Jason Aaron and Cameron Stewart, The Other Side (DC/Vertigo, 2006-7). $2.99, five-issue miniseries.
by Alex Boney
It’s no secret that the Vietnam Conflict is one of America’s deepest contemporary scars. America is currently in the midst of a conflict that feels a lot like another one the country has experienced in recent memory. When critics of the Iraq Conflict want to go for their opponents’ jugulars, they invoke Vietnam—a country halfway across the globe whose name has become a national embarrassment. No other modern military endeavor has created as lasting an impression—politically, emotionally, ethically, or strategically. It must be incredibly difficult to write intelligent, meaningful fiction about Vietnam, especially in the wake of Tim O’Brien’s novels on the subject. O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato, The Things They Carried, If I Die in a Combat Zone, and In the Lake of the Woods provide insightful gazes into the trauma, horror, and confusion of a soldier’s experience in Vietnam. But prose fiction does have its limitations. As powerful as O’Brien’s narratives are, they do not (and sometimes cannot) provide effective visual translations of the author’s prose. In this regard, film has a distinct advantage. Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now visually transposes the murky Congo jungles of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness onto the dark, stifling jungles of Vietnam. And in the recent comics miniseries The Other Side, Jason Aaron and Cameron Stewart show that graphic narrative is an equally effective medium for revealing the deep internal conflict of the Vietnam Conflict.
The Other Side’s title works on several different levels. The story follows two central narrators (one American and one North Vietnamese) as they travel from different worlds into the Quang Tri province of South Vietnam. Billy Everette, from Russellville, Alabama, receives a draft letter early in the story, and his narrative follows his journey from basic training to the climactic battle at Quang Tri. Vo Binh Dai volunteers to fight against the Americans in order to bring honor to his parents, who live in the small North Vietnamese farming village of Nam Phong. Aaron writes each narrative with a distinct voice that conveys the different fears and expectations of the two protagonists. The narratives alternate, but they occasionally merge in powerful ways at critical moments. Graphic narrative allows two different lines of story to exist on the same page in different panel progressions, and Aaron uses this device effectively to illustrate key comparisons and contrasts in the main characters.
The Other Side is a story largely about contrasts: America vs. Vietnam, madness vs. sanity, duty vs. coercion, fantasy vs. reality, etc. Probably the most intriguing contrast is seen in the motivations and outcomes of the narrators. Neither soldier wants to shame his family by avoiding the conflict, but Billy is far more aloof and skeptical about his place in the war than Dai is. This is understandable, given the nature and setting of the war. But the different purposes also set up the key tragedy that closes the book. At the end of issue #4, Dai says to himself, “If I have to die in order to save my family, then so be it. If I have to kill in order to defend my ancestral lands, so be it.” Two panels later, Billy writes in a letter to his mother, “This week in Khe Sanh has had its real ups and downs. The bad part is that there’s still FOUR WHOLE DIVISIONS of NVA out there that want to kill me. The good part is that I seen an awful pretty butterfly the other day.” Billy’s ambivalence serves as a mask for his feeble grip on sanity throughout the book. He is haunted by ghosts of decomposing soldiers, and he hears voices coming from the barrel of his gun. Occasionally, it’s hard to tell if the events unfolding are “real” or not. But this is actually a strength, given the book’s subject matter. At one point, a line “spoken” by Billy’s gun evokes Wilfred Owen’s WWI poem about disillusionment, “Dulce et decorum est.” Billy’s detachment stands in stark opposition to Dai’s stoic sense of purpose, but neither soldier gets what he’s asking for in the end.
The book’s conclusion reinforces the arbitrary, senseless reality of war as it is fought on the ground and in the trenches. Purpose and duty only carry one so far when mortars and bullets are flying and striking indiscriminately. Issue #1 closes with the phrase “…do not let my sacrifice be in vain.” The line is attributed to Dai, but it comes after a page in which Billy’s and Dai’s interior monologues are almost interwoven. It is a thought that must pass through any soldier’s mind before and during battle, but it means different things to each of the men. For Billy, the war had no real value from the beginning. It was an event that he was drafted into but had no clear stake in. Dai, on the other hand, places serious value not only in his family’s honor, but also in his carefully-crafted war journal and his father’s pocket watch—both of which end up having little of the meaning Dai has ascribed to them throughout the story. Aaron seems to suggest that it’s difficult to find value in the personal, individual cost (even among survivors) of a hazy, muddled war. The Other Side is full of violent battle scenes, but the most brutal, difficult moments occur during the book’s quiet scenes. The final page of the final issue is emotionally crushing.
As a first comics project for Jason Aaron (he is currently writing an ongoing series, Scalped, for Vertigo), The Other Side is a remarkable and promising debut. His writing is full of dark, sardonic humor, but it’s literate and clever in a way that Garth Ennis’ war comics too often are not. He effectively treads the narrow ground between Ennis’ over-the-top antics and Joe Kubert’s ponderous reflection. Cameron Stewart’s art is consistent and solid throughout, though this book might have been better served with an artist whose technique is less clean. Stewart employs a cartoony style that uses thick inks and exaggerated facial expressions. There are moments when this works, but too often serious realizations and emotions are undercut by expressions that don’t carry the seriousness of the moment. Aaron’s dark comedic moments might be more effective if a less precise, more sketchy artist such as Michael Lark or Alex Maleev had rendered them. But on the whole, Aaron and Stewart work well to synthesize the emotional fluctuations of the story. The Other Side is a powerful book that raises more questions than it answers. But a book that honestly treats such a murky, difficult subject couldn’t—and shouldn’t—be otherwise.