Vietnam in Popular Comics Post-War

Watchmen #1

Alan Moore's Watchmen

Watchmen Issue #2 Pg 14.

This is a page from the Watchmen Comic run that shows the Comedian and his altercation with a Vietnamese woman after the conclusion of the war

The Punisher Vol. 22

The period of comics after the war in many ways represents a "Coming to terms with the war" phase of the form. Artists and writers continued to use the war as a theme in their comics but the meaning of what the war mean changed in different ways. The American reaction to the war follow similar themes seen in comics. Artists like Alan Moore used the war as a critisism of the government in his critically acclaimed work Watchmen. The charachter of Mr. Manhattan is a character created by science who posseses god-like powers, is an allegory for the atomic bomb and American reliance on technology and science. His abilities allow the American forces to easily win the war in Vietnam. 

Another character whose backstory is based in Vietnam is the Comedian whose death the story is based around. His service in Vietnam is a main character development moment where we find out what kind of person he is. He is portrayed in the comic as a brutal firghter who burns the enemy with a flamethrower. He is also representative of the violence that the war exposed among many US soldiers. In the story the Comedian, impregnates a Vietnamese woman who interns demand that he take her back to America and provide for the child. After a heated confrontation he kills the pregnant woman. This particular scene is an tool used by Moore to criticize the war and in many ways the government. The scene is used to show that the violence and horrors that the soldiers experienced in Vietnam were not due to the fact that the war was lost and it did not stay in Vietnam when those soldiers returned home. It was something that these men carried with them and continued to define their lives. 

This becomes a constant theme in the comics that came immediatly after the war. Books like the The Punisher which began its first run in 1989, uses the war as an origin story for the character that helps to explain the violence that defines his life. He represents the popular perception and trope of the damaged veteran that emerged after the war. This stereotypical character is represented through nearly every popularized Vietnam story. Movies like First Blood, with characters like Rambo are other great representations of this trope. the idea is that the person was changed in Vietnam to such a point that it affects their life far past the end of the war. In many cases like the punisher they lose touch with what it mans to live in a civilized society. The punisher cannot put the violence of the war behind him and brings that violence back to the United states. 

The 'Nam #1

The ‘Nam represents the realistic reflection on the war and a serious inquiry into what the war was about and discovering who the men who fought this war were. Doug Murray’s main focus through this story was to subvert many of the old comic tropes in favor of realism and serious reflection. He once said in an interview with Pop! Magazine,

"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."[1]

            This focus on realism added many layers to the national memory of Vietnam. Doug Murray was focused on not taking sides as well. He did not want this to be a blatant anti-war comic book like Blazing Combat, or any of the other underground comics. While the comic did address some of the issues with Vietnam it was at its core meant to be a tale to humanize the soldiers and what their lives in Vietnam were all about. Jorge Khoury in a piece written for Comic Book Review.com Put it perhaps the best, “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.”[2]

            The time at which The ‘Nam first published was also significant. Those comics which were coming out during the war had very little context and lacked the larger picture of the war. They often followed many of the same polarizing messages used by the anti-war protestors that were happening at the same time on college campuses around the country. Murray and Hama’s decision to revisit the Vietnam War in 1986 was significant because both felt the country was far enough away from the conflict that this comic would not offend the general public.[3] The visitation back to the Vietnam allowed for a great cross section between people having been affected by the war and it having faded back into national memory. This was also the time where consensus on the war was still unformed, it allowed the authors room to work without having to be beholden to one side or the other.

            The act of writing the comic itself also played a powerful role in Murray’s life. In his own words writing the book was reflective of his experiences in Vietnam. He used the knowledge and experience to tell real life stories that were closer to the truth than typical comic books had gotten before, and in a way, it became therapeutic for Murray. He said, “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.”[4] For many artists including writers Philip Caputo and Doug Murray, their art became an outlet for the feelings that were left over for the war.

            The ‘Nam Is a significant step forward in the discussion of the Vietnam War in comics, and there is very little doubt it had some influence over its readership. However, Robert J Kodosky points out some of the problems with dealing with pop culture as a historian. He says while it is possible to track ideas and their progression through pop-culture it is very difficult if not impossible to measure in any significant way the influence comics like this had on the people who read them. The power of comic books according to Kodosky the significance of comics comes through their ability to introduce complex topics and ideas to a group in a very approachable way.[5] The ‘Nam is a great example of this, Doug Murray used the comic to have a real discussion of morality and what the war meant and stood for to those who were involved.

[1] “- The ’Nam | CBR,” accessed December 3, 2018, https://www.cbr.com/the-nam/.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Robert J. Kodosky, “Holy Tet Westy!: Graphic Novels and the Vietnam War,” The Journal of Popular Culture 44, no. 5 (October 1, 2011): 1047–66, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-5931.2011.00887.x.