January 4, 2014

This Comic Is History: Heart of Darkness: Vertigo/Joshua Dysart’s Unknown Soldier

As we begin a new year Comic Attack brings a new This Comic Is History! For those of you who are unfamiliar with what goes on here, this particular column specializes with those comics and graphic novels that were influenced by history! With a that being said, we’d also like to welcome Cameron Crump into the fold as he gives us a look at the DC/Vertigo classic, Unknown Soldier!


scan0001What is it about children and tragedy? Why is it the shields we so carefully craft around our hearts to protect us fail us so utterly when we are forced to see a child suffer? We look away, we change the channel, we push it from our minds, we forget and history forgets because ultimately it’s impossible to live happy lives bearing knowledge that the world is often the most awful to those who are the least deserving of hardship. Take for instance the Children’s Crusade of 1212: a semi-factual account of a band of some thirty thousand French and German kids being so inspired by the word of Christ that they abandoned their homes and families to march to Jerusalem and peacefully convert Muslims into Christians, sustained only by the belief in the good in the hearts of all mankind. They traveled for thousands of miles suffering, starving, and begging in abject poverty until reaching into the Mediterranean Sea when they happened upon two merchants who offered them safe passage across to Jerusalem and when they accepted and the boarded the merchants’ ships, the children were promptly chained up and sold into slavery.

Not a story you hear about a whole lot when you hear about The Crusades in video games like Dante’s Inferno or movies like Robin Hood, but it happened; it’s just not something history wants to think about. scan0007Such is the case of Joshua Dysart’s Eisner Award nominated and Glyph Award winning run on DC/Vertigo’s Unknown Soldier. For the uninitiated, The Unknown Soldier was created by Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert and the character was inspired by the practice of many nations honoring their unidentifiable war-fallen with memorials following World War I.  The Unknown Soldier first appeared in a Sgt. Rock story in Our Army at War #168 in 1966. The character’s premise was that of an expert warrior and master of disguise who could single-handedly turn the tide of a battle with well-timed and decisive action. When not in disguise, he wore medical bandages around his head concealing the disfiguring scars he received in the Philippines during the Pacific War, when a grenade was thrown into his foxhole during a battle with Japanese soldiers. His brother, in the foxhole with him, jumped on the grenade which saved his life and yet the blast was still powerful enough to mutilate his face. The trauma of his brother’s death and his own wounds put the Unknown Soldier into such a rage that he single-handedly slaughters the rest of his attackers and wins the battle. Afterward he turns down the Congressional Medal of Honor and volunteers to become a highly trained Army Intelligence Officer. His previous identity gets erased, he gets the codename: Unknown Soldier, and he dedicates himself to being “…the one man at the right place” to change the tide of a battle.

scan0006The stories were hyper patriotic, war glorifying, over-simplistic and kinda racist until 1997 when Garth Ennis stepped on to the title. Ennis, who already had a reputation of hard hitting narratives and razor sharp commentary through the medium on books such as his “Dangerous Habits” run on Hellblazer in ’94 and his work on his now legendary original title Preacher in ’95, told the story of the underlying realities of being the Unknown Soldier. Ennis, over a four issue miniseries, paints the portrait of the Unknown Soldier as a dog of war. A ruthless jingoistic monster who would (and does) gun down a hospital full of wounded with an M60 unflinchingly if it helped preserve the American way of life. The hidden history of the Unknown Soldier was being unraveled by a straight laced C.I.A agent who unbeknownst to him was being groomed to replace the aging monster. The story showcased Ennis’s dark wit and flair for instilling humanity back into lifeless stereotypes turned tropes but it was the realism interjected into the main characters mythos that seemed to resonate with readers. It was that realism which laid the foundation for Joshua Dysart’s run on the title in ’08.

Do you remember Kony 2012, the 30 minute documentary that went viral the year it was released about Ugandan “Rebel Leader” Joseph Kony? A figure from a poll published in the British newspaper The Guardian said that more than half of all young Americans had at least heard of the documentary. Reader of this article, how much do you remember about Joseph Kony? Anything? If you find you’re having a hard time recalling, allow me to remind you why you let yourself forget. Joseph Kony is the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army. Part guerilla insurgency, part Christian militia/cult, the LRA joined in the standing practice of forcing children into military services but went even further beginning a campaign of genocide, mutilation, child abduction, systemic child rape, murder and sex slavery under the nationalist banner of purification and preservation of the Acholi state. Proclaiming himself to be both prophet of the god of Abraham as well as a traditional African mystic, Kony was believed to have up to three thousand orphaned children trained and traumatized into being killers and rapists in 2007, effectively creating an army that no western government could fight using traditional means without committing atrocious war crimes. This is the world of Dysart’s Unknown Soldier.

Joshua Dysart’s Unknown Soldier is a pacifist doctor and civil rights activist named Moses Lwanga; scan0004Maybe. A Ugandan refugee who fled with his parents during the regime of Idi Amin, he was raised and educated in the United States and the start of the book finds him heading back to his homeland on a humanitarian mission to aid the thousands of people in Acholiland, displaced into refugee camps as a result of the conflict between Kony’s LRA and the western-backed Ugandan People’s Defense Force. Only when Moses Lwanga finds himself alone being held at gunpoint in the bush, his protective detail killed by a thirteen year old with an AK-47, does something cold, violent and ruthless awaken within him in the form of a dark voice with tactical knowledge and military training that Moses should not have. A voice that horrifies the pacifist doctor with its willingness to accomplish a task by any means, even if it has to slaughter child soldiers to do it. A voice that saves his life at the cost of his innocence and sanity.

Dysart spent a month in northern Uganda doing the background for the title and over the course of 25 amazing issues he weaves a pitch black tale where children die, assassins threaten the lives of scan00014celebrities and absolutely no one walks away with their hands clean. Featuring the stunning artwork of Alberto Ponticelli, Pat Masioni, Oscar Celestini and José Villarrubia, the book’s celebrated and controversial run was canceled due to low sales. A tragic consequence of not only DC/Vertigo’s lack of substantial support for the title but also the chilling cost of asking people to take a good hard look at the horrors of the real world around them. This glimpse into the heart of madness and the all too real truths of impoverished international warzones is entirely worth your attention with its fantastic story-telling and outstanding artwork. Go pick up the trades, let the abyss stare back into you, and get some history in your life.

Cameron Crump



One Comment

  1. I have to find and read these. I’ve never even heard of them before now.

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