For the past year and a half Vertigo has been publishing an updated edition of DC Comic’s Unknown Soldier that takes place in Uganda during 2002 -2004 when the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) was terrorizing the country. The Unknown Soldier is a man whose face is always in bandages, the characters in the story never know who he is (in the original the reader didn’t know, either), and though he does not have super powers but he does have some sort of extraordinary strength. In Vertigo’s series he is an American born doctor, the child of Ugandan immigrants, who is overcome by a spirit, a presence or perhaps just guilt and scars his face in a moment of madness and then picks up a gun, something as a doctor he was opposed to, and begins to kill those who attack civilians. Eventually, he will kill child soldiers who are part of the LRA. As one might guess, the series is graphic and violent and doesn’t shy away from details, perhaps occasionally overdoing the blood, which is probably to be expected from comics. As the story progresses, the Unknown Soldier becomes involved with an ex-CIA agent who lives in Uganda and is playing all sides; he meets a movie start and humanitarian; befriends a young ex-child soldier; and takes up residence in a Acholi village that lives in fear of the LRA. The Unknown Soldier’s adventures is quite a collection of ideas and tries to pack in as much as it can in 20 brief pages. The most valuable part of the collection is the depiction of the war, the refugees, and the war crimes that have afflicted that part of Africa. While just a litany of atrocities lends itself to a numbness, the series does explore without exploitation (although it is wrapped in an adventure comic) the complexities of the war, the child slavery and the political instability that have thousands as refugees. Except for the LRA which is rightly depicted as pure evil, all the other actors, be it the government, the UN, or the west are depicted as a mix of competing interests, both good and bad, that typically leave the locals vulnerable. Moreover, over the life of the series the picture of the LRA becomes more and more perverse and it is almost hard to believe something so perverse could exist.
Where the series seems to error is, first, in the mystical voice that seems to talk to the Unknown Soldier and give him the ability to be a soldier. It would be nice for a comic not to be tied down to the comic formula which seems to always need something supernatural to explain reality. While it is a convention of the genre, it makes it seem as if all one needs to defeat an army single handedly is a little bit of magic or training, which is pure fantasy. Second, adding the ex-CIA agent to the mix distracts from the story and injects and element of a spy thriller. The ex-CIA agent is used as a historical agent, a way to go back through history and examine how the Uganda had fallen into disarray, some of it the fault of the west. In that sense the agent makes sense, but as an element of action and suspense it takes the suffering and turns it into a back drop for adventure.
The series overall is interesting and the writer, Joshua Dysart, has done quite a bit of research, traveling to Uganda several times. Yet contrasted to an author such as Joe Sacco who refrains from fictional narrative, the Unknown Soldier uses too many of the conventions of the genre which adds layers of interpretation to events that are already complicated. This is not to say only a Ugandan can tell the story and to his credit Dysart brought in a Nigerian artist to guest draw two issues, but the layers of action adventure tend to obfuscate. Sometimes fiction isn’t necessary, but at least the story is out there. I do plan to continue to keep reading it if I can remember to buy them.