A haunting rumination on the horrors of war from the perspective of those who have the most to lose, this reissue of the original Epic Comics limited series remains a poignant reminder that even at its darkest, lowest ebb, the human spirit can always find a way to cling to hope.
In some ways, I guess I’ve been waiting to review this otherworldly war saga by Tom Veitch (Star Wars: Dark Empire, Animal Man) and Cam Kennedy (2000 AD, Star Wars: Dark Empire) ever since it first came out under the aegis of Marvel’s critically acclaimed Epic Comics imprint in 1988.
This is a work that’s stayed with me for over two decades. The list of books that have managed to have that kind of lasting impact on me is dreadfully short. At the time, there wasn’t really anything else like The Light and Darkness War on the shelves (in North America, at least), and I was immediately entranced by its lurid depiction of a brutal never-ending conflict at the edge of forever.
On the surface, the exploits of Vietnam vet Lazarus Jones and his comrades in the Light Gang comprise a gut-wrenching, action-packed war story full of bombast and bravado. Truth be told, there aren’t any wallflowers in the Light Gang. Engle, Huff, Slaw, and Jones are true warriors, forged in the steamy jungles of Southeast Asia, fighting a war nobody wanted them to win.
When their Huey is shot down outside Da Nang in 1969, the entire chopper crew, with the exception of Lazarus, transmigrate to an alternate universe collectively dreamt into being by generations of human warriors as a kind of intergalactic Valhalla eternally desperate for new recruits.
This central conceit – that the afterlife is a Jungian jumble of interconnected pocket universes – serves as the foundation for Veitch and Kennedy’s extensive world-building, informing and driving the events of the series.
Plagued by a war of attrition lasting over ten thousand years, the Light Galaxy doesn’t simply serve as a new battlefield for Earth’s combat dead. It’s also home to countless indigenous races, including the Menteps, who act as living engines for the distinctive, rugged stone ships that are the primary war machines for the forces of Light.
Each issue of the series opens with an excerpt from the Mentep holy book, serving to frame the narrative and add yet another layer of depth to an already richly textured fictional world. It is this level of thought and detail that sets The Light and Darkness War apart from the books of the day and still pushes it head and shoulders above much of its competition today.
For a teenaged comic book fan brought up on a steady diet of Marvel and DC, a work of this sophistication and craft was a revelation. Initially drawn into the series by Kennedy’s innovative layouts, gruff and gritty rendering, and luminous color palette, it wasn’t until many years later that I could truly appreciate Veitch’s contribution to the book’s development.
Don’t get me wrong. I knew what good comics writing was even back then. I just didn’t have the critical tools or the maturity to truly appreciate the craft and passion poured into the creation of this harrowing, existential war story.
Drawing on a background in underground comix, beat poetry, and activism, Veitch constructed the mechanics of The Light and Darkness War around his own ever-evolving personal beliefs and a desperate need to come to terms with a morally questionable war that had decimated a generation of Americans physically and spiritually.
Written at a time when Vietnam vets were still marginalized and vilified as “babykillers”, Veitch created a world tailor-made to celebrate their bravery and unique skillsets, even if – especially if – they were drawn from a conflict they didn’t necessarily believe in.
Veitch goes into more detail about his motivations in the new collected edition’s back matter, but if it seems counter-intuitive for a war protester to create a work that celebrates armed combat, then you’re missing the point.
The Light and Darkness War is not a story about guns, bombs, and the horror of conflicts we barely understand. It’s a story about how we treat one another after all the fighting and killing is done.
Tom Veitch (W), Cam Kennedy (A) • Titan Comics, $24.99.