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“Oppressor, Destroyer, Liberator, Protector”: Unknown Soldier #21 [Review]


Throughout his run on “Unknown Soldier” Joshua Dysart has found ways to tell emotionally resonant stories steeped in the culture and history of a region that has been troubled by violence and war for decades. But his latest issue, with art by Rick Veitch, is a stunning achievement in storytelling that’s one of the finest yet in a series that’s been consistently one of the better comics to hit shelves.

In “Unknown Soldier” #21 Dysart tells the story of a single 1947-model Kalashnikov automatic rifle, better known as an AK-47. Beginning with moments in the life of the gun’s designer, Mikhail Kalashnikov, Dysart then proceeds to the manufacture of this one particular gun in 1976. Narrating from the gun’s perspective, the story then follows it for a period of nearly thirty years as it passes from conflict to conflict in Africa. Through a series of owners who all have different needs for the weapon, Dysart thoughtfully examines the changing fortunes of a region, how outside influences shaped its development and how one relatively simple piece of technology can have such a profound and unintended effect far from the land where it was created. By limiting the perspective to one gun, the result is a personal view of larger historical events, with each individual story often ending with the most violent consequences. And as more and more accounts take a similarly unpleasant end, a cohesive picture of a cycle of cruel violence emerges.

“Unknown Soldier” #21 requires no familiarity with the rest of the series to appreciate. The gun does intersect with the life of main character Dr. Moses Lwanga at one point in its history, but this is the sort of book that could be picked up, read and appreciated by anyone. And I don’t just mean regardless of whether or not they’ve ever read an issue of “Unknown Soldier,” I mean whether or not they’ve ever read any comic, ever.

It’s unfortunate bordering on tragic that the book is being cancelled after the twenty-fifth issue due to low sales. Dysart’s telling the sort of stories that help us envision and try to understand the very real and often unpleasant lives experienced by people elsewhere in the world in which we live. That’s a rare thing to see in a medium filled mostly with escapism, and the fact that he’s been able to construct fascinating narrative arcs at the same time is no easy feat. If you haven’t been reading “Unknown Soldier,” and just going by the sales it’d seem a lot of people haven’t, I highly recommend reading this issue and then starting from issue one if you’re impressed by it.

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