For those who can’t tell the difference between graphic novels and comic books and still consider them both kids’ stuff need to read a graphic novel by Will Eisner. Since launching his superhero The Spirit in 1940, he turns comic book storytelling into an art, panel by panel. In 1978, he introduced the world to the graphic novel with A Contract with God. He proved this medium can tell a story as compelling and adult as a Charles Dickens novel or a Martin Scorsese movie. In 2000, he proves he still has the touch with Last Day in Vietnam, a series of stories from the battle fields of the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
Last Day in Vietnam is not so much a graphic novel as it is a series of monologues told with drawings. It came from his experience drawing for the US Army. Starting in 1942, Eisner made comics with maintenance advice for magazines Army Motors and PS, the Preventative Maintenance Monthly. At the same time, Chuck Jones and Dr. Seuss worked together to create Private Snafu, a series of comic cautionary tales for the Troops. Funny how open the US army was to mediums that are still considered “kids’ stuff”.
The reader plays the role of a journalist going through a day in a character’s life. Each story is told in brief pages but each displays the best qualities of Eisner. First is his characters facial expression. Eisner’s pen strokes can convey more stories in a character’s face than most artists can with word bubbles. The perfect example is The Casualty. It consists of a bandaged Korean soldier sitting alone in a café, smoking and drinking. Throughout the story, he expresses a lot of depression and bitterness as he reminisces about a one night stand that left him as he is. In a poetic move, a smoke of his cigarette forms the story of his past as his body language expresses how the betrayal fills him with disillusionment.
Second is the depth of his characters. In his graphic novels, Eisner’s characters first seem like caricatures, but then they take a surprising turn. This is true for the reader’s guide in the title story. When introduced, this guide seems to be an upbeat guy, a little too upbeat in contrast to his surly counterparts. One suspects a PR façade. Then it turns out his optimism comes from the fact that he is going home that day. But then the basecamp is attacked and reality sinks in for the guide. In terror, he realizes he might never see his son again.
But of all of them, A Purple Heart for George has to be the best. In a drunken stupor, George rambles on about his need to go into combat and join his friend Benny. He seems like a stereotypical hick unfit for battle. But through his ramblings, he reveals his relationship with the unseen Benny and even in a state of inebriation, he manages to write a coherent letter requesting a transfer. Considering his state, it’s uncertain if he means it. Plus, he still seems unfit for battle. Then he unintentionally gets his wish.
With each character, Eisner demonstrates an emotionally honest form of empathy. He shows a much care for the native tour guide as he does in his carefully paced story to the immaculately detailed drawings. Even his lettering style has an emotional resonance. Still think this is kids’ stuff?