I like war stories, but much like superhero stories, they tend to run into a problem: There have been so many over the past 50 years that it’s hard to tell one that’s original or unique. Of course, comic book war stories have declined in popularity over that time; what was once a staple of the medium only rears its head from time to time, and nearly half of those seem to be written by Garth Ennis.
The Other Side is something of a rarity, then: For one thing, it skips the more traditional World War II setting in favour of Vietnam. And while it’s not entirely original, it does present a unique spin on an old standard.
The book could very easily be called Both Sides, as that’s the essential concept of the story thus far: Writer Jason Aaron tells the story of an American draftee and a Vietnamese conscript as they go through training and prepare for deployment in the jungle. The young men have similar experiences, if different motives: Billy is drafted, trained, and sent to a country he probably couldn’t find on a map because that’s what the government wants. Vo Binh Dai enlists to fight the war on his own doorstep that has ravaged his country and taken his brothers and sisters. Neither wants to fight, but both are willing to do what they must; both endure training and are haunted by the ghosts of their fallen comrades, as well as the dreaded spectres of the enemy.
It’s not the most original of concepts, but Aaron gives both protagonists distinct character, even if they may veer a bit too close to “everyman”. More compelling than that, though, is the black sense of humour that pervades Billy’s part of the story: He’s haunted by the ghosts of maimed and mutilated soldiers, abused by his drill sergeant, and has a rifle that whispers sweet nothings in his ear that no one else can hear. It’s an absurd reaction to a ridiculous situation that Billy can’t quite understand, and it’s much funnier than it should be. Vo Binh’s story is more sober, as the war is much less of an abstraction for him: He’s far more sincere, and more eager to live up to the expectations placed upon him by society.
While Aaron has a nice take on the story, the real star of the book is Cameron Stewart, who’s about the last person I’d expect to take on a dark war book: His work on Seaguy and Guardian is about as far from realistic or grounded as one can get. But he knocks The Other Side out of the park with a style that’s still distinctively his, yet adapted perfectly to the story at hand. It’s no surprise that he perfectly conveys the absurdity of basic training, but the level of detail he employs for the ghosts is both comedic and disturbing at once. It’s still simple and clean, but far more nuanced than his superhero work, and he opens and closes the book with gorgeous splash pages that perfectly capture the mood of the war. I’ve enjoyed Stewart’s work for the past couple years, but he’s unquestionably elevated himself on the list of artists to watch with his work here.
I’m curious as to where the story will go from here, whether the two protagonists will meet or continue to mirror each other unknowingly. And I suspect that even if Aaron’s story stumbles, this will continue to be a highly readable book for Stewart’s art alone. The war story may be a hoary old cliché, but it’s still possible to tell a compelling tale in the genre; The Other Side is at worst an entertaining black comedy with some gorgeous art, and it has the potential to be a good deal more.