Inside Joshua Dysart's Risky Combination of Comic Books and Global Politics

Writer Joshua Dysart may be best known for his work on Vertigo's "Unknown Soldier" from 2008 to 2010, which saw him spend time in southern Sudan, extensively researching child soldiers and refugees for the title's relaunch. While he's recently made waves at Valiant Entertainment with "Harbinger" and "Imperium," Dysart opened up on his trip to Iraq in 2014 to gather material to write the 35-page graphic novel, "Living Level-3: Iraq" Vol.1 (currently free on comiXology). The book is drawn by Alberto Ponticelli and was originally released last January as part of the United Nation's World Food Programme's initiative to alleviate hunger and offer aid to Middle Eastern refugees.

"Living Level-3: Iraq" is the brainchild of Jonathan Dumont (a Bostonite now living in Italy) and Gioacchino Gargano, both of the WFP. The story focuses on highlighting the work of the organization's humanitarian aid workers and those they strive to help. The title refers to the most severe classification of humanitarian crisis, and the comic tells the story of a fictional humanitarian aid-worker, Leila, on an aid mission after the self-described Islamic State brutally seized territory there in 2014.

This awareness-raising project focuses on the struggles of the war-torn region, combining fiction with Dysart's real-life documentaries taken on-site. The writer returned to southern Sudan in the first week of May 2016 to begin researching for a 40-page follow-up and second volume. CBR News spoke with him one month before he left for South Sudan, as Dysart discussed the debut volume and his lifestyle of, as he called it last month on Twitter, his "schizophrenic mix of comic art & global politics."

CBR News: Joshua, could you share some insight on how LL-3 came to your table?

Joshua Dysart: Originally, the United Nations World Food Programme -- it was their idea to do a graphic novel like this as part of their reach-out and media program. And they approached a comic book writer by the name of Ande Parks, who's a close, personal friend of mine. Ande Parks did "Capote in Kansas" and some other really lovely graphic novels. At that time, they wanted him to go to Boko Haram-affected parts of the African continent and he said no. [Laughs] But he said, "I know someone who will go" -- and so he directed them to me. And as soon as I found out the nature of the project, I lobbied pretty extensively to get it because when "Unknown Soldier" was over, there was -- there has been -- something definitely missing from my life and from my work. I've had fun and I enjoy the comics that I make, but there is this other dimension that was missing so the minute this opportunity arose, I saw it as a chance to get back to the kind of work that is completely fulfilling to me as a creative person.

For "Unknown Soldier," you went to Uganda and experienced the hardships in Africa, correct? In these kinds of projects, you venture into hostile territory. Aren't you scared? How does your family react to these ventures, especially with Iraq being the destination now?

That's correct. And in South Sudan before it was a country -- when it was just a part of Sudan. The summer of 2014 was the summer of Daesh. They exploded across Iraq. The official Iraqi military ceased to exist. The Peshmerga suddenly reemerged and held the line so it wouldn't even make sense except to tell the story in Iraq at that time.

There's always this moment, you know, when you're making your plans and you're fueled by excitement. This is always a hard discussion to have because it sounds exploitative and it very well may be exploitative to a certain degree, and I've to talked to a lot of war journalists and aid-workers who have been in far more dangerous situations than I have and certainly, it's not all altruism. There is something in you that pushes you to go to these places and want to be a part of this and there is something dark in you that wants to be there. You just hope that you turn that energy into something positive and good for the world...and for the people who have to live and don't want to be there -- who are forced to be there.

Then the night before you fly into low-impact guerilla war-zones, like where I was in northern Uganda or a relatively active zone like I was in Northern Iraq, it's terrifying. You are scared that night. You wonder what you've done with your life and what you're going to do. This trip to Iraq was a little bit different. When I went to East Africa, I went by myself. When I got off the plane, I took a bus, I took public transportation, I rode on the back of boda-bodas, which are these sort of motorcycle taxis -- into the bush and there was no security for me at all. It was during the period of a ceasefire in that conflict but nonetheless, I now look back on that and realize that was a tremendously foolish thing to do; whereas going into Iraq with the WFP, I was part of the WFP security bubble which is an enormously effective, professional, well-honed security response bubble around you that you don't even necessarily see. You're not armed or anything but you have constant radio contact. Everyone knows what's happening in the region at all times. You don't eat at a restaurant that hasn't been vetted. You don't get in a car that hasn't been vetted. You're not out overnight. They sort of invisibly manage you and it felt much safer. Of course, you're there with people who do this every day, who have chosen to work in these zones and you're also meeting people everyday, who... this is their home and their home has been destabilized. Your own personal fear sort of evaporates in the face of aid-workers who have chosen to be there and of course, the population that's dealing with these destabilizing factors. Is my family worried? Sure. My mom doesn't even really totally understand until I come back with the pictures and the stories. My fiancee is worried. They worry for you but you have to walk your path, right?

Well, factoring these loved ones in, do you ever feel like you could get interviews or transcripts done via recording or Skype or phone call? Or get some of the aid-workers to do it for you? Why be on the dangerous ground zero?

The people most impacted and affected by the destabilization in these regions are not someone you can Skype with. They're living in more than just poverty. It's internally displaced persons [IDP] camps. It's these massive, sprawling refugee zones and communicating with them is a technological problem. But that's not the real reason to go. The real reason to go is because there is something about being there and talking to those people face to face and looking at their homes they live in now and being told about the homes that they had to flee and all that they have lost. All their possessions, their bank accounts drained, their homes taken over. And they have also, more importantly, lost people -- children, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters -- so it is your responsibility now. If your hope is to go there and to be told their stories, if you're going to further invade their lives -- and you're a much more passive invasion, but nonetheless -- come in and sort of, for lack of a better term, exploit their narrative... the least you can do is go and eat the meal that they've prepared and sit in their home such as it may be. And in this case their home is a cargo container given to them by UNICEF or a tent that an aid foundation has set up for them somewhere in a field or a half-abandoned construction project that the rain leaks into. The least you can do is be there in their home and hear their stories and hug them and hold their hands and walk the ground that they walk. And then the little things -- the tangible nature of being in a place and witnessing a thing instead of being told the thing... that makes it into the bones of the work too and you feel the difference -- a real difference between Google research and something you have observed and processed and that you have your own opinion about and your own commentary on as a personal experience. And that is not to say that the five days I spent in Iraq or the one month I spent in East Africa in any way makes me an expert but it's just this tiny little slice that you owe it to these people to go to them after all they've been through. Otherwise, it's just exploitation for exploitation's sake.

Getting into the comic, Leila, she's the upper-class protagonist who left America to come to the fore as an aid-worker with the WFP to Iraq in the story. She finds herself in the midst of families devastated by loss as well as intersecting military forces... so I ask, what inspired her origins and how did you put the character together? Found parallels to her and yourself?

Firstly, the parallels between Leila and myself? Absolutely. She's more of a mouthpiece for me than a character. I tried to give her her own sense of self and with the page allotment that we had, it's a pretty short book and that's problematic when it comes to building out character. So she absolutely represents a lot of my concerns about this story that I'm telling, whether I deserve to tell that story and of course, through her lens -- why is she there? Does she deserve to be there? What is her perspective on this thing? She's also a way for me to explore the global class divide. She's relatively upper-class. Her family owns land in upper New York. Her father flies her first-class to a war-zone, which is my little comment on global classism and so her observations are as an intelligent person but also a privileged person. Like... I am a privileged person. I won a lottery to be born in this country [USA] where we have relative stability and relative to what that region is going through, it's a real lottery. And so, that's exactly who she is. At the same time she is also very much an amalgamation of many young people that I met working for WFP on the ground and in that instance, she's also sort of my ode to the young aid-worker or the young person who decides to do something. And not mindlessly or with some sort of mission but to just be a part of the world.

You mentioned it was a compact story which would restrain how you build characters and things like that. So how did you go along balancing and adapting fictional characters with real characters you encountered?

This is the biggest challenge of this project because we had this compact space. I wanted to talk about a lot of different kinds of people because it's supposed to be about life in a war zone and I wanted to basically talk about everyone but the soldiers. So all the characters are fictional but some are kind of larger conglomerates of people than others. There is a character in there who is an aid-worker for WFP who discusses when he was in Baghdad during the American bombing of Baghdad -- the shock and awe. He's almost based entirely on a real person -- an Iraqi who I traveled with and that is his story. And that was just taken whole-cloth and I hope he doesn't mind. That's a real story. The story of Khaled, the boy, and his sister, with some details extracted solely for space -- that's a real story that one person went through as well as his parents. But other characters are sort of amalgamations, like Leila and some of the other aid workers she travels with. So there's this really fine line you're always walking with this kind of fiction. It's technically fiction but the purpose of this fiction is to tell a greater, deeper observational truth. And so you have to be really careful with these characters that they are as true as possible within the fictional confines of the work.

The team behind LIVING LEVEL-3: IRAQ. Left to right. Alberto Ponticelli, me, @patmasioni. Taken in Algeria in 2014. pic.twitter.com/wH4e7vRC8G

- Joshua Dysart (@JoshuaDysart) January 22, 2016

How many families like Khaled's did you encounter and interview on your five-day trip?

Khaled is based on a very real character and a very real family. The only details changed in his narrative are pieces that were removed so that we could fit it into the space provided. However, I couldn't even tell you how many people I spoke with for those five days because that's all I did -- go from camp to camp and speak to people and refugees who were fleeing either the Syrian conflict or Daesh in Iraq. I couldn't even give you a figure. All we did was ride in convoy from location to location and speak to people. Some of them I had dinner with and they cooked meals for me using food they purchased with WFP vouchers which was really a very extraordinary experience. I would spend an hour with some of these. Some of them you only get two or three minutes with -- just you, the translator and them. Some of them were women alone so because of certain aspects of their culture, you could only talk to them for a brief amount of time and then the female translator would take over and you would step away. And then the female translator would come back and tell you things they told her. With Khaled's family, I specifically went into their home and they're Yazidi so we needed a different translator. We spent a couple hours with them. There are just some organizations you walk away from and think humanity is inherently good and that's how I feel about WFP.

What jumps out at you to do these kinds of stories as opposed to the comics you do for Valiant and other publishers, mainstream and indie?

Well, comics is what I do and I am involved or inspired with the world and with people. I love writing comic-books. It's a super-interesting job and at the same time, I not an escapist by nature. When I need inspiration for my comics, no matter how escapist they may seem on the surface, I'm always looking at my life or the lives of others and other things that are happening in the world for inspiration. I'm not one of these cannibal writers who looks in a superhero story and thinks that I want to do them. When there's an opportunity to be a part of something that is important, I leap at it and it's kind of been adverse to my career but it makes me feel more fulfilled and part of the planet. Also, I really like people. People are just amazing. We have so much potential yet we can be so cruel. There's something really beautiful about that so I want to go where people are being really human to one another -- both kind and horrible. I want to see that, I want to be part of it and I want to bring those stories back. This is about trying to disrupt the idea of the other... in the minds of the reader. We were halfway through when the migrant crisis poured into Europe and stressed the European ability to host the other. Then I realized it's about breaking down the wall. I can show you that we are more similar than we are different. We laugh the same way. We love the same way. Maybe I can increase your empathy load a little bit. We all want what's better for our families.

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