I’m not a huge comics fan boy. Superheros get tiresome after a while–they cry about their superpowers way too much. Growing up I read war comics, specifically: The Unknown Soldier, G.I. Combat, and most of all, Sgt. Rock. I had no idea who Joe Kubert was but his creation (I believe he had stopped writing the comic before I came on the scene) was a mainstay for me for several years. I still have all the copies in their less than mint condition–worthless might be a better word–including the Batman-Sgt. Rock team up. I never did get the Superman one that was advertised, but probably for the best. I can’t say it was anything more than escapist fun, but, still, there was a tiredness to the stories, soldiers grinding on through the war. He had a dark element that made the men more real that their tights wearing counter parts. The hallmark of Sgt. Rock was his monthly struggle to keep his platoon together. It didn’t always happen and they lost men, always shown as a classic burial mound, a rifle stuck muzzle down, and a helmet hanging off to one side. Rare was the comic where people died, and give this was a war comic, perhaps more should have. Yet the Rock was still a blaze of glory, his Thompson machine gun roaring, extra ammo hanging off him, his helmet always at a rebellious angle. He was a hero and heroes, despite their creator’s wishes, make war glamorous. I will say, in one of these comics I first read about friendly fire and at a young age it was disturbing to think you could get shot by one of your own. It was an eye opener, one that still sticks with me even after all these years. I believe I was reading after he had been in charge of the war comics (based on the NY Time‘s dates), but I think his influence was felt in those that I still have. According to the NY Times, during his run as head of war comics at DC between 67 and 76, “at the end of each comic, Mr. Kubert directed the typesetter to add a four-word coda. It read, ‘Make War No More.'” Those are fitting words for the end of every war comic, and if I was going to read war comics, those are really the only words the creator of a boyhood icon should have written.
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.
I used to read DC war comics when I was younger, finding even then the superhero comics less than interesting. Which is not to say that if drug my copies of those comics out of the closet I might not find them insipid. Yet there was a reality to them that was more than real, less trapped in the generic conventions of super heroes which despite the fans of the genre who see a larger world reflected in them are still a let down when reading. I can still remember when one of the crew from the haunted tank in G.I. Combat was killed by a strafing airplane.
I mention this because the New York Times has an article about the reworking of the Unknown Soldier series from Vertigo and DC. In this reworking the Unknown Soldier takes place in Uganda and explores the civil war and its atrocities. It looks like tough stuff:
Unknown Soldier is unflinching in its depiction of violence, and that comes across even more strongly in the collected edition, without the monthly break between issues. One particularly horrific scene deals with the disfigurement of the title character: an inner voice navigates him through the violence, but when he reaches his breaking point, he hacks at himself to try to silence it. That gruesome episode came from Mr. Dysart’s imagination; some details he learned from his trip, he said, were too awful for the comic.
The art, too, communicates the violence in a stylized fashion and expands the work of comics as journalism that authors like Joe Sacco have created.