Politics and ethics in Unknown Soldier & Harbinger

preview-harbinger-0-by-joshua-dysart-mico-sua-L-STPansI was recently hit with some questions about the presence of politics and ethical enquiry in my Unknown Soldier and Harbinger comics. I liked the places these questions made me go to in thinking about my characters and why I’ve made certain creative decisions, so I’m sharing some thoughts on that here…

  1. Isn’t all art politics? Politics is so much more than just obvious references to geopolitical study. Politics is also about how we deal with each other, how we frame social issues and how we think about all human interaction in general. You could easily call comics like Watchmen or Dark Knight Returns from the 80’s “political comics”. Watchmen is very much about the history of the Cold War told as if super heroes were real. Dark Knight turns Batman into a fascist vigilante in a fictional world shaped by Frank Miller’s own political perception of America, as does his Martha Washington series. Maus, from the same era, is concerned with the European politics of WWII and how that affected human migration from Europe to America. And, of course, Raw Magazine was extremely political. Before that you had the underground comics movement of the late 60’s and early 70’s, whose counter-establishment aesthetic and message were very political. And you can go all the way back to Hitler being punched out by Captain America. Hell, just the idea of superheroes fighting crime with violence (instead of say, investing in social programs) is a political agenda being forwarded, knowingly or unknowingly, by the creators. So everything is politics, whether the author means it to be or not. There’s simply no such thing as escapism.
    Yes. This is political. (Frank Miller, Klaus Janson. The Dark Knight Returns. 1986.)

    Yes, this is political. (Frank Miller, Klaus Janson. The Dark Knight Returns. 1986.)

  2. Are comics an effective tool for political discourse? I can’t say that they’re more affective than any other medium at exploring politics, any form of art can transmit powerful social messages. Comics just happen to be my medium. But I do supposed that since we’re relatively cheap to produce and distribute and are a pulp-pop visual medium, we can more ably afford to couch social critique in our narratives. The more money you spend producing your art the less likely it is to convey some greater truth. Comics is probably the least expensive way to deliver a large scale visual story. And that certainly has its freedoms. But studies have shown that after engaging with a comic readers statistically show a high degree of information retention, and we cross language barriers with less difficulty than other text-based work.

    Unknown Soldier. Written by myself. Drawn by Alberto Ponticelli.


  3. Exploring the limitations and difficulties of international aid and global good intentions in my work:  I’m afraid there’s all kinds of limitations and complications in both the implementation and philosophy of international aid. There’s, of course, resource limitations, administration limitations, political hampering and also ethical questions that must be weighed, to name a few. The politics of good intentions are extremely complicated. My time researching non-profits in East Africa really opened my eyes to how a certain kind of NGO, despite the purest of hearts – which not all have – can inadvertently harm a community. There’s also a danger of furthering post-colonial paradigms by creating reliance on aid instead of building opportunity. It’s all extremely difficult to navigate and I’m not sure that I have any real answers (though I’m a strong proponent of micro-loan organizations) which is why I like to pose questions in my work instead of dictate ethics. I haven’t really explored the complexity of these systems in my Harbinger work, but Unknown Soldier is in part about how transposing Western values, and creating a white savior model of aid undercuts other less-developed cultures from saving themselves. I’m not a conservative in this regard, mind you. Aid is absolutely necessary if we’re going to achieve economic, educational, governmental and health equity all around the world, but we need to be smarter about what that aid looks like.
    Unknown Soldier.

    Unknown Soldier.


  4. The conflicting narcism v. the greater utopian good in Toyo Harada: The distinction in Harada’s mind between himself and all other humans is a real one. He believes himself to be more powerful, smarter and more ambitious then anyone else on the planet. He feels that he alone is capable of forcing humanity down what Buckminster Fuller called the “critical path”. But we cannot escape how – by placing himself in a paternal role over all humanity and then reinforcing that relationship of control through manipulation, resource monopolies and violence – he negates his own philosophical position. He believes that all people deserve to live as peaceful and fulfilling a life as possible and that, by extension, no person is any more important or deserves a more full, comfortable life than any other. Yet he thinks only he is capable of creating that future. So we have philosophical dissonance in his reasoning. Personally, I do tend to side with Epicurus and the idea of psychological egoism, which is that all acts, no matter how altruistic they may be, are generated from a place of self interest. But I also believe that there is a compassion engine in humanity that sees helping others as equal to helping one’s self, and that as we evolve away from a purely survivalist existence we begin to take pleasure in empathic connections and in serving others.
    Toyo Harada. Script by me. Art by Trevor Hersine.

    Toyo Harada. Script by me. Art by Trevor Hersine.

  5. You have killed Bashar al-Assad in your comics. Considering the state of the region, do you regret doing that? There’s only two things I regret about that issue of Harbinger. 1. That it was an analog for al-Assad. The original script called for the actual Bashar al-Assad to be drawn in those sequences and then to be killed by an angry mob and my editor pulled me back from that idea. So we get something that is ballsy enough to unapologetically be political wish fulfillment/exploitation, but not ballsy enough to go all the way with it. I think it neutered the intention of that scene. And 2. That we haven’t yet had the space or the commercial courage in the comic to go back to Syria and deal with the fallout of that murder. My intention was never to suggest that taking al-Assad out in such a manner would solve the problems in the region, but by not having the space to go back to that setting we became reductionist storytellers. But look, I’m not against making grand, possibly ill-intended creative choices that ring too close to some reality in the world. You can make ethical fiction without having your characters and their actions be ethical, and you can engage in liberal/conservative/dovish/hawkish wish fulfillment too, just so long as you’re willing to let the story run headlong into the moral quandaries your creative choices raise.
Posted on by Joshua Dysart Posted in Comic Books, Home, News & Politics

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