Monday, March 31, 2014

Opening Contract - The Other Side #1

Another week, another war comic. But I offer no apologies, as this time around I’ll be yakking about one of the best war comics of the modern era, The Other Side #1 by Jason Aaron, Cameron Stewart, Dave McCaig and Pat Brosseau from Vertigo Comics.

After the cut I’ll unpack the panel and discuss some of its influences both acknowledged and unintended.
The Other Side is a dual narrative comic, following two lowly soldiers in the US Army and the North Vietnamese army as they struggle with the machinations, tribulations and angst that comes with fighting in the Vietnam War. It deals with their struggles and the ever-increasing weight on their shoulders as the conflict develops.

The opening panel of Issue #1 , a one page splash, evokes an immediate reaction from the reader. It sets out its stall with wild abandon, telling us that this isn’t a comic that will shy away from showing us the horrors of war. The image is the screaming, horrified face of 19 year old Marine Private Jon J. Faulkner. This visceral gut punch of a visual is made even more unnerving by the devastatingly specific caption, telling us that Private Faulkner is in the middle of having his legs blown off, and his bowels ripped open by an 82mm mortar round.

There’s no escaping the horror of what Faulkner is experiencing in his final moments, etched as it is across his face, a mask of dread and horror ably realised by Cameron Stewart’s exceptional art and McCaig’s dark and fiery hues. The first image we see on the next page is of Faulkner’s body being zipped up inside a body bag. This specificity gives the panel a sense of time standing still. It’s as if we, the reader, are looking at a moment frozen in time, the last snatches of Private Faulkner’s existence. Yeah, I know that essentially that’s what all comic book panels are, but few call attention to it, instead they link linearly (for the most part) to the next panel, and the next, an onwards express of forward momentum. Not so in this case.

The captions on the page also contribute to its eerie, still quality. The captions begin with the date (Monday, September 4th 1967) before listing some of the things happening that day – CBS airing the final episode of Gilligans Island, Jimi Hendrix opening a show in Sweden with Killing Floor, and so on. It gives us context and specificity. But more than that it tells us all we need to know about young men being sent off to war by their elders. Tens and hundreds of men like Private Faulkner lost their lives during the Vietnam War – and the world kept on turning. Gilligan’s Island ended, but another show took its place and Hendrix made more music. Those back home tuned in and tuned out none the wiser as young men died in their name half a world away.

If we look at the bottom half of the panel, we get a sense of the sheer, devastating force of the explosion that blasts upwards towards Faulkner, shredding his frame and casting him off this mortal coil. But, due to the static nature of the medium, there’s a strange inverse to this viewpoint. One just as easily see it as a force pulling Faulkner down. Coupled with McCaig’s colours it gives the impresion of Faulkner being dragged down into some Dante-esque hell to pay for his sins and those that came before him.

This is perhaps not entirely accidental as Aaron specifically mentions the notion of being dragged downwards to await some hellish judgement in the script and the first panel description. In addition to this he mentions a few influences for the artist to look at regarding the first panel. Luca Signorelli’s painting The Last Judgement is mentioned first, a work that depicts the damned being taken down into hell.

Jusepe Ribera’s The Flaying Of Marsyas is another cited influence. With this painting we get a depiction of Marsyas , a silenus who has defied Apollo, being flayed. Those same earthy tones are prevalent in the panel, but again there is the underlying theme of lowly humans angering the powers that be with their brazen nature and being called to task because of it.

Emblazoned across Faulkner’s helmet is the legend “Death Be Not Proud”, a reference to the poem of the same name by John Donne. The poem’s commentary on death as a mere moment before eternity chimes with its depiction of a moment frozen in time, a moment seconds before Faulkner’s death. But it also comes off as somewhat ironic. After all, death may be a mere second, but it still means Faulkner “died facedown in his own shit and the mud of the Que Son Valley.”

The immediacy of this opening visual and the idea of a single, frozen moment also evokes the harrowing, but memorable, imagery that photojournalists at war have captured over the years. When looking at this opening panel it’s not hard to see a commonality between it and Don McCullin’s Shellshocked US Marine, Hue, Vietnam. There’s that same notion of a moment in time, captured forever, the same intimacy between the viewer and subject.

But, it’s perhaps most similar to Robert Capa’s The Falling Soldier. This controversial photo was allegedly taken by Capa on September 5th, 1936 during the Spanish Civil War at Cerro Muriano. The photo depicts a Republican soldier at the exact moment a bullet struck and killed him. Whether the photo was staged or not, it still brought thousands of people across the world face to face with a war that few of them cared, or knew about.

With the advent of television and greater access by the media, Vietnam was a war that eventually lost support partly due to its constant presence in the living room of every day Americans. Whether this was via the cathode ray tube of television or photos spread across newsprint and glossy pages, America was seeing it all – a barrage of coffins wrapped in flags, and children running from napalmed villages.

Like this opening page, the images turned war from the general into the personal. No longer were wars about the statistic and “our boys” over there. Instead it became about our own boys, the boys who took us to prom, the boys we raised, the boys we used to get drunk with. All of them over there, all of them dying by the thousands, dying alone, in their own shit, thousands of miles from home. This opening image, and the images that crept into the American consciousness reminded us that war was messy, war hurt, the dead were many, and they all had a name.

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Very Friendly Lighthouse said...

Great analysis! It's been a long time since I read The Other Side, but it was one of the best war comics I've ever read.

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