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Last Day in Vietnam: A Memoir. By Will Eisner. Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse Comics, 2000. 76p. $10.95. ISBN 1-56971-500-9.

War memoirs; nonfiction

Adults, teens; adult situations

Will Eisner spent a considerable amount of time either in the military or working with them as a civilian contractor (he drew a comics-style teaching magazine called Army Motors and later developed P.S. Magazine). This book contains six reminiscences from his various stints, which spanned World War II to Vietnam.

  • "Last Day in Vietnam" concerns an experience Eisner had in Vietnam, where his job was to "visit field units and pick up maintenance stories from automotive and armament shops." Arriving at the camp "Bearcat," he meets his escort, a cheerful, talkative major who brings him to a chopper. The major is in very good spirits because this is his last day in Vietnam, and he hasn't had a scratch. Along the way, the chopper stops to pick up three sullen snipers, who are later unloaded elsewhere. At the base camp, things quickly deteriorate when the Viet Cong start attacking the perimeter. The major and Eisner rush to the dispatch shack, but nothing's going out until morning. The major's mood turns from cheer to despair; he's sure he's going to buy it on his last day.
  • "The Periphery" is a short piece, set in Saigon and narrated by a "native guide," who points out the behavior of the reporters in Saigon. They dispassionatly exchange rumors and news, "like reporting a football match." But two more come in from the field, having been covering Khe Sanh, and while one tells the others about the action, the other sits by himself, drinking. The war became much more personal for him in Khe Sanh....
  • "The Casualty" is entirely wordless. A wounded soldier, sitting in a bar, bitterly recalls how he got his left hand blown off--and it wasn't in the field, either.
  • "A Dull Day in Korea" finds an impatient West Virginian lieutenant itching for some real action. His unit is several miles from the DMZ and doing nothing but patrols. As he reiterates his life to Eisner, including tales of hunting with his drunken, abusive father, he spies a "mommasan" cutting wood on the hillside across the valley. He starts shooting at her, but misses--and he can't figure out why another officer takes his gun away just as he's drawing a bead.
  • "Hard Duty" follows a real hard case in Korea: a huge man who loves "killin'"--loves it too much, so they transferred him to shop duty. After he's finished for the day, he invites Eisner to come up the hill with him for some "hard duty" that turns out to be quite a surprise.
  • "A Purple Heart for George" is the only story that came from Eisner's actual camp duty. George, a clerk, has a lover, Benny, who's a combat soldier. Every Sunday night, George gets drunk, regrets being a clerk, and writes up a letter requesting a transfer to a combat unit. His friends, knowing that George neither wants a transfer nor even remembers that he wrote the letter when he sobers up, always make sure to tear up the request, because the captain automatically approves all transfer requests. However, his friends are both going away for extended periods, so they enlist another clerk, Hal, to tear up the letter. When they get back, they find that George has been shipped out--Hal had been away on a three-day pass. "It was nobody's fault," says Hal, unconcerned. And the news out of Burma isn't good....

The book also includes a three-page introduction and historical photographs in between each of the stories.

Is there anyone better than Will Eisner? The guy is almost 84, and there still isn't anyone better than him. His artistic technique never fails to take my breath away, even in small, subtle things. If you don't feel like you're moving right along with the men in "Last Day in Vietnam" as the jeep lurches through the jungle or the helicopter takes off, rises, and falls, you're most likely blind. Note the composition of "The Periphery" as the one reporter slowly starts dominating the panels, with the others growing smaller and smaller until they fade away.


Lurch, lurch, lurch.

Copyright 2000, Will Eisner

He's pretty decent at understanding people too. The clueless hillbilly in Korea, the major in Vietnam who goes from cheerful to despairing to relieved, the quiet distress of George's friends and the Khe Sahn reporter... in just a few pages the Master sketches out fully believable people. He thus gives these short pieces a great deal of depth.

My one quibble with the book concerns the narrative dialogue in a few of the pieces, notably "A Purple Heart for George." To explain the situation, the characters talk between themselves about things they've known about for a long time, in language better suited to conversation with strangers (i.e., the readers) than to language in private. For example, when the two clerks protecting George find his usual Sunday letter, one of them tears it up ad says "He does this every weekend... doesn't even know that he wrote it." They don't have to say this; they know it. If they'e been doing this for some time, they'd likely just look for the letter, grunt, and tear it up. Since the conversation with Hal explains the same stuff in a more realistic way, nearly all the dialogue during the tearing-up scene could have been excised.

But this is a small point in an otherwise splendid work. Highly recommended for those interested in wartime reminiscences; of course, it's a necessity for Eisner collections and fans. I just wish it was longer! Note that the roughest word in the book is "crap" and there are no direct scenes of combat, but this stuff may be too heavy for kids; probably too subtle for them, if nothing else. Also, there's a bit of period racism, used with tact--there's just enough to convey the flavor of the times.


Copyright 2001, D. Aviva Rothschild


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