Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Unknown Soldier: Haunted House (2009)

All over the front and back covers to Unknown Soldier: Haunted House, the first collection of the new Vertigo series, are quotes from comics luminaries about how important this book is. I have to call all kinds of bullshit on that, because no one in a position to effect change is going to pick up a goddamned mature readers, small circulation trade paperback and be exposed to the horrors of genocide in Africa for the first time. Any person with a decent education knows Africa's been chock full of awful for centuries, bopping from one country to another. While it might be cathartic to see a fictional heroic figure emerge from one of these real life bloodbaths, it's ultimately considerably less helpful than the light Sylvester Stallone shone on Burma in his orgy of violence, Rambo. Let's start by saying early aughts Uganda is a colorful and evocative setting for a war comic, and focus on its entertainment value, because the Unknown Soldier isn't saving any lives outside these pages.

Dr. Lwanga Moses and his wife Sera are a loving couple, diplomatically influential, and committed to using their medical skills for the benefit of war-ravaged Uganda. Despite their best intentions, they find themselves exposed to rapists, child soldiers, murderers-- simply one atrocity after another. As a result of these horrors, the Unknown Soldier enters their lives, offering grisly answers to Uganda's troubles they may not be prepared for.

The Unknown Soldier began its life as a patriotic World War II era series about a disfigured master of disguise proudly serving his country, at the same time the unpopular Vietnam War and animosity toward our own troops was at a miserable level. A revival appeared late in the Reagan Administration, written by the rare black comics writer Jim Owsley (a.k.a. Christopher Priest,) and featuring a more critical Soldier. Vertigo previously took on the character in 1998, when Garth Ennis' writing the Soldier as a corrupt tool of the C.I.A. seemed novel, as oppose to de rigueur. I liked that take, until the usual limp Ennis resolution, but little came out of that mini-series. The new Unknown Soldier has a lot more to say, and is perhaps for the first time truly relevant to his time, even if the series is set nearly a decade past. As I said, a bit further back was Rwanda, and today we have Darfur, and tomorrow the Congo will blow up again. Africa is the perfect place to set a series in need of a perpetual shitstorm as backdrop. Even as Barack Obama is applauded for his diplomacy, its nice to see a black man blowing the bad guys all to hell.

Joshua Dysart does a good job walking the fine line between exploring the horrors of Uganda through this series, and exploiting them for effect. He doesn't pussyfoot around the likely fantastic origins of the new Soldier, which frees him up to work around the borders of the masculine melodrama that unfolds. Even more than a war comic, this story is reminiscent of a spaghetti western. A lone, disfigured hero, nursed back to health by a kindly nun, fending off savages at the gates of his sanctuary. Alberto Ponticelli isn't the most polished of artists, but his storytelling is solid, and he handles the often grisly material with the necessary verisimilitude. His rough, urban style excellently captures the environment and tension, which also distracts from this, again, being a western at heart. Regardless, there's nothing new under the sun, but a heartfelt script with believable dialogue, engaging characters, and potent art is always welcome. I loom forward to seeing where this series goes next.

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