So DC did something smart. They paid Joe Kubert to write and draw a graphic novel about the Vietnam War (with lettering help by Pete Carlsson). Then they charged $24.99 for the privilege of gazing upon it. Gaze up it, fanboys, gaze upon it!!!!!!
So let’s check out the prosaically-named Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1965.
Let’s get the biggest problem with it out of the way: It’s fairly bland. Well, the subject matter isn’t bland, but the writing is. Kubert tells the story of one of the early battles of the war, in June 1965. A small Special Forces team (they’re actually an “A-Team”!) is dispatched first to Bu Gia near the Laotian border and then further south to Dong Xoai, which was a major crossroads on the way to Saigon. They were attacked by the Viet Cong and forced to evacuate the village. The VC didn’t hold the town, but they inflicted major casualties on both the South Vietnamese and the Americans. Kubert fictionalizes the tale to a small degree, changing names and moving things along a bit faster in the lead-up to the battle, but when you read the official report of the battle, which Kubert supplies in the back of the book, you realize how little he actually changed. Unfortunately, while the story of the battle and the Americans’ heroism isn’t bland, Kubert writes it almost as if it were the official report, so there’s not much tension in the writing, even when the battle begins. A lot of the prose is “Then this happened, and then this happened …” and while the story itself is fascinating, Kubert’s writing drags it down quite a bit. The most interesting parts of the writing come when he examines a little of the soldiers’ social and cultural roles – as I’ve read more about soldiers during combat, it’s fascinating how much of their job is winning the hearts and minds of the citizenry, something we don’t often see in fiction, but Kubert does a good job with it. But that’s about all I can recommend about the actual writing. Kubert uses a lot of passive voice, which is always a drag on the narrative, and the dialogue doesn’t give us any insight into the characters, just moves the plot along.
I know that the soldiers are supposed to be tough guys, and during the battle it’s refreshing to see the wounded guys plugging along, ignoring the pain, but prior to the battle, we get very little about them, and it works against Kubert when the bullets start flying.
You’ll notice, however, that I recommend this comic. Well, the writing is dull but not repellant, and the art is so very tremendous that it balances out. Kubert has always been good, of course, but he does something very interesting here, and it’s excellent. I always have to mention that Kubert is currently 83 years old and he can still draw circles around a good three-quarters of comic book artists, including his sons (whose work I do like, by the way). Anyone calling themselves a comic book artist should buy this comic and study what Kubert does, especially those artists (like a certain G. Land) who use photo-referencing to the point where they probably can’t even draw freehand anymore. Kubert uses, as far as I can tell, three things to create the art in this comic. He uses a fine line pen or pencil for the figures, a heavier-line pencil to shadow the figures and to create the gouts of smoke and other areas that don’t need as much definition, and what is probably gouache paint to add highlights of white.
That’s it. That’s all. His heavier lines actually look sloppy in several “panels” (he doesn’t use borders, but they’re still panels) because you can see every stroke, but with just a few lines, he creates jungles or shacks or utter destruction. His finer linework is fantastic, of course, giving us weatherbeaten faces and weapons of war and dying men. The detail in the book, given what he’s working with, is stunning, and even when he doesn’t go into detail, one or two lines suggest so much that it doesn’t matter. The battle scenes in this book are tremendous – Kubert, as an old-school dude, doesn’t do anything graphic, but he still shows the brutality of close-in fighting and the pressure the Americans are under. When they’re wounded, it’s less about showing the blood than it is about showing the reactions of the men. The remain tough guys, but Kubert does a magnificent job revealing the fear along with the toughness.
There’s really not much else I can say about the art. I would challenge any artist working today to sit down with a thin-line pen and some thicker pencils and draw half as well as Kubert does on this book. If they can’t manage that, they shouldn’t be drawing comics. It’s a shame that so many artist working today couldn’t hack that, and that some of them are the “hot” artists and get paid good money to do whatever it is they do. So I’m done writing about the art. I’ll just show some samples:
While Dong Xoai isn’t a great comic mainly because of the weak story, I would still suggest you check it out. It’s astonishing to see the ability on the page, and you can open to any page and just stare at the drawing for several minutes, appreciating the way Kubert tells the story. He’s not quite as innovative without the panel borders as, say, Will Eisner, but it’s still a wonderful achievement. It’s a solid story about an important moment in American history, but it’s really worth it for the art. You know you want to get it just for that!!!!
Tomorrow: Chinese history comes alive!
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