Spider-Man stories can be fun and Batman can “save the day,” but occasionally, comics and their creators can truly capital-M Matter. Josh Dysart is one of the very rare, very few who Matter.
Dysart is taking a short break from his work writing Valiant comics to travel to the Kurdistan region of Iraq, where refugees fleeing both the Syrian civil war and the spread of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are heading in great numbers.
The region is in the grips of a humanitarian crisis of massive proportions, with more than 2 million people having fled their homes. Dysart will be on the ground with the United Nations’ World Food Programme, with the hopes of telling the WFP’s crucial story in comic form.
Dysart told the world via his website that he’d be making the trip on December 9. By the time we caught up to him on December 11, Dysart was 12 hours away from making the first leg of the journey, which will take over 30 hours in total.
Dysart is no stranger to dangerous world hot spots. While researching what would become DC Comics’ relaunch of Unknown Soldier in 2007, Dysart traveled alone to Uganda where he traveled with child soldiers, lived in refugee camps and worked at a school for war-affected children.
Dysart had very little time, as the clock was ticking to get to the airport. He paused to answer a few questions for Newsarama.
Newsarama: Josh, what’s the specific dispensation to this? You mentioned telling the story of the WFP in a way that’s approachable to everyone. On one level, is this as simple as “research for a comic story?”
Joshua Dysart: That’s exactly right. I’ve been talking to the World Food Programme for over a year, trying to figure out a way to tell this story in comics, a populist medium, to get the word out to a broad audience. It became very important as we progressed because of this funding shortfall that I wrote about on my blog, $58 million dollars. That will affect a great number of people. There are 1.9 million refugees and IDPs [Internally Displaced Persons] in Iraq.
So we began to move very fast on the idea of trying to get this out there as a storytelling device to raise money for the WFP. Hopefully next year, things will be better in a funding sense.
The issue, of course, is that we don’t want to take money away from the mission of providing food to make the comic book. That seems profoundly flawed to me, were that the case. So we’re going to start with a 10-page comic based on this trip, used to raise funds and to get people interested in doing a larger project. My hope, and this is all fluid, is that we could do weekly installments and publish them online until we get enough assets to do about a 150-page graphic novel that can really show the complexity of the whole issue of the lives of these refugees and the difficulty of getting them aid. And then, if we can publish that, that generates an income for the WFP. And if we find this is a successful way to transmit the information, maybe it can be an ongoing thing.
Nrama: You’re doing something, and that’s a very admirable thing. But there are causes all around, from WFP to Ebola, to some things including hunger right at home in your own neighborhood in Los Angeles. Why choose this one in specific?
Dysart: Right now, the struggle against ISIS and…the cultural clash, the cultural perception…I’m trying hard to find the right way to vocalize this…but right now, the images we’re getting out of this part of the world are really, really, really terrible. And the shadow of that black flag, the ISIS flag, is a poisonous concept that’s all over our media. So I think it’s really, really important to show what happens in that shadow, to show the humanity that’s being harmed behind it. I think that right now, on December 11, 2014, this place is the center of the world at this moment. Yes, there are other problems and other things to discuss, but right now, this is the flashpoint of the moment to me.
Also, simply, I just think it’s really important to support the World Food Programme. The idea that no human being should have to starve to death, regardless of the geopolitical situation they find themselves under, is a foundational concept of civilization. I wouldn’t be civilized if I didn’t do what I can.
Nrama: You’re 43, and I’m always reminded of a line I read from C.J. Chivers when he was 46. He did extensive, important, award-winning war reporting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he said that one day, he may snap a femur jumping off a rock, and this work of great import will be over for him, the decision will be made for him. Do you intend to do more work like this in the future, and do you feel any “ticking clock” element in this yourself?
Dysart: First of all, what I’m doing isn’t comparable to the amazing work that C.J. Chivers did. But…that’s an interesting question. My past is in writing simple, pop culture comics, and I had to force my way into Unknown Soldier. I had to pay my own way and go without any support from any organization to do that research back in 2007. So now [laughs] I’m just looking for whoever will work with me, you know? This is the first time an organization lent its support to me for an endeavor like this. If this ends up yielding more of this kind of work…then yeah, absolutely. I absolutely will do more.
Even as a pop-culture storyteller, I’m not an escapist at heart. I more have the soul of a documentarian. This will be really interesting work for me.
Nrama: After doing this, how do you go back to writing Valiant Comics?
Dysart: Ha! I don’t know. This week, I have this deadline I have to hit, and…it ain’t happening. I can’t hit it. I’m having a real hard time hitting it.
Nrama: But that’s the greatest freelancer excuse, right? “Sorry about the script, but I have to go feed the world!”
Dysart: [Laughs] Well, it depends on the editor. It seems to be working so far with Valiant.
But coming back gives you different perspective. I remember coming back from Africa, and I made the huge mistake of going to a party, like, the minute I landed. It was this great, shiny and bright, first-world party after a month of scrounging through northern Uganda. I got to the event, and…I was the biggest bummer at the party. I was just disconnected from the culture at home, and my immediate frame of reference seemed so bleak to everyone. I distinctly remember going to the bathroom and seeing this nice, white, porcelain toilet, and after I had been shitting in a hole for a month…I just wept. You know? It was so different to see this thing we usually never think of, and if we do, we think of as a simple utility, but in huge swaths of the world, it’s an amazing luxury. My brain couldn’t process how nice it was just to piss in a regular toilet again. I wept.
But this should be different, I hope. It’s just a 5-day adventure. It might be easier to put my head back in. Or maybe not. We’ll see.
Nrama: Not to bring you down, but have you prepared the Black Box stuff? Last will and testament? How you’ll blink a message in Morse code if captured? This is a highly dangerous area.
Dysart: I really don’t. I don’t really have anything. They can give my bicycle to my daughter, I guess. I don’t really own anything. I don’t have any of that prepared. I place my faith in the United Nations. The people I’m traveling with work this region; they get in and out all the time. So…no. None of that. If I’m lucky, the flight there will be the worst of it.