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MARVEL SEES A WINNER IN ‘NAM COMICS

You’re not in the world now--you’re in ‘The Nam. Things are different here.

--Pvt. Lonnie Crews

in “The ‘Nam” comics

Marvel Comics’ new series, “The ‘Nam,” premiered in December, 1986, the same time as Oliver Stone’s “Platoon.” Like the film, the comic book attempts to present a common soldier’s experiences in the Vietnam War. And like “Platoon,” “The ‘Nam” has been attracting a large, unusual audience.

“When we started, the audience we were aiming for was the typical comic-book reader--between 12 and 25 years old, 95% of whom are supposedly male,” Doug Murray, who writes the comics, said in a recent telephone interview from New York. “The mail indicates that 50% of the readers are veterans or active-duty soldiers and 50% are the audience we expected--that may explain why we’re selling as well as we are.”

Currently, sales of “The ‘Nam” are running about 400,000 copies each month, which makes it a best seller among comic books. Spokesmen at two major local comics stores, Hi-De-Ho in Santa Monica and Golden Apple in Hollywood, report that the book is selling well in Southern California.

War comics have traditionally focused on a few valiant, red-blooded heroes who single-handedly defeat the enemy (usually the entire Third Reich) in the best John Wayne tradition. “Sgt. Rock” in DC Comics’ “Our Army at War” series is probably the most famous example of the genre.

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Murray rejected this approach (he turned down an opportunity to work on a “Rambo” comic) and decided “to show the Vietnam War from a foot soldier’s point of view.”

“The ‘Nam” follows the adventures--and misadventures--of Pfc. Ed Marks, a naive young draftee who joins the 23rd Infantry in Southeast Asia in January, 1966. (Murray plans to continue the series on a monthly basis, concluding with the fall of Saigon in April, 1975.) When he fails to understand a corrupt first sergeant’s request for a bribe, Marks is assigned to the unit headed by Sgt. Polkow, an honest, unglamorous leader who cares deeply about his men--not unlike Willem Dafoe’s Sgt. Elias in “Platoon.” Through the rough-and-ready tutelage of Polkow’s squadron, Marks learns how to survive Vietnam: in the jungles, at the Army base and amid the gaudy pleasures of Saigon.

A veteran who served two tours of duty in Vietnam, Murray draws on his own experiences “to provide background color: The episode of the guys sitting in the base at Da Nang, watching a movie while the rest of the base is attacked, happened to me--and to other vets, I’m sure.

“I use my experience to give the stories a greater sense of reality. I think that’s why the vets like it: We show the war realistically. I decide what will happen to the characters beforehand, then research real events to work into the action sequences.”

“ ‘The ‘Nam’ doesn’t Rambo-ize the war--it’s closer to home,” agreed Bob Duncan, an adjustment counselor at the Vet Center in Westwood. “We had our heroes, but Nam grunts like myself don’t tend to look at the war as heroic: It became a matter of survival. When I look back on the experience, I don’t see a bunch of heroes running around the jungle; I see a bunch of 19-year-olds, scared to death, trying to keep themselves and their buddies alive. I think the comic book is closer to that experience.

“I would not compare ‘The ‘Nam’ to ‘Platoon,’ ” Duncan continued, “because ‘Platoon’ has a tendency to open up a lot of wounds. The film misrepresents the GI in the bush. It shows GIs killing GIs, and inflicting wounds on themselves to get out of the field and a lot of other negative cliches that we’ve been trying to live down. These things happened, but they were the exception to the rule: They weren’t the rule. I think Stone did us a disservice by throwing all the negative stereotypes into the movie, instead of reinforcing some of the heroic things soldiers did in Vietnam--the way we took care of one another, and the camaraderie.”

Duncan and Murray agree that both “Platoon” and “The ‘Nam” are the product of an increasing willingness among Americans to discuss the Vietnam War, a willingness that didn’t exist 10, or even five years ago.

“I’d written stories about Vietnam for comics as early as 1972,” said Murray. “I sold them to DC Comics, but they published them as World War II stories. No one wanted to talk about the war then. I think that began to change around ’82 or ’83: Some healing has taken place.

“I think ‘The ‘Nam’ brings back memories for the vets,” he continued. “For the kids who are too young to remember it, I think we’re providing a sort of primer on the war. We can open lines of communication between kids and their fathers or uncles who were in the war and haven’t talked about it.

“If the comic book can provide a bridge and open up communication, it’s more than fine; it’s necessary,” Duncan added. “One of the problems we have with Vietnam veterans as far as counseling goes is finding that bridge.”

He paused. “I never thought I’d be sitting here, talking about a comic book as being psychologically effective. I haven’t had time to think much about it, but my boys are 15 and 17. I think if something like ‘The ‘Nam’ had been around when they were younger, maybe they would have understood why I had gone through some of the things I had to experience after Vietnam.”


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