Book of the Month
What did the
Art and Cover by JOE KUBERT
Size: 200 pages
Joe Kubert was born in 1926. Think about that for a second. Do you normally think of 84 year old comic book artists as being at the top of their game? Wouldn’t it be some absurd, yet amazing feat of skill if a man who had been working in comics for over 70 years was still producing high level, respected work? Yet this is not some imaginary tale. This is happening.
This week, Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1965 was released from DC Comics. It was written an drawn by Joe Kubert, and every rough scratch of his pencil is worth study. The book tells the story of a special forces A-Team operating in Vietnam before this country was fully engaged in the conflict. They’re not combatants, and they’re not authorized to fire unless they’re fired on. The soldiers are doing training and humanitarian aid in remote areas of the country. Of course, like in any dramatic story of war, things go terribly wrong, as the nearly defenseless base at Dong Xoai is overrun by enemy soldiers, and there’s no help coming.
This was a real unit, and but for the names, the details are pretty much spot on with what happened. When I read a story like this, what really pulls me into it is the idea that this was a real thing, and a real place, and these awful things that happened were also real. We’re removed from it today. There is a war going on, but many of us are a step removed from it. We can’t be drafted, for example. Yet Vietnam was not so long ago, and the conditions were terrifying, and if you went, you might not have had much choice. I place myself in those shoes, and wonder while I read or watch stories like this, how I would have dealt, and how soft or hard I really am.
The characters portrayed in this book do not worry about being hard or soft, because they are decidedly hard. They have hordes of foreign soldiers coming at them, and they do their job. The soldiers get shot and say things like “My leg got a little chopped up,” where I would just scream incoherently for days at a time. These soldiers deal with life-threatening bureaucracy, and yet they still do their jobs. These men hold out when all hope seems lost, and give us an idea of what people are capable of when pushed.
Now you might read something like this and think, perhaps cynically, that things weren’t really like that. The soldiers portrayed in books like Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1965, and programs like Band of Brothers and The Pacific sometimes seem more than human, an example of the best we can be, while not necessarily being realistic portrayals of real people. I say that might be true, but some people like to read superheroes to get that kind of perspective on humanity, and I like war stories for the same reason.
The story is real, and true, and it is a compelling one, but more than anything, the reason to pick this book up is to admire a master at his craft, and that is sequential storytelling. The first thing you’ll notice about the book is that there are no panels. In fact, there are no inks or colors either. Nor are there word balloons. The dialog is laid out almost in screenplay format, with narration alongside. For just a moment, you might even feel cheated. This man, this supposed legend of comic book illustration has sold me a book that he didn’t even bother to finish. But then, you look closer at those seemingly haphazard pencil scrawls, and you see that there isn’t a one wasted. The process is all right there on the page. Kubert isn’t hiding the artistic process, and tidying it up. He’s sharing it with you, and in those lines, which look so primitive when you focus on them, you see organic life and shape. You see a mastery of pencil based illustration. The faces and bodies are as close to living on paper as you’ll get. It’s not sloppy, it’s raw. This is the work of a man who taught countless comic book creators over the decades since his school for cartooning opened. This man knows what he is doing. Examination of any given page in this volume reveals a skill so well applied that you marvel, and at that point you remember that this artist, this man, was born way back in 1926, and you’re impressed once more, because he’s still got it. He’s got every bit of it.
Suppose you read through the whole thing and you’re still confused a little about what was where and how it all worked. The last chunk of this book is a hefty bit of historical reference provided by Detachment A-342 of the 5th Special Forces Group, complete with lengthy summaries and photos, bringing it all together, filling in the holes and reminding you that the story you just read may have been drawn in pencil, but it happened, and the survivors live on.
The hardcover itself is well done, and reproduces the art in exactly the way it should. It’s none of the things comic books are thought to be in mainstream, and might make a wonderful gift for someone from an earlier generation, or maybe just someone who just appreciates expertly crafted sequential art. Just flip through it in the shop, and let your eyes take in those pencils, and try not to be impressed with Joe Kubert, which you should be, because he’s been practicing for 70 years.
It's pronounced 'shwy'
Buy Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1965 at Amazon.