Dysart Resurrects Unknown Soldier

Unlike the original comic book incarnation of the Unknown Soldier, writer Joshua Dysart says his update of the war hero will reveal to readers who the title character really is.

First appearing in DC Comics’ “Our Army At War” #168 in June 1966, the publisher’s Vertigo imprint is re-launching the concept this week with “Unknown Soldier” #1. Written by Dysart and artist Alberto Ponticelli (“Sam and Twitch”), the series will star a new man under the iconic bandages.

Enlisting the 1966 creation of Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert as a flashpoint for foundation, Dysart told CBR News, “One thing we changed is that for the first time, we know the identity of the Unknown Soldier. The truth of the matter is, Moses doesn’t really even know himself, so we’re going a little bit more ‘meta’ on the just what’s ‘Unknown’ this time around. Plus, you know, the original Unknown Soldier just might still be out there….”

The Soldier, face wrapped in protective bandages due to a grenade explosion that killed his brother, enjoyed a long run in his own title until 1982, when he died after killing Adolf Hitler in “The Unknown Soldier” #268. Years later, in “Swamp Thing” #82, it was revealed that the Soldier actually survived World War II, but his continued existence is kept top secret by the U.S. military.

Jim Owsley (later to be known as Christopher Priest) and Garth Ennis both penned series revolving around the character, in the 1980s and 1990s respectively, and all versions will play into Dysart’s new series.

“From the Kubert run comes the whole soul of the thing — the core idea,” said Dysart, who’s also penned “Swamp Thing” and Hellboy tie-ins. “A single man — loyal to his nation and his people — waging a war, virtually single handily, against a madman.

“There will be less of the Owsley series in it, but a great deal of the Ennis book will emerg -- eventually. Although I’d like to keep the hows and whys of our connection to the Ennis run pretty close to my chest for now, if only for readers to enjoy it as it’s unfolding.”

While Owsley’s miniseries was a reimagining of the character as an immortal soldier, the Ennis series follows a CIA agent who tracks down the Soldier as he is seeking his own replacement.

Dysart’s titular Unknown Soldier is once again a re-imagining, but he clarified that by saying, “What I mean by that is that we get to re-imagine the Unknown Soldier, his person, his environment, his mission, his entire context, and yet still have it take place in continuity.”

The new Unknown Soldier is an East African man named Lwanga Moses. “His family fled Uganda in 1979, so Moses grew up in the American immigrant experience and went to medical school,” explained Dysart. “While growing up in the States, his home country slipped into ethnic, civil war. By 1985, rebels had overthrown the Ugandan government. The new regime brought a massive shift towards stability in the South. But in the underdeveloped north, the rise of extremist Christian spiritual military leaders began, culminating in the formation of the Lord's Resistance Army, led by a very complex and cruel person named Joseph Kony who claimed to be possessed by spirits.”

The new Vertigo series opens in 2002, when Moses decided to return to Uganda to be a doctor and peace activist. “By the time Moses is involved, 15,000 children have been kidnapped by rebel forces and forced to fight,” Dysart said. “Over one million displaced Acholis, the tribe in the north most affected by the conflict, have been pushed onto some 200 camps throughout Northern Uganda’s ‘Acholiland.’ They have no running water and no electricity. There is no more an unknown war than the real-life struggle between the Ugandan Peoples Defense Force and the Lord's Resistance Army.

“This has gone on record as being the single longest running, most under-reported humanitarian conflict of our generation. Moses is an Unknown Soldier for an unknown war.”

How and why Moses becomes the new Unknown Solider is what the series’ first arc is all about. “It’s also very loosely based on an actual abduction known as the Aboke Girls incident,” explained Dysart. “It was one of the first western documented abductions in the region — 40 young girls were kidnapped from a Catholic school in the north, which is a common occurrence in the region for some time, we now understand. We only use it as a foundation for our larger narrative though.

“The first arc will also explore the complex relationship that the Acholi, and most Ugandans, have with Christianity. The British conquered with the bible before they conquered with the gun, so Christianity is a deep, deep part of life in Uganda.”

The first six months of the series are already completed, and Dysart said Ponticelli’s art “looks gorgeous.” “Alberto is awesome. He’s been so great about absorbing all the reference and creating an accurate picture of a part of the world that we rarely get to see here in the West, especially in comics. This is a studied exploration of the sub-Sahara bush, the Internally Displaced Persons camps, the towns and cities and Acholi family compounds and he nails it. But also, he never loses his own sense of style. It’s not just photorealistic. He is accurate, but within his own vision. It’s just great.

“Also, he’s a master of movement and action. His use of squash and stretch to depict momentum and force is amazing. The action sequences in this book are out of control — beautiful. I’ve always been into the perverse poetry of violence and Alberto is a cartoonist troubadour of violence. I’m so proud to be working with him.”

Beyond the first arc, Dysart said “The Unknown Solider” is planned out until its eventual end. He just doesn’t know how long that will take. “The next story arc, making up the second half of the first year, is carefully mapped. And then, of course, we have all of our long-term goals worked out for the future,” offered Dysart. “There’s a finite end to it, a culmination point, but how many issues that we’ll take, we have no idea. We want the thing to be organic and grow in unexpected directions, so we don’t want to tie it down too much. I assume the overall length of the series will be a combination of what’s right for the story and what the market demands are like.”

Dysart spent a month in Uganda in the summer of 2007 researching the project. It was a time of his life Dysart won’t soon forget. “A great deal of that trip was spent in the ‘post-war zone’ or ‘cease-fire area.’ Or whatever the hell you call a place with an uncertain future and a whole generation of kids trained to be soldiers who now have nothing to do,” said the writer. “I made it as close to the nook where Sudan, DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo) and Uganda meet as I felt comfortable going, so into the far North West of the country — an absolutely beautiful place. But then it is central/east Africa, where all life started. Guess it’s bound to be pretty sexy.

“Anyway, I interviewed Acholi religious leaders, reporters, a Canadian documentary crew, a UPDF (Uganda People’s Defence Force) soldier who had been engaged in the north against the rebels and is now stationed in Iraq — Uganda had 5,000 soldiers in Iraq at the time—two Lord’s Resistance Army soldiers, several college students in the south, micro-financing bankers, non-governmental organizers and employees, countless missionaries, Acholi political leaders from opposing parities, members of Parliament, traditional Acholi musicians as well as several young hip-hop musicians in the south, two nature conservationists, many Acholi teachers and community leaders, a white peace corps teacher who was stationed there from 1962, the year of independence from the British, to 1971, the year Amin took power, and I talked to children in a school for war affected kids plus various Ugandans from all walks of life, classes, ethnic groups, tribes and geographic areas ranging from the South West Bugandan regions to the North Western Acholiland.

“I walked through the slums of Kampala, I went to the IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camps in the north, I went out into the bush to see the grass thatched huts the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) kids were abducted from, I went to the clinics and the closed schools, as well as the Laroo school for war affected Children, saw the tree of peace that Betty Bigombe planted. She’s the Acholi woman who almost halted the conflict in 1990, before President Museveni inexplicably fired her.

“I also went to Severino Lukoya’s church to see him speak. That’s the father of Alice Lakwena who led the Holy Spirit Force against President Yoweri Museveni’s military government in the eighties. I stalked the World Food Programme food drops and spied on the Landmine Action Programme meetings. I even climbed inside the original French airliner that was hijacked and landed in Entebbe in 1976. They’ve re-painted it in Ugandan colors.

”I’ve never traveled like a journalist before, and you know what, it called to me, it really did. I think there’s something inside of me that’s hungry for that kind of work.”

Beyond “Unknown Soldier,” Dysart is also working on the graphic novel “Greendale,” based on the 2003 concept album by Neil Young, as well as “BPRD: 1947,” with his co-writer Mike Mignola.

“Unknown Soldier” #1 with covers by Igor Kordey and Richard Corben, is in stores Wednesday, October 22 from Vertigo.

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