Unless you’ve been living in a cave without any kind of wifi over the past couple of weeks, the name of Joseph Kony must be familiar to you. The leader of the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army, terrorist and psychopath, Kony is the subject of an awful lot of media attention–despite the fact that no-one really seems to know where he is now or what the LRA are up to.
I’m not here to discuss the film that brought Kony, however belatedly, to the world’s attention. I won’t mention the astonishing speed with which social networks helped it to go viral. I’m not even going to talk about the breakdown of the film’s director over the intense scrutiny over his motives and the finances of his production company, that led to his arrest for public nudity and masturbation. However hilarious that might be.
Instead, I want to look at two depictions of the Uganda that Kony has helped to create, both of which use comics to come up with very different takes on the situation, and on how it has created it’s own breed of monsters.
Army Of God by David Axe and Tim Hamilton is an ongoing work of comics journalism that’s being serialised online at Cartoon Movement.The two take a straightforward approach, using the first issue as a quick primer into Kony’s Uganda, before digging into some of the more brutal raids that the LRA are known for. Cleverly, they do this by giving each issue a central character; a teacher in issue two, for example. He is teaching his class to count, before being forced to toll up how many of the children under his care have been lost to Kony and his pirates. Like all the best comics journalism, it balances the cool reportage of events with a sense of righteous fury that bleeds off the page in Hamilton’s jittery inkwork. It’s early days for the project, and it’s never an easy read, but I’d call it essential.
A different and more controversial direction was taken in 2008 by writer Joshua Dysart when he rebooted DC’s moribund WW2 title Unknown Soldier. The Soldier, as seen by creator Joe Kubert, had been terribly scarred in action, and wore a mask of bandages. He was a master of disguise but easily roused to a battle fury.
Transplanting the action and central character to Uganda in 2002, Dysart did away with the disguise angle, instead having his main character, a mild-mannered doctor, become the subject of a mind-control experiment that implanted a second personality into him–that of a stone killer. The morality on display in Dysart’s version is almost non-existent, lost in a world that seems close to hell. His Soldier has no compunction about hurting or shooting Kony’s child soldiers, and his mind becomes increasingly fractured as the killer in him rises to the surface.
Cancelled in 2010 after lacklustre sales, this Unknown Soldier still packs one hell of a punch. It never skimps on the action sequences, and Moses Lwanga is a compellingly broken main character. He is seen by some in the book as a hero–accepting a psychopath and child killer hiding behind a mask of filthy bandages as your best option shows how limited the choices have become.
Impeccably researched by Dysart, who spent a year in Uganda during Kony’s most brutal period, and illustrated with a scratchy, angry line by Alberto Ponticelli, the books tuck an important insight into the state of the nation inside a bleak, arid noir-war book that offers no hope of a happy ending. The trades have a decent chunk of background information on the issues that Dysart touches on, from false accusations of witchcraft to the black market in humanitarian aid.
Together, the two books give you a real sense of what life in Uganda under the threat of Kony must have been like. I’d recommend them far more than the biased and ethically compromised film that brought Kony to wider public attention. They are both thoughtful, uncompromising and angry. Above all, they offer no easy solutions, showing how there are some wounds that you simply can’t slap a bandage on and call them healed.