Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Trade Waiting - The Other Side

My love for Jason Aaron’s body of work is quite well known, but there was a gap in it, and in this edition of Trade Waiting, I will fill it. Despite wild critical accolades and an Eisner nomination, I had yet to read The Other Side, a five issues mini series from Vertigo that was actually his first published project (asides from a short Wolverine story years earlier). Aaron teamed up with artists Cameron Stewart on penciling duties and Dave McCaig on colors. What was the final result? Hit the jump to see more.

The Other Side

Collects The Other Side #1-5
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Cameron Stewart
Colors by Dave McCaig

The Other Side is about the dual and parallel stories of two soldiers fighting the same war, albeit on opposing sides. Throughout the book, narration switches from one protagonist, Bill Everett, to the other, Vo Binh Dai. Their origins, their tales, their motivations, their families and their mission could not possibly be further apart, yet the whole story is about their one fateful meeting, one night in Vietnam. One dies, and one survives.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

First Aaron shows us how they get to that point, how they each joined their respective armies that would fight in the Vietnam war. Bill finds himself drafted into the military, despite his best efforts to get booted (including pretending to be homosexual to the army recruiter, and attempting to get a venereal disease). Bill doesn’t exactly live a glorious life, just a boy from a small town in Alabama, but he enjoys it for what it is, and he doesn’t want it ripped away from him. Diametrically opposed from him, on the other side of the planet, is Vo Binh, who lives in a small village in North Vietnam. His life is also far from impressive, but instead of trying to get out of the army, he willingly joins it. The village he lives, the life the people there lead, is worth protecting from the invading American army, and he is willing to die for that glorious cause.

We also see their training, how these two boys are shaped into soldiers (or at least a facsimile of one) by their respective commanding officers. Once again, Aaron shows that the two protagonists lives are completely different: Bill training takes place in the relatively safety of a boot camp, while Vo Binh’s transformation occurs in the wild jungle where danger lurks around every corner. The harshness of his trials and tribulations just makes Vo Binh more determined to continue on his path to greatness, while Bill is already shown already cracking under the pressure of his training. Bill has started imagining and seeing things, including a mouth-less corpse that follows him around, and hearing his rifle urging him to do things (usually kill people, as rifles are wont to do). As the story progresses, more visions start appearing, illustrated in incredibly gruesome ways.

There is one simple but effective scene, where we see both of our protagonists talking with their fellow soldiers, where they are discussing the horrors that the other side commits on enemy soldiers. Both sides talk about the other as if they were heartless and soulless demons, completely amoral, and taking pleasure in the pain and death of their enemies. That’s The Other Side in a nutshell: it’s us vs. them, but neither side realizes that they are a reflection of each other. Aaron doesn’t portray any side in a more positive light than the other, each one has it’s faults. Bill and Vo Binh are just two faces of the same coin, being flipped by a hand completely invisible to them.

Once they reach the war zone, the situation gets worse for both soldiers. The horrors of war greet them both in their own way: Bill’s visions get worse faced with a reality that is almost as bad, and Vo Binh’s resolve is tested in unimaginable ways by enemies, allies, and even the jungle itself. Amid all the terrible calamities, Aaron injects some of his now trademark black humor. There is one scene in particular, where Bill is in the middle of a firefight and he sees a butterfly flying in the middle, he runs towards it, trying to protect it. It doesn’t get him killed, but I found the scene funny in an incredibly morbid way.

In the end, the two characters face each other, not even knowing who the other is, or why they are fighting, or if their actions will mean anything in the grander scheme of things. I’m not going to say who is the one that survives and who is the one that dies, because it’s an incredibly moving scene that should be experienced. The irony, of course, is the one that survives isn’t exactly better off than the other.

The Other Side is a war story in the loosest sense of the word, it’s set in a terrible conflict that shaped the collective psyche of two nations, but at it’s very core it’s about something far deeper. The Other Side is closer to an existential horror story, where the protagonists find themselves asking what the purpose of it all is, questioning what they are fighting and dying for, and coming to the realization that you can’t go home again, both in the literal and the figurative sense of the word. The horrors of war just unlock what it perhaps was always there.

Cameron Stewart’s work in this series is nothing short of spectacular. He does a great job in both conveying the emotions that the characters are going through, an important key in this kind of story, as well with the more abstract aspects of the comic. I already mentioned the visions that Bill faces throughout the story, of dead and badly wounded soldiers, but there is one part in the story when Vo Bihn is suffering from feverish and delirious vision, and he imagines that he is seeing a dragon attacking him (in reality, a helicopter) that Stewart just completely knocks out of the park. In the back of the trade there is also a set of journal entries and photos that show how Stewart visited Vietnam doing research for this title. It’s both entertaining and informative, and shows to what extent he went to accurately portray the events of the book.

The unsung hero of the book, however, is colorist Dave McCaig, who provides stunning colors to Stewart’s art. He uses different set of color palettes at the beginning of the stories, when they are still running parallel to each others, and they start merging once they cross. Vo Binh’s tale always has bright green and orange undertones, while Bill’s is grayish and pale. It’s a simple but effective trick that goes a long way to tie the larger themes of the story.

Verdict - Must Read. The Other Side is one of the best books I have ever read, and everyone should read it. It’s a master class in comic book storytelling that packs an emotional punch worthy of all the accolades I can imagine. Years from now, I imagine it will be required reading alongside with other great graphic novels.

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Fenris said...

Looks good, although it sounds a lot like an extended version of a Harvey Kurtzman story from the old EC title Frontline Combat. No offense Matt, but I had hoped the final volume of Ex Machine would be the next Trade Waiting. I just finished reading it and while it was very good, it was harsher than I ever could imagine...

Ryan K Lindsay said...

@Fenris - I'm not sure if Matt has been rwading Ex Machina but I'm reading it in the Deluxe editions and I still don't have the fourth one, let alone the fifth and final one hitting in the new year. I'll review both, no doubt, once I procure and read.

brandon said...

I'm a huge fan of Aaron's work and I am also a huge Vietnam history buff.

This story just didnt connect with me. I appreciate the humanization of the characters and the side by side storytelling but I just felt like this was the type of story typically seen with characters during the American Civil War. For me, it was a good read but it just will get lost the sea of average to above average trades I own.

In my opinion, Scalped is infinitely better.

Ken said...

this is on my to read list, good to see I shouldn't be disappointed.

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