Splendid little wars
I hadn’t planned on making a series about Vietnam War veterans in comics, but it’s happening anyway, beginning with This one and Back from the Zone. This time I’m talking about a 1988 series from EPIC (the creator-owned line at Marvel at the time, including Marshal Law, Elfquest, Coyote, tons of stuff by Moebius, Moonshadow, various Elektra titles, Stray Toasters, and more) by Tom Veitch and Cam Kennedy, The Light and Darkness War.
What drew me to the comic is that it’s outstanding Cosmic Zap, rare at that time and very welcome to my eyes. Veitch has deep roots in the original underground comix scene and is strongly recommended for many reasons, but in this case, extreme trippiness. One can always pick up the latest Heavy Metal for the relevant visuals, but national prejudices or no, there’s usually something weirdly political and sincere in the U.S. version of the Zap which I crave.
Check it out: you have the Light Galaxy, born from the existence/thought of Urumm, surrounded by and under attack from the Outer Darkness. The doughty planet of Xxexx, capital of the border territory of Blackgate, has succumbed to treachery and is about to be overwhelmed by Lord Na and his hordes of deadsiders; the Light Rangers, a maverick squad of men killed in combat on Earth, are determined to stop him. They use Menteps, mystical alien weirdos who are built into their floating ships and mumble about Urumm a lot, and the general culture is based on the clockwork inventions of Leonardo da Vinci (who’s there), while the theories of Nikola Tesla (also there) are considered heresy. All rendered in masterful spectacular violence and interdimensional bonkersness.
Because you see, Tesla’s grandson here on Earth has invented a machine that can connect to the Light Galaxy, and his girlfriend Delpha is a psychic who’s doing it on her own, and that’s not all because Lord Na is connecting the other way via South African satanists because he wants Earth technology. But the main character is Lazarus Jones, a crippled Vietnam War veteran who
wallows lives in emotional agony because he misses his brothers-in-arms, all killed in the war. Plus he’s psychically linked to both Delpha and Lasha, the heir to Blackgate, and he’s like the original spirit of Urumm or something more-or-less the same as the Eternal Champion. Ignore my snarky tone! It’s gorgeous, pretty glorious in its audacity, and completely unpretentious.
If you get the collection, I have to stop you at the appalling 2014 introduction by U.S. Navy Commander Mike Beidler (retired), which is rife with the story of “the people betrayed the vets” narrative, complete with his account of being originally motivated to join up by Top Gun. I’ve written about this before, which I hope you check out via the above links if you haven’t seen it, and here, I’ll list the two counter-factual narratives that jostle around.
- Pop culture version: the veterans didn’t get parades, hippies spit on them, liberals took away their benefits, they are baffled patriots with mental problems
- Military brass and PR version: we didn’t get to win because we got pulled out too soon and/or didn’t nuke the place, we won every battle but didn’t win the war because the people didn’t support us, we betrayed our poor loyal friends in Saigon and among the Hmong to the communists
I maintain that the story of the comic is more interesting than these narratives, and that anything one might find problematic in it is indeed problematic enough to prompt dialogue, which is a good thing. I also suggest that the reason the collection is preceded by, and in my opinion polluted by, nothing more than a trumpet-blast for these same narratives is at least as interesting as the comic itself. If you’re getting mad at me by this point, please investigate the link at the bottom of the post for a while.
I’ll back it up to 1898 and Theodore Roosevelt’s mention of the Spanish-American conflict as a “splendid little war,” meaning an engagement far from one’s home nation, relatively isolated from scrutiny, rich in drama which can be composed and delivered domestically, subordinating the economy of a valuable region, and easily converted into political support for the party or administration which oversaw it. It’s pretty much the opposite of the European version of war, which is best described as decades-long butchery, privation, misery, homelessness, starvation, and bombing right here at home. To an American power-bloc, a “splendid little war” is the gold ring to grab for; whereas critics of the past 100+ of American semi- or paracolonial policy cite the phrase as an indictment of this policy’s vicious and self-serving qualities.
There’s also a more recent suborned meaning, explicit in Peter Huchthausen’s America’ Splendid Little Wars, which provides no reason for his celebration of this term. It merely dives right into and normalizes the excitement and appreciation one is supposed to feel about the engagements in question, including the Marine landing and defeat in Beirut in 1982-83. U.S. military deployment – in each of these cases without declaring war – is presented as a good thing, unquestioned.
The U.S. engagement in Vietnam could not possibly have been a better example of an intended splendid little war, notable specifically because both political parties fought like dogs to own it while it looked like it was buying votes and to jettison it quickly when it looked like it wasn’t. Huchthausen’s account, in beginning with the end of that war, without quite saying it, reads like a multi-case claim that “now we’re doing it right” – despite each of its examples ending in some absurd disaster. It seems to me much of a piece with Harry G. Summers’ On Strategy (1982), one of the core texts of the “brass/PR” narrative, which suffice to say I don’t regard highly.
All this makes it important to me to read the comic carefully to see what is or isn’t in there, and how what isn’t might be read as if it were.
The first thing that jumps at me is how very transitional it turns out to be in retrospect, as it just precedes Gulf War I. Therefore there’s no romance about the achievement and purpose of warfare at all, nor about the motivations of soldiers who fight it. That’s important! The net effect is that men who seek soldiery – and this is not about their heroics, merely their nature – are looking for a fight for its own sake. Laz doesn’t want accolades, acknowledgment of his motives, or anything, and his broken/muted relationships, misery at his injuries, and drug problems are all explicit. He wants his brother soldiers and their unity-in-combat back, and that’s all. To get that, he needs a war against plain evil with none of this damn policy-problem issue in the picture.
Looking at the story a bit closer: most of it involves the Light Rangers and Lasha in a running battle with Na’s forces, and Lazarus hopping back and forth between the Light Galaxy and Earth in a dizzying profusion of different metaphysical situations. The plot is not the key to it. It’s almost all back-and-forth, there’s an unconvincing and pointless seduction, I can’t tell the women apart even with a scorecard, Laz gets laid a lot without ever being happy about it, characters die or “die” or are restored to the point where you can’t tell if it’s following setting-rules or breaking them, and ultimately it’s Nikola who takes down Na, such that the whole Light Rangers shoot-’em-up was irrelevant. I admit this is something of a mess, but this is Cosmic Zap and I am all right with that. You read it with the visuals and the themes as a throughline, and the ordinary stuff of plot, coincidence and consequences, are only means to those ends.
As I implied above, Laz is the node for everything else as he seeks to rejoin his war brothers. These, the Light Rangers, are notably all American Vietnam War veterans; it’s not like soldiers from each side wind up here fighting together against the Darkness. The whole concept of Vietnamese soldiers or veterans or anything of the sort is flatly absent. The Rangers are ignored by their doofus commanders who want our boys to pull out of a less-strategic zone and abandon
the Hmong plucky little Xxexxians who’ve come to depend on said boys and their promise to help. It’s OK to kill the enemy because they’re dead already and “come apart like rotten fruit.” It’s also OK to call them gooners and dinks (think about it …).
Then, and crucial to all thoughtful scrutiny, there is Lord Na, who presents unbelievable, spectacular badness, in the most possible good way. He conquers through treachery and force, he poses and postures, he looks like Mephisto’s hot younger brother, and he delivers epic rants which provide the backdrop for pages and pages of crazy violence.
Na is menacing, hilarious, impressive, and ridiculous, way up there with the best of Disney villains and beyond. It’s not over the top; there is no top. He doesn’t “cross the line twice,” he does doughnuts on it. Anything else you like or don’t like about this comic is moot insofar as Na is worth every retail-price penny of the spiffy hardback collection.
He’s strangely and interestingly empty in terms of genuine character – in the beginning, it’s implied that even his master plan is barely even his, as a minion reminds him of it and he responds, “I asked for that?” in confusion. He’s kind of not-there in an intriguing way, at one point commenting on his own speechmaking as if he were a thespian. If it’s a part he plays, though, he certainly throws himself into it. It turns out later too that the real Na is all broken-down and withered, so our hottie is really just a projection, but I don’t mind. Project away, withered-fella, project away. (Although again, when he alters the projection to be more human-looking to seduce Delpha, it’s oddly unconvincing, more like a creepy uncle dude – he should have just stuck with the ordinary Mephisto look.)
When I grow up and become an interdimensional supervillain dark lord, I’m gonna have a minion whose only job, well-paid, health-care with dental, is to hang around and come up with phrases like “Your darkness is relentless, lord!” Like Lord Na has.
There’s one more wrinkle strongly implied at his defeat: that there is some other vast intelligence that was puppet-controlling or forcing him to play this part all along. It seems clear that the Light Galaxy will endure many more attacks such as this one, and indeed, previous dialogue shows that Xxexx is just a little outpost, and the war rages in many other places. All this sets up the key point: that Lord Na has no policy. No political identity. No plan, no point, no support, no history. Despite his admittedly stunning visual and verbal presence, he might as well be some kind of shark or other relatively basic physical threat.
Two quotes of raw substance may be found to put this emptiness to use, one from Na and the other from Arch, the squad captain of the Light Rangers (who otherwise has lines like “Get’em! Hit’em with all you got!” and similar).
(from issue #4) Arch: Dammit Steve … feel the friggin’ controls … It’s all comin’ back to me now. The ‘Nam … God, how I loved that war …
(from issue #6) Na: I am Darkness! I am the perfection of death … I am the war that never ends.
I am OK with messy plots, but not with messy messages, not in my Cosmic Zap, dammit. There literally is no concept of an enemy here, no policy against it. It’ll just keep coming, because the Darkness surrounds us, “the Light,” infinitely and forever, disgorging attackers and defining us as our resistance. There’s no strategy against it, no notion of anything except the joy of boating around with one’s brothers-in-war and shooting up the goo-
nersdin–ks to watch them “come apart like rotten fruit.” This isn’t a “just war” against a motivated, functioning, in-its-interest enemy at all – it’s a straightforward playground for experiencing brotherhood that boring ol’ home doesn’t provide. It’s awesome that Lord Na or whoever comes next is “war that never ends,” because “my God how I love [this] war.”
What has anything in favor of soldiery and missions and boom-boom have to say about the historicity and human cost of war? Never mind purity of arms, sincerity of service, belief in a dream, the enemy the enemy the enemy, blah blah. None of that works on me. Give me no abstractions – what’ve you got?
Brotherhood is the answer: that’s it. That’s all this has got. You see it in Top Gun to Blackhawk Down, I hear it from my friends still in service, who I know will blink a little while after they leave and say “what was I thinking?” There is nothing about policy here. No enemy. No defending the homeland. No goals. No accomplishment. No delivery of justice. No standing them up. No saving anyone. Just … hey, we were brothers.
But I’ll give you this: it’s honest. It’s an outlook, it’s something I can concretely agree or disagree with. I do disagree with it and would be happy to talk to anyone about it face to face. But I also respect that this is a matter of ethics, a matter for debate about what we’ll do at a personal level. Two people could even disagree fervently about it without the conversation being a covert referendum on the Vietnam War as policy, which is a really important point I hope you take a moment to think about.
In sum: I like the comic because it engenders dialogue without making claims about how good the Vietnam War was or allegedly could have been if it hadn’t been “betrayed.” Its very lack of political identity for the enemy is more than just an excuse for romanticizing the brotherhood of combat – it throws the romanticizing into such sharp relief that it can be discussed. I may think what it says is wrong, but it’s not “not even wrong,” like Beidler’s introduction. Let’s hear it for the audacious and problematic, without which no thought can occur.
My thanks to Dr. Jerry Lembcke for his critique of this post’s draft.
Next: The true stalwart
Posted on January 14, 2016, in Politics dammit and tagged America's Splendid LIttle Wars, Cam Kennedy, cosmic zap, Epic Comics, H. Bruce Franklin, Kubert-Kubrick under-brow glare, Peter Huchthausen, The Light and Darkness War, Tom Veitch, Vietnam and Other American Fantasies, Vietnam veterans. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.