Unknown Soldier #19
- Words: Joshua Dysart
- Art: Alberto Ponticelli
- Colors: Oscar Celestini
- Story Title: "A Battle of Little Note, Chapter One"
- Publisher: DC Comics/Vertigo
- Price: $2.99
- Release Date: Apr 28, 2010
Posted by Jason Wilkins on May 4, 2010
The Unknown Soldier is a character with a long and convoluted history. Inspired by the Tomb of the Universal Soldier in Arlington Cemetery, he represents the sacrifices made by the untold numbers of courageous, anonymous young men who fought for America during its greatest conflicts. Despite a publication history that includes at least one out-of-continuity appearance, one thing that’s remained constant about the character’s books is their running commentary on war in all of its glory, violence, and moral foxholes.
In Unknown Soldier #19, creators Joshua Dysart and Alberto Ponticelli continue their singular exploration of modern war through the intense lens of their character’s extremely conflicted point of view. Set in Uganda, this incarnation of Unknown Soldier examines the atrocities of a particularly vicious civil war from the perspective of a pacifist fighting a battle against his own newly found talents for tactical combat. Dysart’s Unknown Soldier isn’t simply a grunt wrapped in bandages fighting to make a difference in the world. He’s the embodiment of modern society’s polarized views on war. The protagonist’s internal struggle to reconcile his pacifist views with a previously hidden proficiency in violence evokes the moral debate that surrounded conflicts like the Vietnam War and the current War on Terror.
Dysart manages to refrain from heavy-handedness in his script. His intent isn’t to preach against one side or the other. He simply presents his audience with a set of admittedly extreme circumstances and lets them make their own call. Fair warning, though: fence sitting isn’t an option. Unknown Soldier is built around a controversial central theme and forces us to take a stand one way or the other by using topical, real-world locales and events and featuring a protagonist who embodies our own vacillating opinions on war.
In this and previous issues, Dysart doesn’t shy away from disturbing subject matter such as widespread rape, child soldiers, and ethnic cleansing. This is the stuff we try to ignore on the evening news every night. Dysart doesn’t let us off the hook with a handful of uncomfortable images and a thirty-second sound bite, though. As his Unknown Soldier struggles to come to terms with a fractured personality and moral code, wishing he could save a murderous child yet having no issues with the cold-blooded murder of a brutal warlord, the audience is also forced to find the common ground in a no man’s land of diametrically opposed philosophies.
It’s an interesting dynamic that builds upon previous treatments of the character from a psychological standpoint, while retaining the exciting action sequences from the best of the old war comics published in the middle of the last century. Artist Alberto Ponticelli excels at choreographing these action scenes, using an exquisite, intuitive understanding of pacing and movement, that allows him to experiment with unusual yet incredibly effective layouts. Ponticelli’s storytelling is top notch. His pages are brilliantly structured and clearly depict the action with lush detail and expressiveness. His art is kinetic without feeling bombastic or overworked and his double-page spreads are absolutely mental.
Dysart and Ponticelli walk a fine line between political commentary and topical storytelling. They manage to navigate that particular minefield with an innate understanding of their craft and how to use it to comment on the human condition, while still providing their audience with all the visceral thrills they expect in a war comic. If their interpretation of the Unknown Soldier seems a little darker than previous incarnations, then I would argue the shadows were always there, lurking beneath the surface, waiting for the right time and level of audience sophistication to emerge.
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