Writer: Tom Veitch
Art: Cam Kennedy
In a lot of ways, I am really glad that I read The Light & Darkness War. In a lot of ways, however, I did not come away from it feeling like I got a huge return on my investment for having read the entire 208 pages of this hardcover trade. The Light & Darkness War is a strange, mildly psychedelic trek through the mind of a soldier attempting to cope with his transition from the Vietnam War back to the real world. Main character Lazarus Jones is on some kind of trip, and whether it is drug induced or something more genuine, the story is concurrently exquisite and haggard. Let’s review.
To summarize the main story, Lazarus Jones is a former member of a Vietnam War Huey crew, assigned to rescue and extraction operations for infantry men. Along with the other four members of his crew, Jones participated in missions at the direction of the Commander-in-Chief. Like many renderings of the time, Jones is painted as often delving into a joy of killing that arguably exceeds the mandate of war. Unfortunately for him, Lazarus loses his legs in the war and is forced to return to the World. He is the only member of his crew to have survived, or so he believes. Plagued by PTSD, and abusive of drugs in an effort to cope, Lazarus is thrown into a coma in a later car accident. While under, he perceives that he has been transported to another dimension where the souls of dead soldiers have been enlisted to fight a war against demons and evil itself.
The book is wonderfully constructed in terms of the tangible object you get out of the purchase. Released on June 23rd of this year, this is one trade that I will love having on my trades bookshelf. Wrapped in a hardcover binder that features a dusky sunset orange background, and plastered with Cam Kennedy’s amazing art, the trade is comparable to an Alex Ross cover. Kennedy’s pencils and colors of three slig soldiers strapped in their infantry gear lets you know that you are about to enter a fantastical world that will be richly rendered by the featured artist.
Once you open the book and turn past the cover, things are a bit rocky, but you may almost miss just how rocky it is. The Light & Darkness War is very much a direct descendant of pulp, and also feels like a comic from the 1960’s or 1970’s, despite its original late 1980’s publishing dates. The writing style of Tom Veitch in this collection is very jerky. There are gaps in dialog, lines that make little sense, and frequent exclamatory outbursts by various characters that are over the top and feel out of sequence. It is, overall, very difficult to follow. So much so that the other genre it invokes is war movies from the 1960s and 70s, where there was just sloppy continuity from scene to scene.
There is a lot of the alternate reality setting of the book that you wind up filling in with your own imagination. As I read through the six issues collected in this trade, I had a lot, I mean A LOT, of “WTF?!” moments, often feeling like I had skipped a page, missed a panel, or read over a critical piece of dialog. The story is very much Clockwork Orange strapped onto a pile of Japanese anime. About midway through the trade, I just decided that this was much like an indie movie from 20 years ago or a movie that is about a drug-addicted character that tries to make you feel like they do, with things often out of time sequence and raggedly stitched together. In many ways, the original issues of this run would have been better put together like a children’s book, with a page of art unmarred by the gibberish word bubbles and instead paired with a few lines of narrative on the opposing page.
Cam Kennedy’s art, in stark contrast, is the stand-out factor of this novelization of the original half-dozen issues. It reminds me very much of a superbly rendered John Carter or Conan the Barbarian graphic novel. Kennedy’s lensed shading in appropriately spaced panels is one of the things that makes the whole volume an example of excellent craft achieved. While he is no master of the human form, he makes up for it in the rendering of the entirely fictional realm of the Light and the Dark. And he paces the story masterfully; as there is great difficulty in all of the cuts he has to do between the different dimensions, dream sequences, disembodied viewports, and so forth. Again, I could have enjoyed this trade greatly if I could have just flipped through 208 pages of Kennedy’s artwork.
Now, it may appear that I have laid all of the blame on the jerkiness of the story at the writer’s feet here. I will admit that it could just as easily be a problem with the artist rendering the storytelling of Veitch’s script. There is no sure way to tell now, almost 30 years since the issues were originally published. Regardless, the rendering of the story in the book is problematic. All of Lazarus’ war buddies feel very paper-thin, and often became unremarkable to me as far as being specifically different characters. They often felt like non-descript window dressing. The good thing is that, overall, there is not a ton of dialog on-screen. In the latter half of the book, in fact, I kind of tore through many pages at a breakneck pace because the word bubbles were so short and staccato that they did not slow me down much. This run of stories of the afterlife has been hailed as one of the great ones, and I believe that would have been tough to argue against in the late eighties and early nineties. This is just not a comic that ages well and is seen under a harsher light in the 21st century. As I said in the opening of this review, I feel good that I read this; maybe because I feel like I’ve participated in a piece of comics history that was at risk of being forgotten and left behind. In aggregate this is a great story concept and a tale told through art that is worthy of many honors. It’s just that it is not a great comic in terms of what I perceive of as the craft today. While the score I have granted may seem low, I would still encourage others to pick this up and give it read. It’s a paradox, but that experience is still a worthwhile one, especially for fans of military and war genre comics.