A decade ago, Vertigo published a five-issue limited series by an unknown writer named Jason Aaron, and artist Cameron Stewart, better-known for his work on such superhero books as Catwoman and Seaguy than realistic tales of war. The Other Side, the haunting tale of a young American soldier in Vietnam told in parallel with the story of a North Vietnamese soldier, earned widespread acclaim and an Eisner nomination for its dark, sometimes morbidly funny look at the dehumanizing effects of war.
The Other Side put Aaron on the map as a writer, and quickly led to more acclaimed work including Scalped, Southern Bastards, and many books at Marvel, while Stewart’s continued his acclaimed career on such books as Batgirl, Fight Club 2, and his Eisner-winning webcomic Sin Titulo. This week, Image Comics reprints the book in a new anniversary edition, and to celebrate, Newsarama got Aaron, Stewart and original series editor Will Dennis back together to take a look back at a book that remains a milestone in their careers.
Newsarama: Jason, Cameron, Dennis - congratulations on the new edition of The Other Side. How does it feel to have the book back in print?
Jason Aaron: It feels great. I'm really proud of this book, even though I was a completely raw writer when I worked on this. It helped to have Will, Cameron, and Dave McCaig on board, who of course were already seasoned pros.
And I also worked harder on these scripts than I think on anything I've ever written before or since. In many ways, The Other Side is the most important book I've ever done - because without it, I wouldn't be here.
Cameron Stewart: As someone who's almost pathologically self-critical it's difficult for me to look back on old work. I'm always wishing that I could go back and revise it!
But looking through the new edition, it's still a book that I am very proud of. I think the new edition is gorgeously designed and a much nicer package than the previous softcover, and I'm glad that it will hopefully find a wider audience than it did upon first release.
Nrama: What has the book meant for you in the course of your careers - i.e., where did it push you as creators?
Aaron: Well, it's meant everything to me. The Other Side #1 was the first full comic script I ever wrote. Before that, I'd only done an 8-page Wolverine story as a Marvel contest winner. The Other Side got my foot in the door at Vertigo, and once it was up and running, Will asked me to pitch other things. And from that came Scalped, my first ongoing series. And I've been writing comics full-time ever since.
Nrama: Jason, tell us a bit about the origins of the book.
Aaron: The Other Side was inspired by my late cousin, Gustav Hasford, who was a Vietnam vet and novelist. He's best known for writing The Short-Timers, which was the basis for Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. He was also wanted by the cops for stealing library books at the same time he was nominated for an Oscar, but that's a different story.
Gus was a huge influence on me. He was the first person I ever met who made their living as a writer. And he was from a small town in Alabama, just like I was. Unfortunately he died in 1993, before I was ever really able to spend much time with him. But I started researching his life and met up with his group of Marine Combat Correspondents.
So, I got to hang out with those guys and listen to their stories and learn so much more about my cousin and his work than I had when he was alive, while at the same time trying to get my own writing career going. So all of that together inspired me to try and develop a Vietnam War story of my own.
Nrama: Will, what appealed to you the most about Jason's pitch?
Will Dennis: It’s the one that started it all for us, wasn’t it? Jason's initial approach to me was the perfect mix of polite and humble yet persistent and confident. A Master Class in how to approach editors for new talent.
And while my interest was piqued by his personal connection to Gustav Hasford, I wasn’t immediately sold on the idea. Vertigo had been doing a lot of war stuff, and none of it sold very well.. and this from established talent. So doing a book about Vietnam from a completely unknown writer seemed like a dead end.
But once i read the actual script, i knew immediately that Jason was a writer of consequence. It had such a strong voice from page 1, panel 1, and I had to find a way to make it happen. Thankfully, the powers that be at DC agreed with me!
Nrama: Cameron, what made you want to come on board with this story? Tell us a bit about your trip to Vietnam for research.
Stewart: Initially I was hesitant - it was pitched to me as a followup to Seaguy, and I felt that a Vietnam War story wasn't anything that I had any real interest in or connection to. I'm Canadian, I wasn't alive during the war, and it didn't seem like something that I could contribute to in any meaningful way.
But I was sent the treatment and a sample of the first chapter script, and I was captivated - this was Jason's first work, and so it was exciting to read something so compelling by a newcomer.
I found that as I was reading the script the imagery was just popping into my head easily, and I felt that it was something that I would find satisfying to draw. And then when I got to the part with the talking rifle, I was completely sold.
I still didn't feel like I had a lot of personal connection to the subject matter, and Jason clearly did, with his cousin Gustav Hasford being a former soldier and the author of several novels about the war. And I felt that depicting a historical event, especially one so recent, deserved authenticity. So I decided that I would research the book by travelling to Vietnam and experiencing it myself.
I was there for three weeks, traveled the length of that gorgeous country, visited sites of military significance, went to museums, talked to locals, and fired off a few rounds on an AK-47. Some excerpts from the travel diary I kept at the time are included in the back of the book. That trip remains one of the best travel experiences I've had in my life.
Nrama: For each of you, what was important about telling this story? What were the most difficult scenes to write/read/draw, respectively?
Dennis: For me, it’s putting a human face on war - our side and theirs. It’s not a game of Risk…these are young men and women in the prime of their lives being sent to slaughter. We’ve been at war for nearly two decades in Afghanistan and Iraq, and most of America couldn’t care less. Any time creators can tell a compelling story to wake us out of that lethargy, I’m down for that.
I have a hard time reading the section where Bill has written home to his family - the juxtaposition of what he’s writing and what he’s living is intense. Cameron’s art in that section is exemplary.
Aaron: Yeah, the more I read about the Vietnam War, the more fascinated I became by the story of the typical NVA soldier. And that's something we haven't really seen represented in this country. I wanted to do a different sort of war story - one that really leaned into the moral ambiguity of the whole situation, and tried to look at the conflict from different perspectives.
I wanted to try and steer away from what have become the stereotypes of Vietnam War stories - drugs, slaughter of civilians, psycho vets - while at the same time doing what is basically a horror story.
Stewart: I think that it's not often that you see a war story told equally from the perspective of the enemy. That was how we arrived on the title. The Other Side refers to the opposing army - and what's on the other side of death - but also the other side of the story we're told.
It was, admittedly, a challenge for me to draw the Vietnamese scenes! Drawing the uniforms and weapons precisely is one thing, but portraying the culture and attitudes correctly is another. It was a foreign culture to me, and that's one of the reasons I felt it important to visit, even for a short time. My hope, still, is that it is respectful and accurate, as much as I was capable of back then.
Nrama: What was it like working with Image on this new edition? When putting together this new edition, were there any updates/new material you included?
Dennis: It’s been easy as they are almost completely hands-off. We debated back-and-forth about adding some new story pages but ultimately decided to let it stand as it was.
It's nice to show a moment in time of the work of these two top-notch creators. Obviously, they’ve evolved greatly since then, but we felt like tampering with it - making art changes, rewriting bits, etc. - would be a mistake. It would have been a deep rabbit hole to go down.
There’s some great extras at the back, including Jason’s script and a diary from Cam’s trip to Vietnam.
Stewart: I drew a new cover for it, which I think is much more striking and tonally appropriate than the original cover.
Aaron: I was happy to get my script in there, since I feel like that's probably as hard as I've ever worked on a script in my life. I was young and single and poor, so I didn't exactly have a whole lot else going on in my life at the time. And also I really wanted to break into comics. So I pretty much poured my life into this project, in every way I could.
Nrama: Though the story deals with a specific war and moment in time, what elements of it do you feel are timeless, and why do you think the Vietnam War in particular has provided such a deep well for storytelling more than four decades after it ended?
Dennis: Sadly, it is timeless…hopefully, one day it won’t be.
Vietnam was really the first time that the horrors of war were beamed right into America’s living room. Thankfully, an entire generation of young people took to the streets to say “enough is enough,” and it’s defined much of our culture since. It’s arguable if we’ve learned as much as we should have, but it’s still having a big impact.
Aaron: I think it's always relevant to try and look at a conflict from the other perspective, instead of mindlessly villainizing our enemies just because they're the ones on the other side of the wire.
Nrama: What are, in your opinion, some of the best war stories - any war, any medium, fiction or nonfiction?
Dennis: Red Badge of Courage, Crane - the blueprint.
The Afghan Campaign, Pressfield - a great read that shows grunts deal with the same shit whether it’s in Alexander’s army, Vietnam or 2017.
Sgt. Rock - best war comics ever made.
Apocalypse Now - duh
Aaron: Well, of course my cousin's books, The Short-Timers and its sequel, The Phantom Blooper. Shorty has most all of the best stuff that people know from Full Metal Jacket. Blooper is maybe even better though, in that it feels more personal.
I also love The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien and A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo. And The Sorrow of War was written by a former North Vietnamese soldier, Bao Ninh.
As far as comics go, that's easy - anything by Garth Ennis. Also, Vietnam Journal by Don Lomax. The best war comic you've maybe never read.
Nrama: Why should readers check out this edition of The Other Side?
Dennis: It’s an amazing well-told tale by two creators that have really impacted this generation of mainstream comics. It’s self-contained so you can give it to anyone - of a mature age - and its message is delivered in an incredibly poignant way without ever being preachy or maudlin. All in a gorgeous hardcover package!
Aaron: Also it has talking bullets. And Cameron draws a gorgeous dragon.
Nrama: What's next for you?
Dennis: Comics don’t edit themselves. Moonshine, Wytches, and much more.
Aaron: More stuff for Marvel. More Southern Bastards and The Goddamned for Image. And maybe a couple new things too.
Stewart: Still working on the monthly series Motor Crush, also from Image! Moving forward I am no longer contributing to the artwork, save for covers, but I will still be writing. And I have a few other projects in mind as both writer and artist that I'm keen to develop, but I can't give any details yet!