Will Eisner is a god and a comics icon; The father of the graphic novel. Heck, they even named the annual award for creative achievement in comic books after him. The superlatives could go on and on for a full review, and deservedly so. His sense of narrative timing, foible-skewering character development, and his simultaneously shaky and self-assured illustration style make everything he produces a joy to read. Last Day In Vietnam is no exception. This collection of six stories of sad sack soldiers stuck in Vietnam and Korea, drinking and dreaming the days away, was first published in 2000, and in 2013, a new hardcover edition was published with a love letter of a foreword written by Matt Fraction. Fraction points out in his introduction that Eisner was crafting these stories in his mid-eighties, when he could easily have been resting on his laurels after five decades of innovative work. Lucky for Fraction and for us, Last Day in Vietnam made it from Eisner’s brain to our eyes.
The stories are loosely based on Eisner’s experience working for the military as the creator of PS Preventive Maintenance Monthly, a comic-book style, instructional magazine produced for army troops. Eisner served as the magazine’s artistic director from 1951 to 1971. During that time, he took observational trips to Korea and Vietnam where he saw the wars and their dragging futility up close. Thus, unsurprisingly, the tone of Last Day in Vietnam is largely negative. The title story has us seeing events through Eisner’s own eyes: in fact, he’s being given a tour by a bombastically macho soldier who’s seen very little combat himself and is about to head home from his tour. It is, after all, his last day in Vietnam. He’s smug, he pontificates about the reasons they’re fighting, and he makes a joke of the ragged American soldiers in combat on the ground. But when the base they’re visiting is attacked by enemy fire, his facade crumbles, and he becomes a mess of sheer terror, a quivering, Jello-jiggler of a man, and he’s certain that he won’t make it out of Vietnam alive. Eisner’s storytelling draws the soldier in sharp, insistent focus — we basically get a monologue of the soldier’s shifting emotional state as he escorts Eisner. It’s unforgiving and unblinking, but it also has that hint of sympathy — aren’t we all a little like this guy, puffed-up and proud, all too sure of ourselves, ready to shatter at the slightest hint of danger? Would we do any differently in this situation?
Some of Eisner’s character sketches are less likeable, like the fellow in “Dull Day in Korea” who toys with the idea of shooting civilians for target practice with no notion that perhaps, he should self-censor in front of a civilian reporter. “The Casualty” wordlessly observes a man who, to his detriment, and even the loss of his limbs, can’t stop falling for local Vietnamese ladies. “Hard Duty” introduces another character with a hard shell and soft interior — though this time, he takes time to care for children in a local orphanage. And of course, the final story, “A Purple Heart for George”, captures just how easily the pendulum can swing from the mundane to madness with tragic consequences.
The stories in this volume are wonderful, but brief. Many of them, like the vast majority of Eisner’s work, have a slight bit of the morality tale to them which adheres them to memory, but are grounded in visceral realities that Eisner has personally witnessed and experienced. It’s not Eisner’s magnum opus, and with good reason — these stories are mere snapshots when put up against the emotional family epics of his Dropsie Avenue stories. Nevertheless, they’re worth a read, for how Will Eisner tells a story, for how war is portrayed, for the pleasure of spending a moment seeing the world through Eisner’s eyes.
Last Day In Vietnam: A Memory
by Will Eisner
Dark Horse, 2013