Comics You Should Own – ‘Unknown Soldier’

Let’s take a look at Joshua Dysart’s and Alberto Ponticelli’s harrowing war comic!

Unknown Soldier by Joshua Dysart (writer), Alberto Ponticelli (artist, issues #1-12, 15-20, 22-25), Pat Masioni (artist, issues #13-14), Rick Veitch (artist, issue #21), Oscar Celestini (colorist, issues #1-12, 15-25), José Villarrubia (colorist, issues #13-14), and Clem Robins (letterer).

Published by DC/Vertigo, 25 issues (#1-25), cover dated December 2008 – December 2010.

There are some massive SPOILERS ahead, plus you can gigantic-ize the images by clicking on them!

Unknown Soldier is one of those difficult books to write about, because it’s obvious that Dysart had a much longer story planned but the vagaries of the market were such that it wouldn’t support a comic about Ugandan politics and the cost of war and racism and colonialism … I mean, who could have thunk it, right? So Dysart had to wrap things up sooner than he wanted, and the second half of the book isn’t quite as good as the first half, even though the overall quality remains high. It’s a frustrating comic, because we can get hints about what he was trying to do, and the fact that he didn’t get the chance is frustrating. I mean, it’s always frustrating when a good comic gets cancelled, but it’s particularly frustrating when it’s a comic about something that we really don’t see enough of. I mean, if a good superhero comic gets the axe, sure, that’s too bad, but superheroes are a dime a dozen in American comics. When a book like this gets the axe, there’s nothing to really replace it. It’s annoying.

Dysart even had to use an old DC character to get the series off the ground. I doubt if DC would have approved it had Dysart not used a “known property” – even one as relatively obscure as the Unknown Soldier. Dysart hints toward the protagonist’s connection to the older character, and by the end of the story, he’s explicitly connected his main character – Moses Lwanga – not only to the old DC character but even Garth Ennis’s four-issue mini-series from 1997. This is something he probably always planned – he hints at it in issue #1 – but whether he wanted to link Moses to the older character even before pitching the series is, well, unknown. But DC presumably wouldn’t have green-lit it if not for that. Even with that, it was an uphill struggle for the book.

Dysart sets the book in late 2002/early 2003 in Uganda, a particularly bad time in the country’s troubled history. He fills in the blanks about the history of Uganda in text pieces throughout the series (unfortunately, we don’t get one in the final issue, where I would have liked him to address the book’s cancellation and his plans had it not been), but in the comic itself, he focuses on Moses and the people closest to him. Dysart writes in the first issue that the book is violent and “a little kick-ass” and that it remains, despite all the trappings, what Joe Kubert came up with in the original iteration: “an action-packed comic book about one man and his war.” Dysart was not then, nor is he now, a writer who can sell a book based solely on his name, so he made the book violent to appeal to the action junkies hidden within most comic book readers. The tension between Moses’s ass-kicking and the tragedy unfolding in Uganda drives the book. Moses is a doctor, a man of peace, who finds himself in the bush with a rifle pointed at his head. That the rifle is held by a child (child soldiers being a particularly tragic aspect of many modern wars) doesn’t enter his mind, as somehow, he disarms the child and blows him in half with his own machine gun. In that moment, Dysart introduces an inner voice that tells Moses some of what he needs to do, but almost until the end of the series, we’re never quite sure what that voice is. Is Moses’s mind fractured, or was it broken on purpose? Is he a man of peace or a soldier of war? He kills many people, including children, but he also helps save many people. Dysart never loses sight of the action, but he also never lets the killing become depersonalized. Moses is tormented by this dichotomy, and it drives the book forward.

Despite the genre-influenced aspects of the book, Dysart is too smart a writer and the subject matter he chose too volatile for him not to write about deeper social issues, even if he manages to avoid soap-boxing too much. Obviously, the divide between black and white is paramount in the book, but it’s not the only cultural gap in the series. Cultural appropriation and isolation are bigger touchstones now than they were in 2008, but they were still something people pondered and debated a decade ago, and Dysart does a nice job introducing the topic without being too obvious about it (in the second arc, he has to be more obvious about it, but that’s because it’s central to the arc). On the very first few pages of the book, Moses introduces himself to a group of diplomats and international business leaders, and Dysart uses that to introduce him to us. He was seven years old in 1978 when his family was permitted to leave Uganda with nothing, having bribed the government with everything they owned for the privilege. In the United States, Moses’s parents struggled to provide for him, eventually putting him through Harvard medical school. Then, two years earlier, he moved back to Uganda. This story is a good one, but Dysart deliberately obfuscates things, rather cleverly. Right after this brief biography, Moses introduces his wife, Sera, whom he includes with himself as “fully, wholly Ugandan,” even though, as we’ve just heard, Moses has spent less than a decade of his 30 years in the country, and only two as an adult. His biography isn’t exactly the truth, either, but that’s part of the bigger storyline and I’ll get back to it. After Moses leaves the podium, he meets Margaret Wells, an American actress who’s in Uganda to draw attention to the humanitarian crisis in the country and is, almost needless to say, white. Then we learn that Moses himself thinks his speech was bullshit and that he doesn’t really like Margaret: when Sera asks him if he finds her attractive, he says, “She looks at us and sees only genocide, child soldiers, AIDS and famine. Her altruism borders on fetishism.” When he and Sera leave Kampala for the north, we find out that Sera is not like Moses, an Americanized Ugandan returning to the country after a long diaspora. She has always lived in Uganda, which means that she and Moses haven’t been married too long.

There’s a lot to unpack just in the first issue of the series, even though the focus is on Moses’s mad rush into the bush, where he finds the child soldiers and is transformed. Dysart takes his time with it, which is nice. Moses gets involved in a school run by nuns who believe they are safe from the madness around them, but of course they aren’t, and he discovers very quickly that the governmental forces are just as bad as the rebels, which isn’t surprising. By the end of the first arc, Moses decides that he’s going to hunt down Joseph Kony, the leader of the biggest rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army, because he believes that will stop the killing. We’ll get to that plot point, because Dysart also reveals more about Moses throughout the first arc. In issue #5, we get a brief flashback to his time in the States, and we find out he had a serious girlfriend whom he left. In a few devastating panels, she gets at the heart of the book better than Moses does:

The point about not being African is a good one, because, as usual with many superhero or superhero-adjacent comics (Unknown Soldier fits into the latter category quite often), identity is at the heart of the themes presented. In issue #3, the government soldier who has captured Moses tells him that his accent is American, so even though Moses was born in Uganda, his long sojourn in the States has made him a stranger who understands “very little” about the country, in the words of Lieutenant Ilakut. Moses is American, so even though he has a better claim to going to Uganda than, say, his white girlfriend, he’s still an outsider. The forces fighting each other in the country are all black, of course, with tribal differences being the motivating factor. The Baganda are the largest ethnic group, and it’s from them that the name of the country is taken. They live primarily in the south (their historical kingdom was between Lake Victoria and Lake Albert), which is the most prosperous part of the country. The Acholi live primarily in the north, which was the poorer part of the country. The Acholi and Baganda are different ethnic groups, and this led to tension once the British, in their infinite wisdom, consolidated them into one country (why the British didn’t turn northern Uganda and southern Sudan into one country when similar ethnic groups live there and one of their imperial possessions, Equatoria, was actually a colony containing both these areas, is beyond most intelligent people). So Moses is coming into a place where, to ignorant white people, everyone looks the same, but the two sides are very different, down to languages and culture. Dysart even breaks this down further, because of course the two sides engage in stereotypes, just like every other group on the planet. In a later issue, the grizzled CIA agent who’s trying to find Moses mentions to Sera that the Baganda treat the Acholi poorly, and Sera goes all #NotAllGanda on him, because she herself bears no ill will toward the Acholi. Then there’s Wells, who is trying to do good in Uganda but can’t escape the fact that she’s an interloper. In the second arc, a group claiming to be pan-African brings Moses to them and ask him to kill Wells, because her death would bring more attention to Africa than the deaths of a million black people. Kiwanja, who is pointedly not Ugandan (his name is not his name, either, but a town in Congo), says that even if Wells means well, her death is necessary – he asks Moses, “But you tell me what would happen if people thought the L.R.A. killed her? If they dismembered her with a machete?” He wants to pin the murder on Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army, because then, as Moses well knows, the world would have to pay attention to what’s happening in the country. Moses has already tortured and killed a soldier and shot some child soldiers, but even he can’t kill an innocent person, no matter how much it would benefit the country (if it even would). Moses spends the book struggling with his identity as a doctor, as a soldier, as a black man, and as a Ugandan. Naturally, it’s a torturous path.

All this is before we get to the connection to the original Unknown Soldier, which comes out in issues #22-25, wrapping up the book. As I noted, it feels a bit rushed, as if Dysart wanted to get there eventually but the economic reality of the comic forced him to get there too soon, but it’s still a fascinating denouement. Moses is captured by U.S. soldiers and the dissolute CIA agent, Jack Howl, is brought in to talk to him because Jack seems to be the only one who can even get through to him a little bit. Moses uses Howl to find Kony and then takes off, defying the CIA, who want to use him as their assassin. In issue #24, we discover why Moses is able to do this: he’s not Moses Lwanga. In a flashback to 1997, he meets the original Unknown Soldier, who tells him that he needs a replacement (he’s in his 70s, after all). The Unknown Soldier does all the dirty work America doesn’t want to admit they do, all simply to avoid another Holocaust. But now he needs a new Unknown Soldier (he references the Garth Ennis/Kilian Plunkett mini-series from that year, which ended up failing to find a new Soldier), so they decided to create one. They recruited ten people, but all of them cracked except Moses. But then the Soldier had a heart attack, and a change of heart. He decided that if they could build a man of war, he could build a man of peace, so behind the backs of his CIA bosses, he created Moses Lwanga, a nameless Ugandan immigrant orphaned at 13 who ended up in prison and then the military, where he performed “commendable, if ethically questionable service” for the U.S. The person who became Moses had, the Soldier says, some kind of yearning for something different, and he became a man of peace, despite never quite shaking the programming of the CIA, which is why his personality is slowly fracturing as he fights in Uganda.

It’s a clever idea, even if it comes a bit too quickly in the series (again, the threat of cancellation probably pushed the reveal up) – up until then, we’ve believed that Moses is a man of peace struggling against his inner demons that want him to kill, and that’s correct, except it turns out that the inner demons are his true personality, and the man of peace is fiction. But it gets back to the question of identity – is Moses now a man of peace, even if that personality is technically artificial? Dysart, as usual, doesn’t become pedantic here, just lets us figure it out on our own. Ultimately, the question becomes one where we judge a person by their actions, no matter what others tell us about him or her. Moses might have been a criminal and a morally gray soldier, but after the Soldier got done “programming” him, he was Moses Lwanga, a man who cares deeply about Uganda and trying to make peace. His mission to kill Joseph Kony is frustrating for the reader because we know, at the time Dysart is writing the book, that Kony is still alive (he still is, in fact, a decade later), so while plot is not the most important thing in the world, we know with certainty that Moses is not going to kill him. But that’s not really the point, of course, because the struggle in this book is the internal one between Moses and his dark side. We’ve already seen him give into it, but in the final arc, he rises above it. He still wants to kill Kony, but he is much more discriminating about who he kills, and what brings him down is a child soldier, someone at the beginning of the book he would have killed without thinking. In issue #1, he kills a boy who was holding him at gunpoint. In issue #25, he confronts a boy holding him at gunpoint, and the bullets don’t touch him. He kills Kony and reunites with Sera, but it’s all a fever dream that occurs as he dies, as the boy did shoot him in the head. It might seem like a worthless end (the only end, really, that Moses could come to), but in the postscripts to the main story, we see that Moses had an impact, even if it was mostly posthumously. It’s a tragedy, sure, but only for one man. Dysart does a nice job showing that a tragedy for one man can become a message of hope for many more. It’s an old idea (hey, they based a religion on it!), but it’s not a bad one at all.

Dysart makes sure to show that the Uganda that Moses wants to help is one that isn’t just a war zone. Even in the worst wars, there are places of calm, and even in the worst war zones, there are people who hold onto their humanity, and despite the series getting cut short, Dysart does quite a bit of this (in contrast to another excellent Vertigo series that was running at the time, Scalped, which showed the reservation as almost unremittingly bleak). In the first arc, he gives us the school for girls, where an Australian nun has been teaching for years and who rescued him from the bush after his confrontation in issue #1. Sister Cavanaugh is a kind person who has managed to forge an alliance with the Ugandan rebels so that they leave her alone, and she rescues girls from the soldiers and gives them a bit of hope. That hope is partially crushed in the first arc, as the rebels break their alliance to steal girls for their child soldiers, but it’s still a glimpse of what people can do in this situation. In the second story arc, Margaret Wells and Sera Lwanga form a foundation to continue Moses’s good works (even though they both know he’s not dead), and Dysart shows a way forward for Africa that doesn’t involve simply throwing money at the problem, even though that’s necessary as well. Wells, as I noted, is more than just a vapid celebrity in this book, and she and Sera form a good friendship over the tragedy of what’s happening in Uganda. In issues #13-14, despite being somewhat bleak as it focuses on the children who are victimized in the war, we see that community still means something, as the kid Moses saves rejoins his people and guides Moses through a ceremony of reconciliation, whereby his soul is cleansed. This begins to lead him back to himself, and, as everything in the book, feels a bit rushed (one wonders if Dysart wanted to get to it so soon), but it’s still a nice moment that show how the non-fighting people of Uganda are keeping their lives together. In issue #22, while Moses is learning the truth about his life, Momolu Sengendo, the journalist who’s been looking for him almost as hard as his wife has been, takes Sera to a traditional Acholi wedding, and she experiences joy, something she had not experienced at all since the series began. Momolu is in love with Sera, and he takes her to the wedding to hide the fact that the “bandaged soldier” – whom she knows is Moses but Momolu does not – was seen and that fact was reported in the newspaper, giving her a lead on his whereabouts. Momolu doesn’t want her to lose her soul on her search for the soldier, because he doesn’t understand what the soldier has to do with Moses and she can’t tell him. Of course, the irony of it all is Moses is in the process of losing who he is as he discovers the truth about himself. Momolu has an ulterior motive, but it doesn’t change the fact that Dysart gets to show a beautiful moment in the lives of the Acholi, and it’s just part of the way he stops and makes us understand that the Ugandans have lives outside of the war, and the war won’t change that.

Dysart mentions early on that he spent a good deal of time in Uganda before writing the book, and he took a lot of photographs for reference. I don’t know if Ponticelli did the same thing, but even if he only used Dysart’s reference photos, I’m not sure his art has ever been better. He’s terrific on the book, grounding it beautifully in Uganda, giving us a broad portrait of the country and its people, and making the horror of the war work very well. For most of the book, he has a sharp, angular line that seems to speak to the harshness of the terrain and the situation in Uganda, making the poverty of the Acholi and the war wounds people suffer stand out more starkly. The linework also highlights the almost fierce beauty on eastern Africa, with the sun hanging ominously in the sky, parching the land; with leaves and grasses etched with razor crispness; the bush encroaching on human civilization menacingly, as if to imply it could return at any moment. Ponticelli draws the human settlements with a keen eye for detail, as well – we don’t spend much time in Kampala, but it’s a fairly typical modern city, with just the right amount of seediness that most modern cities try to hide, not always successfully – while the smaller places show varying degrees of decay. Jack Howl hangs out in bars in the bad parts of towns, and Ponticelli gives us chipped masonry and peeling paint, implying the war without being too obvious about it. In the bush, he shows the ragged thatched-roof huts that many people live in, and while the accommodations are raw, they’re also more connected to their surroundings than the buildings in the more urban areas. Ponticelli also gives us a wide variety of people living in these places, from the urbanites who think a trip to the bush would be fun in issue #7 (which trip, naturally, turns out to be more than they can handle – this is a nice twist on the trope of “white people” going someplace to soak up the culture and losing a kidney in some remote town; the urbanites in this case are black, but they still don’t understand the danger of the north, even though one of their group is an Acholi man who tells them they should avoid the area) to the people in the wedding in issue #22. He gives us very superstitious people in issues #15-18, in which an older woman says a younger woman is a witch and gets the village riled up about it, and Ponticelli does a nice job showing the pain in the older woman – whose entire family has died from famine-related illnesses – that curdles to hatred because the younger woman is, she says, a whore who uses her body to get favors from the government. Ponticelli draws the characters as real people, so they have drought-ravaged faces and bodies, or they’re just a bit plumper because they live in the city and are relatively untouched by the war, or they have hatred on their faces because they’ve seen the horrors of war and have participated in those horrors themselves. Much like Dysart, Ponticelli avoids turning anyone into a monster, so that the people are just that, people, and their actions become more comprehensible and therefore more horrific. Ponticelli gives the child soldiers that immature swagger that many boys possess, except this time they’re holding real guns loaded with live ammunition, which makes their brashness all the more terrifying.

His work on Moses is quite excellent, as well. Moses is a regular man when the book begins, and Ponticelli gets this across in just a few panels and poses in the first issue. He and Sera make a cute couple, and while they’re not together long enough before Moses heads into the bush for Dysart to do too much to build their relationship (he does more in flashbacks later, but not in issue #1), Ponticelli does some of the heavy lifting with very good work on their body language, showing how in tune they are despite not knowing each other for very long. When Moses goes into the bush and gets attacked by the children, Ponticelli does a wonderful job showing his “programming” taking over and then his return to “Moses,” with the face of the “soldier” almost animal-like – eyes bugged, lips thin, teeth bared – and then the face of “Moses” – eyes regretful, face fallen, sweat on his temple. As he begins to have violent visions (we don’t know what they are yet, but it’s part of his “real” life and his programmed self), Ponticelli shows him breaking down beautifully and tragically, until he grabs a rock and begins carving up his face (hence the patented “Unknown Soldier” bandages he wears for most of the series). It’s a harrowing moment, and Ponticelli gets it perfectly. Moses also undergoes an almost physical transformation once he becomes the soldier. The Moses in issue #1 was confident, sure, but the soldier, once he embraces his role at the end of the first arc, looks bigger and certainly meaner than Moses. Ponticelli is still able to use his body language and his eyes to show that Moses is at war with himself (Dysart does this through the internal narration, but Ponticelli does it very well, too), even as Moses simply looks like a different person, one who has also acquired that arrogance of the child soldiers, an arrogance that only seems to come when you put a gun in a man’s hand. The mask hides his identity, obviously, and Ponticelli uses this to good effect, as we can usually only see his eyes, which might be expressive but can’t show much nuance, so the man who was Moses is lost in the killing machine that is the Unknown Soldier. In the final issue, when he dreams of his victory, the bandages, interestingly enough, come off last, after he’s been reunited with Sera, and of course his face is healed. It’s not real, but Ponticelli gives us one last glimpse of Moses before he dies, letting us know that he died as a man of peace that the original Unknown Soldier wanted him to be, rather than the man of war that the CIA tried to create. Ponticelli drew 22 of the 25 issues, and the other three are interesting, too. Pat Masioni’s two issues are fine but not great, although he’s from the Democratic Republic of Congo, so his landscapes feel lusher, as he has an affection for the area that perhaps Ponticelli can’t match, while José Villarrubia, who colors those two issues instead of Oscar Celestini, makes the landscape a bit less harsh, using warmer colors and softer greens rather than Celestini’s starker hues. Rick Veitch does his usual solid job on issue #21, which is told from the point of view of a Kalashnikov rifle (seriously) – Veitch’s softer line and use of richer blacks make the book less harsh than when Ponticelli draws it, but he has always done a nice job with small details, so the lines etched into the faces of his characters speak to their hard lives as they fight with the AK-47 across continents and years. Ponticelli didn’t need a lot of time off, but luckily, the artists who stepped in for him did a very good job.

It’s too bad that Unknown Soldier didn’t last longer, because as good as it is, there’s more sneaking around the perimeter, and it’s obvious that Dysart had a deeper look at the Ugandan conflict in mind. Despite its relatively short length, it’s very powerful and gripping, and remains relevant today, a decade later, as the problems that beset the third world are still with us, and those problems affect everyone, not just people living in faraway countries that we don’t know about. Just the fact that Joseph Kony is still out there (greatly reduced, apparently, but still) is enough to make this book relevant. In a world of interconnectedness, Dysart does a good job showing how everyone is affected by small wars in distant lands, and that he’s able to keep it focused on characters is all the more impressive. He and Ponticelli do give us a book with “kick-ass” action, but he also manages to give us a book that shines a light on events and places we don’t often think about, and makes us wonder if there’s more we can be doing to make the world a better place. That’s not too bad a goal for a comic!

Unknown Soldier has been collected into four trade paperbacks, none of which are too expensive, especially if you use the link below (hint, hint). It seems like it’s ripe for a nice giant omnibus, but who knows if it will ever get that. It’s a highlight in both creators’ careers, and it’s the kind of book that makes you glad that comics have branched out so much in the past few decades. It didn’t sell well, but it’s still a great story, and it’s definitely something you should check out. And you can check out the archives for more comics to own!

6 Comments

  1. tomfitz1

    I remember reading this series back in the day, just the first few issues. I wasn’t sold on the series at first, but later on got the trades and read it whole. I think it read better when collected than monthly single issues.

    I do know that one of the reason I picked this series up in the first place was because of previous mini-series by Garth Ennis and Killian Plunkett. As mentioned briefly in this column.

      1. Call Me Carlos the Dwarf

        I’m doing a masters in Ireland, so I’ve been both in a different time zone…and spending much more time in the pub, haha.

        My usual “argue about dumb stuff on the internet” periods of 12-2 and 5-8 PM now take place from 7-9 and 12-3 ET, which definitely reduces interaction.

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