Saying Goodbye to ‘Unknown Soldier': The Chilling War for Lwanga Moses [Review]
Vertigo's "Unknown Soldier" by Joshua Dysart and Alberto Ponticelli has been cancelled with issue #25, news that leaked last week and was soon confirmed by Dysart. The critically-acclaimed, often brutal series is set amidst the violence and child soldiers of Uganda, where Dysart traveled personally to research the book. There are two trades on the market for 'The Unknown Soldier," as well as a free preview of the first issue on DC's site. Though it may be too little, too late, what better time than now to look back at the series and see what kind of story Dysart and Ponticelli ended up telling?
In his afterward to "Unknown Soldier" #1, Dysart says, "[...]anyway you slice it, there's something inherently immoral about crafting a sensitive, exciting, anti-war piece of pop entertainment that claims a love for a people while using the worst aspect of their lives to create drama." He's right. "Unknown Soldier" takes place in Acholiland in 2002, an area of Uganda that was riddled with strife and teeming with "internally displaced persons," refugees within their own lands.
Due to the setting, "Unknown Soldier" features child soldiers in a fairly major role. The forced conscription of children is quite possibly the most vile thing on the planet. It ruins the lives of everyone involved and robs the future of hope. As far as fodder for an action tale goes, it'd be tough to pick one more likely to break hearts and enrage readers. How do Dysart and Ponticelli navigate through the minefield of emotion that the subject matter is undoubtedly going to incite in readers?
They just go directly for the throat, keep it real, and bring you along for the ride.
The lead character, Lwanga Moses, is a Ugandan ex-pat who left the country as a small child, but returned as an adult due to his thirst for humanitarian work. An encounter with child soldiers in the brush awakens an unknown and warlike side of himself, one that has been trained to kill. While Moses shies away from killing, the soldier inside him revels in it, delivering tactical information and threat assessments quicker than Moses can think.
Dysart and Ponticelli don't break out the action movie cliches. Moses does not run into battle with two AK-47s in his fists and a knife between his gritted teeth. He doesn't spit one-liners into the faces of his enemies. No, he murders children and adults with guns and landmines at the urging of a voice in his head. They die on-panel, and bloody.
If you're reading 'Unknown Soldier' to get your action junkie fix, you're in the wrong place. The action is tight and focused, with no flourish and no style. It's brutal and not the sort of thing that makes you pump your fist. Moses is so appalled at his actions in the first story that he cuts up his own face in an attempt to carve out the evil. The voice that's telling him what to do is commanding, straightforward, and wholly immoral. Targets are targets to the voice; the mission is the most important thing, and Moses is simply along for the ride.
He hates himself for it. He fights against the voice. He thinks he wins, only to have the voice kick his legs out from under him. When he gives in to the voice, he finds out that he's just carrying out his own wishes. Murder becomes something necessary and, appallingly, casual. People die because he needs, or wants, them to be dead. The voice is always there, urging him along and insisting on heinous acts simply because they are expedient.
Dysart and Ponticelli avoid treating "Unknown Soldier" as if it were "Punisher: Uganda" and instead use the violence to show exactly what effect war has on a person and a country. Dysart has put a stunning amount of research into the project, resulting in a book that feels smarter than your average action comic. There's a care to the writing, and careful attention in the art, that keeps it from coming across exploitative.
"Unknown Soldier" is a mean little book. There is no simple good and evil dichotomy, no sides, and no clean-cut heroes to root for. Our protagonist has been thrust into a war he didn't want, but finds himself growing to accept. He willingly kills children, who have been turned into monsters by his enemies. Moses meets a young boy, Paul, who escaped a life of soldiering, but not before it left an indelible mark on his soul. We watch as everything these people know is taken from them and proved to be if not completely untrue, at least unreachable.
The connecting tissue between all of this is the war. It has touched and tainted the life of every character in the book, leading certain characters to drown in compromise and others to justify atrocities with steely resolve. It has taken Paul's innocence and turned Moses into a demon; he can't return to his wife because of the things he has done.
You're going to feel bad when reading 'Unknown Soldier,' and probably a little pissed off, but in a good way. 'Unknown Soldier' makes you feel the kind of bad that grips you and keeps you reading, with Wikipedia open in your web browser so you can get more info on the story. It pisses you off that it's based on true ideas, rather than being something that sprang from Dysart's brow. It sticks with you, and its simple approach to violence will chill you.
'Unknown Soldier' is about a man who finds out that he no longer knows himself, and his efforts to run from what he has become. It's good reading. I'll be sorry to see it go.