Will Eisner is the man who literally wrote the book on creating comics. His Comics and Sequential Art has influenced comic creators since its original publication in 1985 and was my introduction to Eisner’s work. Last Day in Vietnam is the first non-technical Eisner book that I have ever read and I now fully understand why Wizard Magazine named him the “Most Influential Comic Artist of All Time.”
Following World War II, the military contracted Will Eisner for many years to create a monthly equipment maintenance manual called PS Magazine. His work took him on-site to both the Korean War and the Vietnam War to gather maintenance stories from military personnel. Last Day in Vietnam is a collection of his encounters during this stage of Eisner’s career. The graphic novel consists of six shorts, not in any apparent order.
The first comic, “Last Day in Vietnam,” is the longest and possibly the most engaging story in the book. Will Eisner employs a first-person perspective as readers are thrust into the seat of a Jeep and tag along with a soldier during his last day in Vietnam. I can’t believe that this is the first time that I have ever seen first-person perspective utilized in comic format. It immediately immerses you into the wartime setting. Eisner’s work masterfully illustrates motion with dramatic angles. You can feel the Jeep jostling through the bush and your stomach recalls that light, takeoff sensation as the helicopter careens away from an enemy attack. The story itself is about a soldier who’s just trying to make it out of the war alive and you are in the seat alongside him as he tests his fate.
“A Purple Heart for George” is a somber story about a reckless, boozy soldier named George. Every Sunday he drunkenly rants about cowardice at nobody in particular and then submits a transfer request to his commanding officer for duty in a combat unit. Every Monday morning his buddies rush to the Captain’s office to shred the transfer before he can blindly approve it. Unfortunately for George, his buddies get temporary duty at another site and can no longer protect him from himself. This comic highlights Will Eisner’s expressive characterization as George rages against inner demons that haunt his drunken delusions of persecution.
The other shorts that stood out to me include “The Casualty,” a powerful comic about a soldier chilling at a bar, drinking, smoking, and remembering how he received his wounds. Without a single word, Will Eisner expresses this man’s woeful tale. The ending of this short is a bit vague and open to interpretation. I won’t spoil it, but I like to think he gets the girl. “The Periphery” highlights the distant, compassionless journalism by a group of reporters covering the Vietnam War. A local Vietnamese citizen narrates the story as some journalists casually discuss war reports like businessmen talking college football around the watercooler.
Will Eisner produced The Last Day in Vietnam when he was in his 80’s. It’s a quick read for a graphic novel, but worth every second. While Eisner’s line work is charmingly old-fashioned, his layout and composition are innovative, even for today. His character expressions are unmatched with animated facial features and body language that tell just as much story as word balloons and narration. This is watching a master perfecting his trade, playing and experimenting with the craft that he pioneered. Anyone who appreciates comics as an art form and a legitimate media format owes it to themselves to read Eisner’s work and this graphic novel is a great place to start.