Two thirds of the way through “Unknown Soldier” #5, Joshua Dysart and Alberto Ponticelli give us a touching scene between the hideously disfigured Moses Lwanga — the “Unknown Soldier” himself — and his wife, Sera. He doesn’t want his wife to see what lies beneath his bandaged face but his wife, reasonable and not without sentimentality, says the bandages “desperately need to be changed, and I…I want to touch your face. Please.”
Not, “I want to see your face,” but “I want to touch [it].” That’s the kind of comic “Unknown Soldier” strives to be: one that doesn’t merely show you the atrocities committed in Uganda, but one that wants to make those atrocities palpable.
The danger here — and Dysart surely knows it, saving his detailed history lessons for the text pages included within, but leaving the comic book narrative more ambiguous — is that the comic will become just a contemporary version of the social protest films of the 1960s, or the heavy-handed social realism comics of the Bronze Age. That it will scold us for our inattentive natures, for passively living in a world which allows Uganda to fall into violence and chaos. That it will teach is that War Is Hell, and we should all do our part to make sure it doesn’t happen like this again.
But Dysart smartly avoids such preachiness by focusing on the details of Moses’s situation. It’s the story of one man’s struggle to do what’s right, even when forces beyond his control have literally destroyed his face and taken away who he once was. By keeping the story whirling around the Unknown Soldier — a label that has only metaphorical meaning here, since we all know who is behind these particular bandages — Dysart makes the comic about characters in action, and not about the social problems themselves. The themes are readily apparent — and War Is Hell, for sure — but they resonate more deeply because they are connected to a compelling narrative. This is a violent, messy Vertigo crime comic set in a war-torn landscape. The crimes are political ones, with personal repercussions, but it’s far closer to the crime genre then the stereotypical “war comic” genre you might expect from its title.
We also learn, through fragmented imagery — flashbacks or hallucinations? — that this Unknown Soldier might share more in common with previous incarnations than just the name and the bandaged look. There’s something deeper going on here, and Moses begins to sense it, even if he can’t connect the dots just yet. But such a nested structure, with a larger mystery wrapped around the more immediate personal conflict, bodes well for the future of this series. Dysart has a grand story to tell, and I hope that this series lasts long enough for him to tell it.