I'll just come right out and say that I adore Joshua Dysart. In a world in which comics are often far too casual about violence, Dysart's work is a breath of fresh air. Millions of our brothers and sisters on Planet Earth suffer violence daily, real and painful violence. Whether it's the violence of oppressive regimes, the violence of hunger, the violence of homophobia, or the catastrophic violence of religious extremism, the feelings of those who suffer are never far from Dysart's creative mind.
His 2008 revival of DC's Unknown Soldier was set squarely within Northern Uganda and deliberately explored the unspeakable war crimes of Joseph Kony and the Lord's Resistance Army. With this approach to storytelling, Dysart raised the bar for the mainstream comics medium. He is certainly not the only writer to care about real world violence and suffering, but his exceptional efforts to become familiar with its actual victims set a fresh standard for humanitarian concern.
Dysart's Unknown Soldier concluded last fall after 25 issues, but its resonance continues. Kony is still at large, and he and his followers are still committing war crimes and further destabilizing areas of Africa already unglued by misery.
Meanwhile, the "winds of change" blow through North Africa, and Sub-Saharan African youth struggle to find a voice. An effort to generate interest in a #Feb18 social network-organized uprising in Uganda, styled after Egypt's #Jan25 and Libya's #Feb15, failed to gain traction. The Ugandan elections of February 18, while decried as "fraudulent" by international observers, are also generally seen as hopeful, because of the low levels of violence (although photojournalist Julius Odeke might, at least on his own behalf, beg to disagree).
Dysart's Unknown Soldier has been collected into four trade volumes, the fourth to be published this coming May. Unlike so many of its peers, this book will remain relevant for some time to come. And even if you're the type to avoid "relevant" comics, (I've been known to do that rather studiously, I admit), this one is different. Really, you'll have trouble finding anything from the mainstream publishers that will grip you so tightly and win your heart so completely. You can get a glimpse behind the scenes at Dysart's website.
Dysart sat down with The Bin for a comprehensive and wide-ranging interview that will appear right here in short installments over the next week. He shared insights into his run on Unknown Soldier as well as insights into research, the creative process, working with artists, and his remarkable personality -- generous, funny, and humane. I hope you enjoy this time with him as much as I did!
CBB: What came first? Your interest in doing an updated Unknown Soldier, or your interest in doing a Uganda comic?
JD: The project came about in an interesting way. I get into these research holes. I’m obsessive-compulsive about research. And after 9/11, I got really interested in religious extremism. And so I began researching religious extremists and that’s when I first came across Joseph Kony. It was pretty shocking to me that I hadn’t really heard of him before. At that point, you know, he’d been operable for about 20 years, and the more I read about it, the more I realized that we were dealing with probably the largest humanitarian crisis of my generation. And I had no idea about it!
So I kept up with it as much as I could at that time. Very little press was coming out.
In 2006, I think, or perhaps early 2007 Vertigo approached me to do a revamp of Unknown Soldier. I knew I was competing against other writers. And to be honest, you know, I didn't have very honorable intentions in the beginning. I just thought, well nobody else knows about this conflict, and here’s my chance to get, if not a job, at least an original pitch in to them. And I wrote it relatively quickly because of my knowledge of the conflict. It wasn’t until the pitch got greenlit that I began to quake in terror with the idea that I was about to create the most exploitative comic book in the history of the medium.
So that’s how it all came together.
The cover of a 2003 American documentary exploring the forced use of child soldiers by the Lord's Resistance Army.
And then it was really that fear after being greenlit that drove me, and my editor (although he was kind of dragged kicking and screaming), to the point of really obsessively researching and really obsessively caring about the Acholi people to the extent of going there, and experiencing their lives as much as one could in a month.
So was that just you then, or did your editor go with you?
No, no, no, my editor did not go with me. Everybody was kind of really concerned, you know, and questioned the safety of the decision I was making. But no, I went alone, so…
So wow, so why do you call this an “exploitative” comic book?
Well, I don’t think that it is now. But I think that the potential for it to have been that was huge when we were first greenlit. I think that we did pull it off though. There were some things about it that I felt a little uncomfortable with, but I worked harder than I’ve ever worked in my life in comics (which isn’t saying much). [laughter] I worked harder on this, to satisfy the commercial needs of DC Comics and Vertigo, what they were essentially asking for, and also to satisfy my own concerns. I worked harder on this than I’ve ever worked on any other project.
Next time, Dysart talks about the second Unknown Soldier, Dr. Moses Lwanga. See you tomorrow!