Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Army @ Love Volume 1: The Hot Zone Club by Rick Veitch

Reading this makes me want to wax taxonomical and write out a big list of how different kinds of war fiction use "war". Most of the time, war - or, rather, War - is the subject: what war does to soldiers, what war does to civilians, what war does to society. This is usually the case whether or not a real war is used (WWII in James Jones' trilogy, the Vietnam War in Tim O'Brien's fiction) or an imaginary "symbolic" war is used (i.e., The Forever War's sci-fi version of the Vietnam War).

Army @ Love does something that seems to me to be different from this standard approach. It isn't concerned with the effects of its "imaginary" version of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars on soldiers or on American society. Rather, it uses the war as an engine to power its satire of contemporary American culture: more specifically, to satirize what I like to call America's Culture of Awesome. In this way it's more like Mike Judge's Idiocracy than a contemporary version of Catch-22.

The Culture of Awesome is, of course, about the celebration of Bigger and Better, or, rather, Bigger as Better, but it's also about overvaluing things like Intensity and Effectiveness in art, culture, and technology. In Army @ Love, the Culture of Awesome is reflected in the idea of selling the (completely co-ed) Army as a place where you can gain "Peak Life Experience" - living life "turned up to 11" at all times - which means mixing sex into the middle of all that violence. The titular "Hot Zone Club" is the frontline equivalent of the "Mile High Club": you become a member by having sex while under fire.

In industrial terms as much as formal terms, this is the kind of thing that comics can really excel at: Veitch can get away with being farther out than folks dealing with similar material on TV or on film, not only in his subject matter but in how it's presented. For one thing, none of the characters here are that appealing - they're not "likable" - which, in my book, is a good thing.

I don't watch the comics industry closely enough to get a sense of exactly what kind of niche Veitch has carved out for himself, but I've always liked what I see as his attempt to continue the tradition of bringing a weird, underground comix vibe to comics' quasi-mainstream.

I'm really interested in the continuation of 1980s-style "Third Way" tradition, in general. That is: genre-based, more-or-less narratively conventional comics that have no literary pretensions, but are, nonetheless, idiosyncratic and personally expressive. Army @ Love shows that Veitch, who did some of the best examples of this type of comic in the 1980s, is still working to keep the tradition alive.

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