The New Face of War: Joshua Dysart on Unknown Soldier

Joshua Dysart on Unknown Soldier

art from Joshua Dysart's :Unknown Soldier"
art from Joshua Dysart's :Unknown Soldier"
Credit: DC Comics
Unknown Soldier #4, in stores this week

In the world of comics, the idea of 'war' is usually relegated to superhero slugfests. As charming as those might be, they fail to really get to the heart of the true ideas and experience of war. But from time to time comics does get close, from seminal books like The 'Nam to recent efforts such asThe Other Side and most recently, The Unknown Soldier.

The name has a long history in comics, but this new Vertigo series shows a new and unconventional soldier in the wilds of Africa – Uganda to be specific. A visiting doctor and pacifist, Dr. Moses Lwanga, is pulled into the struggle and finds he knows more about war than even he knew. A hidden voice and old reflexes coming to the surface put Lwanga in an uncomfortable place – a doctor pledged to save lives, forced to kill to survive and save others.

Uganda is, and has been for some time, a hot zone with several factions fighting for control. As if war wasn't atrocious enough, one side has even resorted to using children as solders. And the new Unknown Soldier is at ground zero.

Unknown Soldier #4 was released this week, and we wanted to catch up on the book. To do that, we talked with the series writer Joshua Dysart for more.

Newsarama Note: Unknown Soldier is recommended for mature readers, and the preview images may contain mateiral not suitable for younger readers.

Newsarama: Throughout the series so far, the real name of the Unknown Soldier, Moses, takes on new meaning as just like the Biblical Moses he's shepherding refugees out of a land of strife. Are you getting biblical on us, Joshua?

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Joshua Dysart: I really didn’t mean to nail the Moses thing so hard, you know? I was sitting around writing this pitch, like three years ago, and casting about for a name when I realized that Moses is not an uncommon name in Uganda. So it stuck. I tried to change it a couple of times, mostly when things were feeling a little too heavy, but Lwanga Moses is just such a nice sounding name, it rolls right off the tongue and sticks in the mind. I couldn’t bring myself to change it, no matter how obvious it seemed. So with all of that in mind, I don’t have any real intention of consciously paralleling the biblical Moses and our protagonist. Any similarities you’ll have to chalk up to the Jungian unconscious.

NRAMA: Blame Jung! Regardless, Moses and the refugees are trying to escape the war-torn region, but for refugees where is there to go?

JD: Well, they’re not necessarily trying to escape the region, although that would be awesome. The south of Uganda is relatively stabilized. But first and foremost they need to get into the care of a GUSCO center or a similar NGO that will help them resocialize. They can also seek shelter in a major town with governmental protection. The role of the resocialization orgs will be explored in the second arc, “Easy Kill”.

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NRAMA: Recently you introduced the character Lieutenant Ilakut of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). Will we be seeing more of him?

JD: Yes. He’s our Hans Gruber. You know, the villain from Die Hard? So expect a show down at some point. Of course he’s not as suave or well spoken as Gruber… but then Ilakut doesn’t have the benefits of a “classical education”.

NRAMA: And in the back of his head, this new Unknown Soldier hears advice and complex military tactical information.. but he's just a doctor. The big question is 'where is this information coming from?'. What's behind the secret?

JD: To me that’s not really the big question. I mean we are all a lie to some degree. So Moses turned out to be a really big lie, oh well. Why or how he’s a lie is just a matter of plot mechanics. For me, what causes the voice isn’t the big question. The big question is how much of Moses’ actions are made by personal choice and how much are coming from an unknown source? Where is free will in all of this and where is socialization, or programming or even pre-determinism? That’s what’s interesting to me.

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NRAMA: The first thing that struck me about this book is how, unlike in most comics, you're using real life modern historical places and topics as opposed to veiled stand-ins and fake countries. Why'd you decide to do that?

JD: Well, I guess that real people and their histories are what I draw inspiration from in my pulp. It’s just how I get inspired. When you are dealing with a real situation you have an added responsibility, but you also have an added power, there’s an engine at the heart of the work that drives it in a way no amount of fictionalization can.

NRAMA: How does basing it on real places where the war is still happening affect how you write the series?

JD: The war has changed drastically since 2002, but still, Kony is alive, and he’s currently on the run towards C.A.R with three separate armies on his ass. So writing about a conflict that is unresolved does gives our book a certain immediacy.

NRAMA: Central in this book is the use of children as soldiers in Kony's LRA. The subject of children fighting and dying is a tough subject – did you have any apprehension in going into this?

JD: Yes. Huge. I still have apprehensions about it. My next book is going to be about cyborg monkeys who travel to the center of the earth to fight giant spiders. Maybe I’ll feel more free and easy with that one.

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NRAMA: Back in 2007 you traveled to Uganda as research for this book. Can you tell us about your experience?

JD: Well, that’s a wide open question with a very, very long answer… but simply-put… it was one of the best experiences of my life. It was also very emotionally intense. Vivid, joyous, sad and beautiful. I highly recommend people vacation in Uganda. It’s one of the safest nations in East Africa and there are so many wonderful, wonderful things to see and do. Plus, the people are just amazing.

NRAMA: An interesting turn for this book is the fact that from the outset, the identity of the Unknown Soldier is known to us. If he's known, what is the unknown here?

JD: The title doesn’t necessarily suggest that the “unknown” will be kept from the reader. It’s more about what the characters themselves do not know. The voice in Moses is an unknown soldier to him. Moses, in turn, becomes an unknown soldier to the Acholi people. Kony is an unknown soldier to the world. And this war is an unknown war. So there are lots of unknowns here. On top of it all, there’s also the notion of the Unknown Soldier that was put forth in the 1950’s Finnish novel of the same title, meaning the unknown plight of the common soldier during the timeless act of war. I think that’s part of our play on the title as well.

NRAMA: This title has a big history in comics, although your incarnation is new. How does this book tie in with the previous Unknown Soldier stories?

JD: That’s a surprise for the readers to find out. Although the astute among you have probably already got a pretty strong lock on it at this point.

NRAMA: One issue I saw brought up early on was the role of religion – specifically Christianity. Will religion play a bigger role as the series progresses?

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JD: Christianity is a huge thing in Uganda and a defining aspect of this war. The British conquered with the bible before they conquered with the gun. Christianity is so pervasive that many American evangelicals and faith healers tour there often and fill whole soccer stadiums. Most of them charging, what to a Ugandan can be a great deal of money, to - I feel - prey on their belief.

NRAMA: In the Vertigo column "On The Edge", you describe yourself as an off-again on-again pacifist. Where does that thin line between the two lie for you, and how does it relate to this book?

JD: Truth is, I’m not a pacifist. I don’t identify myself as that any more. I was once. And I do still see violence as the absolute last resort. I, for instance, do not agree with Moses’ actions in this book. The use of violence calls for great care as it virtually always causes more problems then it solves. Kill a man and you make an enemy of his whole family. Kill a people and you make an enemy of the world. So, not even speaking morally, just pragmatically, violence should only be used as an absolute final means of problem solving. The question is, who decides when all the other avenues of negotiation and problem solving have been fully exhausted? That question is mankind’s perpetual struggle. And that’s a lot of what I hope this book is about.

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