When I was in the army, I developed a fixation on comic books. This struck me as extremely odd, given that I had virtually no interest in them whatsoever (despite a brief flirtation with the notion of becoming a cartoonist). I had some, but they were usually specialized or topical, not the run-of-the-mill superhero or comedy type stuff.
There was a comic book/gaming shop a few miles off post, and I spent a good amount of time and money there, primarily due to my interests in the various RPGs that they offered. Even though I’d become a regular, the owner never knew my name – I was just always there. That’s kind of funny, now that I think on it.
But I digress . . .
During these visits, I’d picked up the first issues of two graphic novels – Alan Moore’s Watchmen, and Don Lomax’s Vietnam Journal. In the case of the former, I stopped after the third issue; I just didn’t get Watchmen, and it would be thirty years before I returned to it – and it was well worth the wait. But in the case of the latter, there was an instant love that I can’t explain, and I eagerly awaited each new issue.
Let me explain: After Oliver Stone’s Platoon was released in 1986, the media in general was kind enough to acknowledge that Vietnam War veterans were people, too. For the next five years, virtually every avenue was saturated with some kind of Vietnam related merchandise, including comic books. The first to do this was Marvel’s The Nam, which started an eight-year run (designed to cover the period from 1965 to 1972), and in many ways seemed to sanitize the conflict. The first couple of years were great – readers followed the tour of Ed Marks, an all-American kid who found himself shaped and scarred by his experience. When Marks finished his tour, others were introduced to tell their stories. There were times when the plots and presentations were straight out of Hollywood, 1944, and in some cases the endings had been telegraphed as early as page two. But I loved that series – I still have the first and final issues, despite having lost the other 82 – and for all of its faults (poor character development, stereotypes, and the occasional unbelievable plot), The Nam remains a critical, and alas, underrated, turning point in modern comics.
But if I had to pick what I considered the quintessential Vietnam graphic novel, then it would have to be Mr. Lomax’s Vietnam Journal. There was a rawness there – in the artwork, the lettering, and the stories – that just seemed real. And it was, because Lomax was there.
The series followed embedded journalist Scott “Journal” Neithammer, as he worked his way around the war’s front lines. Not interested in the “official” story as dictated by the upper brass, Neithammer spends his time observing and writing about the ordinary grunt in the field. Over the course of the story (I forget how many issues there were), he becomes increasingly disenchanted with what he now believes is a pointless and wasteful conflict. Everything is in there – good guys, bad guys, and guys who are too shady to define. This was a work where no one was perfect, but everyone was human. And the writing was top-notch – it was honest, profane, and authentic. Personally, I loved the black and white artwork, which left more to the imagination than the full-color panel from Marvel. I vaguely recall reading once that Mr. Lomax’s stories seemed real because they were all based in fact. I don’t know about that, but I can say that as a low-level peon myself at the time these were initially published, I could certainly relate. There were more than a few occasions when, after having finished reading (or re-reading) one of Lomax’s episodes, that I found myself wondering how I might have responded in a similar situation.
The top photo is that of the combined volume’s cover (2002). I came across this version a day or two ago, and as soon as I saw it, I had to have it. I’ve been thumbing through it, primarily for nostalgia’s sake, but also re-reading as time allows. The first chapter is called The Field Jacket, and seeing it again for the first time in almost three decades was freaky! It’s an interesting story about a Neithammer’s field jacket and it sets the tone for the often surreal journey that follows.
I should add that Mr. Lomax did a sequel – Gulf War Journal (2004) – where Neithammer, now covering Kuwait, tries to make sense of a new war. It’s equally powerful in its narrative and artwork, and frankly, I’d recommend them both so that one can see Neithammer’s journey come full circle.