A collection of short tales show the complicated effects of war on individual people.
Author/Artist: Will Eisner
What They Say:
Released to coincide with Will Eisner Week-the annual celebration of Eisner’s life and work-Last Day in Vietnam is now available in a handsome new hardcover edition! Last Day in Vietnam recounts the artist’s own experiences with soldiers engaged not only in the daily hostilities of war but also in larger, more personal combat. Some of the stories in this novel are comical, some heartrending, some frightening, yet all display the incredible insight into humanity characteristic of Eisner’s entire oeuvre. Printed with special sepia ink and in hardcover for the first time, this new edition gives this modern classic the literary presentation it deserves!
Content: (please note that the content portion of a review may contain spoilers)
Despite my decade plus of reading comics, I’ve somehow never read work by the oft-lauded master of the medium, Will Eisner. So, this reissue of his “fictionalized memoir” is my first introduction to his work — and what an intro. Pulled from his own experiences while in the service during both the Vietnam and Korean Wars, Eisner uses his short page count to bring the “small but weighty dramas” of soldiers during wartime back to life.
In the titular story, “Last Day in Vietnam”, one man laughs off the war, making jokes with other soldiers about how hard it is giving tours when they’re on a break from being shot at. This changes abruptly when the war comes right to him, and we see that the almost callous lightheartedness is just a smokescreen to hide how anxious he is. “The Periphery” also displays how people manage to detach themselves from the war as a group of reporters discuss the events (“as observers, they’re dispassionate…no??…it is like reporting a football match…no??”). Then one man returns from finding his son’s dead body, making it his war now.
Eisner also replays his own observations on the way people dealt with the stress of war. In “A Dull Day in Korea”, one man, obviously holding back bitterness about his father, decides to take out his impotent rage by shooting at Korean civilians. Meanwhile, in “Heavy Duty”, a soldier displays a frightening amount of frustration as he violently completes his “shop duty” work, but then he spends his day off playing with the unwanted children of soldiers and Vietnamese women.
One of the strongest stories in the collection, and the one that Eisner admits in the introduction resonated with him the most, is “A Purple Heart for George.” A drunk man rails at everyone at the clerks’ office for being a coward before putting in his request to enter combat. But this bravery only emerges when he’s drunk, leaving other officers feeling compelled to save him by destroying his requests. What makes this piece sit with you more than the others is the questions that arise that can’t be simply answered. Was George really brave? Or did the alcohol just bring out the guilt that his childhood protector, Benny, is fighting the war, while George is “stuck here with clerks!!”? And the clerks that fail to save him, where does their own guilt come from — that they couldn’t help out a drunk, or that a pathetic guy like George might have been braver than them?
The art itself is immediately interesting, with the first thing I noticed being the lack of distinct panels. With no lines separating one image from the next, the page has a loose feeling, as one bit of dialogue or gesture flows into the next. He also shows faith in his art when he silently tells the story of a wounded soldier remembering the woman who slept with him, and then set off a grenade, in “The Casualty.” Eisner uses other innovative effects, like back in the first story where we get a first-person view, seeing the tour through the jungle and camp straight from Eisner’s eyes, complete with rocking cars and a shaky chopper. And “A Purple Heart for George” exhibits some amazing figure drawing that does more to characterize George and create sympathy for him than his dialogue about Benny does.
Last Day in Vietnam is short, only 80 pages — even less when you notice that the introduction pushes the first comic to page 11 — meaning that in each story, we only spend a few pages with the characters. That does make it less heavy than other war comics I’ve read, but that doesn’t dampen the poignancy of each page. We see people with no hope, too much hope, people in denial and people who have had reality sock them in the face. In these very short stories Eisner gives us the whole spectrum of humanity as he saw it, making clear that war has an effect on everyone, though the result is not necessarily the same every time.