjects to tell their own stories.
Vietnam isn’t a narrative, rather a series of vignettes about the humanity found in war. The soldier on his final day, the reporter pulled into the conflict, the wounded warrior trying to find his way. This book is about the perspectives in which war is seen.
The art is much less polished than Eisner’s earlier work. It’s hard to tell if this is a stylistic choice or a sign of the artist’s increased age. Another of his later works, Fagin the Jew, has a similar rough quality to Eisner’s pencils. Regardless, the sketchier pages of the book invoke a dream-like feeling, as if these really are recalled memories.
Eisner paints a wide picture over two very different wars, mostly focusing on Vietnam. The sole Korea piece, “A Dull Day in Korea,” almost foreshadows the casual brutality that Vietnam would be known for. A soldier addresses the reader, giving a monologue about his boredom in war time, eventually trying to murder a “momma-san” like he was hunting wabbits. The final panel is silent, with the soldier shrugging his shoulders, offering an Alfred E. Neuman look of child-like prankishness.
This is contrasted by the angry, drunken rant of a soldier in “A Purple Heart for George.” Bitter by the meaningless and supposed cowardice of his commanding officers, every week George gets drunk and writes a transfer to combat, only to be spared by the base office staff’s intervention. The scene invokes Eisner’s classic Hamlet monologue, with both figures broken by their respective worlds.
This would be one of Eisner’s last books, as well as one of his shortest. At 80 pages, including a foreword by Matt Fraction and an introduction from Eisner, Last Day is a very quick read, basically a graphic novella. But Eisner still manages to pack a punch and give these long lost soldiers at least one chance to tell their stories. And in comic book form, these war stories couldn’t be more at home.