Hitting comic book stores today is the first collected edition of Joshua Dysart and Alberto Ponticelli’s Eisner nominated series, Unknown Soldier. And it arrives with all of the righteous fury that it can muster.
A couple of points right off the bat. First, is that I’m going to keep the as spoiler free as possible. Second, is that you should know going in that Unknown Soldier is not a book for everybody.
Writer Josh Dysart and artist Alberto Ponticelli have updated the classic DC Comics’ character for the modern age. Originally, a World War II character, the Unknown Soldier now appears in the terrifyingly war torn regions of Africa, specifically, Uganda. The Unknown Soldier comes via Dr. Lwanga Moses, a native of Uganda who as a boy was forced to flee with his family to America, and has since returned to the country of his birth with his wife Sera. They run a clinic in Kampala giving as much medical care as they can to people who need it so badly, that to call their need desperate would seem an understatement. When you run a medical clinic in a region caught in-between warring tribes, bad things are bound to happen. And here they do.
Unknown Soldier was a book that I was very interested in when it was first released. It’s from Vertigo and focuses on a subject that the author feels extremely passionate about, one that is totally unique among all the comic books I am reading at the moment. These are all big pluses in my book. Joshua Dysart is a writer who I haven’t read a whole lot of, but I keep hearing good things from people who know what they are talking about. And then I read that Dysart went over to Africa to research the book and I knew that eventually I was going to be checking out the collection. That much passion usually leads to powerful writing which, when coupled with a level of authenticity born from research trips, makes for exciting comics.
Africa seems to be a region that most of the Western world only pays attention to when there’s nothing else going on. I include myself in that group. If one stops to consider all that is happening in certain parts of Africa at the moment — the genocide, the generational and institutional culture of war — it can become overwhelming. Where would you even begin to try to turn things around?
This is what I thought about after finishing Unknown Soldier: Vol. 1: Haunted House.
As I said in the beginning, this is definitely not a comic book for everybody. It is stark and it is disturbing and it is violent and the things that happen in it are awful. And they are all the more awful because — the super soldier with his face wrapped in bandages aside — everything portrayed in this book happens every day in parts of Africa. It’s almost too much to bear to think about. Unknown Solider is challenging and confrontational and it will stay with you long after you’ve put it down. It’s not a light read, or something you’d pick up if you were looking to escape.
There’s a lot going on in Unknown Soldier. After Dr. Lwanga Moses has his bloody confrontation with a small band of rebels something awakens inside him. A voice tells this pacifist doctor how to fight and how to survive. Where did this voice come from and why has it started manifesting itself as a kind of a military spirit guide that appears to be Dr. Moses himself as he looked before… well, before he had to start wearing all the bandages. And what does the CIA have to do with it? There is a lot of intrigue in this book amidst the bloody, bloody violence.
As I said before, Joshua Dysart visited Uganda. He did a lot of research and took a ton of pictures and it has really paid off in this book. I can’t say for sure not having been to Africa myself, but Unknown Soldier feels like a book that is dripping with authenticity. Especially on the art side, where all those pictures that Dysart took really pay off for artist Alberto Ponticelli. In the same way that the art in Scalped creates a visual environment that almost has a tactile feel, so too does the art here. It’s the strong sense of authenticity that really sets the strong foundation on which Dysart tells his story.
Unknown Soldier is not for the faint of heart or temperament. It is absolutely worthy of all the buzz and praise that has been heaped on it in the last six months. It’s the kind of unflinching and challenging work that we don’t get enough from the big two companies. It makes you think about yourself. It makes you think about the world. And not always in a good way. We need to see more of these kind of books in comic stores.
If this all sounds good to you, you’re in luck because this very trade hits stores today and for $9.99 you can get the first six issues.
And if you want to go beyond the book, Joshua Dysart’s website contains a ton of supplemental material, including chronicles on his time in Uganda, the creative process behind making the book, and many, many fascinating essays on Uganda.