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A new face for an old fight: Reimagining Vietnam in Vietnamese-American graphic memoirs

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The Vietnam War is arguably one of the most complex and significant conflicts in American history; the place it occupies in the American national story is particularly curious because it is one of the few wars that America did not win. It is also a benchmark of note because it allowed the comics form (which had been in decline since the advent of extreme censorship in the 1940s and 1950s) to be reborn; superheroes took hold of the comics mainstream again, prompted by their popularity with US troops in Asia. Since the 1970s rebirth of the mainstream, representations of Vietnam have branched off in two distinct directions: either bold, nationalistic stories of brave Americans ‘saving’ the Vietnamese or individualist stories, many of which are memoirs or follow a similar confessional structure. Contemporary renderings of Vietnam are more likely to subscribe to the second representational theme, and recent publications are now starting to tell the stories of those who were displaced and who experienced a very different war to the typical mainstream military narrative. This article will consider the trajectory of representations of the Vietnam War in American comics, concentrating specifically on the shift from gung-ho violence and patriotism to memoir. I will especially emphasise the turn from American military protagonists to Vietnamese civilians and their families. I will discuss two texts: Vietnamerica by GB Tran published in 2010 and Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do published in 2017. In my analysis of these comics, I will show how the form has embraced the memoir as a central genre and, furthermore, how comics is able to tell these stories in new, dynamic ways. I will show that Tran and Bui are part of a new age of comics storytelling, that can deftly bring together nuanced personal narratives and memories of internationally impactful conflict to create a text that is at once educational, entertaining and affective. In this article, I hope to make a bold intervention into the current conversation on comics as both history and memoir, using texts that (at present) have received little academic interest.
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Keywords: The Best We Could Do; The ‘Nam; Vietnam; Vietnamerica; conflict; trauma

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Sheffield Hallam University

Publication date: June 1, 2018

More about this publication?
  • Studies in Comics aims to describe the nature of comics, to identify the medium as a distinct art form, and to address the medium's formal properties. The emerging field of comics studies is a model for interdisciplinary research and in this spirit this journal welcomes all approaches. This journal is international in scope and provides an inclusive space in which researchers from all backgrounds can present new thinking on comics to a global audience. The journal will promote the close analysis of the comics page/text using a variety of methodologies. Its specific goal, however, is to expand the relationship between comics and theory and to articulate a "theory of comics". The journal also includes reviews of new comics, criticism, and exhibitions, and a dedicated online space for cutting-edge and emergent creative work.

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