Monday, March 1, 2010

American Splendor: Unsung Hero

The other day I was getting Our Cancer Year by Harvey Pekar and his wife Joyce Brabner off of my shelf for a friend to borrow and also pulled off American Splendor Unsung Hero to revisit. Unsung Hero is the story of Robert McNeill, who when he was 19 years old, was a Lance Corporal in the United States Marine Corps and this book recounts his stint in Vietnam in 1970. Robert McNeill, like most young people that served in the military during the Vietnam War, didn't join because he had some burning patriotic urge to do so, rather he joined because he saw it as something to do with his life that school wasn't providing for him. McNeill was awarded a Navy Commendation Medal for his work as a Rifleman during combat operations while in Vietnam.

As Robert NcNeill recounts to Harvey Pekar in Unsung Hero, Vietnam was quite the culture shock from life in the U.S. Of course Vietnam was also a really dangerous day to day existence, especially if you were involved in any combat positions. Sure this is true of just about any war, but the Vietnam War was occurring during an especially turbulent part of the U.S.'s history, so being a young black man, as Robert McNeill was, made him hyper aware of this reality. Things weren't all doom and gloom though, as soldiers such as McNeill made their own entertainment, usually in the form of drugs and women. I'm not the biggest advocate for drug taking (nor have I taken really anything in the way o drugs in my lifetime), but from everything I've read / seen about the Vietnam War, I can't imagine not taking drugs to endure what was going on. Reading Unsung Hero (and finally watching the brilliant Apocalypse Now the other day) I can't come close to imagining myself at nineteen being thrust into the chaos that was the Vietnam War.

For anyone who hasn't read a Harvey Pekar comic book biography (usually about himself) or has seen the excellent American Splendor movie, I would recommend Unsung Hero as a great place to start. I'm actually not sure if this is still in print (it was published by Dark Horse in 2003), but I'll be checking on this when I place my weekly reorder next week. The art in Unsung Hero is ably rendered by David Colliers in a non-flashy style that, like Pekar's script, is totally respectful of its subject matter. The only thing I would have liked to have read about Robert McNeill was a post script on what he did after his service in Vietnam - I'm going to guess that he maybe was working with Harvey Pekar in the Cleveland hospital (where Harvey was a file clerk) and that's how Harvey Pekar came up with the idea to do this story.

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