For those who don't know, The Unknown Soldier was a comic book based war hero from the late '60s. War comics were popular and through the '60s and '70s, and The Unknown Soldier, a bandaged and scarred master of disguises, bedeviled the Nazi's during World War II for close to a hundred issues. His run ended in 1982.
Last October, DC's Vertigo imprint (known for its less mainstream, but generally more literary, comics) decided to turn to writer Joshua Dysart to revive the character and now, instead of a Guns of Navarone-style action book, we have a very mature look into a conflict under-reported by the media and a story that offers a complex look at the cognitive dissonance of a war.
Changing the setting to the 2002 conflict in Uganda, Joshua Dysart and artist Alberto Ponticelli paint a vivid picture of a civilization coming undone by the indignities of war. Dr. Moses Lwanga stars as the modern version of the titular character. He's a pacifist and an African-born American doctor who goes back to Uganda in the middle of the conflict for humanitarian purposes. Haunted by dreams and visions, he's soon disfigured in an encounter with a pair of child soldiers, goes missing and crazy, and soon declares a bloody personal war with the local rebels. The Unknown Soldier is permeated by that ambiguous tug of war between getting results through conflict or non-violence and makes for a very engaging read. The book serves both as an entertainment, (it is a highly enjoyable read) and an historical document, shedding light on Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army and the under-reported travesties in that time and place.
I was able to talk to Dysart recently about the book, comics and the politics of the Ugandan conflict. He brings an unparalleled level of realism to the conflict, and part of his ability to do that came from an extended stay in Africa.
"Once I visited the place, and lived with the people, and ate at their table, and spent time at the [internally displaced person] camps, and I rode with the World Food Program trucks, and I interviewed child soldiers and UPDF soldiers, and you don't just walk away from that and think, 'Man, I'm going to write this totally exploitative, careless book.' You're suddenly obligated. You suddenly carry the weight of the conflict on your shoulders."
The book is raw and violent and captures the essence of brutality inherent in African conflicts that utilize child soldiers, but Dysart was quick to point out that the book isn't exactly a social justice awareness piece (though some like myself might mistake it for that), "What we're going for is a more meta-education about the world in general, just getting people interested in pursuing the details of these conflicts that happen in the continent of Africa or in Southeast Asia. Since the details [of the conflict in the current Unknown Soldier comic] are no longer pertinent, I hope the reader takes a larger look at the issue of child soldiers, which I think will be the social justice issue of the future, a larger look at how we integrate with the world, and how we ignore conflicts that are happening all around us. So, if it does anything, other than entertain as a comic book, I hope it does those things."
Though the war depicted in the book is over, Kony is still a threat in the region and there is still quite a bit to do to help prop the continent up. Since he's been there and is tapped into the pulse of the region more than most, I asked Dysart what he thinks people who read the book and are concerned can do to help. He explained that if you find a region that you're interested in, investigate it further and do your research, because each region is unique and has different solutions, "But one thing I would like to see," he went on, "is everyone invest in micro-loan companies that are operating in Northern Uganda right now. Micro-loans will get the Acholi economy on its feet. Also, I'd like to see people investigate the options there are in getting these [child soldiers] treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder."
In order to help keep readers (and any passing members of the public) involved in the current situation, Dysart has created a blog (http://joshuadysart.com/unknownsoldier/) where he updates periodically with information and essays about the region.
At the end of the day, I felt this book was very, very good. The art was well rendered, the story well told, and reading it made me feel like I'd been somewhere I hadn't been before. The first trade paperback (collecting issues 1-6) is available now, and I would highly recommend reading it.
During our interview, we talked much more in depth about the issues raised in the comic book and a little bit about other work he's done in the field (particularly his work on Mike Mignola's B.P.R.D. which is a spin-off of the immensely popular Hellboy franchise.) The Geek Show Podcast has been kind enough to host the audio of the full interview on their iTunes feed and you can download it in its entirety here.