New Unknown Soldier series


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From Newsarama:

SDCC '07: JOSHUA DYSART ON THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER AT VERTIGO

by Steve Ekstrom

Josh Dysart is on the move-he's written his own cult-hit the Violent Messiahs; he's worked on the Swamp Thing and worked with iconic characters like Cimmeria's favorite son, Conan. He's even helped music sensation Avril Lavigne on a couple of graphic novels. These days, he's a pretty busy guy...

In June, he took some time off to travel to Uganda do some research on an 'unknown' project-well, this unknown project has been revealed to be a new series with a familiar unfamiliar face: the Unknown Soldier from Vertigo. This time around the Unknown Soldier, much like Joe Kubert's original incarnation fought Adolf Hitler, fights the face of true evil-in the heart of Uganda. Josh was very eager to elaborate on this new series.

Newsarama: To start with - the Unknown Soldier for Vertigo-is this going to be a faithful treatment of the original character?

Josh Dysart: In the strictest sense, in the way that I imagine you're talking about, no. Ours is a totally new Unknown Soldier from a different part of the world. He has new concerns and new reasons to fight-so, some surface things are very different from the original. However, I think the heart and soul of our book is similar to the original in a lot of ways. Our Unknown Soldier is a faceless soldier for his people. He is a patriot in a time of war, driven by a sense of personal justice. In the final issue of the original Unknown Soldier, he kills Hitler. Our Unknown Soldier has his own Hitler (a real life war criminal) to go after.

When we are not being true in spirit to the original we, at the very least, try to have some sort of "conversation" with the previous incarnation. For instance, this idea that, "one guy can affect the outcome of a whole war! One guy in the right place, at the right time..." which was at the pith of the original book, is something our Unknown Soldier believes, but what's the truth of that? At what cost does a person fight in a war? At what cost do they not fight in a war?

Violence is a very tricky tool. It can liberate, but it can also perpetuate. Hopefully we're creating a series that deals with that sort of sticky wicket in a way that doesn't bog down the excitement of a war book.

NRAMA: Do you have a personal familiarity with any of the previous incarnations of the Unknown Soldier?

JD: I've read them.

NRAMA: Will this story pick up on the threads left by either of the Owsley or Ennis minis? Or will this be a re-imagining of the concept altogether?

JD: The events from Ennis' mini are definitely in the mix, and this does, technically, take place inside of that continuity. You might find the supernatural end of the Owsley run leaking into the sides of this project a little bit, like a light leak on film or something. Many probably won't even notice it, though. I plan on playing it very subtle.

NRAMA: Are there any particulars about the series yet? Where does it take place? What time period? Can you give readers a taste of the plot?

JD: Absolutely. Our Unknown Soldier is an East African man named Lwanga Moses. His family fled Uganda months before Idi Amin fell in '79. So Moses grew up in the American immigrant experience and ended up attending Harvard medical school. In fact, he is far more American than he is African, something he is unconsciously ashamed of.

While growing up in the States, his home country was slipping into tribal civil war and went from being a poor country to being one of the poorest in the world. By '85, rebels had overthrown the Ugandan government. The new regime brought a massive shift towards peace and economic stability in the Southern region of the country. In the underdeveloped north, however, the rise of extremist Christian spiritual military leaders began, culminating in the formation of the Lord's Resistance Army, led by a very complex and cruel person named Joseph Kony who claimed to be possessed by spirits. Our series opens in 2002, Moses has decided that the nation of his birth needs him more than the West, so he's returned to Uganda to be a doctor and peace activist. How and why he becomes caught up in the war in the north, becoming the Unknown Soldier in the process, is what our first story arc is all about.

Keep in mind, by the time Moses is involved, 15,000 children have been kidnapped by rebel forces and forced to fight. Over one million displaced Acholis (the tribe in the north most affected by the conflict) have been pushed onto some 200 camps throughout Northern Uganda's "Acholiland". They have no running water and no electricity. There is no more an unknown war than the real-life struggle between the Ugandan Peoples Defense Force and the Lord's Resistance Army. No more an unknown tragedy than the interrupted culture of the Acholi people. This has gone on record as being the single longest running, most under-reported humanitarian conflict of our generation. That's where our story begins.

Currently, in the real world, Joseph Kony is in peace talks in Juba, Sudan and the conflict has ceased. So as soon as we were told it was safe here in the West, I flew there to do some research. I spent a month in Uganda, making it as far North as the Sudan border and as far west as the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo). While in Uganda, I interviewed or spent time with Acholi religious leaders, various reporters and a Canadian documentary crew, a UPDF soldier who had been engaged in the north against the rebels and is now stationed in Iraq (Uganda has 5,000 soldiers in Iraq currently), two Lord's Resistance Army soldiers, several collage students in the south, Micro-financing bankers, NGO organizers and employees, countless missionaries, Acholi political leaders from opposing parities, members of Parliament, traditional Acholi musicians as well as several young hip-hop musicians in the south, two nature conservationists, many Acholi teachers and community leaders, a white peace corpse teacher who was stationed there from 1962 (the year of independence from the British) to 1971 (the year Amin took power), I talked to children in a school for war affected kids and various Ugandans from all walks of life, classes, tribes and geographic areas ranging from the South West Bugandan regions to the North Western Acholiland.

I walked alone through the slums of Kampala, I went to the IDP camps in the north, I went out into the bush to see the grass thatched huts the LRA kids were abducted from, I went to the clinics and the closed schools, saw the tree of peace that Betty Bigombe planted (the Acholi woman who almost halted the conflict in 1990, before President Museveni inexplicably fired her) and went to Severino Lukoya's church to see him speak (that's the father of Alice Lakwena who led the Holy Spirit Force against President Yoweri Museveni's military government in the late eighties). I stalked the World Food Program food drops and spied on the Landmine Action Programme meetings. I even climbed inside the original Israeli airliner that was hijacked and landed in Entebbe in 1976.

So there you go. We give you an Unknown Soldier for an Unknown War.

NRAMA: How do you intend to portray him? It seems like the world of espionage has several timed honored "faceless operatives"-will realistic or modern scenarios be an integral part of this story?

JD: As you can tell by my rant above, it most certainly takes place in the real world and is concerned with real world conflicts and villains. The scope of action will sweep from all out fire fights in the Ugandan bush to silent stealth combat in the posh five-star hotels of the capital and beyond. Eventually, the series will expand outward as our Unknown Soldier more and more identifies himself as the rightful "gun" of Africa (a nation with far, far too many guns in it already). He will, more and more, get caught up in an ever-expanding range of action. So the series, which starts in the bush and backstreets of Gulu Town, will eventually end up in the great halls of African power and beyond-taking him all over the world. A soldier for Africa can't just fight children with guns. He must ask the question, who's giving them those guns? Who's profiting most from this madness? So, it's not necessarily an espionage book, per se, but it will, at times, have a similar feel. Who he is as a character will be a treat the reader will have to discover, since his character is primary thrust of the book.

NRAMA: With the advent of technology and its importance in the realms of the military and espionage-will there be directed use of modern technological processes/devices in correspondence with the Unknown Soldier's mythos involving his ability to remain faceless?

JD: Well, this plays back to your first question. How is our take the same and how is our take different from the original? We are different in surface ways. For instance, identity shifting in our book is an internal struggle for our Soldier not an external device. We leave behind his ability to mimic anybody, that's not a skill set our soldier has; but, we are true to the original in that the issue of identity is very much a part of our character. Who is he, really, a pacifist who kills or a killer who lies to himself and others about his true nature? He doesn't even know. And-because this is about Africa and Africans and our soldier is a people's soldier, he's not backed by any government or organization. His resources are limited; so, there will be no cool spy devices. This is the story of one man with a gun.

NRAMA: From what you said, this sounds like it has a very personal connection to you. Will your personal "world view" or political views be discernable in this project?

JD: Yes and no. Obviously, this project is overflowing with the things I'm interested in: poverty, the roots of violence, political and cultural struggle, etc. I have no desire to champion any one mode of thought over another, or force any opinion about these things. Instead, I'd like to pose questions; illuminate all the complexities of the debate; and then, leave everything out there for the reader to process. So yes, I'll be writing about the things that interest me, I never really write about anything else. But no, I will not be penning a political manifesto.

And yes... shit will blow up.

I have no problem with this story following a new Unknown Soldier. That's fine. As a matter of fact, I like the idea that there's a new Unknown Soldier for each war, generation and / or nation. But to quote myself from the Newsarama forums, how the bloody hell can the Unknown Soldier have a name? That flies in the face of everything the character's about.

He's literally a faceless man fighting for what's right. He could be you, me, anyone. Saddling him with a name and origin (beyond he was injured in a / due to war) destroys that.

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