Out of Africa: Joshua Dysart on Greendale and Unknown Soldier

A comics interview article by: Matthew McLean
Matthew McLean interviews Joshua Dysart, the energetic creator of comics ranging from shojo to pulp to fantasy. Dysart recently returned from his sojourn in the desert to discuss his upcoming Vertigo projects, the graphic novel Greendale (a visual rendition of the Neil Young album with artist Cliff Chang) and an on-going modern take on Unknown Soldier (involving some of the nastier conflicts in Africa) which unfortunately has recently been cancelled.

Matthew McLean (MM): So what inspired you to take off into the desert?

Joshua Dysart (JD): I always have these very romantic notions of getting away to get work done and it's been good to me in the past, finding a place, not really having anyone I know around or anything. It helps with productivity and with going deep inside of yourself to solve certain creative problems that you might be having. I have a real fondness for the desert – there's something amazing about the scarcity and the distance between things. It's like you're on the bottom of the ocean or something. The way sound travels out there is very dreamy.

So my friend had this place in the desert and she was going out of town for two weeks, it was the perfect opportunity. In fact, if I could have, I would have pushed it back a little bit; my intention was to work on the Neil Young gig out there, but because I had to work around her schedule I instead ended up finishing B.P.R.D. 1946.

MM: Oh, excellent. Well, that's a pretty unique story, or at least from my point of view. Generally, you've got a unique background in that you had a great deal more freedom growing up than most children.

JD: Yeah, I guess so. In retrospect it seems that way.

MM: In your adulthood this seems to have blossomed into a very strong individualistic streak.

JD: Most definitely.

MM: How has this affected your writing, particularly in a collaborative effort such as creating comics?

JD: I don't know who I might have been under a more rigid family structure, but I do know that when I first came to this medium it was incredibly difficult to sink into the collaborative nature of it. Comics have done many, many positive things in my life but probably one of the most positive is that they changed my character on a very, very deep level. There was a little bit of a death of ego experience. It took several years to learn how to play well with others. Not only did I have this very free childhood to get into whatever trouble I wanted, for good or bad, but I was also an only child so I suffer immensely from only child syndrome. I can attribute comics entirely, working in this medium, I mean, with teaching me how to deal with others and appreciate their visions. And this is going to sound negative, but also with learning how to place less weight on my own vision and find my place holistically inside this society of comic book creators. And I think you find that theme in my work a lot too; you'll see my characters battling with the individual versus the commune. So yeah, working in comics has been great! It's made me a better person.

MM: Excellent. You just touched on one of your projects coming up, Neil Young's Greendale. That's a 2003 album?

JD: That's correct, yeah.

MM: For those readers not familiar with the album, can you go over what it's all about or, at least, your comic rendition of Greendale?

JD: Greendale the album is about these characters in this fictional California town living their daily lives and becoming politically active.

Then there is also a Greendale art book that Neil Young wrote. That book is a lot more focused on a family called the Green family and particularly their heritage. There's this really strong strain of, almost, nature magic that is going through the Green female lineage. I thought, since this was a Vertigo product, we had to find some sort of confluence of Vertigo's aesthetic, my aesthetic and Neil Young's aesthetic. So that's what we're writing at. We're telling the story of a young girl, Sun Green, 18 years old, on the eve of the Iraq war who, through the arrival of a somewhat supernatural and pretty antagonistic individual in this small, fictional California town, discovers herself and the power of her lineage. Discovers this sort of female connection to nature. So it's divergent from the album but hopefully it'll capture the same sensitivities, that sort of gothic Americana feel that Neil Young sometimes dredges up in his work. That's kind of what I'm hoping to go for.

Greendale character designs by Cliff Chiang

MM: So what was it about the Greendale album that drew you to it as a project?

JD: Well, Neil Young has been a part of my life through my family forever. Music was a huge, huge part of my household, more so than television or anything else, so Neil Young has always been there. But it was actually Vertigo that came to me, and I did own the album previous to this, but Vertigo came to me and asked me if I wanted to be a part of this project. And I did – obviously, I immediately said yes.

MM: Right. I can imagine if he's been present, at least as a musical figure, throughout your life, how that would be very exciting.

JD: Oh, absolutely. I mean, the ability to build a connection…creativity is always about self-exploration even when you are doing the most ridiculous crap and here's an opportunity to really, really explore yourself in relation to this piece of art that's already been in your life and this musician that, as you said, is kind of omnipresent to me. It's amazing.

MM: So did you have the opportunity to meet Neil Young while you were doing this?

JD: Yeah, I have met Neil. I'm still in the process of working on the project, so we are mid-stream. But, yes, I met Neil and I met his family and they are really wonderful people so it's been great. We've emailed a couple of times and, I imagine, as we get deeper into the process we'll get back into more regular email conversations.

He exudes this sense of peace and self-awareness – good stuff that. It was like meeting my long lost grandfather or something. It was really great.

MM: Something that I've been curious about since I heard about your work on the Greendale project is that given that comics is a silent medium, what was your biggest challenge in translating the album into a graphical format?

JD: That's precisely what's most intriguing about the project for me. I've always been very interested in the way that comics approach motion and sound because they are the two things our medium is, obviously, most deficient in. Comics have created this entire language to imply motion and sound, which is cool. But that is the problem I'm wrestling with now, even just this morning before the phone rang. All I can do is find a sense of voice that is equivalent to his music and his themes and try to put that on the page.

I guess I don't even have an answer to your question because I'm in the midst of the challenge now. It's such an easy thing to do with music – a low tuned rattling E evokes an emotion – it just does. To capture that with words and images is going to be a very complex process. I'm jazzed to give it a shot but it's going to be really interesting.

MM: Have you ever seen the movie Dead Man?

JD: Of course, with Neil Young's music. It's a Jim Jarmusch film. I own it.

MM: In my opinion, the musical score in the movie was practically a character in and of itself.

JD: Absolutely. That movie does an amazing job of capturing the tonal aspects of Neil's music. But I agree. There's a wonderful interplay of music and imagery in that movie.

MM: Obviously, that was a collaborative effort. How's going to work with Neil to do the opposite, to go about taking his music and creating characters from it?

JD: As far as the actual creation of the characters go, they all already exist. Greendale is a concept album, so there's a narrative in the source material that is a light on the path. But it really goes back to the execution, and that is something that's very difficult to talk about. It's just something about feeling the music and refining the characters so that they just ring with genuine honesty in context to the source material.

While I love Neil Young's music, there are times that we make very different creative choices. My work is usually drifting towards a kind of existential horror, and that's not Neil's work at all. So it is, again and again, a challenge to make the characters feel more like Neil than me, and make the narrative feel more like Neil's than mine. How I'm going to do that I can't really say yet. It's this ambiguous process of taking the material and banging on it with a hammer until it looks like the right thing. But you're right in identifying that as the central challenge of the piece.

MM: [Laughter] So this isn't something that you feel in your creative career that you'll ever be able to nail down as a process? It's going to be something that you'll have to move forward with every project?

JD: Absolutely. In fact, I think that you can have a writer that's much better than me and much more proficient than I am, but if they get nailed down into a single process and they forget that every single project is supposed to be like starting over, I think that even the best of them will get stale. I work so organically, identifying a specific process and sticking to that process – I don't think I could, for one thing – but if I could, I fear it would be the death of me. I'm already mediocre enough without falling into this kind of lockstep process that would homogenize my work.

So process for me is all about pacing the floor and going nuts and punching the walls and taking mind altering substances and going to hang out in the desert and then eventually I get around to the writing and hope to God it's legible.

MM: That sounds challenging to say the least.

JD: Yeah. It's hard to write. I use to dig ditches for a living and while that sucked, it wasn't quite as hard as writing. So there you go…

MM: If that's true, why do you do it?

JD: Three reasons. First, because when you're on and the editor-mind is turned off and you're really flowing and it's all just pouring out uncontrollably...well, that's the best feeling in the world... ten minutes of that is worth four hours of struggling to put any old crap on the page.

Secondly, I don't really know how to do anything other than sit around and futz about with creative decisions all day. If I stopped being creative for a living I'd live in absolute poverty. I simply have no other skills.

And lastly, having dredged something up from your mind, wrestled with it and then turned it into a tangible work that can be transmitted to others is an extraordinary act of personal exploration. Writing keeps me interested in the world and curious about myself. I'm in a position where I get paid to further my education, go through self-therapy and ponder the things that interest me the most.

So writing is hard because it demands that I rise to the full potential of the subject I'm writing about... and it's that challenge that I am addicted to and simply can't walk away from.

MM: So why don't you open up the Unknown Soldier project for us. What's it about?

JD: The revamp that I'm doing for Vertigo takes place in northern Uganda in 2002 when the Ugandans People's Defence Force has just executed Operation Iron Fist. So basically the Congo War has ended, although for the most part the Congo remains unstable, The Ugandans People's Defence Force soldiers have been moved out of Congo and to the Sudan/Ugandan border and they've attacked the Lord's Resistance Army, which is a twenty year old rebel fighting force that had been operating there in 2002. In the midst of this, a new unknown soldier will arise.

The reason why I chose this part of the world and this particular conflict is because this is the most unsung conflict of our generation. It's a twenty year war, there are 1.9 million displaced people, 25,000 children have been kidnapped, forced into being soldiers, trained in Sudan death camps or turned into sex slaves. I thought it was time they had a soldier. And, to me, it feels true to the original in that it's a man with his own war. In his way he has his own Hitler, Joseph Kony, leader of the LRA. But it's also very modern in how complex it is – I don't feel that the president of Uganda has done everything in his power to end this conflict – so the politics is going to get very tricky. Ultimately, the book, which is an on-going, is going to get involved in all of the sticky politics – we're going to visit the CIA's involvement in the DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo], look at what's happening in Somalia, look at the reasons for current conditions in Darfur and just keep stickin' our soldier in the middle of it. So it should be pretty interesting. If I don't fuck it up.

MM: As this is a modern reinvention of the original Unknown Soldier the tact with the politics is very different. At this point World War II is so mythologized that it is sometimes difficult to comprehend it as a real war with all of the complexities like the ones you briefly touched on. However, this latest Unknown Soldier is set in a war that is so close you can practically reach out and touch it.

JD: Absolutely. They're in peace talks right now, so the war is not officially over. They are in the process of establishing peace and conflict has subsided so much that I was able to travel there this year, but at any moment it could flare back up. Daily you hear in the Ugandan newspapers President Museveni calling for the world community to get involved in the peace talks and force the rebels' hand. The area is still land mined, people are still displaced, despite what the BBC would have you believe.

MM: So when you sit down and realize that you are in some way, even if it's a small way, you are acting as the voice for a current, very much real conflict, what challenges do you face?

JD: Huge ones. In fact, I'm not even sure I'm making the right decision in doing this. [Laughter] My editor is constantly talking me down off the ledge. I'm pretty terrified of it.

I pitched it in passing. Apparently, a lot of people were pitching Unknown Soldier, and I just chose this pitch because I was interested in the area. I felt like there's this sense of outrage that the Unknown Soldier himself has, the traditional one, and I felt like you could capture that in this area without dealing with what you were talking about with WWII, this kind of mythologized past. But now that it is time to execute it, the weight of it all is so intense.

Then I visited Uganda. I made it up all the way to the Sudan border, drove through a minefield (that's navigated often, so it's not that dangerous) on the back of a boda boda, a motorcycle taxi and got really close to the Acholi people, the people who are most affected by this conflict. After that I came home, and started tearing my hair out about how I was going to make a commercial war book that was going to be satisfying to a sixteen year old kid that just really wants to see shit blow up. I'm wrestling with it. I finished issue two, and it is hard to make it work and be honest to the conflict at the same time.

Plus, it's a different kind of conflict than World War II as well. World War II had this exuberant number of battles, spread across a huge amount of space – there's a lot of room to tweak with narrative and fictionalize it. But in Northern Uganda it has been guerilla warfare – small groups of people moving through intense jungle while government soldiers hunted them, moving goods and people between base camps in Acholiland and secret death camps in Sudan. So I've had to fictionalize that a little bit. I've had to up aggressions. I've had to change the way it's fought for dramatic purposes.

Yeah, it's fuckin' hard, man. [Laughter] Morally, I hope I'm doing the right thing.

Also, in the initial pitch, which I haven't brought up to anybody because I kind of want it to be a surprise, there's a very pulp element. And that's something that I keep going back and forth on. The pulp element is what's going to save us because it's going to keep us from becoming Blood Diamond or something like that. On the other hand, I can't believe I'm telling this pulpy ass story about this real thing that happens to these real people that I just had dinner with on the other side of the world. So it's a really, really tricky thing. I can only regurgitate what my editor tells me again and again, which is that my concerns about this are for the better of the book. And I hope that's true. I hope that because this bothers me, because I feel equally torn between producing a viable narrative regarding an actual conflict and I also want to produce a commercial book that sells and is entertaining, that somehow I'll make that work, that I'll walk that tight rope. But it's scary and it's weird and in retrospect I might have made certain creative decisions differently in the beginning, but now I'm stuck with them.

MM: Then I’ve got to ask, how did your trip to Uganda serve as inspiration for this story?

JD: I had been introduced to this conflict in 2001 when I first read about the Lord's Resistance Army – I had been doing research into extremist groups.

MM: They're not a nice bunch of people.

JD: No, not by any stretch of the imagination. And the information and data we get on a global level--it's not just the West, it'd be hippy and liberal to say the Western Media--really it's the whole world that has totally ignored this conflict. The information you do get is incredibly one-sided. It all goes through President Museveni's office, and President Museveni is really the darling of the world because, to his credit, after he unseated Obote through violence, which is precisely how the political process has worked in Uganda since independence, Museveni really turned things around. He's been the president in power now for over 20 years (exactly as long as the conflict in the north), which is really funny, president for 20 years. But he's improved the economy, and he's had one of the most impressive responses to AIDS we've seen in Africa, so he's a model president in that regard. HOWEVER, his entry into the presidency started this new cycle of violence in the north, and we don't hear about that at all. Occasionally, we get these really strange reports about Kony, about him saying he's possessed by the spirit of Jesus Christ, about how he tells his child army to rub tree oil on themselves so that bullets will bounce off of them. These are all things he's done in the past.

But then you get there, you get on the ground and you start talking to the Acholi, and you start getting their history, and suddenly it isn't all that clear cut anymore. I went to the university in Kampala, and I went through their local history books, books like, Problems with Democracy in Uganda and other materials you just can't get outside of the country, and my entire view of the conflict was changed within two days. Questions arose. Was it in the president's best interest to end this war? Seemed like he benefited both financially and politically from it for a long time. And exactly why had the Acholi people had been treated so badly, and not just by Joseph Kony, but by the ruling political party and foreign business investors and even by Museveni himself? The research made it a much, much more complex ground truth once I was there.

To give you an example, I was speaking to one woman, an Australian missionary who had given up her life to teach children in Uganda. She told me she had UPDF soldiers attempt to rape her, those are Museveni's troops, government troops. But then I was doing interviews with UDPF soldiers in the north, and I had one tell me that his unit had been attacked and the bodies had been dragged off and the Lord's Resistance Army put on the UDPF uniforms so they could go commit atrocities around the camp, spreading a bad name.

MM: Genocidal propaganda.

JD: Precisely. So what do you do? At that point you have no idea what the truth is. The Acholi people tend towards a great deal of conspiracy theories which is totally expected when a population gets treated like shit for 20 years.

MM: You're jumping at shadows.

JD: Yeah, exactly. And it's not necessarily invalid. Some really strange things have been done to get in the way of the peace process. So all of that hit me really hard and it has made it harder to write the book. It would have been much easier to write a book about the evil rebel leader hiding in the jungle that my Unknown Soldier needs to go after. Now it's become a book about one person who's got to struggle with a tidal wave of power players on all sides and all he has is this affiliation with these Acholi people who are, ultimately, powerless, some of the poorest people in the world. Which I guess in the long run is a better book, but it's much more difficult to write.

MM: I can understand that. Complex seems like a very light word to describe it.

JD: Absolutely. And you just wrestle with it everyday. Eventually, I'll misstep. But that's okay – that's my natural default, worry and fear.

MM: [Laughter]

JD: I mean, how the Hell am I, a Texan, a white male Texan, living in California, going to write about a black, African experience. So I was really obsessed with color at first. Then I got there and realized it's not about color at all. In fact, I actually met some African Americans that were traveling through there and they felt incredibly alienated. So it became about something much more interesting which was, how can I as an occidental write about Africa since the cultural separations are so vast? It became about piecing out what is universally human versus what is particularly Acholi or particularly Ugandan or particularly central African. It's very, very difficult, and I expect to make a lot of mistakes in that regard. But I just keep reading and trying to understand the people and how they look at the world.

So it's an interesting project. I swear to God that the next round of projects I do are going to so much more fun and light. It's gonna be awesome. [Laughter]

MM: You're going to need to take a break?

JD: Yeah. I just need to do something breezy. I don't know why I've always gravitated towards these really difficult, ethical and creatively ambitious projects. It's just crazy. It really drives me nuts. You want to get it just right and you can't. It's beyond you.

MM: To switch to a lighter subject then, what was working with Alberto Ponticelli like?

JD: He's awesome. We're in the process of it now, and he's just great. His capacity to capture motion on the page is just phenomenal. The action sequences are going to be really, really wonderful.

The purpose of this book is to have a lot of emotion and a lot of action. I don't want to sacrifice one for the other. I want it to be smart, and I want to be action packed. I always look at Die Hard as my model for the perfect action piece. The first one. It's ridiculously over the top, but they sell it to you, you know? You believe that this guy, bare foot, by the way, can pull this off. And the characters are really smart.

He [Ponticelli] gets all of that. His action is extremely natural, and he sells it.

Interior Pages from Unknown Soldier #1

MM: To bring the interview back full circle, I'd like to end with a couple of questions about you. You've been extremely eclectic in your writing career. How do you end up picking a direction and scouting out your projects?

JD: I have been really fortunate in that for the last few years the projects have really been coming to me, and I have gotten to pick and choose. This is good because as a freelancer that's an amazing position to be in. I absolutely hate lookin' for work. But it's bad because I have yet to really pilot my career based on my own whims, other than what's been available to me, I mean.

I think the reason I can do this, jump from genre to genre, is that I have a great curiosity about everything. I love all genres, and I consume pretty much everything. It's exciting to me to play with different stuff. But I definitely have a longing to get my own personal aesthetic out there and that really has never happened.

MM: Do you have any plans on how to make that happen?

JD: Yes. How do I make that happen? All my professional projects fail miserably, and I finally get time to work on my own things. [Laughter]

No, I don't know. I just have to keep on plugging away and find a time and space for my own thing. I also need to get more productive. A lot of my friends in this industry are names you've heard of, not just because they're talented, but also because they're so productive. Chris Gage--Jesus Christ, what is that guy on? He's a really good friend of mine. I love him a lot – but you know, he's married, he's got his cats and he just writes all the time. We joke about it, that it takes that. Settling in, you know. So I guess something I should do is up my productivity. Somehow, someway. That would allow me to find a way to work on things that were purely mine.

MM: I think a lot of people are going to hear that statement about you not being productive and blink. You've worked in film, music, comics, prose, poetry…if someone held a gun to your head and said you had to pick one for the rest of your life, which one would you pick? Why?

JD: Wow, that’s really interesting. That would be difficult. If I absolutely had to work…man, I don't know. If I had to work in one medium for the rest of my life? It would either be comics or documentary film making. If you make me choose between the two, I don't know what to do.

MM: Why those two?

JD: I guess it would have to be comics, just because I've established myself so deeply in it that I can, when I find the time and get the energy flow going, I can pretty much get anything I want published right now. I mean, if I worked really hard at it. Even if I had to self-publish. So it would have to be that medium since it would offer me the greatest amount of leverage.

Having said that, I don't want people to think that I work in comics solely because it's accessible to me. I think the medium is absolutely astounding. I can't express how wonderful it is that in this age of hyper-frenetic information to be working in a medium that has no motion or sound. It's just so counter-intuitive to what's happening to our culture right now.

If you enjoyed this interview, make sure to check out Matthew McLean's other work here.

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