As Will Eisner understood them, comics are an art form which far exceed their generalization as pulp serials of boyhood fantasy. In fact, Eisner’s work itself takes the archetypes of these fantasies and tears them apart from within, rebuilding them with relevant heart and inspired breadth. Take the soldier fantasy, a character type popularized with war comics post World War II. From this new genre of hero stories came a flurry of titles about fearless, patriotic soldiers and all American war-heroes like Marvel’s Sgt. Nick Fury and His Howling Commandos (later Nick Fury, leader of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and most notably Steve Rogers AKA Captain America. Depicted as Nazi fighting special unit tough-guys, these characters glorified the narrative of soldiers during wartime, an untruth Eisner could see clearly through.
Dark Horse Comics just released a beautiful hardcover edition of Eisner’s Last Day in Vietnam, a collection of short comics depicting the harsh and human truths of life behind the lines. With subtlety and care, Eisner created six very different stories about soldiers during wartime. Inspired by his time in the Army during WWII and work as a stationed journalist during the wars in Korea and Vietnam, Last Day in Vietnam is Eisner’s behind-the-lines tour of the anything but archetypal psyches of war. As a journalist and comic illustrator during the wars, Eisner adapted maintenance manuals and preventative maintenance procedures into short, fun comic strips for camp newspapers and later, PS Magazine, an internal publication he developed in the 1950’s. As a journalist, Eisner’s wartime experiences were quite different than most, but his compassionate ability to tell a story allowed him to translate his memories into timeless accounts of the ironies and perpetual uncertainties of war.
In the first and last stories of the book, the longer of the six, Eisner positions his characters around the dark ironies that arise amidst the chaotic cloud of war. The first story, and collections namesake, Last Day in Vietnam, is told from the first-person point of view of a visiting journalist during a routine press junket. The journalists escort for the day is an exuberant Major enjoying his last day stationed in Nam. Eisner’s juxtaposition of the overjoyed Major with a group of sullen patrol scouts paints a vivid picture of the stark contrast and thin line between hope and despair during conflict. The most harshly ironic story is the final tale in the series, A Purple Heart for George, one Eisner explains in his forward is the most real and personal of the book. Without spoiling anything from the story, it can be said that A Purple Heart for George portrays the demoralization of war with some of the most painful consequences in the book.
Throughout these six stories, Eisner often backhandedly criticizes his own profession; the War Journalist. In the second tale of the book, The Periphery, as well as in A Purple Heart for George, Eisner writes war journalists with scathing reproach. Clearly displeased with the often desensitizing nature of the sensationalizing media, Eisner writes his war correspondents as having little regard for the humanity of their subjects. Here, characters within Eisner’s own profession in many ways represent the casualness most other war-comic writers assigned to their stories from the 1950’s onward. With obvious contempt, Eisner rose above the fluff and glamorization of the wars portrayed around him, to present truth and human context with Last Day in Vietnam.