THE 'NAM VETERANS DAY SPECIAL
1986 will probably go down as the last true renaissance period for the art form of comics. Many consider this the year that comic books finally achieved some decent literary respect and mainstream acceptance primarily generated from the buzz of "Watchmen," "The Dark Knight Returns," and "Maus." But there was also quality and enthusiasm throughout most of the industry as many creators were doing benchmark material. While 1986 was an editorial peak year for DC Comics, Marvel Comics' overall content seemed forgettable and dated next to those of their "Distinguished Competition." But look past the wrecks of the atrocious New Universe line, the underwhelming mutant massacres, and the mediocrity of most of the superhero line, and you'll find that two true masterworks did arrive from Marvel that year: "Daredevil: Born Again" and "The 'Nam." While "Born Again" by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli is forever available, "The 'Nam" stories by Doug Murray and Michael Golden have been neglected by the company that published them over twenty years ago. A fact made even sadder because I feel "The 'Nam" could conceivably be the most important and finest work the company has ever published.
In 1985, "The 'Nam" began as a short story entitled "The 5th of the 1st" in the pages of "Savage Tales" #1. It was editor Larry Hama, a Vietnam Veteran himself, who desired to incorporate Vietnam War-based stories into his revival of the Marvel anthology. Intuition led Hama to ask fellow war vet and writer Doug Murray, a New York native, to pen these short stories, and subsequently pair him with the great talents of artist Michael Golden. The positive reader feedback from these shorts allowed then Marvel-Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter the leeway for granting a series to explore these war stories on a grander scale. By the fall of 1986, issue #1 of "The 'Nam" made its debut, and immediately became one of Marvel's top-selling monthlies.
One of the things that set "The 'Nam" apart from the rest was Doug Murray's commitment to make the stories authentic, in the process sharing his own perspective and some of his experiences in Vietnam. Murray explained to Pop!, "The two things that I was pretty adamant about doing in the stories was I wanted to make them as realistic as possible, and I didn't want them in comics-style continuity. So when we did the 'Savage Tales' stories, although the same unit was involved, and the same people in the unit were involved, it wasn't a comic-type continuity. We didn't do a continuation and there were no cliffhangers, there was none of that stuff. It was a standalone story that was essentially a slice-of-life type concept. That was the way it was supposed to be. And then, when [Larry Hama] asked me to do 'The 'Nam,' the things that we discussed that we wanted to do, and he was involved in the discussion on that was we wanted to do real time, and that was something that we both agreed on. We wanted to have a month gap between each issue in the storyline, and we wanted the team's characters the same way it would happen in the real world, where a guy would finish his 13-month tour and somebody else would come in. So we would keep shuffling characters around."
Murray added, "It was designed as a limited series because the war itself was a limited thing. I started the series in late 1966, I believe, and the war was over by mid-1972. So that, by its very nature, gave me a seven-year period to tell the whole thing. Assuming we did the real-time concept, which was tossed out after I left."
For Michael Golden, the offer to helm the art on "The 'Nam" was one that appealed to him from the start as a welcomed change of pace from superhero books. In my interview, Golden recalled, "Well, the original premise of the book was that it was a historical representation of the war, as opposed to sort of like Sgt. Rock, where everything was fictionalized, at best. And I guess that that's what drew me to it in the sense that it wasn't going to be just a war book. It was historical representation."
"The 'Nam" handles the very sensitive subject of the controversial Vietnam War with confidence and morality while never being preachy. From the fresh-faced draftees to the Vietnamese citizens, the fair and objective scripts by Murray richly chronicled all sides with tremendous honesty and insight. "The 'Nam" isn't a story about right or wrong, it wasn't a pro-war or anti-war fable, but an involving tale about human character and the obstacles man faces in war. The realism and experience injected into Murray's stories explore how war forces a man to grow up and have a sense of responsibility in oneself and to those in his unit no matter how chaotic things get. Both Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter and Editor Larry Hama wisely were hands-off in giving the writer and artist the freedom to tell this story in such a compelling manner with no interference.
The real-life based drama of the series was an interesting artistic challenge to Michael Golden, but one that the highly influential artist looked forward to. Golden said to Pop!, "I don't know if it was a rethink (of approach), it was just a completely different perspective, period. When you do superheroes, you're in one mindset and stylization that doesn't really apply to, for the lack of a better word, photojournalism. But I didn't even go in that direction. I went with a cartoon representation of it because we needed to slide it past those people who were looking at it with a magnifying glass looking for things wrong with it, and I felt that a more animated approach to it would, one, get past that sort of prejudice, but, two, it also allowed you to be far more dramatic with the characters, more with the facial expressions, with the movements, and the use of props as characters, and backgrounds as characters, as opposed to just props or backgrounds."
The stories of "The 'Nam" centered on Ed Marks and the men in the 23rd Infantry during this turbulent war. The writer designed the stories to be more vignettes than continuing stories - slice-of-life stories that allowed readers access to the range of emotions the introduced cast of characters were forced to deal with under the worst circumstances. With the earnest Ed Marks as the lead character of the series, Murray allows us see a bit of himself through Marks, a character we watch mature from a fresh-faced draftee to a man that the other men in the infantry can depend on during their patrols. In these stories, like life, we're not always dealt the best hand of cards, as events don't always unfold according to plan.
Murray reflected, "In some ways, Vietnam was very good for me. I was a bit of a momma's boy, and college really didn't fix that for me, but when I got overseas in the military and spent a lot of time on my own, and learned to be self-sufficient, it made me more of a rounded person. And then, when I got back home, of course, when I got into the workforce and things, that helped, too. But the good thing for me about 'The 'Nam' was that, considering I never had kids, was it gave me a chance to talk about my experiences without doing them directly face-to-face with somebody. I got a lot of stuff out of my system by writing that."
Much like his character Ed Marks, draftee Doug Murray did his best to stay positive and in one piece during the time he served his country in Vietnam. Murray shared, "I was pretty good at bringing people back alive from patrols, because my position was, 'I shouldn't be here, I'm not going to get anybody killed. We're going to get back.' So I was pretty successful, because people knew I wasn't going to do anything that stupid and get them killed. And, because they trusted me to do that, we actually accomplished a lot in our patrols. So they kept extending me because I was good at what I was doing. And I stayed there for about eight months before I got my butt shot up."
If you lived throughout the Sixties and early Seventies, you know that one could not escape the effects of the Vietnam War. Even if you didn't receive your draft notice, the odds were strong that you still had a brother, a close relative or a good friend who served in Vietnam. This war was also the first televised and transmitted into millions of American homes. So even if you didn't want to look, you knew our country was in crisis as you saw and heard about the American soldiers dying abroad while some burned their draft cards and protested the actions of the government at home. It was a war that affected everyone, young and old, and all of that was no different for artist Michael Golden.
In making "'Nam," Golden said, "I brought in my own experience. I grew up with the war. I didn't get drafted only by a bureaucratic oversight. My best friend back then, he was a three-timer. That means he did three tours of duty, for those people who don't know what that means. And I just brought all of that into it as much as I could. Doug's scripts were pretty complete. There wasn't much for me to, like, make up, if that's the nature of the question. What [Murray] gave me, I needed to give it a sense of linear drama in a graphic narrative format to give it a sense of veracity to the reader. I didn't really think much about it at the time because I knew I was totally capable of it, but I've since, after all these years, have found out that many people believe that we succeeded."
A fascinating element to "'Nam" is the fact that the stories were Comics Code-approved and intended for an all-ages audience. Such things forced the creative team and the book's editor to be inventive and find ways to tell their story with losing any edge. Rather than emphasize the drug use or vulgarities, it forced readers to absorb the nature of man and war, the stories successfully transcended over any censorship or code. "There were things that were off-limits," said Doug Murray. "When we made the decision, and it was made fairly early on, when we started putting the book together, we made the decision that we couldn't really get involved with drug usage, which was a big part of the real Vietnam. And we couldn't use realistic language, because we couldn't have gotten it past the Comics Code. So we compromised, and it gave me some strictures that I wouldn't have had otherwise, which is probably good for me."
Perhaps the most poignant and heartbreaking moment in the history of comics is the death of Mike Albergo in the final splash page of "The 'Nam" #9. The killing of the good-hearted Mike, via an unseen enemy gunman, is just a reminder of the vicious nature of warfare. Any glimmer of hope or comfort could unexpectedly be taken away from you in an instant in Vietnam. Murdered was a character that always looked at the bright side of life despite the reality being a shitty mess, and one of the grunts that helped Ed Marks adjust to the harsh reality that awaited him. Much like the real world, things in the "The 'Nam" could come to an abrupt end at any given moment.
That masterful tragic splash page was effectively captured by the artist. Scenes like these in "'Nam" just reminded me of the powerful imagery that cartoonist Bill Mauldin captured during World War II. When I conveyed these feelings to Michael Golden, he answered, "Thank you. I'm glad I did my job. [Laughs] And that someone else can see that I did my job. But it was, like I've already said, the scripts were pretty complete. The things that you appreciate, the stories and characters, were right there in the script. All I had to do with it was make it real."
The genre of war comics and the brutality of combat have been a part of the very fabric of this industry since its beginnings. But the horror of war in comics was usually depicted one-sided for the most part: either too gung-ho right-wing or too idealistically slanted. Very few stories have noticed that stuck at the center of any war are human beings - that there are two sides to every story. Fewer four-color books even asked the question about the very nature of why we fight. The fact that "The 'Nam" tackled all these subjects gave it a refreshing credibility that instantly translated to readers and its immediate sales accomplishments in 1986 and 1987. "Oh, I was shocked," Doug Murray said about the book's success, "And so was Hama. We thought it was going to be a very limited market, and that it would sell so-so, and that we'd get maybe six months to a year out of it, and that would be it."
About the instant warm reception to his work with Murray on "The 'Nam," Golden said, "I'm not sure I could really answer that without sounding egotistical. At the time I was not really all that surprised that it was popular because it was right at the beginning of that time period where America was finally coming to grips. It was twenty years after the war began, and America was just starting to come to grips with all of this. We had our whole flush of 'Rambo' movies and stuff like that, where all the Vietnam Vets were always these crazed outsiders and stuff, and people in America were just finally getting fed up with this. And that was the same year that 'Platoon' came out, and people were finally beginning to coalesce in their mind, put things together and realize that this wound needed to be healed. So I'm not surprised that it was popular at the time. I'll have to admit that I was surprised that it was as popular as it was. It outsold 'X-Men' for two months. But after I was off the book, I basically just shut the door and walked away from it, and then it wasn't until just recently that I started going to conventions again that I've had people come up to me and express just how much they enjoyed it and appreciated the work that we did on that book. And that I actually find to be kind of an eye-opener, if not actually surprising."
When Golden completed his commitment to "'Nam" interiors with the breakdowns in issue #13, Marvel Comics was in the mist of an editorial change in direction that would have a profound effect on the title. The book's two biggest champions, Editor Larry Hama and Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter, exited Marvel, as sequentially the Tom DeFalco editorial era began on April 15, 1987. Changes and clashes to the sensibility of the book became inevitable.
Doug Murray elaborated, "Hama left Marvel, I guess, we were on issue 17 or 18. It was after the decision was made to go completely direct sales, which we didn't like because we were selling 300+ thousand copies a month. We were Marvel's number two, number three seller. And we were selling almost exactly 50% to comics stores and 50% to newsstands, because our stuff wasn't the normal superhero stuff. The marketing department made the decision to go direct sales only, and Hama tried to fight it, but he was basically told there was nothing he could do about it. And, at the same time, Shooter left the company, and Hama, who was the senior editor probably should have taken his place, but DeFalco took his place instead, so Hama took a job elsewhere. Hama's assistant was a girl named Pat Redding, who was also a pretty good editor. She took over as editor, and she and I did fine together. And she got a job working for King Features, and she left, and my new editor became Don Daley. Now, Don Daley was kind of a weird duck, because he was a guy who had come up, literally, from the mailroom. He couldn't write, he couldn't draw, but he became a comic book editor. And he would make comments on stuff like, 'I don't like this. Do it different.' So basically he and I didn't exactly get along. We did not get along, we just didn't get along. There was no communication between us. And he decided that he wanted to put superheroes in the book, and he wanted to drop the real time."
As Doug Murray saw his vision of the title being cheapened and placed into an editorial stranglehold that he couldn't win, the frustrated writer saw no other option than leaving behind the title that he helped create. One could see that the writer was putting a lot of himself into this story, and the changes were defeating the purpose of his work. Soon superheroes began to factor into a book they didn't belong in. Worst yet, The Punisher, the prince of brutality himself, became a recurring guest-star in an effort to bump up sales and succeeded in killing the book's uniqueness. When the comics marketplace began to crash in the Nineties, the fledging sales of "The 'Nam" made it one of the earliest causalities in 1993.
The original artist of the series was very sympathetic to the frustration writer Doug Murray went through. Golden said, "The whole original intent was that it was supposed to be a historical narrative, and once you start bringing in fictional, much less moronic characters like the Punisher, to validate them in their other publishing ventures, that whole original premise is totally compromised."
After Murray's departure as the regular writer of the book, a few of his stories from the inventory drawer were used, but he never returned to chronicle the story of Ed Marks and the men in the 23rd. So would the writer ever consider revisiting his characters? Murray answered, "I actually was asked that a couple years ago in an interview, and Marvel asked me for a proposal, which I gave them, for a finale, but they never followed up on it. I always had in mind that Ed Marks would return as a photographer/writer for a news magazine around the time of the Fall of Saigon and us pulling out, and do the whole Fall of Saigon thing from his point of view as an ex-grunt, basically."
Through the rich imagery of this bold work, written by Doug Murray and illustrated by Michael Golden and other fine illustrators, we're shown that real war is truly senseless and never heroic. "The 'Nam" is a vivid character study that has heart and honesty as it takes readers into the experience of the Vietnam War. At its best, the book lets us never forget that wars are experiences that we should learn from, and that we should do everything in our power to ensure they never happen again. We have the Vietnam Memorial Wall standing in Washington D.C. with the names of 58,256 men and women that died serving this country. It is there as a reminder to us all that freedom and liberty do not come easy or without cost.
"There's no logic whatsoever to war," said Vietnam Veteran Doug Murray. "And Vietnam, particularly, was a war in which many of the people fighting it were both very young and very poor, or who were very young and had come directly from college through an ROTC program or something like that. So it was a real dichotomy of people you had. You had middle class guys with a very good education and no money, and you had young guys with no education and no money, and they were kind of tossed together, and then broke into different factions. This is the way it was. And, for the most part, and during the war itself, that wasn't a problem. It was a problem, sometimes, in camp, and sometimes when people went on leave, but not in the field."
For over twenty-five years, Doug Murray has written many comic books such as "Savage Sword of Conan,""Medal of Honor, "Batman,""Merc,"" Jungle Girl" and various others. For more information on Michael Golden and his work, please go to: www.evaink.com.