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:
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.)
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.
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!