11/18/2008

Unknown Soldier #1

The fact that it's connected or working-with "Unknown Soldier" comics of the past no doubt, promises readers future cool comic book stuff, but issue #1 of Joshue Dysart and Alberto Ponticelli's Unknown Soldier is sophisticated comic book journalism/reporting minus the rather abject autobiography that political comics generally fall back on.

Writer Dysart modestly notes his own visit to Uganda in the back of the comic, but he's wisely created a main character, Dr. Lwanga Moses, that's born in Uganda and raised in America. It's interesting that even award-winning films about places like Uganda fall back on the white person from the West as the main character bit, but there's appropriately, hardly any white people in Unknown Soldier.

Nor does it fall into the other places it so easily could've fallen. Dysart could've taken the route of self-loathing Euro-American, taking white people as a whole to task or he could've done the equally frustrating--and safe--thing and presented himself as some implicit understand-er of it all, in contrast with the rest of the masses, but he does neither and enters Uganda on its own terms.

One of the best parts of the issue is the contrast between Moses' speech at the "2002 Kampala Conference on Humanitarian Affairs" and the speech by Margaret Wells--a blonde, white woman--that follows. Moses' speech is sincere but also has all the required, grand-standing B.S that a speech has to have and when he goes back to his seat, he quips to his wife, "I sounded like fucking Mussolini up there." Wells' speech is running on pretty much the same bunch of bullshit; the difference is, this is how Wells talks all the time or rather, she doesn't have the right amount of pragmatic irony needed to do good things and get the kind of publicity necessary to continue to do good things. She speaks in cliches swiped equally from Grad School classes and the Oprah show and buys into both of them.

This is a brilliant scene because the focus is not the obvious white/black or frankly, American White/Ugandan dynamic that it could've easily played off of, but more about how each person with their own rarified concern for Uganda decides to play off of or on that concern. Both are playing the game, but only Moses realizes it or is willing to admit it.

Another interesting dynamic on race and gender comes later when Moses essentially blacks-out with rage, fear, and whatever else when confronted with an AK-wielding African teen. Dysart weaves a series of gruesome nightmares throughout the issue and does a really economic reversal when Moses himself "succombs" to violence. At this obvious turning point in the issue, it's the violence that is real and the dream that's pleasant. Moses and the reader are sent to a lush supermarket. A sign that declares "The Best Values in America" becomes disgustingly ironic now that the comic's been transported to Uganda and we're shown an aisle abundant with food. The setting becomes disgusting when coupled with even the most rudimentary knowledge of famine throughout Africa.

But the truly fascinating part of this dream or anti-dream of Moses' is that he's standing in this supermarket, staring down the aisle of fruit, canned goods, and rice at a conventionally "sexy" white woman. It's odd because this little detail doesn't need to be in there and it's placement doesn't reveal some deep psychological truth about Moses, rather it's this quick like, tossed-in comment on his character.

That comment though, isn't something about reverse racial fetishization or something, because Moses has a wonderful and attractive wife who he can clearly joke with ("fucking Mussolini"), it's more of a quick, acknowledgement that Moses is still just a dude who looks at hot girls. If this dream reveals a "flaw", it's not a genuine flaw but rather some failing that the respectably hard on himself Moses projects. That it comes just as he's also "betrayed" his pacificist values and entered the Heart of Darkness, and comes right before he disfigures his own face--the original "Unknown Soldier" was disfigured in war, Moses does it to himself--is some weird comment on Moses' complex character.

The Unknown Soldier is born in the final pages of the first issue, only after the context and psychology have been firmly established. In that sense, it follows the structure of so many other "origin" issues, all the while being way more sophisticated and complex than most too. In a back-page write up, Dysart promises to bring the "pulp" soon enough and one gets the sense that it's getting all comic book not only because it's supposed to, but because after #1, the comic's earned it's way to mess around and make comic book out of real-life.

2 comments:

Trebro said...

Hmm, if I make it to the comic shop in time to grab #1, I'll have to start reading this. If not, there's always the inevitable trade.

brandon said...

Trebro-
Yeah man, pick it up fro sure. The art is also great and I didn't even get to that.

Issue 2 comes out next week as well!