July 2007

Drew Nellins

fiction

The Other Side by Jason Aaron, illustrated by Cameron Stewart

The Other Side, a graphic novel written by Jason Aaron and illustrated by Cameron Stewart, tells parallel stories of soldiers on opposing sides in the Vietnam War. It begins in September of 1967, with the death of an anonymous U.S. soldier and the draft notice his replacement, Billy Everett, receives in the mail. As Billy, unhappy and afraid, leaves his parents’ Alabama home for basic training at Parris Island, SC, the story shifts to the other protagonist (or antagonist, to Billy Everett), a young North Vietnamese man named, Vo Binh Dai, “son of farmers, son of soldiers,” who is proudly enlisting to serve his family, his village, and his country. 

The book continues to unfold in this way, switching its focus between Billy and Vo Dai. But to say that the story is the only thing that shifts excludes a vital factor: the colors, textures, and lines change too. Stewart matches every word of Aaron’s vivid writing beat for beat with illustrations which are much more than glorified storyboards or mere drawings extrapolated from the text. They are as critical in telling the story as the writing itself. Which is not to say that some of them are not, well, comic booky. In many cases they are. But, as with Art Spiegelman’s groundbreaking graphic novel, Maus, I’m not sure a better medium exists with which to tackle such subject matter.

The illustrations have an additional payoff in that they allow for a casual acceptance of some elements of the story which, in a novel, might derail one’s suspension of disbelief. One such instance occurs when, while in basic training, Billy’s rifle begins to speak to him. In a novel, this would be the point when many readers would set the book down feeling horribly embarrassed for the author. But, in The Other Side, when Billy’s rifle suddenly has its own speech balloon and says, “I want to fuck your brains out,” the reader instantly beings scanning for its next line of dialogue.

In an afterword, Jason Aaron acknowledges his cousin, writer Gustov Hasford as an inspiration and primary source for the book. Hasford was the author of The Short-Timers, which was the basis of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. Aaron likewise credits other Vietnam writers like Philip Caputo and Tim O’Brien. 

After decades of images and words about Vietnam, particularly by Kubrick and those writers mentioned, there’s nothing shocking in The Other Side. Arguably, there is genuine relief in that. So much can be taken for granted, there’s no pressure to drill into our heads the horror of that war. The result is that Aaron and Steward are able to tell a story which focuses on their characters, Billy Everett and Vo Binh Dai. 

Like many war stories, elements of the book and even the outcome itself are fairly predictable, but that didn’t keep me from proceeding with interest. Solidly executed in every way, The Other Side is both a great start for newcomers to graphic novels and an achievement veterans of the form will appreciate.

The Other Side by Jason Aaron, illustrated by Cameron Stewart
Vertigo
ISBN: 1401213502
144 Pages