Phuoc Tuy, 1968. Private Ian Ewell arrives for his first posting with the Australian SAS. Thrown in at the deep end and faced with everything from guerrilla traps to flesh-eating ants, the green recruit finds the dense jungle of Vietnam to be even more perilous than he ever imagined. His teammates need him to come up to speed fast, and with his dreams of valour swiftly fading, Ewell must come to terms with the fact that in a war this complex, there can be No Heroes.
A Stocking Filler?
Yes, dear reader, Christmas is coming, and what could be more festive than reading a story about war?
Weirdly, there is something fitting about this for me. When I was a kid, The Great Escape was on TV every Christmas, which was also the time to watch whichever Star Wars was on that year, for war stories mashed up with laser guns and the Campbellian monomyth. These days, I can watch those films whenever I want, thanks to the streaming revolution, but once upon a childhood, 25th December was a special time full of bullets and bombs.
If that also rings a bell for you, then maybe now’s the time to pop out and buy a Commando as a nostalgic stocking filler, a comics version of settling down to watch The Great Escape. But before you do that, you might want me to tell you what this story is…
An Awkward War
Vietnam is an awkward war to write about, especially if you’re writing adventure stories. Way back before the controversial conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, it was the war that made people in the West question their black-and-white image of war’s morality, an image forged in the blazing horrors of World War Two. Sure, there were some monstrous people and tactics on the communist Vietnamese side, but the south was governed by tyrants and torturers too. And once you’re defoliating whole regions or destroying innocent farming communities, can you really call yourselves the good guys anymore?
But for better or for worse, heroism isn’t always about being on the right side, if there even is one. I’ve written Commando stories set in the Norman invasion and Wars of the Roses, conflicts where, by modern standards, good and bad sides are impossible to find. Yet you can still find heroics, people willing to risk themselves for friends, comrades, or a cause they believe in.
There is space to depict skill, courage, and idealism within the context of the Vietnam war. It’s tricky, and any story you tell is going to get flack from one side or the other—preferably both—but the space is there.
So what did I do with it?
The New Classics
For starters, I’ve picked an unusual set of protagonists. Western films about Vietnam usually focus on the Americans, but other countries also sent troops into the mix. The Australians, who feature in this story, gained a reputation for effectiveness within the war zone. Nobody was perfect, but without America’s problems of mass mobilisation amid social upheaval, they had an easier time keeping professional and responding to the circumstances they found themselves in. It’s interesting to draw attention to their presence, to make sure that their role isn’t forgotten.
But the main thing I’ve done is to draw on the tone of the classic Vietnam war films, films like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket. We expect World War Two stories to be heroic, or for their anti-heroism to say something new. But with Vietnam stories, it’s a default. This is the war of disillusionment, and that lets me tell a story that I couldn’t in most Commando comics, a story that shows a soldier going through the disillusionment Vietnam brought, a story that loudly shouts that there are no heroes, even as it shows us what heroism is.
Irony, it’s not just a way to make steely, it’s also a writer’s favourite tool.
Better Than a Lump of Coal
So should you buy a copy of No Heroes to leave in a loved one’s Christmas stocking?
Sure, it’s no Great Escape, but that’s what streaming services are for. As the ancient ritual of watching Steve McQueen crash a motorbike on Christmas Day shows, this season isn’t always about light and fluffy things. It’s about enjoying the things that give you pleasure, whether that’s dinner with family or a gritty story about war in the jungle. So if you’d like to read a Commando in the classic Vietnam movie tradition, with the twist of soldiers who are usually forgotten, why not give it a go?
No Heroes, written by me, with art by Jaume Forns and a cover by Neil Roberts, is out now.
You can buy No Heroes from: