Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

Eye on the Eisners: Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1965

Posted by Don MacPherson on May 17th, 2011

The 2011 Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards will be held July 22, one of the many events associated with comic-Con International San Diego this year. In the weeks leading up to the awards ceremony, I’m turning my attention to various books and creators nominated for 2011 Eisners. The backlog of material I have to review offers me plenty of opportunities to examine work that’s been noted in the Eisner nominations (the full list of nominees can be found here), and those noms will no doubt bring this material, published in 2010, to the attention of a few people who pay attention to the Eisners and are curious about these recognized projects.

For the second in my Eye on the Eisners series, I’m turning my attention to one of the nominees in the Best Writer/Artist category. It’s a familiar name — the legendary Joe Kubert — and he’s been nominated in the category for his work on an original graphic novel published by DC Comics last year.

Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1965 original graphic novel
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Joe Kubert
Letters: Pete Carlsson
Editor: Will Dennis
Publisher: DC Comics/The Joe Kubert Library imprint
Price: $24.99 US/$28.99 CAN (hardcover) – $19.99 US (softcover)

While he wowed us in the Silver Age with his take on Hawkman, Joe Kubert is really an artist who’s best known for his non-super-hero work, even though the bulk of his credits are associated with corporate comics publishers whose bread and butter are super-heroes. Kubert is especially well known and respected for his work on war comics, and it’s a subject that’s clearly important to him. He’s revisited the genre time and time again, illustrating not only the adventures and tribulations of fictional soldiers such as Sgt. Rock and the Losers, but bringing the stories of real fighting men to life through the medium of comics as well. Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1865 falls into the latter category, as this book proclaims that the story is based on real events and people. Fans of Kubert’s unique, gritty style will be pleased with what they find here, but they might also be surprised at the rougher, unfinished approach he’s taken with the art.

In June 1965, Special Forces Detachment A-342, a team of a dozen highly trained U.S. soldiers, is dispatched to a small but key military encampment at Dong Xoai in Vietnam. Their mission is three-fold: they’re to train local volunteer soldiers and farmers to fight the Viet Cong, they’re to assess and enhance the military infrastructure of the base and they’re to assist in recon and combat missions. Given that Dong Xoai stands between the Viet Cong and Saigon, the U.S. soldiers know an against-all-odds battle is coming, and despite the seemingly impossible fight they face, they’re determined to hold their ground and stem the tide of enemy soldiers.

Kubert takes a different approach with the art here in that it looks raw and unfinished. His usual style is a loose and sketchy one, but here, that tendency is even more pronounced. I’m a bit torn when it comes to his altered approach to the visuals for this project. On the one hand, one can really see his process coming to life here. The original roughs become incorporated into the final image. There are no polished inks, so it’s like everything is left on the page.

On the other hand, one could also argue that he’s taken some shortcuts with the art. The quicker, looser approach definitely impacts the storytelling. It’s quite difficult to differentiate among the characters. The sketchier style means there are fewer distinct visual cues to set the players apart from one another. Furthermore, the backgrounds are lacking throughout the book. While there are fairly detailed maps and bird’s eye views of key locales, one never gets a strong sense of place. Kubert focuses on the characters’ faces, not on their environment. I was also left wondering if the rougher method was an artistic choice or one that arose out of necessity. While there’s no denying Kubert is a talented artist, one also can’t overlook the fact that he’s on in years. Maybe that had nothing to do with his storytelling choices, but I think it’s a legitimate question. If the shortcut was out of necessity, it’s easier to accept in my perspective as the reader/consumer, but if it was a purposeful choice, I’d have to say it wasn’t the right one in the end.

I couldn’t help but feel as though Kubert endeavors to offer up the most sanitized version of these men and these events as possible. I was struck by the absence of any profanity in the dialogue. One could argue that I’ve been conditioned by a litany of Vietnam War flicks to expect the filthiest language possible, but the reality is that at least some of the American soldiers in these circumstances would speak more crudely than do these characters. Furthermore, there’s little in the way of overt racism in the interactions among the characters. Yes, Kubert explores the cultural differences between the Americans and their Asian allies, but given the period and human nature, the respect the Americans across the board show to those they’re tasked with training and protecting seems a little too tidy and unfettered by prejudice for me to believe.

Kubert fortunately grabbed my attention in the latter part of the book when the big battle scene gets underway. He conveys the chaos, the tactics and the teamwork incredibly well, but he also pays tribute to the spirit of the dedicated American soldiers who inspired this book. The men aren’t necessarily portrayed as being particularly brave. Instead, one’s impressed by their focus. They’re not driven by heroism but by determination and duty. Furthermore, while Kubert conveys the intensity of combat well, he doesn’t include the overwrought emotion of one soldier mourning the loss of another. These men accept that the mortality of their situation. They’re not trying to stay alive but rather trying to do their jobs as best as they can. Kubert definitely avoids some cliched moments that one normally finds in military drama.

My timing for this review is pretty good, it turns out. I see that this week marks the release of the softcover edition of this book. I read the hardcover, which was released several months ago. Now, it’s obvious from my comments above that I have some qualms about this book, but if one were inclined to buy this book, I’d have to recommend the hardcover. For just a few dollars more, one gets a more handsome edition that seems more substantial and lasting.

When I reached the end of the story, I was surprised, because there were another few dozen pages that followed the ending. Kubert and DC have included a fairly extensive collection of documentation about A-342, their mission and their time among the locals at Dong Xoai. If one is a military history buff, this will no doubt seem like a gold mine of information. It’s quite detailed, and the photos give a strong sense of the history and the men on the mission. However, this really isn’t my thing, and I found I was disappointed I didn’t get another 30-40 pages of Kubert art, even if it’s rougher than what we’re used to seeing from him. 6/10

While I’m on the subject of the Eisners, I should note that I turned my “eye” toward several other nominees in the past… before they were nominated. If you’re interested in my reviews of Eisner-nominated books, you might want to check these past pieces from Eye on Comics.

Nominated in the Best Limited Series category is Joe the Barbarian, by Grant Morrison and Sean Murphy. I reviewed the first issue here. Among the new ongoing titles nominated as Best New Series is Superboy by Jeff Lemire and Pier Gallo. A review of the second issue can be found at this link. And writer/artist Scott Chantler’s Two Generals original hardcover graphic novel is among the nominees for Best Reality-Based Work. A full review of the book can be found here.

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One Response to “Eye on the Eisners: Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1965”

  1. Comics A.M. | FCBD 2011 generated $1.5 million in publicity | Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources – Covering Comic Book News and Entertainment Says:

    […] Comics | Don MacPherson kicks off a survey of this year’s Eisner Awards nominees with a look at Joe Kubert’s Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1965. [Eye on Comics] […]