Joshua Dysart — The Unknown Soldier (Vertigo)

I’ve been thinking a bit about doing some reviews of some of the things I read, if only to make this blog a little less . . . dumb. I’ve been reading a lot of fantastic writing lately, as I’ve tried to branch into reading stuff all over the literary map. It’s been heaps o’ fun, especially since I haven’t touched much fiction over the last few years. Tonight, after sitting down and reading a graphic novel that just came out a week ago, I decided this would be the one to kick it off because it is really, really good. I posted a version of this review initially on my GoodReads page, then left it over at the comic site I frequent, and still didn’t feel like I was doing my part enough to spread the word. So dig this. . . .

The Unknown Soldier
Written by Joshua Dysart; Art by Alberto Ponticelli

I first became aware of writer Joshua Dysart a couple years ago because he was working on a miniseries from Dark Horse Comics called Conan and the Midnight God. At the time I was almost exclusively buying Conan stuff, so I was all over it. I enjoyed the series, and actually exchanged a few messages with Joshua via our MySpace accounts. We also talked a little bit about an upcoming project (which I believe is still in process) he would be writing, the graphic novelization of Neil Young’s Greendale album/story. While we didn’t discuss it, I was well aware that many of Dysart’s MySpace “friends” were of a political bent very similar to mine, and I was pleased.

Fast forward a couple years and I find myself returned to actively reading about, following, and even buying comic stuff again. I was pleased to see Dysart was still in action; I started buying B.P.R.D. 1947, a new installment in a series I’ve always been interested in, and figured with his name in the credits it was a perfect time to start. I also knew he’d been writing The Unknown Soldier, so when the first trade came out last week collecting the first 6 issues, I picked it up.

The Unknown Soldier is powerful, powerful graphic storytelling. The Unknown Soldier character goes back to the 40s, originally, then was revived again in the 60s by DC Comics. It was the tale of a GI with his face hidden by bandages, fighting the good fight in WWII. For his story, Dysart has taken this theme, reworked it, and made it one of the most compelling trades I’ve read.

Moses Lwanga is an American doctor who has returned to Uganda, where he was born, to try and work for peace. Situations rapidly deteriorate, as situations tend to do in Africa, and he becomes the modern version of the Unknown Soldier. We also see flashbacks or visions that indicate maybe he isn’t entirely what he thinks he is, ala the Jason Bourne stories/movies, as his ability to fight, and kill, exceeds what one might expect from a man of his supposed background. This is the story of a man fighting against a corrupt government’s military, as well as against the rebels that oppose it. Think child soldiers. Think ghastly rapes and murder, and a whole lot of hopelessness. Meanwhile Lwanga wrestles with himself because he knows violence only begets violence, but he is compelled to eradicate it all single-handedly if he must. Believe me, my words over simplify the story Dysart is telling, but to explain further would reveal too much. It is heavy, heavy stuff.

What I love about this book is how Dysart has taken something he is passionate about — modern Africa — and worked raising awareness of its problems into the story he is telling, and doing it without sounding preachy. There aren’t good guys vs. bad guys — it is just a whole lot of bad, and the people who suffer the most are the ones who least deserve to. This is grim stuff, and probably not for everybody, but it is real. Meanwhile the main character has deep flaws, which only enhances the compelling narrative.

I sometimes squirm over all the violence in these “mature” lines from comics publishers — DC’s Vertigo line, Marvel’s MAX line, and indie publishers like Avatar, for example — because some of it seems like violence simply for the sake of violence (see, these days in comics they can get away with ultra-violence and still have the books on the racks next to “regular” comics, but sex is still pretty heavily regulated, a situation I find really freakin’ stupid). But the horrors Dysart portrays here are real, they are tragedies that happen every day; he knows, because he has traveled extensively in the areas he is writing about, and has documented these trips via his website. It is grim stuff, and Dysart writes about it fearlessly.

The art by Alberto Ponticelli is perfect for this. The scenes of the villages and landscapes are captured beautifully, and the colors are outstanding (normally mainstream comics art is divided up by pencils, inks and colors, but looking at the credits I’m led to believe that Ponticelli did all 3; if that is the case, then I am triply impressed!). The two creators combine for a magnificent one-two punch.

I was blown away by The Unknown Soldier. Kudos to Joshua Dysart for finding a way to blend social commentary — and activism — in a mainstream comics medium. This is what I talk about when I rave about how comics are underrated as an art form. If any of this sounds interesting, I urge you to check out Dysart’s website, then buy the book; preferably at your LCS (Local Comics Shop), or online if you don’t have one.

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