1987 And All That: The 'Nam #8

A column in which Matt Derman (Comics Matter) reads & reviews comics from 1987, because that’s the year he was born. Click here for an archive of all the previous posts in the series.

The ‘Nam  #8 (Marvel) by Doug Murray, Michael Golden, John Beatty, Phil Felix

Marvel’s The ‘Nam was not a great series in 1987. The structural concept behind it is sound: each issue takes place one month after the last and focuses on either a specific real event or some broader aspect of life as an American solider in the Vietnam War. That’s actually a pretty cool approach to historical fiction, having a serialized story that moves forward in time at the same rate as its publication, telling standalone tales that come together to paint a larger and chronologically accurate picture of an entire conflict. Problem is, most of the stories told in this specific title—particularly in the way they’re told—just aren't hard-hitting enough to leave a mark.

The ‘Nam is strangely detached from its cast, never attempting to get into the nitty gritty of their battered and broken psyches in the face of war. They may at times be amazed at what they see, even horrified by it, but at best that reaction is fleeting. There are very few long-term consequences; even when one of the main characters actually dies (most of the “good guys” get to go home unscathed), he is mourned for only a small section of the following issue and then largely forgotten or at least ignored. Also, none of the characters are ever developed or explored enough for the reader to have anything solid to latch onto. The closest thing to that is the gradual education of protagonist Ed Marks, who shows up in the debut an ignorant greenie and steadily becomes an experienced and talented soldier, but even in that growth there’s not a lot of emotional payoff. Marks is just never an interesting or three-dimensional enough guy for there to be a reason to get all that invested in his journey.

The in-story month-long gap between every issue does allow writer Doug Murray to discuss a lot of different things, though, and while on the whole the book is less than impressive, it certainly has it's moments. The ‘Nam  #8 breaks the usual mold of the series in a several equally rewarding ways and ends up a far more disturbing, affecting issue than most. A sharper focus, tighter art, actual character development, and finally showing someone being truly, permanently damaged by a wartime experience all make this issue a head above the rest. It’s still not jaw-dropping work, but it’s a solid single issue, using a pair of connected short stories to show one man’s breaking point, and the dire results of pushing him past it.

At first, the issue feels like any other, opening with the usual cast of characters out on a mission, searching for enemy activity or territory. And they find it quickly, in the form of an underground tunnel system, a tactic utilized fairly often by the Viet Cong. So the “tunnel rats” are called in, soldiers who specialize in exploring these tunnels and clearing them out of any remaining enemies or traps. One of them is injured as soon as he gets down the hole, so a volunteer replacement is needed, and as the main character, Ed Marks steps up so the reader can follow him into the darkness.

All of this set-up only takes five pages, and they’re boring in the series’ typical fashion. Not until Marks and full-time tunnel rat Frank ‘Fudd’ Verzyl get underground does the issue really get going, because once they’re down there everything changes. For starters, the energy shifts, as there is an immediate nervous tension between the two men creeping and crawling through cramped, dark, unfamiliar paths. As the experienced one, Verzyl is constantly chattering at Marks about the right and wrong way to do things, explaining the various dangers of the tunnels as they arise. Marks, meanwhile, is clearly terrified, unsure of himself in this new setting and fully aware of how unprepared and ignorant he is. He makes mistakes, shining his light in the wrong direction and causing too much noise, and Verzyl reprimands him as quickly and directly as possible. Murray writes a nice, natural exchange between them, a sort of incessant jabber that displays their increasing anxiety and at the same time legitimately educates the reader on what the VC tunnels were like.

So Marks and Verzyl eliminate the leftover threats one by one: a bamboo snake, an enemy soldier, a woman who lets them kill her in the hope that they’ll accidentally set off the grenade she has strapped to her body. That last one is a difficult pill for Marks to swallow, the idea of someone sacrificing her life just so she can act as a booby trap. He asks with shock and disbelief if it was really intentional, but Verzyl, having seen it all before, is much more casual in his response. That dichotomy is at play between them for the entire story, and hits a high note here, with Marks staring in wide-eyed sadness at the fallen woman while Verzyl barely pays her any mind and says it’s time to go. Even once outside, Verzyl is able to crack jokes and brush it off, while Marks can only wonder in awe how anyone could be a tunnel rat for a living. It is there the opening story ends, with the two men having survived the same tunnels together, yet walking away with wildly different experiences.

This first part is fairly strong, but it is in the shorter second story that the issue does its best work. Narrated by his commanding officer, it’s another tale of Verzyl exploring a tunnel system, but this time he foolishly does it by himself, and faces an unexpected horror that leaves him a psychologically ruined man. The tunnels in question are abandoned, which is why Verzyl’s willing to go in solo, assuming it’ll be a relatively easy and safer-than-usual exploration. And it is for a while, until he comes upon a boarded up room with some muffled noises coming from it, and assumes he’s found a hidden Viet Cong soldier. He busts through the boards expecting an opponent, and is met instead with a swarm of starving rats that overrun him in an instant. Trapped and alone in a tiny space with a horde of vermin trying to eat him, Verzyl desperately digs to the surface by hand in a total panic. But by the time he gets free, the damage is already done, and he’s been transformed from the daring and capable young man seen earlier into a shattered maniac who can barely communicate.

That would all be bad enough for Verzyl, and powerful enough for the reader, even if it ended there. But Murray is not satisfied to merely put Verzyl through the ringer, he wants to leave the character irrevocably destroyed. So an inexperienced lieutenant shows up and, despite Verzyl’s pleas, insists on going into the tunnels himself with the terrified tunnel rat as his guide. The thought of returning to that living nightmare is too much to handle, so Verzyl turns to the only alternative he can think of in the moment: he draws his pistol and kills the lieutenant. That’s quite a rapid, drastic fall from grace, and a truly shocking final turn in what was already an atypical story for The ‘Nam.

On their own, either of these tales is a success, but by putting them in the same issue, Murray adds depth and meaning to both. The whole of the issue becomes a surprisingly apt study of how trauma (and, specifically, war) can give birth to insanity and instability. Because Verzyl is a confident leader with all the right skills and knowledge for so many of these pages, his sudden descent at the end is all the more compelling and saddening.

Michael Golden is the artist for most of the first year of 'The Nam, and I think he was a poor choice for a war comic. His figures are too close to being caricatures, with their over-sized eyes, mouths, and other assorted body parts.  It makes it hard to take them entirely seriously. His lines are rounded and smooth, which adds an overall softness that only lessens the impact of any action. Battle scenes are Golden’s weakest point, drawn from such strange angles and distances that there’s often no way to tell what’s even going on. Bullets whizz and bodies contort, but who’s shooting, who’s being hit, and where they are in relation to one another is sometimes wholly indecipherable. I don’t know if it’s large casts, combat, or both that trip Golden up, but the results are obscure at best.

In this issue, there is no big fight scene, and most of the pages have only a few characters. There are some guns fired, but always in a small space, intimate firefights between a couple shooters, so clarity is much easier to maintain. When working in a more confined setting, none of Golden’s biggest problems are present, and he is able to do some more careful and emotive work. The tightness of the tunnels isn't only shown within each individual panel; by doing everything in tight, rigid, five- or six-panel layouts, Golden brings a strong sense of claustrophobia to the full pages. It puts the reader in the same cramped, darkened physical space as the characters, which also assists in amplifying the tension and nervousness of that scene.

Again, though, like with the writing, the second story is the true highlight of Golden’s art. For Verzyl’s breakdown, having an exaggerated, cartoonish element to the character’s expressions is actually beneficial. Yes, even in his darkest moments, Verzyl’s eyes are too big for his head and his face looks like it’s made of rubber, which all looks a bit goofy. But in the context of a story about him losing his mind completely, this heightened style makes Verzyl into the physical embodiment of madness. He may not look realistic, but he does look like the process of going insane made human, and that’s much better for the narrative at hand. His inner turmoil is brought to the surface, so the reader gets a better chance to understand it and experience it with him. Similarly, when the rats first attack, Golden manages to make them look more grounded, while at the same time playing up Verzyl’s fearfulness to the extreme. The contrast between his distorted facial features and the rats’ creepy realism is excellent, showing visually the disconnect between his mind and reality that is already beginning to form in that moment.

The ‘Nam #8 is not an astounding comic, but it is a well-crafted, heartbreaking character portrait with some real and relevant things to say about war and the human mind. It's also many steps ahead of the issues that surround it, which are all far blander and more distant from the emotional core of their subjects. I may never return to this series or bother tracking down the issues from 1988 and beyond, but I’m glad to have read this one at least, and its stories will certainly stay with me.

NOTE: An earlier version of this review appeared on The Chemical Box.

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