Title: Underground: Marsupial Outlaws and Other Rebels of Australia’s War in Vietnam
Author: Mirranda Burton
Genre: Historical Fiction; Graphic Novel
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Published: August 2021
When I was in high school, I studied the Vietnam War, but I could not comprehend the true horrors and unrest until I read Mirranda Burton’s graphic novel, Underground. Burton entwines different perspectives, time periods, movements, and countries to form a work that shows the impact the Vietnam War had on both Australian and Vietnamese people.
I must confess that when I first read the blurb and saw the cover, I was under the impression that the novel was from the perspective of a wombat who went to Vietnam to assist the Australian troops. While the story of the wombat is incorporated into the plot, the wombat acts as a metaphor to represent when soldiers burrow to forget the tragedies of war. In addition, the wombat helps to create some light-hearted relief from the death and devastation that Burton illustrates and explores in the plot. The wombat being called up to fight emphasises the main characters’ views on war—in particular conscription—as ridiculous.
While I knew the novel would be based on true events, I did not realise that it would also be based on actual activists. Burton includes activists Jean McLean, who was a convener of the Save Our Sons movement, Bill Cantwell who is a veteran of the war, and Mai Ho, a refugee who went on to help many with her volunteer work and political career. Knowing that Burton portrayed real people encouraged me to have a strong emotional response when reading sections of their plight.
The novel is told in a non-linear order, and explores the three predominant storylines of Jean, Bill, and Mai to reveal the effects of the Vietnam War both domestically and internationally through civilian, solider, and refugee perspectives. Jean’s perspective shows how Australian’s slowly began to turn on the idea of conscription, especially since it was the first war to the broadcasted-on TV. Bill’s perspective shows the brutal realities of war and gives readers a glimpse into seeing what soldiers lived through and are still reliving. Mai’s perspective shows how devastating the war was to Vietnamese families and the necessity to escape Vietnam when the war ended and a new regime took over. This shuffling of time and perspectives effectively demonstrates the immediate and long-term impact of the war.
Underground explore issues of PTSD, asylum seeker rights, human rights in war, chemical warfare implications, and more. Although Burton pairs her illustrations with text, sometimes she creates two-page spreads with no text which lets the imagery speak for itself. I found Burton’s sparse writing on pages of illustrations depicting war to be extremely effective. The small, dark imagery helped create the sensation of time passing quickly as I found myself scanning over each panel to understand what was occurring.
Underground is a fantastic graphic novel to further individuals’ learning or understanding of the Vietnam War. Similar to the broadcasting of the Vietnam War, Barton’s illustrations keep a part of history alive, albeit a sad and horrific part of history. Despite its beautiful illustrations Underground is not a light, breezy read, and it is definitely not a forgettable one.