Joshua Dysart
and Alberto Ponticelli
Vertigo/DC Comics ($9.99)

by Spencer Dew

In the final pages of this disquieting and enthralling book, journalist Momolu Sengendo confronts a man whose face is wrapped in blood-stained bandages, insisting that “violence answered with violence” offers no hope and no end. The journalist, whose task is to report on the sensational and still-unfolding story of this mysterious man willing to wage a personal war against the forces of the Lord’s Resistance Army, finds himself acting as a kind of conscience. His comments echo words he heard earlier, as part of an interview with a pacifist physician, Dr. Lwanga Moses; Uganda-born but raised and educated in America, Lwanga has returned to offer medical aid to the people of war-torn Acholiland. Yet this spokesperson for peace, carrying with him a photograph of Somali activist Abdulkadir Yahya Ali and preaching about the responsibility to “change Africa . . . without violence,” encounters one too many child victims of mutilation and snaps.

Sengendo’s service as conscience is a necessary counterpoint to the voice that wakes inside Lwanga’s head when he runs into the jungle after child soldiers who took a machete to a toddler’s face. This voice is anything but a voice of conscience. Forced to kneel, the barrel of an assault rifle pressed against his forehead, tears streaming down his cheeks, Lwanga hears someone inside his head, whispering advice: “He’s too close to use the rifle effectively.” The concerns of this voice are practical—tactical and strategic—not moral. It rattles off technical details about land mines, talks Lwanga through the most effective means to remain unseen, to seek to cover, to kill. “Brutalize the enemy,” it says. “Stay aggressive. Instill fear. . . . go kill every last one of these little fucking monsters.”

Writer Joshua Dysart and artist Alberto Ponticelli, the creative team behind Unknown Soldier, aim to keep this paradox of a pacifist turned death-dealer gaping open. In response to his first killing—of a soldier who was also just a child—Lwanga, cradling the corpse and wracked with remorse, first contemplates suicide to escape this irreversible reality, then settles for self mutilation, taking a sharp-edged stone and carving off his own face. At one point, the dead child appears to Lwanga in a vision, speaking to him: “They took me from my school when I was eight. I tried to escape, but they beat me with canes. Took me to Sudan, to the death camps. They broke me. Turned me inside out. And you killed me for it.”

Such gestures say much about Haunted House, which collects the first six issues of this ongoing monthly series. While the volume, full of dynamic action scenes, offers a masked avenger who swears to bring justice to “rebels, corrupt leaders, arms dealers, corporate CEOs . . . anyone who profits from misery,” and who at the end declares his intention to track down and slaughter Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony “by any means necessary,” the rush of catharsis is short lived. “But that means declaring war against an army of demoralized children,” Sengendo points out. To see a villain beheaded brings a certain satisfaction, but when Lwanga peppers a camp with mines in order to hasten his escape, we see children (albeit gun-wielding children, serving as rebel soldiers) suffer the same sorts of maiming to which Lwanga’s moral outrage responds. An eye for an eye doesn’t just beget blindness; in this case, it depends upon it.

Set in 2002 (three years before the assassination of Abdulkadir Yahya), Haunted House serves to respond to the underreported recent history of Uganda, which Dysart visited; the author conducted interviews with former child soldiers and collected photographs to serve as background for this work. The book, by seeking to detail the realities of life in the midst of a civil war between government forces and an army of Christian guerrillas—that, for instance, some 20,000 children walked nightly to Gulu Town, as “night commuters” simply to find a safe place to sleep—is already serving a larger, humanizing purpose. It is the encounter with such children—and with assorted other minor characters, victims, survivors, endurers, always fully characterized by human idiosyncrasies, histories, and desires—that makes this graphic novel a success.

Ponticelli’s angular figures and jagged lines lend a kinetic but also threadbare aesthetic, perfect for empathetic treatment of the faces of children caught in the gears of war. Moreover, Lwanga, scarified and ceaselessly bleeding, is no flat action hero, even if the voice inside his head would like him to be. As is revealed in vague flashes from his past, Lwanga was subjected to some sort of secret training, to experimentation. He is not merely who he thought himself to be, but neither is he, perhaps, synonymous with the voice of the killer inside him. While, at times, this military instinct serves as a fitting match for the presence of “gun-drunk egomaniacs,” as he calls the LRA fighters, “useless to the whole goddamn human race,” it seems clear that his use as a super-soldier is limited as well.

The true heroism in Haunted House takes quieter, more vulnerable forms, involving not masks but faces—faces encountering other faces. A nun walks into an armed camp, “demanding some kind of sanity”; a child looks into another child’s eyes and drops his rifle, abandoning his murderous role. Such scenes offer a glimpse of what Lwanga identifies as “how peace will win in the end.”

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009