Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Unknown Soldier #1

"Haunted House", part 1

Writer: Joshua Dysart
Artist: Alberto Ponticelli
Colourist: Oscar Celestini
Letterer: Clem Robins
Editor: Pornsak Pichetshote

Vertigo may have diversified over the years, but it still loves to revamp an old DC character beyond recognition. The original Unknown Soldier series was about a disfigured US intelligence agent who worked as a master of disguise in World War II. But, with one rather obvious exception, the new series doesn't have much to do with that.

This book is about a Ugandan pacifist, Dr Lwanga Moses, working away to make his country a better place during its brutal civil war. But he seems to have a split personality, in the form of a voice that wants him to lash out and fight back - a side of his personality that clearly terrifies him. And of course, it's one thing to keep those impulses in check when you're debating the issues in Kampala, but quite another when you're in the middle of a war zone.

Dysart's interest here - aside from telling a war story, and drawing on the underexplored potential of the Ugandan setting - seems to be in the limits of pacifism, and the point at which it becomes unrealistic. As he points out in his "On the Ledge" promo piece, pacifism sounds great when you're talking about civil disobedience, but as a response to genocide, it leaves a little to be desired. Not that this is an anti-pacifist tract; Moses' violent side is downright sociopathic. But he exemplifies both attitudes - devoted pacifism and mindless retribution - and who will presumably spend much of the series trying to find the balance.

It's a violent book, and unashamedly a piece of action entertainment, but powerfully illustrated by Alberto Ponticelli. And it's good to see Vertigo continuing to make good use of strong colours, in favour of the murky brown that used to characterise the imprint.

The premise is a bit contrived, to put it mildly, but with stories like this, it all depends on how literally you choose to take it. The book makes a promising start here, and this looks to be worth keeping an eye on.

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