Once upon a time — when comics copied movies rather than vice-versa — there was a little bit of a “Vietnam boom” in the funnybook pages. Hot on the heels of the success of flicks like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket at the box office, Marvel and DC looked to America’s (then, at any rate) most divisive military entanglement as the source of inspiration for a handful of well-regarded late ’80s series, and while it’s certainly been a healthy spell since I dug out my old back issues of The ‘Nam or Cinder And Ashe, I remember being as thoroughly impressed with them as anyone and everyone else was back when they were a going concern.
Then, of course, the ’90s hit, and when the Image books of that woe-begotten decade’s early years ushered in the era of the genuinely brain-dead superhero story packaged inside a foil-wrapped holographic cover, most books that had anything to do with reality quickly and quietly disappeared. As a result, it’s been quite awhile since we had a good Vietnam comic. The astute among you may take exception to this truncated timeline I’ve provided and say “hey, wait a minute, a pretty good chunk of Before Watchmen : Comedian took place ‘in country,'” but that just serves to reinforce my point — it’s been quite awhile since we had a good Vietnam comic.
All that changed last Wednesday, though, when writer/letterer Paul Allor and artist/colorist Paul Tucker’s Tet #1 hit the stands courtesy of Comics Experience’s semi-new joint distribution venture with IDW Publishing. How much did I enjoy this first issue? Let me just put it this way — in a week crowded with good comics, including new issues of Deadly Class, The Wicked + The Divine, Phonogram : The Immaterial Girl, Starve, Harrow County, Rebels, Crossed + One Hundred, and Bitch Planet (to name just a handful of standout titles that hit the shelves in one of the most awesome — and expensive — Wednesdays in recent memory), this was undoubtedly my pick of the week. So, yeah, I liked it a lot.
I couldn’t say for certain whether or not Allor and/or Tucker served in Vietnam themselves, mind you (they were probably both too young), but Tet certainly feels authentic, and who can ask for more than that? Right off the bat we get a pretty good picture of the sort of man that our protagonist, one Lt. Eugene Smith, both was in 1968 (specifically around the time — as if you hadn’t already pieced it together — of the Tet Offensive) and is in the present day. Back then he was fresh off barely making it out of a My Lai-style massacre in the jungle and newly assigned to working a desk as translator/liaison in Hue City, where he’s met a young lady named Ha that he plans to marry and bring back with him to the US. Nowadays, though — well, let’s just say it’s pretty obvious none of that worked out.
What exactly happened? I guess that’s what this four-issue mini-series is going to tell us, but so far it seems a pretty safe bet that the murder of Lt. Smith’s buddy, Chip, and his subsequent assignment to help “crack” the case with a local detective named Bao, probably had something to do with how and why his life went irrevocably off the rails. Oh, and the less-than-subtle hint that Ha herself may have been a spy for the other side most likely didn’t help matters much, either.
Suffice to say, there’s a lot of set-up in this opening installment, but Allor’s naturalistic scripting style and engaging dialogue makes a dense-with-information read flow very gracefully, and the nuanced, multi-layered nature of the story certainly rewards careful re-reading, as a number of seemingly “throwaway” lines are actually, of course, dripping with import. The author has referred to this book as being a “war/crime/romance” story, and all three of those seemingly incongruous factors actually play off and complement each other in a very deft manner here, with each being given enough “breathing room” to establish itself as a driving force within the overall narrative without overpowering the other aspects of the trifecta. It’s a definite tight-rope walk to balance them all, but somehow Tet #1 makes it all look pretty easy (even though I’m sure it was anything but).
As for the artistic side of the ledger, well, what more needs to be said ? As the pages reproduced above ably demonstrate, Tucker takes to the period and setting of this tale like a fish to water, and his gritty-yet-cinematic style is flat-out perfect for the book. In some ways this is “throwback” art that conveys a lot of the same mood and energy of late-’80s comics, but there’s nothing wrong with that in my book since those years were, as we’ve already discussed, home to the “mini-golden-age” of Vietnam comics . It’s not entirely fair to say the book has a completely “retro” look to it, though, as the covers and many of the interior panels certainly betray a thoroughly modern design sensibility. Let’s call the art in this series a pleasing blend of old and new alike, then, since that seems a pretty fair summation of things to this point.
My only concern with Tet going forward — and it’s a small once — is a nagging back-of-the-mind fear that four issues just won’t be enough to tell a story this complex, yet unmistakably human, and do everyone involved justice. If the first chapter is any indication, though, that’s a baseless worry, since Allor and Tucker have managed to do more in one issue so far than any number of comics can pull off in five or six. I think we’re in very good hands, then, and while the ride ahead will almost certainly be fraught with a heck of a lot of drama, peril, betrayal, and heartbreak, it also promises to be an instantly memorable one. Jump on Tet now — it may not be the most-talked-about comic on the racks, but it will be among the small-yet-discerning audience that’s reading it.