By: Joe Kubert (written and illustrated)
Review: When not reading comics, I am a pretty avid reader of military history, so when I saw Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1965 on the shelf in my LCS, I had to give it a try.
The basic story of this original graphic novel is that of a U.S. Army Special Forces team that is “advising” in South Vietnam in 1965. I’ve heard people say that this was before the “war” started and I don’t think that’s quite the right way to refer to what was going on. There was definitely a “war” going on, the U.S. was just limiting its involvement to providing advice to the South Vietnamese and trying to keep U.S. soldiers from becoming directly involved in the hostilities.
So this 12-man team was sent to assist the South Vietnamese forces with the fortifications of a strategic town/base called Dong Xoai. From the moment they arrived, it was very clear that the Viet Cong (VC) wanted to occupy this position for its strategic value and were intent on doing so asap.
The book tells the story of very nasty battle in Dong Xoai in which the U.S. forces and their allies were vastly outnumbered and receiving no outside support.
If I had to sum up this book in one sentence it would be: GREAT art and dreadfully dull writing.
The first tip-off that the writing might not be all there was when I heard an interview with Joe Kubert at iFanboy. He was explaining that although this was very heavily based on a true story, it could not be called a really true story because the survivors of the battle didn’t care for the dialog and didn’t want their real names used. That’s not a good sign….
The “story” portion of the book runs ~150 pages, but the actual battle is all compressed into the final third of the book with the first portion being taken up by boring descriptions of interactions with the indigenous people and the strengthening of barbwire barricades. I kept waiting for something to happen, and then when the big battle does occur, it isn’t that exciting. Now, if you read the supporting material in the back of the book, you’ll learn that in the real Battle of Dong Xoai there were two Congressional Medal of Honors awarded. So, I feel like “dull” isn’t a term that should come into play. I was expecting an illustrated Black Hawk Down (the book) and didn’t get it.
And this leads to a second problem that I had with the story: the text and the art don’t really seem in sync. I’ll discuss the beautiful art below, but often times the art seemed to have little to do with what was being said in the text. There are no word balloons and rarely are there any visual cues (like an open mouth) as to who is speaking. This causes you to have no connection with the various soldiers. This book would be more effective if it found a way for you to differentiate all of the soldiers before the final battle. I also found that even by the end of the book, I couldn’t recognize any of the individual soldiers.
Now, having dumped all over the written portion of the book, let me heap some praise on the art. Being a glass-half-full guy, I think you should just look at this as a hardcover, Vietnam-themed sketchbook from Joe Kubert. It might be a little pricey for a sketchbook, but not grossly so. The art is all in pencils with 2-3 scenes per page. At times, I found myself amazed that Kubert could create such vivid and lifelike images with just a pencil. And they are rough sketches too…..much of the shading is done with one or two scratchy fill strokes.
Kubert is really a master of the pencils!
Conclusion: How much Joe Kubert art do we get any more? So, story issues aside, just consider this a sketchbook first and a story second and you’ll be happier. And if you’re a military history nut, there is a “freebie” ~30 pages of supporting material and photographs as a bonus. Heck, softbound sketchbooks often cost ~$20 and you can pick this up at Amazon for $16.49 as I write this.
Grade: B+ (for the art alone).
– Dean Stell