It should come as no real shock that a comic by Will Eisner is a work of genius. This is, after all, not just the guy who set the bar high but the guy who created the bar in the first place. But with a pedestal so high Eisner runs the risk of joining the company of James Joyce, Ingmar Bergman and Chris Ware — people admired and respected, but only actually read/watched by scholars and connoisseurs.
And that would be a shame. I’ll admit it’s been awhile since I’ve read an Eisner comic, and I’d forgotten how good they are. Instead of being just “great,” Eisner’s comics also enjoyable to read. I once read Roger Ebert describe Orson Welles as the most watchable of the “great” directors, and I feel the same way about Eisner. He may be a genius, but he is a good genius. He speaks to the common human experience with simplicity and without much decoration.
I picked up Last Day in Vietnam because I am currently translating another war memoir, Mizuki Shigeru’s Showa: A History of Japan. I thought it would be interesting to see how an American master of comic art treated a similar subject matter. Title aside, Eisner actually covers three wars in this short 80-page book — World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. After all, war is horrible, but it does make for good stories.
The difference — and unique genius of Will Eisner — is apparent right from the start. Mizuki Shigeru is telling his story of the war, his personal trials and tribulations, moral dilemmas and their consequences. There is always a barrier there, between author and reader. Eisner, on the other hand, somehow manages to tell your story of the war.
Part of this is technique — he limits his cast, limits his background, limits anything that could get between reader and subject. In several stories in Last Day in Vietnam, the characters talk directly to the reader which pulls you in even further. These comic book characters look you in the eye.
But much of it is just the kind of stories he tells. Nothing in Last Day in Vietnam is dramatic. This isn’t heart-pounding and gory. These are — for the most part — the guys in their off hours. Just folks, just me and you, sent to a foreign land to kill or be killed, often against their will.
The stories in Last Day in Vietnam are astoundingly subtle. Eisner doesn’t feed you everything, but makes you read between the lines. To me (and to everyone) the most touching story is A Purple Heart for George about a young, gay soldier who enlisted to show people he wasn’t “a sissy.” As Eisner tells it, this is a true story that he witnessed himself in WWII. The most chilling story by far is A Dull Day in Korea, with does a better job of showing war’s dehumanizing effect than anything I have ever seen. Hard Duty tells a simple, heart-warming story up front, with an incredibly sad tale hiding in the background. Read through this book two or three times and you will find something new every time.
I love Dark Horse’s presentation of Last Day in Vietnam. This is the first time the book has gotten the hardcover treatment. It feels good in your hands, with nice paper and a respectful treatment. Matt Fraction writes the introduction, where he says “I remember him being taller than me, but this may be a trick of the memory.” I love that, because I know exactly how he feels. I met Will Eisner too, once. And even though he was sitting in a chair it felt like he was towering over me like a giant.
Zack Davisson is a freelance writer and life-long comics fan. He owned a comic shop in Seattle during the ’90s, during which time he had the glorious (and unpaid) gig as pop-culture expert for NPR. He has lived in three countries, has degrees in Fine Art and Japanese Studies, and has been a contributing writer to magazines like Japanzine and Kansai Time-Out. He currently lives in Seattle, WA with his wife Miyuki. You can catch more of Zack’s reviews on his blog Japan Reviewed or read his translations of Japanese ghost stories on Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.