Monday, October 28, 2013

The Other Side is Gorgeously Ugly

There's no shortage of material on the pointlessness of the Vietnam War, showing kids fighting for and dying over causes they neither believed in nor understood. The fact that Jason Aaron and Cameron Stewart's The Other Side offers both an American and Vietnamese point of view is applaudable but not unprecedented, just like its overall attitude that the whole affair was hell on Earth no matter who you were fighting for. Despite this familiarity, it is somehow a standout piece, which I think has most to do with its creators managing to cooperatively go in opposite directions. Aaron's script is sheer hideousness, Stewart's art all beauty.
     The two lead characters are soldiers on opposite sides of the conflict, Bill Everette and Vo Binh Dai, both of whom narrate their own sections of the story. Everette is pissed off about being drafted from the beginning, an anger that comes from his perfectly reasonable and all-encompassing fear that he'll die if he goes to war. Dai, meanwhile, is excited to be a soldier, volunteering not just willingly but eagerly. To die in combat would be a worthy way to go, he thinks, as there's no nobler cause than fighting for his family and their homeland. Within the first five pages of the first issue, this fundamental difference between the two protagonists is established in no uncertain terms, and from there Aaron steadily brings them closer together emotionally as they grow nearer geographically. Buried in an ever-growing pile of filth, death, hopelessness, and lies, the two young men struggle just to keep their heads up, until finally they find themselves involved in the same battle and Everette ends Dai's life.
     Aaron puts both of his stars through the ringer and then some, neither one of them seeing even the tiniest shred of hope or happiness for the entire length of their time in the war. Yet the details of what they go through differ greatly, with Dai's experience being more of a slow slog downward and Everette's being a non-stop hurricane of shit. Before he's even in-country, Everette begins hallucinating and hearing voices. His gun speaks to him quite profanely, and he has visions of the mangled, skinless, jawless body of the dead soldier he was drafted to replaced. Everette goes to his superiors with the news of his mental instability, but they basically tell him to get over himself because it's too late now; crazy or not, he's going to go fight and maybe die for his country. Things certainly don't get any better for Everette once he's in the thick of things, surrounded by death and disease, forced to actually use his chatty weapon against the enemy, and cut off from any of the joys of civilization he's used to. But they only get marginally worse from there—he begins in a state of total panic and insanity, and he ends there, too, only with less of a chance of ever recovering than he had in the beginning. Now a reluctant killer, he comes home in a near-constant state of silent, wide-eyed shock. He may have lived through Vietnam, but he didn't necessarily survive.
     Dai, of course, doesn't survive in any sense, and is the first human being we see Everette kill. But the fight that takes Dai's life is not even close to the worst thing he experiences. On the contrary, it's the moment he's been waiting for, the prize he gets for making it that far. Dai marches for months through the jungle, not even seeing action most of that time, but nevertheless watching his comrades die all around him from weakness and disease. His unit loses their leadership, gets lost in the wilderness, deals with animal attacks and other threats of nature, and can't even always pause long enough to bury their deceased. As their numbers dwindle, the futility of what they're doing is brought into a rather harsh light, yet Dai never completely faces it, never gives thought to giving up or trying to return home. He wants to be a glorious, honorable soldier like his father and grandfather. He wants a chance to prove himself. And tragically, when at long last he gets that opportunity, he is almost immediately shot through the heart by Everette. Dai falls in the heat of battle as he'd hoped (and assumed) he would do all along, while his killer has to go home and deal with the impossible aftermath of what he's been through.
     The implicit question at the end of The Other Side, then, is whether or not those who fought and lived had it better than those who fought and died. Everette gets to see his home and family again, this is true, and certainly he has this over Dai. But Dai's family remembers him fondly and with great reverence, while Everette's doesn't quite know how to react to the man who returns to them. And neither Dai nor Everette matter, not in any greater historical sense. They were both nobodys before the war, and they're equally unimportant now, despite the fact that one's alive and the other dead. Dai got the horrendous ending he always expected; Everette never knew what to expect, and then in the end everything was a thousand times worse than he could have imagined.
     Aaron obviously isn't looking for the bright side of war, or life, or anything. He pours the awful on thick for both lead characters, and if you read The Other Side as a prose piece, it might be a struggle, not because it'd be bad but because its content would be too heavy to move through. Cameron Stewart's art isn't necessarily...uplifting, but it's so goddamn good-looking that it makes the ugliness in the story not just bearable but enjoyable. Stewart packs a lot of realism into the worst bits, the muck and gore and unforgiving wildlife. When flesh is shot or melted or torn, you really feel it, you see how painful it would be and, more importantly, why. The violence and the setting are both as grim as the narrative, but the people are a bit less dark. They have stretched, pseudo-cartoonish features, which makes the rare instances of happiness seem bigger and gives all of their anger an edge of comedy. Their terror, too, though that's not so much amusing as it is fascinating—their deep, large, fear-stricken eyes are hard to move past.
     Stewart also does some great things with layout, but only sparsely, when it counts. There's an amazing scene in issue #4 where Everette spots a butterfly drifting through the middle of a firefight, and Stewart nails the madness of that moment and its contrasting imagery in one 16-panel page. A perfect grid, the panels splice close-up shots of intense violence with the butterfly's listless journey and a few out-of-context images of other things Everette has seen during his time in the Marines. It's chaotic and brilliant, inasmuch as almost every panel is a memorable snapshot on its own, and the page as a whole is truly unforgettable. A similar thing happens when Dai is killed, though with slightly less rigid a structure. A full-page image of his pained face in his final conscious seconds makes up the background, overlapped by some two dozen smaller panels of various size showing clips from his real past, his present-tense death, and his imagined future, had he survived. These sorts of breakout, standalone pieces of art appear throughout the series, and even when depicting the most depressing or unthinkable events, they're wonderful to look at, to study as visual achievements and examples of the power of the medium.
     It must be said at this point that colorist Dave McCaig plays a pretty major role in this book's greatness as well. Stewart brings the lovely, but McCaig makes it shine. The colors are thick but muted, somewhere in between Aaron's gut-wrenching writing and Stewart's eye-popping artwork. They add firmness to everything in their weight, and lightness in their tone. Also, between Stewart and McCaig, The Other Side has some of the best, hottest comicbook fire (and napalm) I've ever seen. It's a weird thing to compliment, maybe, but in a war series, it's of no small importance to have every gunshot and explosion be visually effective.
     Even without the words, this would be a great tragedy, and without the art I believe it'd still be an interesting piece of fiction. In combination, though, these elements make The Other Side the perfect middle ground between a difficult read and a book that's hard to put down. It's unapologetically brutal and unwaveringly gorgeous, at the same time matching and pushing back against the godawful realities of war.

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