Alright, I’m going to keep this review short and sweet, just like Unknown Soldier, Vol. 1: Haunted House is. Well, short anyway…
I can’t find much information about this comic online – apparently Vertigo’s website is just abysmal. According to Wikipedia though, this Unknown Soldier story has been kicking around in various incarnations since the 60s. Originally, the Unknown Soldier was WWII US intelligence agent. In this reimagining, the Unknown Soldier is a Ugandan-born American doctor doing relief work in his war-torn homeland. The unifying thread is that the Unknown Soldier is severely disfigured, with his face wrapped in bandages and some … emotional instability.
So as I said, the Unknown Soldier is really American doctor Lwanga Moses, who has returned with his wife to his homeland of Uganda to do relief work in the midst of a civil war. Dr. Moses sort of snaps from the pressure and disfigures his own face and becomes a killing machine. Um, ok…
Things get more violent from there. Haunted House certainly does not shy away from brutality, but I think that is actually one of the more believable aspects of this story. If even half of Joshua Dysart’s portrayal of the conflict in Uganda is true – and it certainly seems like Dysart has done his homework – then brutal violence is a part of daily life there. Child soldiers, kidnappings, machete amputations, rape – this is heavy stuff, and to its credit, Haunted House does take it seriously.
In general though, I wasn’t overly impressed with the story. I know, it’s only volume 1, and I know that Dysart is being tasked with reviving a classic DC Comics property (DC is the parent company of Vertigo), which is probably not an easy job. And Haunted House is really not terrible -it’s just not that great. It seemed like there was an awful lot bad guys chasing good guys back and forth through the African bush. Sometimes the story got too focused on the brutality, without having developed the characters enough for us to really have an emotional reaction to the brutality. The whole this is just a little … undercooked.
Alberto Ponticelli’s artwork for Haunted House is a bit of a mixed bag. Ponticelli employs a rough line here, which is nice – and I think appropriate for the subject matter. The problem is that the shapes and proportions are also pretty rough – sometimes too much so. You end up with a hit-or-miss result that can vary from panel to panel. Some panels come out looking really cool and stylized, and some leave you thinking, “did he really mean for that to look like that?”
Another mildly distracting stylistic choice Ponticelli makes is that he draws the children absolutely miniscule in comparison to the adults. I suspect that he does this to emphasize the fact that they are children doing very grownup things, and that life in war-torn Uganda is a hand-to-mouth affair where you’re never more than a few days from starvation – especially if you’re a child. But sometimes the effect is so exaggerated that it looks just plain silly.
I will say that Ponticelli does a fine job rendering the African back country, which, together with Oscar Celestini’s well-chosen earthy colors, really gives you a feel for that land.
It’s been a while since I reviewed a really good book, and I’m afraid I’m starting to sound like a whiner! Well, at any rate I’m going to give Unknown Soldier, Vol. 1: Haunted House a 4 out of 10 for an OK story and OK artwork that just doesn’t quite come together in a compelling way.
Happy reading, y’all!