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Interview with Joshua Dysart

Written by Eli Katz on Tuesday, May 25 2010 and posted in Features

The most intellectual Outhouser, Eli Katz, shares his correspondence with Unknown Soldier creator Joshua Dysart!

{nomultithumb}News broke last week that Vertigo would be canceling UNKNOWN SOLDIER after issue 25. Written by Joshua Dysart and illustrated primarily by Alberto Ponticelli, the book has taken the familiar, bandaged-wrapped DC character and placed him in the nightmarish Ugandan civil war. Dr. Moses Lwanga, growing frustrated with the never-ending brutality that surrounds him, mutilates his face and takes up arms against the Ugandan rebels. The book has a lot of similarities to those classic, Charles Bronson-style revenge stories, where the heroes are more violent than the villains they pursue. But UNKNOWN SOLDIER distinguishes itself from this gory genre by including tremendous detail and insight into Uganda's troubled political past. It's as much a meditation on the failure of violence as it is a pulpy comic book thriller.

Over the last six months, I have had the pleasure of exchanging emails with Joshua Dysart and discussing with him some of the unavoidable difficulties of telling such a politically charged story. For those of you who haven't given this book a shot, I hope the interview below encourages you to get off your butts and buy the first two trades. You'll find that Joshua Dysart has done an incredible amount of research, making this one of the most authentic and realistic comic book stories around.


ELI KATZ: Joshua, I'm a longtime comic book fan and a Ph.D. student in political science. So forgive me if I feel as though UNKNOWN SOLDIER is being written specifically for me, but it takes my two biggest interests--crime comics and politics--and blends them together in a really smart, dynamic package. You and Alberto Ponticelli blow me away month after month, the way you insert complex moral and political issues in a fast-moving plot. The first arc, HAUNTED HOUSE, impressed me; the second arc, EASY KILL, knocked my socks off.

But as much as I love this series, I do have two concerns about the book. The first is that I fear you are quickly pushing yourself into a narrative corner and that the series will end, inevitably, with Moses' death. He is embracing violence with such enthusiasm now that, if someone doesn't put him out of his misery soon, he will certainly do it himself in a rare moment of moral clarity.

I have seen this happen before with another gritty comic book that I loved--the Vigilante series from the 1980s. As far as I'm concerned, it remains the most gripping examination of what it would really be like to put on a mask, pack a .44 Magnum, and kill thugs. Adrian Chase, the Vigilante, falls deeper and deeper into an alcoholic-fueled depression until he oversteps all moral boundaries and ends up shooting innocent cops who cross his path. There is no way for him to redeem himself after that, or to justify his violent crusade against organized crime, and so he shoots himself in the head.

As I said, I fear that Moses is moving quickly beyond redemption as a character and that he will soon follow the same tragic logic that led Adrian Chase to suicide. Moses' killing of child soldiers has been disturbing, to say the least, even if some of the early killings were more panic driven than intentional. But if Moses continues to act as ruthlessly as he did in the first two arcs, he will be completely lost. There will be no realistic way to bring the man back to sanity, let alone integrity, and he will either have to kill himself or be killed swiftly like a rabid dog. Perhaps that's your intention: to chronicle a once-thoughtful man's destruction. I hope not; I have read too many stories like that already and would prefer a more inventive and unexpected outcome.

Joshua Dysart JOSHUA DYSART: Your concerns are valid. I'm not sure how caught up you are on the series but you've probably noticed that we deal with different issues in each arc. HAUNTED HOUSE is about, as you said, the battlefield, and the realities and complications of fighting a war against a child army. EASY KILL is about the complexities of the DEAD AID debate that's facing Africa now and, to a lesser degree, the physics of good intentions when Western and Eastern nations assume roles of paternal responsibility in the developing world. The arc that's happening now, THE WAY HOME, is about the rehabilitation and reintegration of the child soldier, not just through organizations designed specifically for that purpose, but also in how the children are treated when they return to their clans and families. The next arc, DRY SEASON, discusses further the life of Internally Displaced refugees. So if you'll notice, Moses hasn't actually killed any kids since issue 8 and we just published 14. That is no longer the core focus of our book. Been there, done that, as it were. The immediacy of the death of the children served its purpose for our narrative for a while, but it's no longer necessary and it runs the risk of becoming gratuitous.

However, I can't entirely assuage your fears about Moses' irredeemable path. One of our major themes is the loss of innocent life in a war zone. I'm afraid to say that Moses will continue to kill people who both do and do not deserve to die (assuming anyone ever deserves to die... another perennial question of the series). Whether this leads to him putting a gun to his head (something he tried in the very first issue) or to be put down like a rabid dog or to just gloriously walk into the sunset with the head of rebel leader Kony in one hand and his other arm around his wife's shoulders as she walks along side him... I prefer not to say.

As for Vigilante, I'm a big fan of that series as well.

EK: Now, my second concern with UNKNOWN SOLDIER has to do with the portrayal of battlefield violence. I think you and Alberto Ponticelli have done a very good job of depicting the brutality of civil war realistically without dwelling on its most horrific aspects, such as sexual mutilation and cannibalism. But I do think it would be a shame to continue the series without showing that there are ways to deal with child soldiers on the battlefield without simply killing them. I don't mean long-term therapy, either, because therapy is obviously not an option in the heat of a military engagement.

JD: First off, there is some generalizing going on here. You're making a blanket statement about cannibalism and sexual mutilation and applying them to all low impact guerrilla warfare groups and militant autonomist and secessionist movements.

Our book is incredibly regionally specific, and purposefully so. Great care has been taken to deal with how Uganda’s rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army, and the Ugandan military operated in 2002 along the Sudan-Uganda border to the best of our ability. (The LRA is a very different, pan-African organization today than it was then.) What the Jinjaweed do in Sudan and Chad, what the Mai-Mai do in the DRC, what the Gambella Peoples Liberation Front do in Ethiopia--what any such group does are all different and culturally specific. For instance, rape was institutionalized as marriage by the LRA and many have claimed that the extensive cases of rape in the region at this time were actually performed by the Ugandan army, not the LRA. On the West Coast, drugs are used to crack the moral construct of the child soldier. The LRA is vehemently against drugs and, in many ways, is far more conservative (reflecting the deep river of faith that runs through East Africa) than East or West Coast rebels. So, for instance, you mention sexual cannibalism here. While Acholi have claimed to witness this, there is no real evidence that cannibalism has ever occurred in the LRA ranks (in all probability it hasn't). I did have a child soldier tell me that he was forced to bite a human being to death, but this does not constitute cannibalism. There are instances of sexual mutilation in Uganda’s civil war, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

Having said all of that, let me just add that yes... the basic sentiment of your comment is true. There is much I leave out of this book. Some things are too horrible to ask the reader to endure. I feel we get the spirit of horror without creating outright torture porn with the violence we do depict, and in the interest of honesty we allude to quite a bit we don't show.

EK: It's exciting--and impressive--to read a series that is so thoroughly researched. You appear to have a David Simon-like compulsion for accuracy. And I mean that as the highest possible compliment.

But let me expand my point about the issue of confronting child soldiers. In the last decade or so, Western troops have learned that they can defeat child soldiers without simply gunning them down. They have accomplished this primarily by firing for "shock" rather than for "effect." In other words, they make a lot of noise with their weapons and the kids run in terror and confusion. P.W. Singer, an expert on private and unconventional military forces, has written on how to confront and neutralize child soldiers in the field without breaking the codes of military conduct. Singer explains, "A key when facing child units is to recognize that the opposition is made up of soldiers who are often looking for a way out. The center of gravity is the hold that leaders have on their troops, with a primary task being the breaking of that chain. Ex-child soldiers reveal that they were often just waiting until fighting broke out to steal away in the confusion, if that was possible. If the adult leader is killed or forced to take cover, the whole organization often breaks down. Some children simply drop their weapons; others flee into the bush."

In UNKNOWN SOLDIER, you have depicted the chaos of battle in several key scenes. But so far you have not shown that this chaos can be exploited to end battles with little or no bloodshed.

Unknown Soldier JD: Virtually every actual battle shown in our book has involved the Uganda’s military forces, the UPDF. The UPDF does not shoot to scare. It is in President Museveni's best political interest to kill as many Acholi, militant or not, as he can. It would be dishonest to show, at this place in time, battles ending in humane, bloodless ways. Moral high ground was simply not the truth of the situation in 2002 Uganda.

The LRA are, or were in 2002, like all unconventional fighting forces, a unique type of organization. They relied heavily on Christian mysticism and preyed on the deep, deep religious nature of the Acholi people. There is unquestionably a majority of ex-LRA soldiers who to this day, still believe that Kony visits them in their dreams, or that they have turned from the path of God by leaving the rebel faction. Children were taught in the LRA that to flee from gunfire was to be damned by God. That they were soldiers in a religious war and that a particular concoction of tree oil made them bullet proof. Did this psychological programming always work? No, some children never buy into it, some run for their lives anyway, regardless of what they believe and some, as you suggest, use the fog of battle to make their escape (as we depicted with one child in the HAUNTED HOUSE arc). But a large percentage of LRA soldiers trained in the Sudan death camps stood their ground under overwhelming odds in battle against the UPDF again and again and again.

In fact, in December 2008, a group of 200 LRA soldiers, at least 40 percent of which were under the age of 16 with many as young as 11, were put under fire by three separate national armies (Uganda, DRC, and Sudan). First, they were bombed by MIGs, then they were assaulted by gunships, and finally a massive ground force moved in on them. There was no reported dissension in the ranks of the LRA throughout this attack and the unit actually made it out of the battle alive in a tactical retreat--not a confused scatter--east into the swamps of DRC. I think that the things you bring up are absolutely valid, but we must be careful not to use blanket data without first digging into the particularities of each militant organization’s psychological profile. Remember, Kony has been incredibly successful at being a fluid, uncompromising rebel leader for over 23 years now.

Again, I don't want to invalidate your point, because I think the spirit of your concern is dead on. But we are really trying to study one conflict at one moment in time, and the fact is that in 2002 the LRA was one of the most brutal, sustained, and tenacious fighting groups in the world, despite being manned by involuntary troops, some as young as nine years old. When our book takes place, most of the children combatants had lived through the incredibly vivacious IRON FIST offensive and were now striking back with savagery on the Acholi population (their own people).

EK: Still, firing for shock or using some other nonviolent military strategy could help Moses fight the child armies without completely sacrificing his morals and losing himself in the process. And even if you don't allow Moses this opportunity for redemption, I think it's important that you show at least one character using smart military tactics. It would be a terrible oversight if you did not provide a clear alternative to Moses' violence. Without such an alternative, UNKNOWN SOLDIER becomes at worst an endorsement of death squads and at best an unpersuasive denunciation of them.

JD: Moses is not a pacifist who has chosen a separate path. By now you know that he is a man colonized, built towards violence. A physical manifestation of Africa itself. A black man wrapped in white bandages. A product of Western remote control. Who Moses is, is no longer all that clear. There will be much to lose and find about himself along the way.

That said, I agree with you completely about depicting nonviolent alternatives, and it's one of the things we wrestle with most in the book. We have always tried to keep characters in the mix who hold faith in the non-violent path, we have yet to be able to apply considered tactical restraint to a character in combat... but it's something we're most assuredly concerned with.

EK: I imagine one of the main challenges of writing UNKNOWN SOLDIER is to handle impossibly complex moral questions with care and intelligence and yet still provide readers with a fast-paced, pulpy thrill ride. I think you have done a great job so far of achieving a strong balance between these two elements.

Unknown Soldier JD: You would be right in imaging that. We set out to make a "cool" action book that accidentally forced people to think about the world in a larger context. We didn't want to just attract people interested in social justice media or people interested in Africa, we wanted to get the 16-year-old kid who plays Call of Duty on the Xbox and say, "Hey, kid... real war is horrible," but do it in such a way that he comes back month after month to hear us preach. It's not easy. I have real conflict in my heart about this book. I hope that one day I will be able to make a true anti-war book, one that doesn't rely on the exploitation of violent imagery to make its point. A book not about how violence fails, but about how pacifism succeeds. Until then, I am burdened with the yolk of Unknown Soldier.

God love it!


EK: Joshua, I just learned that UNKNOWN SOLDIER is slated for cancellation, and that issue 25 will be the last in the series. I am truly upset over this news. It has really been the book that I've looked forward to reading most, month after month.

So I just want to say thank you for all the thoughtful and entertaining stories. It's been a blast. And while I'm frustrated that another great book is ending too soon, I cant wait to read issue 20 next week and see how this series slowly wraps up. I also look forward to any other projects that you might have planned.

JD: Thank you for your kind words. I promise that the end of Unknown Soldier will feel natural and perfect and that when people read the trades in order they'll never know that we were cancelled instead of just ending it the way it always was intended to end.

The truth is that last December I had a "cancellation" dream. I called my editor and we talked about it. The numbers were low. At the time Vertigo was standing behind us, but AIR had already fallen. It was only an issue of when we'd get the axe. So I started putting all the pieces in place to move towards a true and planned ending. I didn't want to have my book hijacked from me mid-course. I began structuring it so that other stories could be slotted in, but all the major pieces were in place for us to wrap it up right, as we had always intended to do. When the hammer came down, we were ready. So don't worry. It's going to be awesome. In fact, it might even be better this way. No fat. No bullshit. Four trades. Each one pushing the narrative and the intent of the book forward. A straight arrow of a story.

Thanks for all the amazing support. I look forward to seeing you at a convention some day. Peace!

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