Friday, February 19, 2010

Trade Waiting - Unknown Soldier Vol 1, Haunted House

Vertigo, as an imprint, has been producing a lot of comics that I've either been enjoying recently or that have caught my eye in one way or another. In addition to currently reading Northlanders and Madame Xanadu, I've had my eye on Air, Unwritten and, the series that I am going to discuss today, Unknown Soldier, which, coincidentally enough, I picked up the first volume for each of the three series. Unknown Soldier is another DC property that has been recently relaunched at Vertigo. Unlike the other relaunch, Madame Xanadu, Unknown Soldier is a reimagining of the titular character. Hit the jump for the full review and see what I thought of the first volume.

Written by Joshua Dysart
Art by Alberto Ponticelli
Collects Unknown Soldier #1-6

Unknown Soldier stars Moses Lwanga, a doctor and activist. He is a native Ugandan who moved to the United States as a child and has returned to his childhood home in order to help out its people. Lwanga is a pacifist and is trying his best to help rebuild and stabilize the country through non-violent means. Eventually, he is drawn into the conflict first hand and has to put his ideals to the test while trying to survive and help out people caught in the crossfire.

One of the best ways to describe Unknown Soldier would be, in a word, brutally honest. Dysart and Ponticelli rarely hold anything back in either in the writing or the art. They also keep the comic from becoming overly gratuitous in its depiction of the events and don't do things like throwing in random gore and violence for the sake of it. Instead, they highlight the things that best serve the story while leaving the unnecessary things to the reader's imagination. This is what makes Unknown Soldier a truly compelling read. It focuses on what would have the most impact and then doesn't hold back.

Lwanga's journey is also very well done. When confronted with the harsh reality of the situation, he doesn't immediately abandon his pacifist leanings and tries to hold to them for as long as he can. Dysart does a good job of making Lwanga's change convincing and just doesn't have him get a personality change in order to suit the story. He gives Lwanga a realistic reason for changing his stance and, ultimately, trying his best to do the right thing instead of just turning into a killer for no reason. This is also what helps to make the transformation convincing - Lwanga doesn't change completely and there is still part of the person he used to be still in him somewhere.

This is also what makes the story interesting. Lwanga is a good person trying to do the right thing but is dropped into the middle of Hell and has to confront the failure of his principles while still trying to do the right thing. He has to make hard choices and deal with the repercussions. In fact, Lwanga's newly violent tenancies do not always make things better and do end up having some disastrous consequences for the very people he is trying to help. This grey area is what make's Lwanga's inner conflict work so well and, at the end volume, when he decides to launch his one man war against the Lord's Resistance Army, the group he has been in conflict with, he is fully aware of what that means.

Lwanga's possible "origin" as the Unknown Soldier is also teased throughout the story and looks to be an interesting story in its own right. What makes these teases work is that they never intrude on the story being told. Instead, it helps to flesh out Lwanga as a character since the flashbacks that reveal his origin are told when Lwanga is dealing with what he has become. Dysart uses them to not only explain how a doctor and pacifist could do the things that he is doing but they also seem to tie into the larger plot of the series as well.

Dysart also makes very effective use of the real world situation that is the basis for his story. What makes it really work is that Dysart never preaches at the reader, even when Lwanga is giving speeches and getting into debates. Instead, it is a natural part of the story that illuminates what is really happening in Uganda. Dysart presents everything in a matter-of-fact manner that doesn't editorialize but doesn't hold anything back either. It's this factual nature of the information that helps to inform the story without ever making the reader feel like they are be lectured. Personally, I found all of the information Dysart presented very illuminating since, as is mentioned in the story, Uganda is largely a nation that people rarely hear or read about.

Ponticelli's art  is also a perfect match for Dysart's script. The best thing that he adds to the comics is the fact that he manages to convey the brutality of the violence in the story without it becoming needlessly gory. His art still carries a lot of visceral impact, and there are a few shocking moments, while never being gratuitously so. He also manages to display a lot of emotional depth in his characters. This does a lot to increase the dramatic tension in the story as well as really give a reader a sense of what the characters are going through. His art also has a roughness to it that matches the tone of the story. Overall, Ponticelli's work in top notch and very much the equal to the Dysart's script.

Verdict - Must Read. A brutal and compelling war story set in one of the world's most war ravaged regions that manages to successfully mix real world politics with a gripping narrative.

Interested in Unknown Soldier Vol. 1: Haunted House? Buy it on and help support the Weekly Crisis!

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Ryan K Lindsay said...

I only just read this trade too. And you are completely right in the entire review, it's great. The fact that it addresses such a serious and real world issue, such as children slaves in the armies of Africa, but at no point feels didactic, is a testament to the writing and the art.

This is well worth checking out, and it's nice to see a comic that has something to say, but tells you through an awesome story.

brandon said...

Plus, it's such a low price risk...$10. Very good deal.

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