It’s a Crime: Two Perspectives, Worlds Apart, on Tet

Tet issue 1, Paul Allor & Paul Tucker, IDW, 2015, Ha is better than Eugene

TET REG COVER ISSUE 03 IDW November 2015Tet

Paul Tucker & Paul Allor
Issue three out now

Claire Napier: I’ve complained before about my inability to find graphic crime fiction that satisfies me on the same levels as my favoured crime prose. Well, I can shut up now. Tet is that book.

I’ve known Paul Allor for a while; we’re acquainted on Twitter and I find him a pleasant person. His public persona mixes vulnerability with integrity, and he gets my jokes… I hadn’t read his comics. Not on purpose; I just hadn’t. But a retweet caught my interest and I made a passing comment and ten minutes later, Tet 1-4 were sitting in a dropbox link in my DMs. Gift horse in the mouth? Not I.

Tet circles a murder mystery with a ring of romantic wartime intrigue, every issue peeling back more layers of the same pickled onion. And, published as a mini-series rather than a graphic novel, for once I can appreciate why. The format is utilised—remember why we divide books into chapters, or essays into paragraphs? It’s so that the message might be delivered in the most stirring format.

Issue one of Tet establishes the basics: Eugene was a soldier in Vietnam and his early experience of battle was appalling; he was a lone survivor. A politically sensitive murder happened in Hue City, where he had been posted to recuperate. Eugene knew the victim, refused to believe he was a spy as assumed by his officers, and was assigned to investigate it along with an Báo, an opposite number from the Vietnamese forces officially friendly with the American occupation. Eugene was engaged to a Vietnamese girl, Ha, who was also known to Báo, and Eugene didn’t end up marrying her. Between themselves the lovers talked badly about the trauma of their shared war; “I am not naive”, she has to tell him, once. Eugene didn’t solve the murder. Neither did Báo. Everything was left open-ended, because Hue came under siege, and all were separated. But in 1984, when Eugene is remembering this all, Báo’s got in touch. Eugene is invited him back to Vietnam, because a detail’s been turned up — the murder had a witness.

Tet issue 1, postie & asshole, Paul Allor & Paul Tucker, Image comics, 2015

So our protagonist Eugene exists in two time periods. We begin with the Eugene of the Vietnam War, 1968, and there’s an older Eugene back in America, later. It’s 1984’s Eugene on the ninth page: he’s walking with heavy reliance on a cane, his hair’s receding from deep jagged wrinkles on his forehead, he has an eighties sweater on, in black and grey. He’s injured and prematurely old, and he’s a crabby old bastard. The postie, a jolly fella with a big thick moustache, probably ten or twenty years older than Eugene but vital with it, has just offered to bring Eugene’s check (I don’t know the details but one doesn’t need to. It’s benefits, quite clearly) up the flights of stairs for him, so Eugene doesn’t need to struggle all the way down. “No, that’s alright”, says Eugene, and the postie waves a cheerful goodbye. He exudes goodwill. The rough lines beam it out of him, fantastic body language. And once he’s gone, Eugene’s mottled grey background changes to red, and he frowns even more, and says “Fucking asshole” in tiny letters, over his shoulder.

He doesn’t even say it right to us, despite Eugene narrating the bulk of the comic himself. The postman’s long gone. Eugene is expressing aggression and hate to a nice man, behind his back, for offering to make his life more comfortable. You are the fucking asshole, Eugene. By this point in the book the reader understands that there are myriad reasons for Eugene to be unhappy; it’s not hard to add up war service and an old-young man and get bitterness. So we can’t blame him. We can’t even really judge him. But we can’t like him, either—an attitude like this… (there’s a literal red flag, right there behind him).

So just like that, with a one-panel flip, the sense of moral paradox that’s a necessary quality in truly fine crime fiction (noir, hardboiled, call it what you like) is established. You’re neither for him or against him. You’re forced into a nuanced state of acceptance. A truly open audience. It’s a wonderfully receptive experience.

Issue two returns to every point on that list and “oh, also’s” its way further into Eugene’s memories. So what happened next in that part of the story? What about here? Allor & Tucker build chains in short sequences, better to finish with a finally unified whole. Wartime Eugene goes AWOL to search for Ha. He thinks about his murdered friend and wonders if it even matters (this is war, after all), and he revisits the same market streets as a deserter that he did as an authority figure. He meets up with Báo, unexpectedly, echoing their previous assigned team-up. Báo tells him where to find Ha; “he knew my father” has already become “she let me hide out in her flat while she’s elsewhere”. In Eugene’s present, 1984, he’s arrived in Vietnam and arrived at Báo’s house. He meets Báo’s wife. His wife is Ha.

Eugene is not having a good time, and we flash back to his approach to Ha’s home on the last night he saw her. Whereupon he is shot. Three bullets, and Old Eugene’s hip problems are explained. He’s crawling away (away? From what? “The War”?): the end of issue two gives us the last moments of a shattered love story: Ha kneels by Eugene, impassive, in the light and shadow cast by a burning building at night, while he remembers caring for nothing beyond the pain in his body.

You start to see how Eugene’s life must feel: wronger and wronger. This wasn’t supposed to happen!

Tet issue 1, Paul Allor & Paul Tucker, IDW, 2015, Ha's veiled eyesBut what about Ha? How does she feel? Why was she there? Why calm? Whose house was that? Whose country is this? Whose lover lay dying? Which man did she marry — which masculinity did she choose to compliment her life, and why? Why did her eyes seem clouded in so many of her panels, why was she so hard to see, despite dialogue as crackling and open as anyone else’s?

In my first read of Tet I thought that Paul Tucker’s art was letting down the side when it came to Ha. She’s the woman, she’s the civilian; hers is the identity I’ve the most immediate sympathy for. But she seems like she’s… not there, not fully realised. No light or focus in her eyes (below, right), an indeterminate hairstyle, no individuality in her clothing. She’s not seen straight-on much, or from Eugene’s perspective, and she has no authority or social definition. She has a flat of her own, which marks her as unusual, and a job. But what is it? Eugene doesn’t tell us. I can’t reach her, and with this inability to get a gauge on her character I continued reading where I’d otherwise stop, only because the genre craft was otherwise so good. I gave the Pauls Allor & Tucker the benefit of the doubt because a well-folded crime story is a bait I can’t refuse. For me, they came through.

Ha's eyes through Eugene's eyes, Tet issue 1, Paul Allor & Paul Tucker, IDW, 2015

With a wonderful, devastating line at the very end of issue four, as Eugene tries to absolve Ha of what he perceives as her part of the responsibility for his sad, broken-down life, she presses a verbal thorn right into the sole of his soul. It won’t be easily removed. She really is all there, in the minds of her creators — Tucker was veiling her on purpose, because Eugene wasn’t imagining her properly. He wasn’t recalling her full vivacity for us, wasn’t rendering it via Tucker’s art, because the psyche of the character was avoiding it. Eugene wouldn’t look at her whole self. It’s there in the first issue, when they discuss whether or not one can “get used to” the death of one’s peers during war: Eugene is self-centred, he sees only his own narrative, and to him she is a great girl, a wonderful woman. Not a person, not a man, like himself. He’s a small town American male in the late sixties, dallying with a woman of the country he’s occupying. He’s impressed with those parts of her that he notices, for sure! But he uses her (unconsciously? Sure. But why didn’t he check?) to prove what a good guy he is. He doesn’t see her internal life. He misses where she’s coming from. He does nothing to avoid the consequences of these failures, and that’s why we’ve seen him get them. Tet is a humiliation of Eugene and what he stands for; you hurt yourself by being wrong, and those you also hurt can manage without you. It’s a mediation on colonial hubris (or allyship?) that goes deeper, and crueller, than the invading culture encourages.

But I have no identity connection to Vietnam or to America, so I can’t see every spark that flies off this book and embarrassingly like Eugene I forgot to remember that. Recommending it wildly to all and sundry, Mai expressed trepidation. “If you’re going to take a chance on one American-Vietnamese wartime love story, I’d make it this one,” I said. Did I fuck up? And how much?

Mai Pucik: Unlike you, Claire, I’m not a big crime fiction fan, in this medium or any other — like anyone who watches television these days I’ve watched my fair share of police procedurals and cozy mysteries, but it’s not a genre I make a point to seek out. War stories I actively avoid. That’s twice over that I’m not the target audience for this book, and would never have tried it if you hadn’t suggested I give it a shot.

Before I say anything else I am glad you talked me into it because I was unfamiliar with the work of any of the creators involved, and however I feel about the story being told here — more on that in a second — I was missing out. It’s been a long time, if ever, since I’ve read a comic that so artfully uses the monthly pamphlet format not as a constraint to be worked around but as scaffolding to support the narrative edifice.

Each issue takes the bog standard flashback-flashforward-flashback form but twists it on itself until it kaleidoscopes outwards, a half-dozen more stories given shape by the reflections of the first. It’s complex, but it’s not hard to follow. I hesitate to use words like “pleasure” to describe a story meant to make the reader uncomfortable, let alone one which made me additionally uncomfortable in ways I’m sure were unintended. But it is satisfying to feel the mental “clicks” as piece after inexorable piece falls into place, revealing a final picture that is nothing like what I imagined when I started reading but makes a hundred times more sense.

At this point it probably sounds like I loved the book. The truth is, I think I hated it — ambivalently, feeling as frustrated with myself as I was with the book itself, everything I liked fueling my dislike further — but I did hate it.

I may dislike war stories in general, but what really had me concerned about this book going in is that it’s about the Vietnam War, specifically. I’m half-Vietnamese. My mother was born in Huế, and she’s probably the age Ha would be now, give or take a couple of years. In my experience, it’s not genre or taste that precludes me from being the audience for this kind of book.

If Asians and Asian Americans are underrepresented in mainstream American media, Southeast Asians are a neglected subset of a neglected subset. Vietnamese-Americans fare decently compared to the rest of our cohort, in that society is passingly aware that we exist — there was the War, and now there’s soup. Putting phở aside, regretfully (it is really good, you should try it), the problem with the War as the primary feature of the Vietnamese-American narrative is that it makes our history into something we’re not really part of.

In the US cultural context, “Vietnam” signifies a place and time divorced from its geography and culture — it’s a synonym for “bad things that happened to a bunch of Americans, back when and way over there.” That bad things also happened to the locals “over there” is, if not quite beside the point, certainly a background detail, a feature of the worldbuild — they’re NPCs in what should be their own video game. (They’re probably literally NPCs in at least one video game.)

I am not acquainted with Paul Allor, but in reading Tet I get the impression he’s at least somewhat aware of this problem. I’m even sympathetic towards his reasoning (hypothesized) for why he chose to address it the way he did. When you’re a member of “us” writing “the Other,” it’s hard to know when you’re overstepping your bounds, and presuming to claim a story that’s not yours to tell. Perhaps it’s better to tell a story adjacent, like Eugene’s — build a kaleidoscope, and gently guide the reader’s hand as they turn it round and round, and the expected story of the white American soldier and his self-absorption subverts itself into something different.

This approach might have worked for a miniseries of six or eight issues instead of four. The problem is, no matter how well constructed those four issues are, by the time Eugene’s story unravels he’s already taken the bulk of page time, with Ha, Báo, and Minh desperately trying to excavate space on the sidelines. It’s the kind of subversion that doesn’t change anything, only justifies a smarter take on the status quo.

Have you ever tried building a kaleidoscope? No matter how well you put it together, it’s only as good as what you put into it — fill it with beige and army green, and all you see is mud.

One of my recent Netflix binges was their new sitcom Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, a charmingly absurd, life-affirming sitcom about a Midwestern cult survivor trying to live the dream in New York City. In other words, not a show that has a lot in common with Tet. What it did have was Dong Nguyen, Kimmy’s GED prep classmate who ascends from guest star to primary love interest over the course of the season.

Dong is a genuinely groundbreaking character: it’s rare for Asian men to get the male romantic lead role in “mainstream” (i.e. white-centric) American television, possibly unprecedented for someone of Southeast (rather than South or East) Asian descent. He has his own issues to deal with separate from Kimmy’s, and his own perspective shaped by being an immigrant which is not treated as any less valid than hers.

Unfortunately much of this is undercut by the fact that Dong is played by a Korean actor putting on a jarringly un-Vietnamese “pan-Asian” accent. I’d like to think there was a good faith effort to cast a Vietnamese actor which simply didn’t pan out, but whatever happened behind the scenes, the end result is that in a cast of the colorful and larger-than-life, one character comes off as muted, like he’s been sanded down for easier mainstream comprehension.

The problem both Tet and Unbreakable share, despite all their dissimilarities, is that with the best will in the world they approach Vietnamese characters as people who must be explained and translated to an audience of presumed non-Vietnamese. For Allor and Tucker’s comic, it’s right there in the name: Tet is for people who see that word, accentless, and think first of the 1968 military campaign — and the holiday celebrated by millions of people every year second, if at all.

There’s a gap between the deconstructive text Tet wants to be and where it actually lands, and the embodiment of that gap is Ha, our female lead. Ha’s story, or rather the lack of it, is the mystery that drives the narrative much more than the actual murder. There’s the sweet but unreadable girl — I want to say inscrutable, and hope that was a deliberate choice on Tucker’s part — who Eugene meant to marry. She’s the one introduced on the variant cover as negative space in a white wedding dress.

Tet issue 3 - tourist, Ha, Paul Allor & Paul Tucker, IDW, 2015

Somewhere behind that girl, seen in glimpses, is a woman of great anger and iron-hard conviction. Out of everyone in the cast, her pain is the clearest and sharpest. Her indictment of Eugene and his white American narcissism is bitterly satisfying, and that moment of cruelty Claire mentions in the fourth issue is in its own dark way the most triumphant moment in the narrative. (Or maybe I’m only speaking for myself [Definitely not -Claire]. I punched the air, is what I’m saying.)

But her anger needs to be put into context for the audience, and that context is given in a flashback narrated by Báo to Eugene: husband to ex-fiancé. Whether she asked or permitted Báo to speak for her goes unsaid, because she’s not in the scene. She is absent even when most present; her rage can only be expressed when there’s a man nearby to translate her grief, and another man to take on her pain as penance.

In life, too, the people I’ve met seem to need my mother to be translated. I overshare my background, when making new acquaintances. It’s a reflex she trained into me, which I spent years resenting even when I felt compelled to answer the inevitable questions: yes, I’m mixed race; no, my father is also an immigrant; they met in grad school. It was only recently that I realized that for my mother, getting her story out in front has been her only defense from people writing over her, and I can’t disagree.

I wish I could just tell these people that my mom didn’t need my dad to rescue her, but they don’t — maybe even can’t — comprehend that they’re asking different questions than the ones they speak out loud. Ultimately, for all of Tet’s cleverness, all of its narrative sophistication and genre deconstruction, even for all of its sincerely-meant attempts to condemn its own narrow worldview, I’m not sure its creators comprehend the answers they’ve given, either.

Mai Pucik

Mai Pucik

Mai was born in Michigan and grew up in Switzerland, though she did pop back Stateside to get a BA in English from Swarthmore College and briefly experiment with library science. When not obsessing over comics minutiae or spamming Tumblr with Doctor Who gif sets, she's probably cross-stitching.

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