Sunday, February 13, 2011

Unknown Soldier

Unlike the end of Madame Xanadu and Astounding Wolf-man, Unknown Soldier appears to have been intended to end when it did. There’s a definite finality to it.

For those not aware, Joshua Dysart penned the series, with the majority of the art by Alberto Ponticelli. In fact, only 3 of the 25 issues weren’t by Ponticelli, which is pretty impressive on a monthly schedule. Then again, I have low expectations these days, and maybe it has to do with the intended limited run to the book. It’s not like it was a Kirby-esque feat.

This may be the first revision of a long term character that I’ve enjoyed in quite awhile, perhaps even since Swamp Thing was taken over by Moore. Granted, I’ve only checked into a few of these sorts of things, such as a non Mike Grell Warlord and a revised Uncle Sam series, but those really didn’t work at all for me.

Something else that makes this series unusual is that it’s a Vertigo title that ties into the DCU. That was standard when Vertigo was launched with Sandman and Swamp Thing being the primary horses in the stable but of late Vertigo’s offerings have been stand alone universes such as Scalped, the Unwritten and iZombie. Unknown Soldier is like Madame Xanadu in using an established DCU character, but it differs from that title because no other DCU characters appear.

The original Unknown Soldier is central to the story, but he doesn’t actually appear for any significant length until near the end. Mostly he’s a disembodied voice in the head of the new Unknown Soldier. We know this new man as Moses Lwanga, a Ugandan doctor who was primarily raised and educated in the US by his parents who fled the government of Idi Amin. He has returned to Uganda with his wife, Sera, who’s also a doctor, in order to work at UN camps in the northern part of the country where the Acholi are the predominant ethnic group. It’s all set primarily in 2002 when the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), headed by Joseph Kony, is terrorizing the area in its fight against the Ugandan government of President Museveni, who comes from one of the country’s southern tribes. Kony is a messianic figure whose army is a cult comprised, to a large degree, of children who have been kidnapped from their families. Ironically, the government of Uganda and the southern tribes are far less terrorized by Kony and his army than the Acholi who he’s supposed to be fighting to liberate. In addition to kidnapping the boys to be soldiers, he kidnaps the girls to be their wives, kills parents who resists and often amputates legs or arms as warnings. With a friend like this, the Acholi don’t need enemies.

Lwanga is a man of peace, recipient of a humanitarian award, and wary of American actress, Margaret Wells, who brings along a pack of reporters and photographers to cover her efforts to bring attention to the situation. Unfortunately, he’s plagued by visions of himself making violent attacks on his wife. When he charges into the bush to confront those who cut open a boy’s head, he is unfortunate enough to find them. A soldier who was sent off after him to protect him is shot dead but Moses manages to wrest the AK-47 from the boy, who has it pressed to Moses's head, and kills the boy. This sends him into a funk, with a dark voice telling him how to proceed in killing anyone who confronts him and pushing him to find and kill Joseph Kony to put an end to the civil war.

That’s the crux of the rest of the series and it all kicks off like that just in the first issue. Moses, after killing the rebel boy, picks up a rock and mauls his own face. He’s later found by some boys who take the two AK-47s and strip him naked. He eventually is found by a cowherd who takes him to a station for orphan girls who had been kidnapped by rebels to be wives. The station is run by an Australian nun. She bandages his head and from this point forward he’s largely seen as the bandaged visage reminiscent of the original Unknown Soldier.

Moses fights through the rebels who had kidnapped the girls, killing that band’s leader and many others. Many of the girls are also killed during the fighting that comprises this original 6 issue arc. There’s then an intervening issue when a college student originally from Acholiland takes three fellow students to his homeland, though he doesn’t really want to. It is, of course, because he likes a girl that he does so. They’re nearly killed but are saved by Moses, whose camp is in an abandoned village where they end up. This leads into the next arc, Easy Kill.

Easy Kill is a plot to kill Margaret Wells and blame it on the LRA so that the West will intervene in Uganda to put an end to the LRA. This plan is devised by an odd group composed of young people from different parts of Uganda and even other countries in Africa. The man who’s supposed to be the leader is actually just a figurehead for the woman who’s the actual leader but in the patriarchal society of Uganda can’t be seen as the leader. It’s all a front, though. Moses sets mines to blow up the Wells convoy in the bush, but a truck carrying workers hits the mines instead. Moses feels tremendous guilty and is nearly catatonic at the scene when the convoy comes upon it. He’s mistaken for the sole survivor of the explosion and taken to a hospital. He doesn’t stay long. He goes to the capitol city only to find out that his co-conspirators are proceeding with the assassination but in a way that couldn’t possibly be blamed on the LRA.

Moses and a discredited, alcoholic ex-CIA agent named Jack Howl end up foiling the plot. In the meantime, Sera is looking for Moses. She knows he is the Unknown Soldier, who’s now made some appearances in the press, because Moses came to her after he’d scarred his face. They had sex, but then he fled into the bush on his mission to kill Kony. She engages a Muslim reporter named Momolu Sengendo to help her find Moses, but he’s had some confrontations with the Unknown Soldier (who he doesn’t know is Moses, as she’s just asked him to find the Unknown Soldier), and doesn’t want to find him again.

After the Margaret Wells mess, Moses tries to hide out in an Acholi camp in the next two arcs, The Way Home and Dry Season, but the voice of the original Unknown Soldier overtakes him at times so that now he doesn’t have recollection of things he has done. He ends up investigating the killing of the camp’s doctor and theft of medical supplies only to find out he played a pivotal role in both, but while under the influence of the original soldier.

This time his primary opponent, other than himself, is a corrupt army officer who’s supposed to be guarding the Acholi camp. In fact, he and others were arranging to steal the medicine to sell in a complex, three way exchange where they would also sell a nomadic tribe the guns that the army had previously confiscated from them. This tribe’s elements who want the guns aren’t simply pastoralists but cattle raiders. Moses takes control from the voice within and attempts to blow up himself and the weapons but the explosion doesn’t occur as planned, resulting in his survival. He does manage to kill the corrupt army officers and many of the cattle raiders, though.

Unfortunately for him, the cattle raiders had a lot of friends waiting nearby. This drops right into a two issue story called A Battle of Little Note where Moses ends up holed up in a rocky outcrop with a woman and her two children. As it turns out they are from the same tribe as the cattle raiders and had been attacked by other cattle raiders themselves, left with only three cows when all the rest were stolen. Her son is the older of the two children but he’s suffering from a birth defect that leaves him walking on all fours. These two issues are told from his perspective. Moses and this little family hold off the raiders for awhile, but eventually Moses has them kill one of the cows and use it’s skin and skull as cover to sneak out at night with the two remaining cows so that the family escapes while Moses remains behind. When the cattle raiders surmount the outcrop Moses kills several, but it’s inevitable that he’ll be killed.

Except he’s not. The CIA has tracked him down and sent in a squad to rescue him. That squad arrives by helicopter just then.

The next issue is called Kalashnikov. It’s a stand alone story penciled by Rick Veitch. It tells the story of one AK-47, as well as the invention of all AK-47s. Africa is awash in AK-47s.

The final four issue arc is entitled Beautiful World. Moses is on a final push to kill Joseph Kony and Sera is working to find Moses. The CIA, though, thinks Moses is going on a mission for them, taking on the role of the original Unknown Soldier. We end up with Moses’s background story, because it turns out that his belief about who he was is entirely fictional. We also end up with the story of the original Unknown Soldier, who’s intertwined with Moses. Seems Moses was a Ugandan expatriate, but more like a recruit to the Dirty Dozen. He was being trained as a special operative, somehow akin to Jason Bourne, and was the only one of several subjects who didn’t go insane from the training. He was only known as Subject 9 when he was visited by the original Unknown Soldier, an old and deteriorating man who had no identity. He had fought in WWII and performed many wet works in the aftermath that was the Cold War. He actually chose Subject 9 from this one meeting to go into a different project.


Skip to SPOILER OVER if you want the conclusion to be a surprise. Me, I don’t care about that sort of thing and just want a good story, even if I know the conclusion going in.

This project was to create a man who would do good works to make up for all the work the Unknown Soldier had done. The humanitarian Moses was created to be a humanitarian, not as a sleeper agent. The trauma of killing the rebel boy in the first issue was the trigger that sent him back into his wet works training that had been instilled prior to the Unknown Soldier coming for him.

In the end Subject 9 finds Joseph Kony’s camp and creeps in to shoot Kony. He comes to a confrontation with another boy rebel. We then see Subject 9 picturing the joyous reaction after he kills Kony, his reuniting with Sara, and the restoration of his face. In reality it ends with the boy having shot Subject 9 through the head with the AK-47 that was featured in Kalashnikov. Sera winds up married to Momolu, the reporter, finding some measure of happiness and continuing her work as a doctor to help the people of Uganda. She never found Moses, learned what happened to him, or learned that he wasn't the man they both believed him to be.

Dysart concludes with a summary of how things are in Uganda. Fortunately for Uganda, the LRA has been forced out, allowing the Acholi some peace. Unfortunately for the region, the LRA is now in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and Sudan, brining destabilizing influence to those countries. The LRA is no longer fighting for Acholi independence. Instead it’s a pan-African terrorist group, still kidnapping large numbers of people and forcing them to fight or work as sex slaves.


So, that’s the story of the Unknown Soldier who is Moses Lwanga. The plotting is focused and the writing spot on for its characters. I like the different type face that was used in the lettering to show when the Acholi language was being spoken but leaving the actual words in English. Ponticelli’s art was beautiful throughout. He captured the beauty of the land, and the people, as well as the ugliness of the conflict.

More important than these broader outlines are the smaller stories that Dysart and Ponticelli tell. Most of them involve the children caught up in the conflict. All are victims. Some are perpetrators of violence but all are recipients of it. There are at least 4 young boys who stick out in my mind from different arcs of the series. Each was individually fleshed out as a complex individual. Even a one armed boy with a hatchet who was tasked with tailing Moses is a sympathetic character, in his broken state. The girls get less attention than the boys, but they’re no less present, whether in the large group being sheltered by the nun in the first arc or the girl at a UN orphan’s camp for rehabilitation of soldiers and their “wives”.

Character development is the driving force of the story. As the side stories of the lesser characters swirl around, Moses and Sera are at the center. Sera's development is more an acceptance of the loss of Moses and moving on with her life. One of the best moments in the book involves her attending an Acholi wedding, as she contemplates her own life and relationship with Moses. Moses, of course, undergoes the most drastic of changes. Killing many, many people causes significant internal conflict, no matter how deserving or necessary the killing might have been. The accidental killing of the truck full of workers only exacerbates matters. The voice of the original Unknown Soldier doesn't help, either.

I was originally drawn to the story for its location in a place with which I am only marginally familiar. Dysart took that interest and put together an excellent, cohesive and loving story of Uganda and its travails in 2002. It’s only a small part of the 20 year history of the LRA’s depredations in northern Uganda, and near the end of that 20 year span at that, but it aptly summarizes so much of what’s wrong with national boundaries in Africa, cutting across tribal lines and lumping together competing tribes. Nonetheless, he doesn’t blame colonialism for Uganda’s problems. Africa’s problems have to be solved by Africans. Removing Kony and the LRA from existence would be a good start but perhaps is just a fantasy, like Moses killing Kony.
Finally, while I normally recommend getting a trade or trades of these books, I think it worthwhile to get, if not the original singles, reproductions of the covers. Dave Johnson did the covers from issues 7-25. They're so well matched to the stories within while evoking an ethereal sense of the places visited in the stories they're worth getting just on their own. In fact, I'd compare them to the covers for daytripper in their merit as an encapsulation of the stories from which much can be gleaned without even reading the contents between the covers.

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