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The Comic That Changed Everything – Part Twelve

The 'Nam issue 36 cover detail by Wayne Vansant

Part 1[2] - [3] - [4][5][6][7][8][9][10][11] – Twelve

In our last episode, Tim and his brother Kevin are interested in Vietnam, and have started reading comic books!

Marvel published a monthly series called The ‘Nam.  I didn’t really know what that was, but I could put two and two together:  The title design was a military stencil font, those three letters looked like the end of the word “Vietnam,” and there were Army guys in green on the covers.  While comic books starring super-heroes were grabbing some attention from Waldenbooks’ two spinner racks at our local mall, we hadn’t made that jump yet.  G.I. Joe was “realistic” in a way Uncanny X-Men (whatever that was!) was not, so if we were going to start reading a second comic book (third, counting our truncated following of Joe’s spin-off book G.I. Joe Special Missions), it needed to be similarly grounded.  I had been flipping through this ‘Nam comic for two months now.  Issue #36 had had a particularly compelling cover:

The 'Nam issue 36 cover by Wayne Vansant

I hadn’t experienced any racism in my life, but I knew what it was.  A friend of the family had been singled out a few times, and in grade school we talked about the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. every January.  There we even had a short play about mean parents not letting their kids befriend kids of other races that we performed each year.  And the nation’s capital was the next city over, so the 1963 March on Washington was referenced on local TV news and in the pages of the Washington Post probably a tad more than in the, say, Los Angeles or Anchorage media.  And as much as racism was a real topic that we talked about in history class, it wasn’t anything anyone talked about in any day-to-day fashion.  There was a heaviness to it, as if it was taboo.  So to see it a) on the cover of a comic book, and b) on the cover of a war comic, was surprising to me, a white suburban 6th grader.  The ‘Nam #36 was on-sale the same month Kevin and I got back from summer camp and bought G.I. Joe #92, our second real issue of that series, so we hadn’t passed the tipping point — we were still only buying a G.I. Joe comic book, not just any comic.  But by the time issue The ‘Nam #38 came out two months later, we had 20 or so comic books, and this cover was most compelling.  (If a little lurid for what was an otherwise tastefully done book.)

The 'Nam issue 38 cover by Mark Texeira

This moment, buying The ‘Nam (in what I believe was the last week of) the first month of 6th grade was the tipping point.  This is where Kevin and I went from enjoying more G.I. Joe stories than we could get from just the TV cartoon to becoming regular and devoted comic book readers; When we started buying a second, regular, monthly comic book series.  (So by a certain definition, it’s The ‘Nam #38 that was “The Comic That Changed Everything,” rather than G.I. Joe #90.)

This title, because of its higher quality paper stock, color separations, and limited distribution, was pricier than G.I. Joe.  It was $1.75 rather than a mere dollar.  But the dam was starting to burst.  Kevin and I just liked comics.  We liked stories, we liked art, we liked reading.  With this purchase it would no longer be confined to G.I. Joe stories, G.I. Joe art, G.I. Joe reading.  So I bought this issue of The ‘Nam, and tried to read it on the way home (but I get lightly car sick if I read, so I gave up after a page or two).  At home I discovered it’s a great comic.

Before I could buy the next one, however, I bought my first graphic novel.  Long before DC had any kind of backlist, back when Marvel had only published about fifteen trade paperback collections of famous runs of comic books and didn’t really know what they were doing (as evidenced by the ISBN number ending up on the spine of Marvel’s 1989 The Power of Iron Man and other cutely poor editorial and design choices), Marvel did have three modestly-priced graphic novels reprinting the first twelve issues of The ‘Nam.

The 'Nam TPB covers by Michael Golden

Next to the two spinner racks of individual comic books, Walden had a larger spinner rack of graphic novels (whatever those were!).  That included the second and third ‘Nam books, and for whatever reason, I found the cover of the third one the more compelling.  After hovering around for a few weeks, I bought it.  Excellent art, tight scripting, compelling characters, and the shocking death of a major character.  Regular readers had known him for nine months.  I’d only known him for twenty pages and yet it was an affecting surprise.  And soon I bought the other graphic novel, and then issue 39, and 40, and somewhere the first volume, and then we were regular readers, meaning we now collected a second comic book monthly besides G.I. Joe.

But to be honest,  besides all this grand talk of pathos, characters, and dramatic tension, my brother and I were still just boys who liked guns.  G.I. Joe and The ‘Nam had those in spades.  So it was only natural that the next comic book title we tried out was replete with fire arms as well.

And what Marvel series in 1989 was all about guns?  Tune in next week to find out!

Part 1[2] - [3] - [4][5][6][7][8][9][10][11] – Twelve

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The Comic That Changed Everything – Part Eleven

G.I. Joe issue 94 panel Snake-Eyes Vietnam flashback by Bright and Emberlin

Part 1[2] - [3] - [4][5][6][7][8][9][10] – Eleven

In our last episode, Tim and his brother Kevin bought G.I. Joe issue #94!

Part one of the NINJA COMMANDO’s spotlight reveals more about Snake-Eyes’ origin, and how he first crossed paths with the Baroness, and why she holds a grudge.  (Played out in general that she’s on the Cobra side and he’s a Joe, and specifically that she goes after him in Switzerland while he’s anesthetized.)  The flashback is Saigon, 1968.  And Vietnam was of interest for me.  Why?

My father subscribed to several military magazines, and those sat on our coffee table next to hardcover books on jets, and near novels and histories like God is My Co-Pilot, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, and Time Life’s WWII set.  And while Dad was more interested in The Second World War than Vietnam, the latter was still fresh on the minds of many Americans.  Saigon fell just two months after my brother was born.  The Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, “The Wall,” was dedicated the same year Real American Hero debuted.  And President Reagan’s rebuilding of the Armed Forces was still palpable.  Mom worked for Senator Dodd.  Dad worked for NASA.  Neither of those related to Vietnam, the place or the war, but as an “inside the Beltway” family the TV news was on every night for two hours, so though we didn’t have anyone in the family serving in the military, we were aware of it.

The Vietnam War, or I guess The Vietnam Conflict, since America still doesn’t technically consider it a war (if my 12th grade history serves me), was recent.  Americans were coming to terms with it.  College classes were now being taught on it.  Stone’s Platoon and Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket were earning box office dollars and winning accolades.  At the same time, CBS was running a great TV series called Tour of Duty.  This show only lasted for three years, and had the unfortunate timeslot of Saturdays at 10pm.  (Not quite the kiss of death that it would be now, but still not great.)  (This meant I would watch “The Golden Girls” with my mom at 8, Tour of Duty at 10 with my brother and father, and PBS’s broadcast of the BBC Robin Hood at 11.  [Yes, I watched The Golden Girls because it was a well-written, well-acted, funny show.]

Tour of Duty was an hour long drama about the regular soldiers of Company B serving in Vietnam.  Season 1 was filmed in Hawaii, so it looked great, and benefited from writing that portrayed the ups and downs, and the shades of grey the average Army grunt experienced in country.  That this show came along when G.I. Joe was in full bloom, combined with my brother and father’s interest in war history and military armament, was a coincidence.  But it only enhanced our appreciation of the military themes in G.I. Joe.

The show lasted three years, and was about as gritty as the accepted standards of the time.  It was violent, but not overly so, and the violence was tastefully done.  This was before TV ratings, back when a “Parental Discretion is Advised” disclaimer was rare, and a big deal.  (The show didn’t have it.  ABC’s 1989 broadcast of Robocop did, for comparison.  And that was quite edited from the theatrical cut.)  More importantly, Tour of Duty dealt with racism, ethnic divisions, moral ambiguity and the fog of war, and the hopelessness of the day-in, day-out slog.  It, like G.I. Joe, was told from the grunt’s point of view.  There were no cutaways to the White House, the Pentagon, or the Paris Peace Talks.

So with all this swirling around in the cultural ether — TV shows and movies and government — it was quite exciting when Marvel’s G.I. Joe veered into Vietnam via flashback.

Moreso, those three months of checking the spinner racks at the Montgomery Mall Waldenbooks, where we went from G.I. Joe issues 90 to 92, and then to 94, offered something even more focused:  An entire comic book series about Vietnam.

What was it called?  Tune in next week to find out!

Part 1[2] - [3] - [4][5][6][7][8][9][10] – Eleven

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