April 19, 2014

 




Interview:
Doug Murray

By Brian Jacks



 

While many Vietnam veterans retreated internally, Doug Murray felt his wartime experiences could help educate a nation.  With the help of Larry Hama, Doug created and launched a new breed of Marvel book...the reality-based comic.

Through its relatively healthy run, THE 'NAM captured audiences ranging from young children to fellow veterans.  Telling the story of multiple soldiers, THE 'NAM not only gave us a glimpse into life in late-1960s Vietnam, it also allowed us to peer into the souls of the military men we asked to serve on America's behalf.  It was truly a remarkable book.

We now present a conversation with Doug Murray, the man behind THE 'NAM.

(Note: This interview was originally published in May of 2001)

 

When did you first pitch THE ‘NAM to Marvel and what was their reaction.

It wasn’t so much a pitch.  Larry Hama had contacted me around 1984 about doing a Vietnam War series for his Savage Tales black and white magazine.  I did The 5th of the 1st for that and it was very well received.  Larry then suggested I put together a proposal for a regular comic book on that.  Which I then did, and gave it to Marvel through Larry.

I never expected anything to come of it because war books were already pretty much dead at that point in 1985.  But Jim Shooter was willing to experiment with different stuff and he gave us a go.  I had kind of thought of it as a limited series.  I thought maybe we’d get twelve issues out of it.  But it sold really well.  I ended up doing about five years worth of stories before changes in editorial policies got me off the book.

What type of editorial changes were those?

Basically we changed editors several times and by the time Don Daley took over and Shooter was long gone, they wanted a book that was a regular comic book.  They didn’t want real-time, they wanted to include superheroes, and I just didn’t want to do that.

Were you surprised Marvel OK'ed it in the first place?

I was shocked.  I didn’t think there was a chance in hell they would do it.  But apparently the response from the Savage Tales stories had been very positive and because Shooter wanted to try different experiments in different sub-genres he was willing to give it a try and see how it worked.

You’ve said in the past that you wanted to work under the Code to insure that younger readers would be able to gain access to the book.  How important was that for you?

It was very important for me.  One of the things I knew about Vietnam by the 80s was that a lot of Vets, and I include myself in the group, just were uncomfortable talking about experiences in Vietnam.  Especially people who were parents, they didn’t talk about it to their kids.  I wanted a way to at least tell a part of the story to the kids and maybe get other people to talk about it as well.  Working under the Code gave me the option to do that. 

Working outside the Code would have given me the chance to make things more realistic in terms of the language, certainly.  And in terms of things like drug use I could have done things more realistically as well, but if would have denied me a substantial audience that I really wanted to get to.

Were there occasions where you wished you were non-Code?  In one letter column you said an issue that focused on the drug use among the troops was out of the question because you were Code.

There were times when there were problems, but the problems were about weird things.  We had done a story relatively early in the run about a fragging (killing your own officer).  About two years later in kind of a reverse thing I ran into a weird situation in Marvel about political correctness, in its earlier stages.  We had a black guy being killed by a white guy and I wasn’t allowed to do it.  In fact, they cut page 22 out of a book that had already gone to the printer to prevent it, even though it made the story make no sense.

THE ‘NAM is the only comic I know of that was done in real-time.  Whereas one year in real life, twelve issues, equated to one year for the characters in the story.  How did you come to the decision to do the story in real-time?

Basically because the Vietnam War lasted for so long, I didn’t want to do a kind of anthology thing where we do a lot of different stories with different people.  And one of the thing about the Vietnam War that most struck me when I was there was the short-time concept.  Literally everybody had a calendar that kept track of how long they had to go in-country.  I really wanted a way to kind of reflect that in the comic book and I couldn’t do that unless I did real-time.  So it was a big part of my concept just as a real person would arrive in Vietnam and start counting days until he got to leave.  I wanted to be able to reflect that the characters would arrive in Vietnam and a certain number of issues later would go home.

Also because, despite what TV and movies show, there’s a certain pacing to life in a war zone.  They talk about months of boredom punctuated by moments of panic, which is essentially true.  And it’s really tough to do that if you’re doing it in a regular comic book format because there’s no correspondence in time.  It becomes far too easy to do six months on the Tet Offensive.  You end up doing six issues on the same incident that actually took place in a day or so.  I didn’t want to get involved in that.  I wanted to make it snappier and maybe more accessible to readers where you could pick up a book and each book was essentially a separate story.  And in many cases, not even about the same people because you pick up an issue and six months later pick up another issue I would have changed at least a third of the cast.  So that gave me some liberties that I couldn’t have done in a more traditional comic.

In issue nine, Mike, one of the squad’s main characters, is killed.  Can you comment on that?

Mike Vergo is a real person.  He’s actually a friend of my brothers.  But he was a reflection of a character I knew in Vietnam.  The thing I wanted to show with Mike is he’s a really likable character.  That was the way the readership responded to him and that was the way I wanted him to be.  I wanted to show that everybody was in equal danger and that you often didn’t really know…  You know, there was no warning when someone was killed, which is one of the real problems with people’s emotions in Vietnam.  Which is why so many people didn’t form friendships or the ones that did had real problems.  So I wanted to have an out-of-the-blue killing of a character who everybody liked that didn’t have any kind of relevance to the storyline.  It just happened.  And that’s the way I handled it.

During one patrol, Agent Orange is dropped on the squad and Ed Marks comments, “This stuff feels cool, doesn’t it.”  The government repeatedly says that it posed no danger but you obviously disagree.

I wanted to do something with that later on had I continued the book.  My plan was to wrap the whole thing around with Ed Marks coming back to Vietnam as a reporter because I had mentioned that he was a writer.  And I wanted to deal with the Agent Orange situation then.  So that was a set-up for something that I never got to do.

In a letter column, you also mentioned that one of your friends had passed away from leukemia which you blamed on Agent Orange.

More than one at this point.  But the “cool” thing was also… I mean I was never exposed to Agent Orange, per say, but they used to spray all kinds of crap from the sky.  It’d be 96 degrees in a really, really humid jungle and I can’t describe just what the weather’s like there.  And you’d get hit with this cool stuff from above and it actually felt pretty good.

I’m guessing you disagree with the government’s findings then.

I don’t know, I’m not scientific enough to say for sure or not.  But it’s like the Golf War Syndrome thing.  There’s something there.  The government doesn’t want to admit it because it gives them certain liabilities and that’s the way it’s going to stay.  Things will change in twenty or thirty years when most of the Vets die out.  Then they’ll come up with some kind of explanation and pay off some of the descendants.  But I think there’s something there. I just don’t think I’m going to know about it particularly in my lifetime.

You also mentioned in a letter column that you believed that there were still Americans being held as prisoners of war.  Do you still subscribe to that?

Yes, I still kind of feel that there are.

Are we making progress towards investigating those types of circumstances?

No, I don’t think there’s a chance, if there are any guys over there, that they will ever come home.  I think the government wrote them off years ago because they’re politically embarrassing. 

There’s rumors of them being transferred to Russia and such.

Yeah, well they’re politically embarrassing because they force people to look at the fact that this war never really ended and that we gave up these people.  When we signed the Paris Peace Accords, we just said, “Keep ‘em.”  It’s the first war we actually did that.  And while it’s certainly precedent setting, and has been reflected in later wars, I just don’t think the government is ready to talk about that.

So a microcosm of that is when one of your characters was taken prisoner and the lieutenant just said to leave him.

Yeah, exactly.

In issue 18, Sergeant Little gets into an argument with the lieutenant and eventually gets injured by a grenade.  That issue marks two major occurrences: the first inkling of racism in the ranks and fragging. 

I wanted to do something on both racism and on fragging, and it just so happened that I was able to put them both in a single story, which simplified things for me.  Again, I dealt with it some more later on but I was forced to soften it because of Marvel policy at the time.

So that’s another instance of where not working under the Code would have been beneficial.

Yeah, that was a situation where I would preferred to be able to do it outside the Code, but at that point we were already firmly established under the Code, so that was just the way it was.  One of my problems with the movie Platoon is that the platoon breaks apart along racial lines.  More likely, in the way that platoon was depicted, it might have done so along head and non-head lines.  I mean people who were users and non-users.  The racism situation changed as the war lengthened.  Having been there twice, with almost three years in between, what was happening, because a great abundances of draftees were coming from big cities, a lot of the new troops by ’71 and early ’72 were blacks and Puerto Ricans.  Way, way more than there should have been in terms of numbers of people there.  That’s when the racial problems got really bad because they thought they were getting taken advantage of, that they were cannon fodder.  And they were right.  I have no argument with their opinion on that.  I think they’re correct.


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