Army@Love #1-2, by Rick Veitch and Gary Erskine
A house ad--just about the only kind of ad they run these days--proclaims "Vertigo Comics is by far the HBO of the comic-book world." That's probably more apt than either HBO or Vertigo want to admit. Both would like to find another series to replace their cash cows, the not-long-for-this-world Sopranos and the long-dead Sandman. Both can occasionally reek of desperation as they try to create new marquee series by replicating the old ones. Lately, though, Vertigo seems to have given up mining Sandman's corpse and has instead turned to copying HBO, offering up gritty westerns and mob family dramas--with vampires!--all in the hopes that something will strike a chord with the readership and give them a new franchise they can build, expand, and run into the ground.
At first glance, Army@Love looks like it could be another Vertigo HBO ripoff. Writer/artist Rick Veitch has called it "M*A*S*H meets Six Feet Under" and "Catch-22 meets Six Feet Under," and the series even has its own HBO-style website complete with character guide. (Which is handy, since this comic is loaded with characters--and the web guide only covers those introduced in the first issue.) Happily, the similarities end with the promotions: this series has little to do with the HBO aesthetic and everything to do with its creator's distinctive sensibilities. He may have traded in his traditional obsession with the alimentary canal for a look at the reproductive system, but otherwise this comic is a Rick Veitch satire all the way.
Army@Love is set in a "not too distant future" where the government has drafted corporate middle managers and marketing experts to revitalize the armed forces (ask Robert McNamara how that turned out last time). The strategy, as realized in their Motivation & Morale initiative, is to sell military service the way they sell everything else: as rebellion, as self-actualization, as "peak life experience" and above all as sex sex sex. Now the army's staging orgies and the grunts are forming "Hot Zone clubs" where they knock boots--or bare feet, actually--under heavy fire.
It all sounds too high-concept to work, but Veitch's scripts show a couple of qualities that just may allow him pull it off: an attention to the details of the culture of this radically transformed army; an attention to all the details of technology, institutional inertia, and human psychology that will keep the transformation from working as smoothly as its architects have planned; and Veitch's customary cynicism, which stops just shy of being too unremitting to bear. By the end of the second issue he's given us a romantic couple we can root for without making either one of them entirely nice people. Even Healey, the Motivation & Morale colonel who would make an easy punching bag, shows some signs of depth as he defends his accomplishments and worries that some unknown foe is out to destroy them. That doesn't make him sympathetic, but sympathy isn't Veitch's goal--Healey comes across as someone who honestly believes he's right, making Veitch's satire more than an idle exercise in sarcasm and finger-pointing. He's taken a ridiculous, impossible premise and dropped an awful lot of people with very real concerns into the middle of it. Kind of like the war we have right now, only with fewer casualties.
The comic does hit a few false notes as it seeks its rhythm. The worst one thus far is Veitch's notion that the army can keep its sex retreats a secret--well, they can't keep it a secret, as the first issue makes clear, but I'm not sure why we should be expected to believe they ever thought they could. The army is giving cell phones that can dial home to the same front-line soldiers it's sending to massive orgies; do they really think nobody is going to tell their friends? Should they really be surprised when word starts to leak out?
That bump in the logic pales beside a more basic contradiction. In the second issue, Healey explains how sex is part of his strategy to boost recruitment--but if the sex is a secret, how could it pull in recruits? It's possible to read Healey's monologue as saying that the arm has coded its new, sexually-charged atmosphere just thinly enough to allow both intelligibility and deniability. He calls sex "the secret sauce" and says, "There had always been sexual tension in the military. But by putting women into combat, we made it a key selling point." Perhaps they sold the unspoken promise of sex between troops, and then quietly instituted the retreats as a means of delivering on that promise in circumstances that left them a modicum of control.
The promise of hetero sex, that is. I hope future issues address the question of same-sex activity in the Army At Love. Armies already tend to look the other way on homosexual activity in times of full war mobilization (unless it's among Arabic translators, apparently), and if this one is so hard up for recruits that they've turned to instituting orgies, maybe they've also relaxed "Don't ask, don't tell." Has the presence of women in combat units, along with the ample opportunities for male troops to reaffirm their heterosexuality, lessened the army's gay panic? It would be nice to think so, but I can see it going the other way, too: with all the nudity and exhibitionist sex that's going on at the retreats, more than a few soldiers must be getting jumpy at the thought of other guys scoping them out. I wonder if MoMo screens the retreats for queers as assiduously as they apparently do for diseases?
At least, I assume they screen for diseases. I hope they screen for diseases. Specialist Flabbergast goes through a battery of tests and gets shot with something before he's admitted into the heavily fortified pleasure garden--hopefully penicillin with a heavy dose of spermicide. The retreats must be venereal nightmares, and that too would make a good subject for a future story. Veitch's brand of highly scatological satire works best when it explores the consequences of its absurd premises in minute, even harrowing detail.
The most effective element of the series, in its current, nascent form, is therefore its most realistic and one of its most outlandish. Veitch portrays an increasingly automated armed forces where network slowdowns spell disaster, where combat support systems speak with help-line menu options, where a bored musician looking for inspiration can control a drone fighter attack with his laptop and his electric guitar. Most of it's already happening; the interactions between Beau Gest (the names are the least clever part of Army@Love) and his combat robot Roy could come straight out of this article from yesterday's Washington Post. Veitch exploits this technologized, remote-controlled army for some good old-fashioned Hellerian paranoia, using mysterious system failures and surveillance programs to imply that something's going on with Big Finger, the supercomputer that's directing the war, or perhaps with the people who operate it.
I initially doubted that Army@Love was open-ended enough to make a viable ongoing series, but if Veitch teases out every quirk or consequence of the Motivation & Morale program he'll have stories for years to come. That's one reason he should put the retreats out in the open as soon as possible; it would let him explore the culture that supports the war as thoroughly as he's begun to explore the culture of the army that fights it. In the first issue the Secretary of Defense worries that, if word of the retreats gets out, "it will make the Abu Ghraib scandal seem like a walk in the park." Maybe Veitch has forgotten that the biggest boosters of the Iraq war are the same people who said Abu Ghraib was just "people having a good time" (while calling media coverage of American war crimes a "gang rape").
Understandably, Veitch may want to avoid home-front politics while he builds an audience, but that oversight points to the series' greatest omission and, potentially, its greatest failing: for all its postures at transgression, Army@Love is cleaner and far more decorous than the war it satirizes. Here's the cover to the second issue:
The image is clearly meant to evoke this, but the horrifying part's been cleaned up. However incongruous that pink poodle may look, at least it's a dog at the end of the dog leash.
And that's why Army@Love needs to take it up a notch, crank that guitar up to eleven and confront all the worst truths dredged up by its absurd premise. It's a good satire, but it has to go a lot farther if it's going to catch up with real life.