The United Nations classifies emergencies it responds to into three levels. L-3 is Level 3, the highest and most severe. It likely comes as no surprise that the humanitarian crisis in Iraq and Syria, in which millions of people have been killed or driven from their homes owing to civil war and the threat of Islamic State, is an L-3 emergency.
The United Nations has responded. And in his own way, so has writer Joshua Dysart.
Dysart connected with the U.N.'s World Food Program (WFP), which is feeding hundred of thousands of people in refugee camps. And Dysart is telling the story of this L-3 emergency in LL-3 (or Living Level 3), a 35-page comic book he's written which will see serialization on The Huffington Post starting the week of Jan. 18.
Dysart is no stranger to dangerous world hot spots. While researching what would become DC Comics’ relaunch of Unknown Soldier in 2007, the writer went alone to Uganda where he traveled with child soldiers, lived in refugee camps and worked at a school for war-affected children.
Dysart’s new story focuses on Naser Bushar, a very real Iraqi boy who was captured by and later escaped ISIS; and Leila Helal, a stand-in for the “everyman” of the WFP workers.
Dysart’s experience was vital, a little dangerous, and ultimately, one he hopes to continue.
Newsarama: Josh, how did you get hooked up with the U.N.'s World Food Program in the first place? Did you just click "contact us" on the Website, or was it something deeper?
Joshua Dysart: My friend, the comic writer Ande Parks, was contacted by WFP and asked if he wanted to go to central Africa to work on a project for them. He said no, but he said he knew who would want to, so he sent them to me. Because of my previous work on Unknown Soldier, I immediately knew I was the person to do this, and I wanted to do this. So I had a few calls, and we started getting the ball rolling.
It took a couple of years to get things in line, because one of the main concerns WFP had was funding; how they were going to pay for this. So flash forward and we have this summer of Da’esh , this notorious and terrible summer where they suddenly rose to infamy in Iraq, and that became the flashpoint and the need in the moment, to tell that story. So in December of 2014, I flew to Kurdish Iraq to gather information.
Newsarama: Now you say Da'esh, and of course we've also heard ISIS and ISIL. Is that your preferred term for that group, and if so, is there anything to that?
Dysart: It is my preferred term. The problem with calling them IS or ISIS or ISIL is that it’s legitimizing language. They are not a state. They are not representative of a larger Muslim political body.
And Da’esh was the term I kept hearing people use in the region. It’s derived from a kind of collapsed Arabic phrase, but also done in a way that’s a play on the language, and it's insulting, the way it's used. As I started to work on this project, we really wrestled with this, because we know ISIS has better “name recognition,” I guess, but ultimately we made the decision to go this way. Then I noticed that people in the West were finally clueing into the use of Da'esh as well, particularly after the Parisian attacks. It’s something that’s gaining ground.
And again, I stress, any other name legitimizes them too much. They are not legitimate.
Nrama: In the comic book, Da'esh have no faces; they’re only black smudges. I assume this is another mechanism to de-legitimize them?
Dysart: It was very, very hard to be with this population who had suffered so much and lost everything—their homes, their sisters and brothers and sons and daughters—and find any way to dignify Da’esh as “people.” So the device of scratching out their faces kind of becomes a way to vandalize their identity. It became kind of a stance on the part of the whole creative team as to how we were going to portray who was committing these atrocities. Their acts are inhuman, and so are they.
Nrama: How long were you there, and where were you?
Dysart: I was on the ground for five days, but it was a really packed five days. I landed in Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan [in northern Iraq]. We traveled to the Turkish border, and followed that border along to the Syrian border, and then finally back to Erbil, going around Mosul.
Nrama: That’s…a pretty dangerous area.
Dysart: Yeah. Yes. I mean, obviously, we were in controlled zones the entire time, but in that five days, I really needed to see, as close as I could, the areas where the refugees were pouring in. And they’re really pouring out of Syria and out of Turkey. There’s really no way to tell that story without getting as close as you can and, hopefully, still be safe.
Nrama: Were you safe? Was there an instance or perhaps just a general feeling of fear for life and limb?
Dysart: I wasn't really afraid. But maybe I should have been? I felt very secure in the WFP security bubble. And I spent some time in 2007 on the Ugandan/Sudanese border by myself without any kind of security extension, and that felt dodgier for me than this was. Though, in fact, if you look at the political situation, this was a much more dangerous region for me to be traveling in. I had a sense of security being inside the Kurdish areas. I don’t think WFP would have taken a comic book writer into an area they knew wasn’t safe.
Nrama: Out of the many things you saw and the many people you spoke to, how did you choose the particular narrative you did?
Dysart: I’m not sure how I collapsed all these stories into the one narrative. There’s an art, you know, in anything you write, in trying to take all the thoughts and feelings you might have about something and making it work in a way that doesn’t feel too dense and I hope we hit it here and we have a decent thruline.
This was a difficult juggling in act in that you want to tell every single story. They’re so heartbreaking! It’s so visceral to sit and hear all these very human, very intense tragedies, and you come away with this great and immense responsibility to quote-unquote “do it justice.” You want to tell every story, but you can’t.
So I picked the central narrative of a boy and his sister who are captured by Da’esh, and the boy gets away and the sister doesn’t. I think that kind of lenses the story through a whole family, including the mother and father and their fears, and we can all identify with someone in that dynamic. It tells the story of being kidnapped by Da’esh, and the story of the horrible way in which women, particularly young girls, are viewed and used in this conflict. And all these aspects touch on the things I heard from people in the refugee camps time and time again: People being driven from their homes, people witnessing atrocities Da’esh committed.
The boy was a real boy. I hung out with him in his temporary home that organizations there had provided. And I found that if I could tell his story and tell it right, I could tell all the other stories that I heard as well, to one degree or another.
And the fictional WFP worker was an amalgam of different WFP workers I had met. That allowed me to say something about these divisions between the developed world, and these places where there are fractures and lack of stability.
Nrama: I’ve heard it reputed that relief workers on famine aid are basically on the “buddy system” to make sure that they themselves eat. Sometimes, people coming from a better situation feel guilty when they’re in that environment. Did you feel anything akin to a “survivor’s guilt,” or there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I?
Dysart: That's remarkably similar to what I felt when I came back after doing the Unknown Soldier research as well. I think it’s impossible to come back here and be given all the economic and social advantages and stability we have, and not sit there and think, “Whoa, why do I deserve this, when so many others don’t have it?” And the question really becomes, “Well, what do we do now? How do we make things better?”
And I spent some time pondering my good intentions. I question if this did anything at all. Did I just go over there and use everyone’s resources and time and just occupy space for my own sense of adventure? Or was this meaningful? Maybe I spend a little too much time in my head, but I can’t help but ask these questions of myself. My hope is that in the work I did and in the space allotted, I address this, and that ultimately we’ll do some good.
Nrama: How was the creative team assembled? I know you have history with Alberto Ponticelli from Unknown Soldier…
Dysart: I floated the names of some people I wanted to work with who I knew had the passion for a project like this to WFP. One of the names was Alberto Ponticelli, and another was Pat Masioni, a gentleman from the Democratic Republic of Congo who’s now living in France. Alberto drew the book, and Pat colored it. I worked with them both previously on Unknown Soldier. I floated a bunch of choices to the U.N., and I’m really pleased they picked these guys, and I think the two of them really brought a great sense of time and place and a true documentarian style to this.
Nrama: You’re one rando dude back in the United States, but the reality of our surroundings is that we do live in a post-Charlie Hebdo world. Do you feel as though you may have unnecessarily put a target on yourself?
Dysart: [long pause] I never really think about that. It really doesn’t dawn on me unless people ask me that question. I guess my short answer is “no.” The story that we tell is a truthful one, and that should never be dangerous.
Nrama: Are you done now? Have you put in your time, and can rest easy and stay out of hot zones?
Dysart: Well, I’d be lying if I didn’t say I have further intentions with this project. I’d really like it if this small, 35-pager is seen as a valid way to tell stories, and I could take the quote-unquote “property” that is LL-3, Living Level 3, and turn it into a series of comic stories in future flashpoint areas. I came in thinking it was very likely I’d never get this opportunity again, to tell this kind of story with this kind of access and relative security provided by the apparatus of WFP. But if we can keep telling the story of WFP and the people they serve, I think that can only be a good thing.
I’d like to be able to continue to create great, compelling fiction that takes place in Level-3 zones so that we can engage a population and make them feel like they’re involved in a part of the world they might have otherwise totally ignored. If you can whet the whistle and make people feel something about these other populations and these situations, maybe you can change the world just a little bit. I’d like to hope that maybe this is just the starting point.
—You can find out more about the World Food Program and donate to its mission at www.WFP.org