Descent into Hell: Aaron talks "The Other Side"

Fri, February 24th, 2006 at 12:00am PST | Updated: September 22nd, 2010 at 11:17am

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Dave Richards, Staff Writer

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In 1968, American soldiers were engaged in a conflict that still haunts the country's collective consciousness to this day today: The Vietnam War. This summer, writer Jason Aaron and artist Cameron Stewart will take readers back to 1968 and explore the conflict through the eyes of two young men on opposing sides, in the five issue mini-series "The Other Side," from Vertigo. CBR News spoke to Aaron about this surreal, dark, psychological horror story.

Aaron's interest in the Vietnam War springs from his late cousin, writer, Gustav Hasford. "Gus was an eccentric guy, to say the least," Aaron told CBR News. "Unfortunately, he's probably best known for having stolen 748 library books from libraries across the country. Gus tried to say they were merely 'overdue,' but the judge didn't buy it, and Gus had to spend a few months in the San Luis Obispo Country Jail. Beyond that whole mess, Gus was quite simply one of the finest writers to ever tackle the Vietnam War in fiction. Any scholar worth their salt will tell you that 'The Short-Timers' ranks high on the list of the most important Vietnam War novels ever written (in addition to being the basis for one of the best film versions of the war, 'Full Metal Jacket'). Gus's little known second novel, 'The Phantom Blooper', which details Private Joker's eye-opening stint as a prisoner in a Viet Cong village, is a work of equal intensity and importance. Unfortunately, Gus died in 1993 of complications from untreated diabetes, so I never got to know him as well as I would've liked, even though he was one of the reasons I always aspired to be a writer. About six years ago though, I put together a website devoted to Gus at www.gustavhasford.com, and through that site I've been lucky enough to meet the First Marine Division ISO Snuffies (1967-1968), the group of Marine Combat Correspondents to which Gus belonged. They're a fascinating bunch of guys, and I'm proud to have attended a few of their reunions. 'The Other Side' is dedicated to them."

As a winner of the Marvel Talent Search, Aaron's first published comic work was released in 2002, that same year he began work on what would become "The Other Side." "It just took a long time to find the right home. When I first contacted Editor Will Dennis at Vertigo, he repeatedly told me he wasn't interested in a war book," Aaron said. "Yet somehow or another I convinced him to give the project a closer look, and here we are. It was Karen Berger's idea to bring Cameron Stewart on-board, which was a real thrill since I was already a fan of his work from 'Catwoman' and 'Seaguy.' This project means a lot to me, so even though it took a while to get here, I really couldn't be happier with how things worked out."

"The Other Side" is the story of two young men, one from America, and one from North Vietnam, each swept up into the conflict for different reasons. "Private Bill Everette was raised on a quiet, little farm in Winston County, Alabama, but in the fall of 1967, he finds himself being drafted into the service and sent to fight a war in a country he couldn't even identify on a map," Aaron explained. "As you might expect, he's terrified. And it doesn't help that his rifle keeps urging him to shoot himself. Everette's hunger for personal survival far outweighs any sense of patriotism he might have. As my cousin Gus once said, 'In an unnecessary war, patriotism is just racism made to sound noble.' Still, Everette is a Marine, so he'd best get squared away most ricky tick, or else he'll wind up just another tagged and bagged pile of nonviewable remains. And if he's lucky, he'll only get killed."

"Vo Dai's family has been farming the same spot of land in the Red River Delta of North Vietnam for hundreds of years, and for even longer, they've been fighting to keep their country free and unified," Aaron continued. "Vo Dai volunteers for duty in the People's Army of Vietnam because he feels it's the right thing to do, even though it means he must leave his village and family behind, possibly forever, and undertake the treacherous march south along the Strategic Trail, through the most heavily bombed area in the history of human warfare."

"The Other Side" follows its two protagonists on a bizarre, frightening and surreal trek through training and onto the battlefield. "The story begins with their respective training and ends with their brief confrontation during the bloody siege of Khe Sanh," Aaron stated. "Along the way, Private Everette encounters demonically vicious Parris Island drill instructors, talking maggots, voiceless ghosts, jaded grunts, man-eating pigs, maniacal rats, leeches that quote William Blake, a rifle that begs him to shoot himself and occasionally even the enemy. Vo Dai must undertake the long march south down the Strategic Trail, through black forests and bloody swamps, over pockmarked earth and fields of fire, past tigers and dragons and mounds of the dead, past exhaustion, beyond endurance. And for Vo Dai, all of that is merely precursor to the actual war."

"During the course of their journeys, Everette and Vo Dai each encounter plenty of beings, both real and surreal," Aaron continued. "But we really focus hard on these two guys. Just a couple of grunts, caught up in a very ugly conflict, a war that when it's over will have taken the lives of 58,193 Americans and perhaps as many as 851,000 Vietnamese."

It will be up to the readers to decide the source of the surreal beings and phenomenon that the two soldiers encounter in their journey. "There's no twist at the end, like 'The Sixth Sense' or 'Jacob's Ladder,'" Aaron said. "Nothing like that. It's far more ambiguous."

Another decision readers of "The Other Side" must make is who they feel is the actual hero of the series. "What you get in 'The Other Side' is really the same type of archetypal hell descent we've seen in everything from 'Beowulf' to 'Apocalypse Now', except here we have two men in direct opposition to one another, each undertaking his own heroic-quest. In the end, it's hard to say who the real hero of the book might be. Maybe both. Maybe neither."

Like other descent into hell war stories, "The Other Side" will be a dark toned and horrific tale. "I don't think you can do a war story without some gallows humor, but for the most part, this is a psychological horror story and an epic tragedy about America's most haunting war," Aaron said. "Yes, there are surreal elements, including ghosts and a talking pig's head and such, but this is definitely not "The Haunted Tank meets The Creature Commandos in Vietnam." Nothing against those old characters ('Weird War Tales' was actually one of the first comics I ever bought). We're just going for a darker, more serious tone."

Aaron also wants to make clear that the only war he's writing about in "The Other Side" is Vietnam. "I don't want anyone to think I'm writing 'The Other Side' as some thinly-veiled statement on the current war in Iraq. As a matter of fact, I first pitched this book back in 2002, before there even was a war in Iraq. Plenty of people more qualified than me have already compared and contrasted those two conflicts, so that's never been my goal. However, it has been interesting in the last few years, to be reminded just how powerful the legacy of the Vietnam War remains. It was an important issue in the most recent presidential election, and it's a buzzword that still rattles politicians and military leaders, none of whom want to see 'another Vietnam.'"

Artist Cameron Stewart surprised Aaron with his level of commitment to "The Other Side" by observing the legacy of the Vietnam War first hand. "I was a little worried what Cameron would think, going from working with Grant Morrison to working with me, some nobody fresh off the banana boat, but things have been great from the get-go. All you need to know about Cameron's level of commitment to this project is the fact that he actually traveled to Vietnam," Aaron said. "For two weeks last year, he roamed the countryside, crawling through tunnels, firing off AK-47 rounds and braving the madcap traffic of Hanoi. What more could I possibly ask for from an artist? Cameron seems to have embraced this project as a challenge, and I think his work on 'The Other Side' will really open the eyes of anyone who associates him solely with the superhero genre."

"The Other Side" is a story that doesn't lend itself to a sequel, but Aaron would definitely like to return to the topic of Vietnam in future stories. "No, I don't foresee there being a direct sequel to 'The Other Side', but the Vietnam War is definitely a subject I'd be up for revisiting someday. It might be interesting to explore the war from the perspective of the REMF (or rear-echelon motherfucker); especially since only one in ten Vietnam vets ever saw any actual combat. And I'd be more than happy to help tear down that long-running stereotype of the Vietnam vet as a hair-triggered, shell-shocked whack job, who's liable to flip out at the drop of a hat and embark on a massive killing spree."

Aaron already has another project in the works at Vertigo, and is proud that 'The Other Side" is being published by Vertigo/DC Comics, which has a long tradition of publishing outstanding War Comics. "It's really an honor to be writing a war book for DC, which has published so many classic war titles over the years, by legends like Joe Kubert and Robert Kanigher. I'm also proud of the fact that 'The Other Side' will be the first full-fledged Vietnam War book that DC has published since 1967, if you can believe that. Back then, when Captain Hunter "smashed through the blazing Viet Cong battleground" in the pages of 'Our Fighting Forces', it represented one of the very first portrayals of Vietnam in comics. Since then there have been some really great Vietnam War books, most notably Warren's short-lived 'Blazing Combat' and Don Lomax's brutal masterpiece 'Vietnam Journal'. Marvel's 'The 'Nam', as written by Doug Murray, was obviously the most popular of the bunch, but I actually prefer Murray's graphic novel 'Hearts and Minds: A Vietnam Love Story', which was published by Epic and drawn by the legendary Russ Heath. As I said, it's an honor to be following in the footsteps of these guys, and hopefully Cameron and I can put our own spin on this classic genre.

And now you can discuss this story on CBR's Vertigo Forum.


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