An American Special Forces force, the A-313, entered Vietnam in February of 1965, after months of training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. After a brief stopover in Saigon, the group flew to Bu Gia Map to advise and train South Vietnamese forces in the region and, shortly afterward, were reassigned to the militarily strategic Dong Xoai. In Dong Xoai, located near several major routes invaluable to moving troops and arms, these dozen men became part of one of the Vietnam War’s earliest major battles.
Many years later, drawn together by a forty-year old illustration, the story of this Special Forces team came to the attention of legendary cartoonist Joe Kubert. Impressed by the saga of the men, Kubert promptly put aside his many other assignments and devoted himself to chronicling the mission of the A-313.
The result is Kubert’s newest book, Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1965.
With Memorial Day this coming Monday, we talked to Joe Kubert about the compelling nature of the A-313’s mission, the creative choices made in creating fiction from true events (and just how fictional the book actually is), and how – at the age of 83 – he has no interest in retiring.
“It goes back to probably about three or four years ago when I heard from a retired colonel, who I didn’t know, asking me for a drawing I had done forty years previously,” Kubert explained of the book’s origins.“What happened was, about forty years ago, I was doing a syndicated strip called The Green Berets, and part of preparing for its promotion involved my having met a guy from the Special Forces who had won a Medal of Honor. What I had to do, from this Medal of Honor winner’s description, was draw an illustration that depicted the action for which he won the Medal. Which I did, and that was, like I say, forty years ago.
“Forward to three years ago, this retired colonel – who had been involved with this Medal of Honor winner –I didn’t know the colonel, knew nothing about him – had been communicating with his team, because he was the head of a Special Forces team of twelve men who had in 1965 landed in Vietnam and went to this village of Dong Xoai to help the people,” Kubert said. “This was before the war even started. As a matter of fact, the guys from the Special Forces were not permitted to even use their rifles unless they were fired upon first. That was the situation they were in.
“Anyhow, this retired colonel who contacted me had been keeping in direct contact with all the survivors, all the guys for which he was responsible – by sending out a newsletter. Now, this newsletter also incorporated any illustrations, pictures of the guys, the actions, pictures of Dong Xoai – they were sent to the guys who are still left, and their families, and their grandchildren. Just to keep them apprised of what had happened and what they had gone through.”
Kubert continued: “And this colonel, whose name is Bill Stokes, contacted me because one of the illustrations he was using for the letter he was sending out was the one that I had done forty years prior. Why did he call? Because the picture that he had gotten was from a newspaper and was so dog-eared that he would appreciate it if I could send him a clean copy of that illustration so that he could include it in the newsletter that he sends to the families.”
Laughing, Kubert said, “A picture that I had done forty years ago, God knows where it is! I would never be able to find it, but I offered to him to do a drawing. I said, send me the drawing. I don’t even remember what the hell it was, but send me the drawing and I’ll do a new one for you. Which I did.
“He received it and very gratefully asked how much he owes me. I said, I don’t want any money for this, but I would appreciate getting a copy of the letter, the last piece of communication that you send to the families. I’d appreciate it if you’d send that to me, because I’d like to read about it. Which he did.
“That communication is the back part of the book,” Kubert explained. His book, Dong Xoai, boasts nearly forty pages of supplemental material supplied by Ret. Col. Stokes. The section includes a textual account of the A-313’s mission, as well as pictures from their tour and images of the men from reunions that have occurred over the decades since, and a comprehensive bibliography of sources Kubert used to reconstruct events. “With the detailed information of what occurred at that battle,” Kubert continued, “how the men fought together, how they looked out for one another, how they came to come to Vietnam in the first place. I felt that this was something I wanted to do as a graphic novel, and so I contacted Bill again. He was living in North Carolina; I’m in New Jersey. I said, I’m gonna take a run down to see you, there’s something I want to talk to you about.
“So I went down there, and I told him that I wanted to do this graphic novel based on that occurrence. I said, ‘Look, if you would help me with it, give me whatever detailed information you have, I’d appreciate it.’” Kubert paused and chuckled, “’But if you don’t help me with it, I’m going to do it anyhow! This is something that I feel I’ve got to do.’
“He immediately said okay. He was very much for it, and he supplied me with hundreds more photographs, much more detailed information of what had happened there between the guys, the kind of actions that took place that weren’t included in the letters that he was sending, the kind of details of actions, how each individual guy had been either killed or wounded – every one of those Special Forces guys, none of them came away unscratched. Every one of them was either wounded or killed. And so, like I said, with that additional information and his agreement to help me with it, I went ahead and did the book.”
In light of all the factual information in Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1965, Kubert says that the book could’ve been sold as a true story, except for one thing. “The only reason that book is not called a true story is because I didn’t know what the guys were talking about to one another, so I had to improvise on the dialogue,” he explained. “When Bill had contacted the guys that were survivors, I think there were maybe two or three guys left out of the original twelve, they felt uncomfortable with some of the dialogue that I put down and preferred not to have their names used, which I certainly respected. So for that reason the book is called ‘a novel based on a true event’. But as far as I am concerned, I tried to follow as faithfully as I could, that whole story is absolutely true.
“All the things that I’ve written, even a lot of the dialogue that Bill was able to communicate with me, I tried to get that as close as possible to what he had told me. And that’s how the book came to be.”
The story became so important to Kubert that as soon as it came to his attention all other projects had to be delayed.
“I have projects on my table; I have work on my table for probably the next five years. I have at least five years of work to do, if not more; I put everything aside because I felt that this was the book I wanted to do.”
Despite a long history with war and military comics, mostly famous perhaps the Sgt. Rock artist and having worked on the military’s P.S. Magazine for decades, Kubert says that he’s not particularly drawn to the subject matter. “Not really. It’s not that I’m so much in love with the army. I was in the army for a while, and it took about three or four guys to drag me in there,” he says with a laugh. “But, it happened that early on, back in the late 60s and early 70s, Bob Kanigher was my editor and he fed me the stories that he wrote. He created the Sgt. Rock character, and because the first few stories that I did seemed to be successful – the books were selling and everything looked good. That’s the provocateur of whether you’re going to do stuff, or what’s going to seem like a love match between you and the work that you’re doing.
“Because the stuff was selling, I got more and more to do. That’s how I became more involved in doing army stuff or military stuff,” he concluded. “With every job I do, every piece of work that I get, I try to do the best I’m capable of doing. I try to invest myself completely and totally in that work. Otherwise…, well, that’s half the joy of doing it in the first place. So that’s the way it worked as far as the military stuff is concerned.”
Over the last decade and a half, since his ground-breaking graphic novel Fax From Sarajevo, Kubert has switched between book-length graphic novels and serialized comics, depending on the needs of the project.
“The Tor series,” he said of 2008’s Tor: A Prehistoric Odyssey, “was really determined by what the editor wanted to do. The Tor series first came out as a serial from DC, and that was packaged afterwards. That’s the way they work things.
“Dong Xoai came on simply because as I described, it fell into my lap and I felt it was something that I wanted to do right away. The choice and selection of the other stuff depends on if I feel like I have an idea for a story or if I feel that it’s something I’ve done before – like Tor’s a character I’ve done since… God, it’s been around with me for more than fifty years. If I feel I have perhaps a new approach or if I feel I can bring something new to the story, some additional element that perhaps I wasn’t aware of or that I perhaps didn’t have in me when I did it originally. That would provoke me to do the story.
“In terms of Fax From Sarajevo, that too was a very personal story,” Kubert explained. “It came about because my friend Ervin Rustemagić was holed up in Sarajevo for two years with his wife and two children. My wife and I were in communication with him every day only through the fax machine. It was the only way he could get to the outside until finally, eventually, he and his family were able to get out safely. And that’s why I did the book.”
In 2003’s Yossel: April 19, 1943, Kubert told what could’ve happened to his life if his parents had not emigrated to the United States from Poland in the years before World War II. To lend authenticity to the book, Kubert illustrated the book in pencil only, allowing readers to see the world through the impressions of a young Polish boy whose only possessions in the world are a stubby pencil and graying paper.
When deciding on an approach for Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1965, Kubert felt that the pencil-only approach might lend the book a similar quality.
“Absolutely, I felt that doing the story in the style I used lent immediacy to it,” he said. “It was almost as if I was a combat artist, doing the illustrations. Or I tried to work it that way, as if I were doing the illustrations while those things were happening. And perhaps giving the sense or the feeling to the reader that they are looking over my shoulder while I’m doing the drawing.”
He expanded, “I felt that illustrating the story in pencil had the kind of immediacy to it. I tried to simplify it even more than I did, simply because I feel that a guy in that position wouldn’t be able to put in all the details and finish the drawing completely. I tried to capture the essence of what was happening as quickly as I could. That’s why I did the story as I did.”
His other major narrative choice was to forgo traditional word balloons and use only narrative captions in Dong Xoai.
“I didn’t want it to look like a comic book,” Kubert said, before explaining his very sound reasons. “In fact, when I first met Bill Stokes and we were talking about doing this, he said, ‘Joe, I want you to do the story, but we were not heroes. Please don’t make this a comic book story with superheroes.’ That’s what he said to me.
“Incidentally, some people have mentioned that perhaps the dialogue and the stuff that I put as far as descriptions were too pedestrian and maybe too laid back, maybe not as dramatic as could be. That was because Bill’s behest to me that I don’t overdo it. And this was from him and the guys that he communicated with. As I said before, even using text dialogue that may have not been exactly what had come from their mouths, they didn’t even want to be attached to that as being absolutely true.”
While many other comic book creators might’ve gone straight after chronicling the Battle of Dong Xoai, Kubert wanted to tell a much fuller story. His book begins with the force’s insertion into Vietnam, follows them to Bu Gia Map for several months, and then allows them to be established in Dong Xoai for a time before the battle begins. The effect creates a much fuller picture of what the men endured and their relationships with one another.
“That was exactly the goal,” Kubert agreed. “I wanted people who read this story to get the same sense of feeling that I did. You and I have probably seen the movies, like Band of Brothers and similar stories. This is a true story. This is a band of guys, a tight as you can imagine, who are looking out for one another every second of the way, would not leave anybody if they got hurt. This was what fascinated me more about the story than anything else.”
Finally, Kubert discussed his workload and how he manages to make time for graphic novels like Dong Xoai, from the research and writing through to the drawing and the promotion, while running the hugely successful and influential Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art. The School, open since 1976, has trained cartoonists including Tim Truman, Rick Veitch, Stephen Bissette, Tom Mandrake, Jan Duursema, Steve Lieber, Eric Shanower among many others.
Kubert: “I really like what I do. I really enjoy what I do. As I’m speaking to you, I’m sitting at my drawing table and I have the next assignment on the table. I was working up to the time that you called me. I am pretty much working all the time; it is not, however, what I would describe as work. This is something that I really enjoy doing, that I really want to do. I look forward to it every day.
“If it goes on for more than five years, I ain’t going to complain about that either,” he added, a smile in his voice.
With projects lined-up for the next half decade, most of which have not been announced, Kubert was not at liberty to tease many upcoming projects.
He recently illustrated the cover and inked, over his son Andy, the lead story in DC Universe Legacies #1 from a story by Len Wein. “I have the army stuff, P.S. Magazine, which is being produced and is 64 pages of work a month that goes out of here,” he added. “That was Will Eisner’s baby, the one that he had developed and created, and it’s still being published. I’m under contract to the army for that for about the next ten years.
“That’s besides the school stuff, so I’m pretty busy.”
Kubert wrapped things up, saying, “You can imagine how grateful I am, how I count my blessings, because there are still people who call me, people at DC requesting covers, who say, ‘Hey, Joe, have you got time to … ?’ My God, how lucky can you get? I try to do everything because I enjoy it. I try to do as much as I possibly can, and I like to keep busy.”
Offering a final thought on Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1965, Kubert said that the book is already a great success to him, as it pleased the most important fan. Bill Stokes, he said, is “a guy anybody would be proud as hell to meet. I’m still in communication with him. He liked it, and that’s what I’m most grateful for.”
Dong Xoai, Vietnam, 1965 is currently available from (http://www.dccomics.com/dccomics/) DC Comics. More information about Joe Kubert and the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art is available online at KubertsWorld.com and www.kubertsworld.com/kubertschool/KubertSchool.htm.