Eisner Goes To War, Preview of "Last Day in Vietnam"

Will Eisner, one of the most acclaimed comics creators of the last century, is about to invade this one.

His newest graphic novel, "Last Day in Vietnam," includes six stories and spans four decades and three wars and is available in July from Dark Horse Comics.

"It's a series of what I call memories. It's a collection of personal war experiences," Eisner told the Comic Wire on Thursday. "The recollections of the people I've met over the three wars, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

"It really is an experimental work in a way, because I have the first story drawing the reader into the action. … I did something similar to this in 'The Spirit' many years ago, and this is my first chance to do it again since. … I find it very difficult to repeat myself."

The technique, Eisner said, is "where the media needs to go, which is to be able to go into internalization. The graphics in particular have a difficult time evoking internalization, in the way that words and movies can do."

Each of the stories focuses on an internal conflict that's going on during wartime.

"I was dealing with mindless fear, in one instance. In another case, uncommon tragedy. In a third instance, I was dealing with a feeling of guilt.

"These are all instances I actually witnessed with my own eyes. I was a participant in all of them," Eisner said. "In the story in Vietnam, I was a participant in the action. And I transfer that to the reader, and I put the reader in my place, if you will."

During World War II, Eisner worked on the "Army Motors" magazine for the army's ordnance department.

"I sold the US military on comics as a teaching tool," he said. "Probably one of the best selling jobs I've ever done. … When World War II was over, I was back in New York, doing 'the Spirit.' … I got a call from the military, the ordinance department, and they said the war had just started with Korea, and they wondered if I would restart that magazine as a contractor."

The same book he designed in 1950 is still in print today.

"It's something I'm inordinately proud of, shamelessly proud of."

"Part of the deal was that I would visit combat areas, to get field stories. … The magazine predominantly provided field fixes," he said. "Then when the war came out in Vietnam, I went to Vietnam for about six weeks, and immersed myself."

And during all three wars, Eisner experienced events and met people who have thus made it into his stories, including "Last Day in Vietnam."

"Think of me as the Ancient Mariner; I have a terrible compulsion to stop people on the street and say 'let me tell you a story.'"

Comic readers who aren't traditionally war comics fans shouldn't be put off by the nominal subject matter, Eisner said.

"The emotions involved here could have been civilian. … The case that I make is that these are about people who had their own private combat, within the larger combat. It didn't have to take place in the war," Eisner said.

Of course, given the wartime setting, some of the emotions are more heightened than they might be in the civilian world.

"The first story is about a man who thinks this is his last day. It's based on the fact that everybody in Vietnam was there on a rotation. … On the last day before the rotation … they were always worried about getting killed. This is based on that theme."

Not surprisingly, the man who is widely credited for expanding the vocabulary of the comics medium is trying something different with his newest project. "Last Day in Vietnam" will be printed in sepia ink on ivory paper.

"I have always wanted to get away from the simple black and white," Eisner said. "And this book has a memory quality to it. … To be honest, I'm trying to break away from the standard comic book format cliché. I feel I'm not talking to the 'average comic book reader.' My readers aren't the superhero book readers. Kids who are interested in action and adventure aren't interested in my works. I'm talking about heartbreak, and fear. These are things only an adult will find interesting."

And "Last Day in Vietnam" isn't Eisner's last contribution to the comics medium: He's in the process of finishing up his next graphic novel, which is about city life. He expects to offer the project to DC Comics.

"It depends on the product," he said. "I'm still, as somebody once put it, a small buccaneer raiding villages up and down the coast."

At this point, "I'm spread out amongst several companies," including NBM, Dark Horse Comics and DC Comics. "For 25 years, I was pretty much wedded to Kitchen Sink Press," which went out of business last year. "That left me a decision of what I would do, where I would go, and whether I would publish it myself. Along came DC with an offer that I couldn't refuse, and I went with them. Of course, they understand I'm not for hire," he chuckled, "So I've spread myself amongst at least three publishers, and I'll continue to do that."

But given that there are buccaneers decades younger than him who have hung it up and retired from the industry, Eisner's continuing output seems remarkable, even leaving judgments about the quality of that work aside.

For Eisner, though, the reason he keeps turning out new works is obvious: He has to.

"I guess I haven't finished saying what I wanted to say. I'm still in pursuit, in what the band leader Glen Miller referred to as 'the sound.' … I still haven't achieved the level of sophistication in this medium that I'm striving for. … I could certainly afford to stop now, but I just can't.

- Will Eisner

"It has to do with longevity, too; it's very hard to hit a moving target," he chuckled.

"I long ago decided this was going to be my life's work. The minute I finish one book I'm on to the next. There's more to do, there's so much more to do."

In recent years, Eisner's star is once again on the rise: One of the industry's most prestigious awards is named after him, there was a series of new Spirit stories by some of the industry's best and brightest and DC Comics has begun a program to reprint and keep the Will Eisner Library in print, starting this summer and eventually reprinting the entire run of "The Spirit" in their prestigious Archive Editions.

"I've been in a state of surprise for the last 15-20 years, because at one time, I thought that 'the Spirit' was dead," Eisner said. "I had never seen a comic strip that had been stopped come back, so to speak. … I find it hard to explain, except that maybe what I was doing was writing fundamental stories, slice of life stories. … I was writing for a newspaper audience. And everyone else at that time writing comics was writing for a children's audience, a young reader's audience. … So my stories had more endurance than two mutants scratching each other, if I can use that metaphor."

New generations of comics fans, who may not even be familiar with any of his work, simply hear that Eisner is the best, the greatest comics creator of all time. In the face of all his modern success and acclaim, how does a man disinclined to toot his own horn react?

"I understand the fact that people love to categorize things. Somebody has to be 'the best.' You get a group of people together, and somebody has to be 'the best.' … I always tell my students that we're all in this business not for money, even though we think we are, but approval," Eisner said. "I enjoy approval. It's reinforcing, there's no question about. … I'm writing a letter, and I'm more interested in the reception of the message than my writing style and my art. … What I love to hear and what I'm eager to hear is the reception of what I have to say.

"As far as idolization and awards, these things don't matter terribly much. … If I didn't get these awards, I would work as hard as I do now. … I don't want to dismiss it, I haven't turned an award down yet, but it has its place, and I keep it there. It hasn't changed my view of myself, or my ambitions. … I don't think anything will come to me because of the Reuben Award, which I was very proud to get. … Sure, I would love to get the Pulitzer Prize or the Nobel, who wouldn't?" But, Eisner said, "usually, an award comes down to five or 10 people who think you're the best, but they're just five or 10 people."

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