With seminal runs on “G.I. Combat” and “Our Army at War” in the 1950s, Joe Kubert established himself as one of the most influential comic book artists of all time.
Remaining prolific for the next 50 years, the 83 year-old co-creator of Sgt. Rock not only went on to found the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art but was also inducted into the Jack Kirby Hall of Fame and the Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame for his work on “Hawkman,” “Tor,” “Son of Sinbad” and “Viking Prince.”
So why stop there. This week, The Joe Kubert Library – an imprint of DC Comics – releases “Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1965,” a graphic novel that tells the true story of a detachment of twelve Special Forces soldiers on a basic recon mission into a village fifty-five miles northeast of Saigon that turned suddenly deadly. At the time the OGN is set, the Battle of Dong Xoai was the largest conflict between the Viet Cong and South Vietnamese Army during that stage of the Vietnam War.
Kubert, who serves as writer and artist on the 200-page tome, based the story on extensive firsthand information from the surviving members of the Special Forces group involved.
CBR News spoke with Kubert about “Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1965” and learned that while the book is described as a story based on fact – it is a true story. And not only true, but a story that Kubert said is so powerful, once he heard it, he knew he had to share it with the world.
CBR News: As always, sir, it’s an honor to speak with you. And might I say, before we begin, “Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1965” is a beautiful book both to read and to see. It’s going to take four or five reads, at least, to take it all in.
Joe Kubert: Well, thank you.
Now, I understand the genesis of this project is quite the story in itself.
The idea to do this book really came about by happenstance. About two or three years ago, I received a request for a drawing I had done about forty years earlier. The drawing was something I had done when I’d just started doing the “Green Berets” strips for the newspapers. The “Green Berets” strip was based on the book written by Robert Moore, and part of the promotion dealt with me doing some drawings of a guy that they brought up for me to meet, a guy that had won the Medal of Honor in Vietnam. They wanted me to do some illustrations more or less re-creating the situation where he won this medal, which I did.
Forty years later, I get an email from a retired army colonel by the name of Bill Stokes saying this is the guy that was involved in the situation forty years ago, through which this guy that I’d drawn about had won his medal. This guy Bill Stokes was in charge of a group of Special Forces guys who were in this town Dong Xoia – they pronounce it ‘Dung Shwai.’ It took me about six months to learn how to say it [laughs]. But anyhow, they had served together and the retired colonel had been keeping up correspondence with the families and the people who were still around that were involved in this thing in Vietnam. He was like a recording secretary – once or twice a year, all the guys would meet up, maybe have a cook out or something, the families would get together because this was a really close knit group. They had known each other really well before they went to Vietnam. They had trained together. They had gone out, I would say, like the original Band of Brothers.
[Stokes] has been corresponding and using the drawing that I was doing as part of the stuff that he was showing the families – what they had done and so on. However, the drawing that I had done, apparently, was one that he had gotten out of an old newspaper, so his request of me was to see if I had a clean copy of that drawing. Again, this was something that I had done 40 years ago. This was also a guy who knew absolutely nothing about comic books, didn’t know me from anybody and had just seen my name signed to that drawing and probably googled me or something to find out where I was.
I said I have no idea where that damn drawing is at this stage of the game but I’d be more than happy to redraw whatever he needs if he’ll only send me a copy of it so I’ll know what the heck I’m doing, which he did. And I did the drawing and sent it off to him. He in turn asked me how much he owes me for doing the drawing [laughs]. And I said, “You owe me absolutely nothing. I’m more than happy to do it but… I’m really intrigued by the fact that you’re keeping in touch with these guys and that you have this open communication with them. I wonder if you would send me a copy of the stuff that you’re writing to keep everybody apprised of what everybody else is doing, which he did.
When I got this back – and the copy of which I received is in the back of the book, the actually copy that I received – and I read it, I felt that this was something I wanted to do. The retired colonel, Bill Stokes, lives down in North Carolina. I gave him a call and I told him I was coming down to talk to him. I drove down, got together with him, hell of a nice guy, and I said, “Look, Bill. I’ve read what you’ve done here. I think it’s something that I’d like to do as a graphic novel. I’d love it if you’d help me or supply me with a little more detail, so I can get to the essence of what this story is about, but if you don’t want to help me, that’s OK too, because I’m going to do the book anyhow.”
So he was very kind and very nice and after a period of time, this is like three years now, I would figure him as a friend at this point. Anyhow, he extended himself every which way, he supplied me with hundreds of photographs that he had taken of the place, where they’d served, what they had done – pictures of the guys and so on and so forth. And helped me in a lot of detailed ways that weren’t included in the stuff they were sending out.
That, in short, is how I came to do this book.
For folks who aren’t as lucky as me and don’t have a preview copy sitting in front of them, what are they going to get when they pick up a copy of “Dong Xoai?”
They’re going to get what is essentially – even though it’s described as a story based on fact – a true story. The reason we put that in the front of book, the fact that it’s “based on a true story,” is that there are two or three people who are still around who were involved in this battle. And these guys are so particular and specific about what they feel and what they wanted themselves saying in those situations. What I had to do – there is no copy of the words they used, or how they spoke – based on what Bill told me about the guys, was put in the dialogue and captions and so on. They felt that there were variations in the way I did it that they felt that they didn’t want to put their names in the book.
So the only thing that has changed in the book itself is the names. And I respected what they asked for and if they felt uncomfortable with it, I was more than happy to change all the names. But essentially, that book is absolutely what happened in Vietnam in 1965 in the small hamlet of Dong Xoai.
What I expect people to see, and the way I tried to draw it, are those events the way that I imagined them, having read the material that Bill gave me. I tried to do it in such a way that it doesn’t look like a comic book or a comic strip but perhaps more like a combat reporter – that is, somebody who was there while the events were happening. And that’s why I did it in pencil and a lot of it may seem unfinished because I wanted that feeling of immediacy and the illustrations that I’ve done convey that to the reader so they themselves would feel that they are looking at the events happening while they’re happening.
After living with this story for three or four years, do you almost feel like you were a part of it?
I couldn’t say that. I could never imagine – I don’t think any of us could ever imagine – the kind of things that these guys went through and what they actually experienced. I couldn’t. As much as I had felt from what I’ve read and what Bill told me of what actually happened, as much as I felt I could actually feel and see the occurrences, I don’t think I could really put myself in their place.
What do you think the audience for this book is? Is it for readers who lived during that time or is it for introducing that era to younger readers?
My own feeling about the book is that it is apolitical. It’s not a political treatise or anything like that. To me, this is a story of guys who were in the army. They are expected to serve in a certain way. These guys were a close knit group that knew each other really well. They watched out for one another, they watched the backs of one another. They wouldn’t leave anybody if they were hurt.
This story that I did is one that I think could be appreciated and understood by anybody, anywhere. These are people in a situation that stinks out loud. It doesn’t matter. They’re there. They are responsible for certain things and mostly they are responsible for each other, and that’s what I try to convey in the book.
You mentioned these twelve men were like the original Band of Brothers and this deep bond between them has lasted thirty-five years. What can you tell us about these men and why do think this bond is so strong?
I think that being in the army together and being put in a situation that’s foreign to everybody, people have a tendency to move towards others that have common feelings, common senses and common understandings about certain things. And that kind of a situation makes them closer, plus the fact there is this constant danger. Their life is on the line every time they go near battle. These guys that went out to Vietnam in 1965 didn’t know what the hell to expect. They didn’t know what kind of people were there. They were there to train people that were maybe a couple of steps beyond cavemen. Yet they took on the job seriously, the best way they knew how. They were not there to hurt anybody. They were there to help whoever was there. This was the beginning of the war that started between North and South Vietnam and they were right in the middle, not as combatants, as a matter of fact, they were told not to fire a weapon unless they were fired upon. That was their orders. That’s what Bill told me.
There are a lot of stories, also, about the war that I heard and I’m sure everybody else did about the terrible violence and brutality that people went through in both North and South where they were being questioned and interrogated under terrible circumstances. I think that may have some relationship to the mess that we have currently but in actuality, and I asked Bill about that, he said, “Look. There was a situation where we caught a couple of spies outside the camp and they wanted us to question them.”
But I didn’t show any kind of questioning [in the OGN] because he never told me about that. He never explained that to me. He just said in the information that he had given me that these people were caught as spies and questioned. Trying to get more information, I said, “Look. I heard all kinds of horror stories where…” And he stopped me and said, “Absolutely, not.” This guy, Bill Stokes, is as straight as they get, and as honest as any person that we’ve ever met. He said, “I don’t know what happened in other places, but as far as my outfit was concerned, nobody was abused. They were questioned under the rules and regulations of warfare. But nobody was put to any kind of stress or strain. That was it. And that’s the way I did it.” And that’s the way I did the story.
The essence of this story is a battle that took place where the town to which the Special Forces group was assigned was literally wiped out. The reason they were wiped out was a terrible calamity. There was not one of the Special Forces group that went away unhurt. Every one of them had been wounded. Several of them had been killed at that time. The story that I’ve done is one where I tried my best to describe the situation as they found it, what they went through to try and help the people to which they were assigned – the indigenous people of that area, and of a climatic battle that took place despite the fact that they had requested additional arms, additional equipment that they never received even though they suspected this attack was imminent. They never got the physical help they were looking for or material, yet they did not move. They stayed there. They were there. They stuck it out. When some of the villagers – some of the people who lived there – took off into the hills when the killing and the bombing was at its height, they stayed. They did not move from that place. That’s the kind of story I tried to tell.
“Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1965” written and illustrated by Joe Kubert is available now from DC Comics.