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March 21, 2012 / schulerbooks

Comic Book Corner: The Unknown Soldier

With the sudden popularity of the Kony 2012 video, people all over the world are finally becoming acquainted with Joseph Kony, head of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), and his penchant for using child soldiers to fight his battles. He stands accused of a number of truly hideous crimes against humanity, and, while you might rightfully question the ultimate motives of Invisible Children in putting the video out, the horrors the LRA have wreaked upon Africa, itself, are clear matters of historical record.

Like others, I reacted to the video with horror and sadness. I did not, however, react with shock and surprise, and for this I have to thank what might seem an unlikely source, at least to those who have not yet fully embraced a certain, burgeoning medium for what it can be, and, in some cases, already is.

I’m talking about graphic novels. Unknown Soldier, in this case. From 2008 to 2010, writer Joshua Dysart and Artist Alberto Ponticelli (amongst many other, talented hands) brought us a tale based on DC mythology, but updated with a story that was bloodily ripped from news articles, survivors’ accounts, and the shockingly violent history of that section of Africa.

I know what you might be thinking, here: “The Unknown Soldier? Isn’t that the bandage-faced disguise expert who used to stomp Nazi butt in World War II? What’s that got to do with child soldiers in Africa?”

What indeed.

This time, the Unknown Soldier is a man named Moses Lwanga: a doctor whose family fled Uganda for America when he was a young boy. Now in a position to return home to help his own people, along with his wife, Sera, he gets on the ground to discover that what’s waiting for him is ten times worse than anything he could have imagined. After one shocking incident too many, he runs off into the Bush to save a kidnapped girl, but the fight that follows sees him transformed: suddenly capable of violence he didn’t know he had in him, and using weapons and fighting training he never had time to learn.

Wracked by horrific visions — most of which involve killing his own wife — and goaded on by a dark voice in his head, Moses smashes and lacerates his own face, and then lies down, exhausted. When he comes to some time later, taken in by Nuns at a girl’s school, he’s not quite the man he was, anymore; the violent urges woken up by that battle are bubbling to the surface, and when the school itself is attacked by child soldiers, the monster comes loose again — this time with a mostly willing Moses as its instrument.

The story that followed, however truncated by flagging readership, was a near-perfect example of what the medium can do: illustrate (if you’ll excuse the phrase, however apt) a situation that doesn’t get much press outside its continent of origin by weaving harsh facts with a compelling story. Readers of Joe Sacco and Josh Neufeld will be ahead on this game, though both those gentlemen prefer to tell the story as is, without any revamped superheroes showing up. Indeed, often times the situation on the ground needs no fictional character, and in lesser hands the addition of a member of the capes and swimming trunks set turns what could have been a compelling story into a patronizing, “issue of the week” sob story.

Thankfully, Unknown Soldier was NOT done by lesser hands. By turns angry and tender, with a pulsing beat of violence threatening to erupt at any moment, and with enough of the previous Unknown Soldier’s presence throughout the book to justify the name of the book, this iteration of the character was nothing short of amazing, both in terms of the real life horrors it forced us to confront, and the unraveling of its central mystery: who IS Moses Lwanga?

The good news is that the entire story is available in trade paperback from DC/Vertigo, for those who’d care to find to answer.

–Jim, Lansing

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