Kevin (erf_) wrote,

unknown soldier

Joshua Dysart's reboot of Unknown Soldier, a superhero comic (!?) about the LRA insurgency in Uganda, should by all rights be terrible. But somehow it instead manages to be the most compelling, humanizing, thought-provoking, morally complex treatment of contemporary African conflict I have read since Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. There are no good guys or bad guys, no simple solutions, no magic white dudes galloping in to save Uganda from itself--it is a realistic central Africa, in which things are so fucked up that even superheroes are ultimately powerless. In short, it is the exact opposite of Iron Man flying over to Basra to singlehandedly save Iraq (and, verily, the two token white characters in the story, far from being a point by which American audiences are intended to relate, are bewildered, helpless, and generally ineffective).

The visual storytelling is some of the best I've ever seen in comics, with all-too-familiar dewey-eyed UN-style rhetoric ironically juxtaposed with horrifying yet intensely human images of the frustrating, impossible reality of the situation on the ground. (There's an image, early in issue 7 or so, in which the titular protagonist digs up a cache of AK-47s wrapped in a UNICEF satchel. He inserts a couple new rifles claimed from child soldiers he has recently killed, pauses to contemplate what he is doing, and buries it again. It's never clear whether he's using it as a burial ground or a weapons cache, and the moment expresses the series' troubling ambiguity perfectly.) This series is easily a new landmark of the comics medium, almost on par with Maus.

And it's being cancelled because no one gives a fuck about Africa.

Which, somewhat prophetically, volume 2 of the trade paperback is about. That entire arc is framed in the uncomfortable perennial question posed by diplomats, NGOs, and journalists seeking foreign intervention in the conflict: Why is the life of thousands of nameless Africans worth less attention to the Western media than the life of one white American visitor? And it brings the implications of the usual easy, comfortable answers to that question to some unexpected, unsettling, inevitable conclusions, all the while casting light on how the question itself is problematically racist. If you like feeling good about yourself, or being right in your view of the world, this book will fuck you up.

The main character of issue 21 is an AK-47. Not a superhero with an AK-47. The rifle itself. Just one. The comic traces the life of the weapon from its creation in a factory in 1976 through the lives of its many owners throughout Africa, each of whom carries it for different reasons, with a few consistent themes through each of their narratives. The gun may be mute, but its report is always loud.

This series is being cancelled, people. For shame.

(edit) Hey, look at that. A New York Times article. Why are more people not picking this series up?
Tags: comics, war

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