Dear Ghost Factory. What Should I Read?
By: Rob Neil Gruszecki
A grenade goes off in the middle of the night, waking all your brothers in arms as bones, meat and viscera explode outwards painting the walls of the cave where you have slept for the night. You wish you were able to see the horror before you but the mosquito bites covering your eyelids make it near impossible for them to open. Maggots feed on your decaying limbs while a monkey beyond walks off with an arm of a soldier to the reaction of no one. The sweat and fear have congealed over the eight weeks of your deployment, caking a think layer of putrid film over every inch of your body. The damp, sick feeling is nothing compared to the twisted routine of digging pits in the jungle growth for your fellow men to fertilize. Cadavers under your feet like a rug that ties the room together, corpses resting on barbed wire for their eternal sleep while insects make a home out of the hollowed head of your Sergeant. All the while helicopters fly overhead finding places to drop off more naïve children while the ghost of a jawless militant breathes heavily over your shoulder, whispering unintelligible groans and foreboding, guttural tones. As your head finds a home in the pool of sick discharged after witnessing a hog rip apart a dead Viet Cong’s torso you hear what you feel will be the last sentence you’ll ever hear spoken under the lifeless snout of the animal: “You’re going to die here.” The year is 1968. Welcome to Vietnam.
Jason Aaron and Cameron Stewart team up to create a clear and upsetting picture of two lives during the Vietnam War in their Vertigo mini-series The Other Side. Billy Everette, an Alabaman teenager, is a man who receives the call from his government to fight the impending spread of communism and the tale begins with his reception of the news and his initial tribulations in boot camp where he is repeatedly beaten and abused by his drill sergeant, forced to chew on his dirty socks for speaking out of turn and eventually develops a condition where the spirits of the recently deceased return in shambled, zombie like form to haunt his progress through training. Vo Binh Dai is a Nam Phong resident who volunteers to fight in the People’s Army of Vietnam for the glory of the revolution and the pride of his now smoldering graveyard reality that has inhabited his native home. As Vo Binh Dai chronicles the journey south towards the American dissidents and ultimately his final sacrifice for his family and the whim of his superiors he carries with him an honored golden watch his father “took off the body of a French soldier after the victory at Dien Bien Phu”, the heirloom reminding him of his noble journey’s worth and meaning. The Comic series follows the two characters as they battle with their inner demons as well as the terrors met on the battlefields with trepidation and a goal that seems convoluted.
Jason Aaron, well known for his work at Marvel with Wolverine and other Xmen titles as well as his work over at Vertigo with his ongoing series Scalped, writes a deeply moving and disturbing look at the duality of man when facing the horrors of war with the Other Side. A story clearly influenced by other Vietnam pieces like Full Metal Jacket (which was written by Gustav Hasford, Aaron’s cousin coincidentally) in structure with the boot camp, drill sergeant material first then moving on into “the shit”. Aaron scripts with an unapologetic demeanor and creates fully believable and empathetic characters that guide you towards the end. His writing, ruthless and unpredictable, make the Other Side a compelling and heartbreaking collection that depicts the gruesome violence along with the substantial character drama as vividly as possible in any other medium.
Cameron Stewart, an artist whose work on countless other projects like Seaguy, Batman Incorporated, Seven Soldiers of Victory: Manhattan Gaurdian, have proved his eclectic talents and ability to shape any environment no matter how bizarre and sci-fi or how accurate and researched like his work on this Vietnam story. In anticipation for the project Stewart actually traveled to Vietnam and compiled a diary that is available in the back matter of the collected edition of The Other Side. The dedication is truly inherent when you see the work on the pages that Stewart provided. The surrounding dark and grim swamps or vivacious foliage jumps off the page to make your experience reading as real as possible. His awe-inspiring work is seen in the faces of all the soldiers with reactions highlighting their fear, confusion or bloodlust. Expressions so haunting they’ll affect you physically.
Towards the end of the 5-issue series we have witnessed so much brutality captured boldly in two-dimensions you feel exhausted, frightened and aware. Your senses, stressed as they may be, are then exposed to the image of a butterfly flying unperturbed by the conflict as bullets, curses and body parts fly into the jungle. The contrast is a highlight of the book and still reigns as the most disturbing image seen in the panels. An ending as grey as the subject matter finishes the whole story in the most appropriate way possible with no clear victor and no one left unscarred. As soldiers return home to a society that rejects them and has no appreciation for their sacrifice, the depressing actuality of the Vietnam War boasts a dark tone that encapsulates the message of the project. War is not glorified in any way on these pages and the futile and hateful images exposing themselves make this a necessary read for anyone. The past needs to be recorded and retold to avoid the same mistakes being revisited in the future and this book is a perfect example of required reading to that end. “Welcome to the Other Side”, a history not told by the victors as in this story there were none to hear from.