I don’t generally care for war stories. Maybe it’s because my parents were never able to pass up any random war film showing on TV when I was growing up, but I have next to no interest in war films, TV programmes, games and comics. Except, over the last few years, Vietnam ones. I’m not sure what I find so interesting about the conflict – perhaps the moral complexity of what was a largely futile and pointless war, possibly the almost wholesale rejection of typical jingoistic military story tropes.
One of the first comics to deal with Vietnam in any series way was, well, actually, GI Joe, which had it as part of Snake Eyes, Storm Shadow and Stalker’s backstory. GI Joe under Larry Hama always had a very no-nonsense approach to the military. Sure, these were people fighting guys in steel masks and snake costumes, but the Joes always felt like real people and real soldiers. Fairly cynical ones, admittedly, but real. Flashbacks scenes to Vietnam in GI Joe never trivialised the conflict, treating it with more dignity than you’d expect from a comic existing to hock toys.
It was this directly that led to the launch of The Nam in 1987, a series designed to take Hama’s down-to-earth, no heroes style from GI Joe and apply it to a real conflict. With Hama as editor and Vietnam vet Doug Murray writing, The Nam was a monthly series that followed one squad in the ‘Nam in real time (every issue was set a month after the last), from January 1966 onwards. It promised to follow the war from the perspective of a typical soldier, or lots of them over time, giving a clear look at the conflict as it was on the ground.
There were a lot of clever aspects to this set-up. Having the book run in real time meant the avoidance of “comic book time” – months slipping away spent on one story, timelines always sliding and juddering. Reading the comic as it was published meant that a character’s stay in country took as long to read as it did to ‘happen’. This is especially crucial in the first dozen or so issues, as we follow Ed Marks, the series’ first main character, a fresh-faced, naïve, young draftee sent over as a private. The weird world of the Vietnam war is introduced to the reader through Marks, we learn as he learns, we grow as he grows, we mourn as he mourns.
The comic follows Marks as he grows if not into a man, then at least a vet, but introduces a host of other interesting characters along the way. The real main character of The Nam isn’t Marks though, but the squad itself. The real time gimmick and grounded approach means that there’s a high turn-over in characters. Some finish their tours and go home, some get injured, some die, some suffer worse. The Nam doesn’t always make you care about each individual character, some are just hi-and-dies, others left in the background with little to do, but you care about the squad as a whole, even as it changes and morphs, which, to me at least, seems rather the point.
The realistic turnover means that by issue 30, there’s not a single character left in the series from those first issues, but it’s done in such an organic way, and there are enough endearing characters, that you care for the current bunch as much as you did for the first or second or whatever. Older characters, such as Ed Marks, are occasionally seen again back in ‘the world’, giving glimpses of how the war was seen from the outside and how vets adjusted to life back in the States.
The Nam was pretty successful when it launched. The first issue outsold everything else Marvel put out that month. It beat out Platoon for an award from a Vietnam veteran’s association. Its issues were reprinted in a black and white magazine format for a number of years.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t to last. By #40, original editor Larry Hama, who had moved onto be a ‘consultant’ after the first year or so, was gone. Around the same time, the series became the victim of one of comics longest lived, most perfidious villains: editorial interference.
Editorial interference has reared its head many times. Even as far back as Marvel’s silver age glory days, Roy Thomas suffered it on Avengers, when Stan Lee would demand that the team not use certain characters, only be so big and even arbitrarily demand that there be a new character added to the team and that he be an android (leading to the creation of the Vision). Editorial interference is what gave us 90s X-Men comics that made no sense, filled with sub-plots that would never be explained. It gave us Spider-Man’s Clone Saga, a years long clusterfuck that even Marvel took the piss out of by publishing a comic mocking the fact that they had no idea how to end it.
In The Nam‘s case, it seems editor Don Daley, didn’t like the title as it was at all. Why was it in real time? Why were there no super-heroes? Has any editor ever before so completely missed the point of a comic? Now free of Hama’s restraining hand, he makes changes.
The Nam #41 features Iron Man, Captain America and Thor. They’re right there on the cover and feature inside. A blatant attempt to attract sales from Marvel’s usual audience, writer Doug Murray doesn’t get enough credit for making this issue work better than it should have. Despite the moans for literally years later in the comic’s letters page (the issue even gets dissed in the farewell editorial column in the last issue), #41 isn’t too bad. The scenes with the Avengers’ Big Three are naïve and simplistic, more like a 50s DC comic than even a silver age Marvel one. But that’s entirely the point. These sections are the imaginings of two soldiers, both of whom likely hadn’t read a comic since the 50s, daydreaming about what it would be like if super-heroes existed. In a move literally straight out a Superman comic, the Avengers capture North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh and deliver him, cowed, to the Paris Peace Conferences, certain that will end the war. The soldiers, Sgt Mike ‘Ice’ Phillips and Sgt Martini, scoff at the idea. There’s no such thing as real heroes, Ice decides, as he boards a chopper to leave the Nam and reluctantly return to the World, blissfully unaware that his own men consider him a hero.
(#41 also contains another member of the squad who’s just seen John Wayne’s The Green Berets recounting everything that’s wrong with it, which is fair enough – I’d be slating plenty of movies if they trivialised a war I was in and had the platform).
Putting the Avengers into The Nam was a stupid idea and it’s a credit to Murray that it worked at all. Despite the immediate backlash from the readers though, it marked the beginning of the end for The Nam as it originally was. Within months, The Nam is almost irreparably broken by editorial. For whatever reason, #45 features a fill-in from Chuck Dixon. Instead of continuing the tale of the 23rd Brigade in 1969, it jumps ahead a year to 1970 and has two of the squad (though unnamed and presumably only included by series artist Wayne Vansant) in a bar listening to war stories from other soldiers. This isn’t exactly something new for The Nam – Murray had a few issues where a visiting character would tell a story, but it was always framed from the 23rd Brigade and set into the timeline. This is ignored here and would continue to be in future issues.
Dixon returns for more fill-in issues shortly, each focusing on a unit of the US Marines, again in 1970. Dixon, one of the best Batman writers ever, is no Doug Murray though. It’s hard to care about most of these new squads, not least because of the feeling that they’ve needlessly displaced ‘our’ boys in the 23rd. His stories stray more towards the ‘daring night raid against the Nazi stronghold’ Commando end of the war story spectrum than the cynical realism of Murray, robbing The Nam of its magic. It’s months before we see the 23rd again, months in which tours should have ended, soldiers should have gone home or reupped, maybe died or been injured, but we don’t know, because we don’t see them.
Murray returns in #49, and although we see the 23rd again, they’re not the focus. Instead, we get a first for The Nam – a true multi-part story. Three issues are spent on a not terribly brilliant story, drawn by Herb Trimpe, focusing on a romance between a helicopter pilot and a red cross worker. It feels overblown, like something Murray would have weaved into the fabric of his usual stories before the series broke and certainly not something worth three issues. This turns out to be the end of Murray’s run on The Nam and it’s a less than spectacular farewell.
Immediately after this, Marvel puts a bullet in what The Nam had been with #52: The Punisher Invades The Nam.
The letters page in the previous issues describes this as ‘stepping out of the regular Nam continuity and ever-so-gingerly into the Marvel Universe’, rather than ‘a complete selling out by editorial and marketing’. Ok, so using the Punisher does kind of make sense. Frank Castle was, for years, a Vietnam vet (until the aforementioned comic book time made that impossible), so having him turn up, pre-Punisher as A.N.Other soldier isn’t too much of a stretch. But it’s a complete cash-grab, designed to tie into the Punisher’s bizarrely high popularity at the time, when he was carrying at least two solo series. Again, although it’s a terrible concept, a writer like Murray could have made it work, as he did #41. Instead, the issue is written by Roger Salick and is just another Punisher comic. The grounded realism of The Nam is abandoned for some ludicrous story about Frank Castle being brought in to take out an elite Viet Cong sniper. He even ends up painting a skull onto his chest, in a not-too-subtle case of foreshadowing.
After this, Chuck Dixon becomes the regular writer on The Nam and it turns into a schlocky, mediocre war comic. His first story as regular writer is The Death of Joe Hallen, an “epic” so grand it requires five issues. This is mentioned in the final issue’s farewell editorial as a high point of the series, but it is not.
The first issue is decent enough, following marine Joe Hallen as he returns home from the Nam and finds he can’t adjust. A lot of this is down to Hallen being an asshole, though. I’m not sure if that’s deliberate on Dixon’s part, but the “you can’t go home again” narrative is hard to swallow when your sympathy for the main character ebbs away page after page. Unable to readjust, Hallen rejoins the Marines, being assigned to a recon squad in the Nam. He immediately clashes with his gunnery sergeant and it’s clear they don’t like each other. Improbable hijinks ensue, as they get involved in a twisty-turny not-quite-CIA off the books mission. Managing to return to their base, Hallen is distraught when the gunnery sergeant is killed by friendly fire. The final issue sees Hallen going on a whirlwind three day tour of the South East Asian theatre to find the marine responsible and exact his revenge. It’s all straight out of a second rate action movie. Suddenly, The Nam has gone from being Band of Brothers to Commando (the Schwarzenegger one).
Dixon sticks with his Marine stories for a while, eventually taking one of the squadmates of Joe Hallen, Speed, and making him something of a main character. Speed gets drawn into special operations, where he’s teamed with one Mike ‘Ice’ Philips. Except, it’s not really Ice at all. Sure, he’s got the nickname, the look and the backstory, but Ice is now suddenly a Lieutenant with a different surname. Charitably, you could read this as him having re-enlisted under a false name (his new surname is Eisemann) and somehow getting a commission while out there, but I think it’s more likely Dixon and his editors just got it wrong, as later issues would throw out more glaring mistakes.
Dixon continues on his sub-Commando run, concluding with another three part Punisher story, even more OTT than the last, until #70, when Don Lomax takes over. Lomax is an indie comics creator from back when indie comics were actually independent and rarely profitable. His most well known work is a series called Vietnam Journal, which follows a war reporter across Vietnam. It’s no surprise then that his run on The Nam brings back Ed Marks, now a junior war correspondent, and follows him as he chases stories across the Nam.
The series settles back into a more stable time-frame, though still in comic book, in 1972, following the messy, ebbing end to the war. Marks meets up with various different soldiers, going on missions with them, but also hearing stories from them from earlier in the war.
One aspect of The Nam that was lost when Murray left was that it was actually surprisingly educational. As a Brit, I don’t know the ins and outs, the timeline of the Vietnam war particularly. Following it month to month with 23rd Brigade helped make the war accessible, easier to follow. Dixon’s run assumed a certain familiarity with Vietnam, so that it could then just tell lurid stories in it. Lomax’s run also requires a certain familiarity with the Nam, as it tells more in-depth stories about it. Jumping to 1972 without having followed 69-71 closely is jarring and at times overwhelming, like skipping from the second Harry Potter novel to the last and wondering why it’s suddenly got so dark.
Lomax’s run is, it sounds odd to say, quite melancholy. There’s a lot of troops sitting around in the twilight talking. Series artist Wayne Vansant’s artwork has matured quite a lot by this point and along with more complex colouring work, it’s often hauntingly beautiful. But there’s a certain dryness to these issues, Marks doesn’t quite feel like Marks (but then, we’ve not seen him in about four years) and in all it feels like a different book (say, Vietnam Journal) masquerading under the same name. The Nam‘s now gone from Band of Brothers to Commando to The World At War.
Along with Ed Marks’ war correspondence, Lomax throws in occasional back-up stories set stateside, following the series’ original platoon sergeant Polkow. Now a police sergeant in Washington DC, he improbably meets up with former squad-mate and his replacement, Rob Little, also living in DC. The coincidences don’t stop there though, as they work out that Rob’s drug-dealing brother was just killed by their corrupt former top sergeant, Tarver.
Now, there are two things wrong with this. First is that it’s a huge stack of coincidences piled on top of each other to make that story work. Second is that the story actively ignores events from as far back as issue 26 to get this going. Tarver was arrested early on in the series for corruption. Lomax’s story has it that he got the charges against him dropped, was stationed in Hawaii and then disappeared, apparently to become a drug kingpin in DC. But earlier issues not only showed Tarver having been disciplined, demoted and stationed in the Philippines (#26), but also later, at the tail end of Murray’s run, having worked his way back up to top sergeant and being reassigned to the 23rd brigade in Nam. It’s a glaring continuity error, one I drop solely at the feet of the series’ editor, Don Daley, still there chugging away on the book he ruined.
The Nam ends with #84 and it’s hard not to see it as something of a mercy-killing, especially as there was another Punisher three-parter due (released after as an oversized special). Although Lomax’s run was interesting, certainly an improvement on Dixon’s, it never reached the heights of Murray’s run. It’s incredibly aggravating seeing a comic as lauded, as important as The Nam get ruined by disinterested editors, even 25 years down the line. The first 45 issues or so still stand-up as an excellent, successful experiment in how to recount a war in a serialised comic.