Until 2008, the Unknown Soldier had lived up to his name. Created by Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert in 1966, the character has been wrapped in mystery for decades, and I’m not referring to his trademark facial bandages. Through the years, the Unknown Soldier has remained a minor player in popular culture, easily confused with The Question or Invisible Man. Predominantly a World War II operative, his popularity has always been closely tied to public demand for war stories and unfortunately for him this demand has usually been met by another classic war veteran — Captain America! And Cap has it all: an iconic shield, an unique costume, a decent origins story, a decent semi-logical justification for his being in the present, and an intriguing arch-nemesis in the Red Skull.
The Unknown Soldier did have his heyday. He made a popular debut in Sgt. Rock’s Our Army At War #168, later joining Star-Spangled War Stories #151 in June 1970. By August 1977, the comic was re-named after him and continued a successful run until 1982. These would prove to be the glory days, as after the comic’s completion there was little demand for his return. Unfortunate for the discrete operative, his trademark bandage-swathed face was not a unique look, he didn’t have a compelling backstory (his facial injuries came from protecting squad mates from a grenade blast), and his only noteworthy adversary, Adolf Hitler, was starting to feel played-out. Furthermore, war stories were being replaced by darker genre-bending works such as Watchmen.
The Unknown Soldier’s cultural obscurity (and worse, triviality) was exactly what Joshua Dysart faced during his re-branding of the titular character in 2008. The Unknown Soldier had been given the green-light to be an ongoing series which meant if it didn’t make the proper sales quota, it could easily be canceled. Dysart was already an accomplished writer having worked on Swamp Thing, Conan and Hellboy, and having co-created and written hit series Violent Messiahs. His artist Alberto Ponticelli was also an industry veteran. Despite their shared experience, Dysart must have known that the series had dismal chances of being a hit. In fact, in the twenty-five years since the Unknown Soldier’s completion, the titular character had only featured exclusively in two Vertigo limited releases. One was a 12-issue mini-series in 1988 penned by Jim Owsley (now known as Christopher Priest) and the late Phil Gascoine. The second was a 1997 4-issue mini-series penned by Garth Ennis and drawn by Kilian Plunkett. Although the two limited runs were well-received by fans, there hadn’t been strong enough demand for a revival. Meanwhile, part of Vertigo’s mandate was that this would be a re-brand. Dysart would not be able to put the Unknown Soldier back into his natural World War II environment (McCaw).
Somewhere, in all of this amounting pressure, Dysart decided that the series continuation should be set in Uganda. A new Unknown Soldier would debut in the form of Dr. Moses Lwanga, a pacifist African medical doctor raised and educated in the United States. It would continue to be an action-oriented story about “one man and his war” but it would integrate that idea with a warmongering meta-mythology (Unknown Soldier #1).
Let’s skip to the end of the comic’s run. In November 2010, a lack of readership led to the demise of Joshua Dysart’s Unknown Soldier. The comic’s debut in October 2008 had sold nearly 16,000 issues but by the last issue sales had dropped below 5,000. A steady and heart-wrenching decline in sales marred the two years and twenty-five issues of the continuation (ICv2).
This time, however, it wasn’t the classic mawkish mixture of G.I. Joe and Pistachio Disguisey that led to the series’ dissolution. Nor was this a failure on account of Dysart or Ponticelli. After all, despite the decline in readership, the Unknown Soldier had been nominated for an Eisner Award for Best New Series in 2009. It won several Glyph Comics Awards, which recognize comics that deal significantly with people of color. The work received positive attention by media outlets such as the New York Times and BBC. How do we explain the disparate border between favorable critical attention and the lack of readership?
In my opinion, and I must say ‘opinion’ because I’m treading from academic assessment to personal conclusion, the 2008 mini-series was too emotionally relevant, too politically raw, too intelligent and challenging and painful, that it depressed American readership. Much akin to the 2008 media buzz and subsequent buzz-kill about child soldiering in Uganda, the Africa of Dysart’s Unknown Soldier was so chilling that it couldn’t sustain its readers’ need for entertaining escapism.
It’s fun watching Metropolis be destroyed by General Zod. It’s not fun watching children be mowed down by helicopters, especially when those children are religious soldiers being exploited by a madman. Even less fun is wondering if this might be a typical day in some parts of the world that we live in.
Looking back at retail sales, there is evidence of reader predilection for popular and easily digestible titles. In November 2010, the highest-grossing comic was Batman the Returned #1, followed by Batman, Avengers, Green Lantern, X-Men, and Spider-Man properties. Captain America, our more popular World War II vet, came in 24th place with Issue #612 at 47,000 sold (ICv2).
While these properties were and still are attractive for a reason, they can sometimes feel a bit like Starbucks: stylish, omnipresent, branded, with product that can taste like liquid cocaine or mud but we won’t care either way, we’ll buy it.
So what is it about the Unknown Soldier that makes it worthy of our consideration? If it wasn’t a popular title back in 2010, why dredge it up now? I would posit that Dysart’s Unknown Soldier is a fresh example of integrating philosophically-weighted relevance into a forgettable source material, thereby transforming it. Sure, the story explodes with visceral and unrealistic violence along the lines of a Quentin Tarantino film. And yes, it still follows a conventional hero genesis (particularly that of the Punisher and The Bourne Identity).
Any pulp in the Unknown Soldier, however, is complemented with a fascinating discourse on the nature of manufactured heroes and the contradictory ambitions of pacifism and that of war. The result is a gritty pastiche that was at one point a sales pariah but remains a masterful fiction.
Of course, that’s important to remember: Dysart’s Unknown Soldier is still fictive. Any analysis of the work must carefully separate the fictional setting in Africa from the proper one. The writing may be well-integrated into African history, mythology and geo-politics but it remains a Westernized literature penned by a Caucasian male writer. Dysart himself is aware that “a culture isn’t just a people’s music, language, food and clothes. It’s also their gender politics, their cognitive approach to religion, their body language and so much more.” He warns his readers that he will “inevitably end up fictionalizing the world” (Unknown Soldier #1).
I would say that the comic’s depiction of Africa is not a Westernized lens. Instead, it’s a Westernized mirror that reflects a cultural and public consciousness that has projected its darker values onto the African symbol. These values include a desire for dystopian morality and a fetishization of violence.
But for the literalist who is upset at the portrayal of Africa, here is a defense of Joshua Dysart that hopefully can allot him some mercy. First, Dysart ensured that first-hand accounts would take precedence over media outlets and dossiers. During a cease-fire in 2007, Dysart traveled to Uganda to collect endless interviews from the Ugandan people themselves, including LRA and UPDF soldiers, college students, politicians, religious leaders, Acholi musicians, teachers and children. He took over 1,400 photographs of the countryside and people (Unknown Soldier #1). While Dysart admits to his fallibility as a foreigner studying the local culture, he relies on his photography, interviews, and other accounts to make as emotionally and physically honest a presentation as possible.
Second, in a meta-example, the Unknown Soldier himself is not truly Ugandan. He is the product of an American education and military training. Dr. Lwanga cannot speak the Acholi language and himself admits his deficient in understanding his own people’s cultural values. It is by a deceptive nature that he becomes a ‘voice of Uganda’ or a national hero. Naturally, this artificial nature takes pressure off of Dysart. His character is not expected to be Ugandan. He is an aberration, a mockery, an imposing foreign influence.
In summation, Joshua Dysart has created the contemporary philosopher-soldier. This man has decided to travel into Uganda to murder Joseph Kony, his LRA lieutenants, and any child soldier that gets in the way. Like his predecessor, he is one soldier fighting against a mad warlord and his unstoppable army. But as the repercussions and the death toll amount with very little progress, the Unknown Soldier must begin to ask himself some bitter questions about his crusade. Can there be catharsis in vengeance? Does prosperity require a violent agent to reinforce it? Is prosperity even realistic?
Superman might protect Metropolis from terra-forming world machines, but there isn’t a man of steel in our reality who can protect us from mass child abduction, gory warmongering, sex trafficking rings and religious brainwashing. In some places in the world, the highest authority is a child with a gun.
“Character Chronology Index: Unknown Soldier.” DCU Guide. Web. 1 November 2013.
“Episode 34: Joshua Dysart, Unknown Soldier.” Comic Book Geeks. Web Media. 2 November 2013.
Dysart, Josh, & Alberto Ponticelli. “Unknown Soldier.” New York: Vertigo/DC Comics, 2010. Print.
Gustines, George Gene. “Civil War in Uganda, Illustrated and in Panels.” The New York Times, 11 August 2009. Web. 11 September 2013.
McCaw, Derek. “Illusive Arts Comics and Grand Opening.” Fan Boy Planet Podcast, 13 October 2007. Web Media. 02 November 2013.
Renaud, Jeffrey. “Dysart Resurrects Unknown Soldier.” Comic Book Resources, 21 October 2008. Web. 12 September 2013.
“Top 300 Comics Actual – November 2010” ICv2: Inside Pop Culture, 7 December 2010. Web. 2 November 2013.