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LAST DAY IN VIETNAM

Will Eisner offers a moving portrait of humanity at war

By Jason Henderson     August 09, 2000

Last Day in Vietnam is about warriors at relative rest.

An American GI sits at a cafe in Saigon. He has bandages on his face, a cast on his arm, a cane for his busted leg. He sits and smokes, and thinks of the beautiful local girl he picked up. In his mind, while he smokes, they flirt, and smile, and make love. Then she rolls a grenade under the bed. And he doesn't regret a moment of it.

On another base in a different war, near a headquarters where the GIs remain safe most of the time, the guys who work in the General's office play a strange and loving game. Every Monday like clockwork, a certain young GI will have gotten drunk and submitted his request for transfer to a more dangerous post. The guys have to make sure and get in Monday morning early enough to destroy the request before the General files it. 'The guy's so wasted, he doesn't even remember he submitted it,' they say. They show up early to save the young alcoholic's life, once a week.

These are the human moments of war, as remembered by Will Eisner, one of the great early masters of American comic art. Eisner was involved in no less than three wars--World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Noting that 'in wartime, the Army is responsive to innovation,' Eisner's duty was to travel from base to base observing the difficulties GIs had with their increasingly complex and fragile equipment. These observations in turn yielded the illustrated 'preventative maintenance' comics that Eisner drew for Army Motors and later P.S. Magazine. As a soldier and then as a civilian with the field rank of Brigadier General, Eisner made his travels, watching men and their machines in times of greatest stress.

Along the way he observed the men more generally, noting the habits of soldiers lucky enough to be stationed on base. Those stories became the illustrated book Last Day in Vietnam, which is something of a masterpiece of quiet moments that thrill. The war touches everyone, even those it can't injure yet.

One of my favorite stories is 'Last Day in Vietnam,' which is told visually in first person--we are Eisner as he arrives at a base in Vietnam to be escorted around by a young man who talks fast and makes too many unfunny jokes. The young man is nervous and excited because this is his last day--he ships out tomorrow. We watch as he talks and talks, escorts us onto a helicopter so we can fly to the next base. We stop, let in three infantrymen, whose faces are unreadable runes of death. We stop and let them out again, the three never having said a word. When we finally arrive at the destination base, the young officer learns horrifying news: no more choppers will go out. He's stuck in hairy territory, convinced he's going to die on his last day. And we, the narrator, suddenly come up with a plan.

I've never seen this technique before--Eisner actually manages to surprise us without a word of narration or thought. That it's a true story only makes it more beautiful.

Eisner has kept his ear to the ground and come back with many such stories, most of them tinged with irony and pain, and even a certain quiet glory. He likes to turn the tables on us, show us an irritating character who turns out to be, after all, just another kid. One story, 'Hard Duty,' shows us a gigantic, muscle-bound loudmouth who works in the motor pool. He's angry because he loves combat and the army moved him indoors because they thought he was too violent. He says these things while he swings jeep axles over his mountainous shoulders. 'Don't need no damn forklift!' he shouts. When he's done throwing jeeps together he escorts us to what he calls 'Hard Duty,' and the duty is the sort of delightful surprise that seems like something out of a Disney Film, except that Eisner assures us these stories are true.

He watches with detachment, even turning his observations on the strangeness of the journalists sunning themselves in Saigon, who gossip about the Vietnam conflict as if it were a political campaign. And then he brings it home to them with drama as quiet as it is crushing.

Last Day in Vietnam is a collection of graphic tales cast in the sort of sepia tones you associate with one-panel cartoons one finds in old magazines. The language is crude at times, with the antiquated feel of comics of the 1950s. But these are stories newly told, and Eisner is fooling us with his old-fashioned visual and language techniques. I spend most of my time here reviewing stories of heroes. In this collection, everyone is a hero, and everyone is not. Last Day in Vietnam is full of wonderful visions of humanity finding its best while its busy at its worst.

Trade Paperback from Dark Horse Comics. Written and illustrated by Will Eisner.

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