Congo Conflict Leads to Artist’s Latest Work

Kobro - Why So BluComic books can be a thing of beauty, even in their darkest tales. Unfortunately one issue plaguing them today is lack of originality. That is certainly not to say it’s an issue across the board as there are great, unique titles like Chew and Punk Rock Jesus. Still, store shelves are often lined with watered-down stories and titles that are mere carbon copies of one another. It wasn’t until very recently that I came across one particular story that caught my eye. I discovered it on everybody’s favorite project-launching platform; Kickstarter. While Kickstarter is where dreams can be made, this book itself goes much deeper than someone’s hope to see their work in print.

Kobro: Wars Without End was something much more than some colorful artwork laid out in the pop culture medium.  It was a story or a fictional world that mirrored horrific strife in ours.  I had a chance to speak with the books creator, Wilhelm Younger, and how the project came about and what we can expect in this upcoming tale of survival and chaos.

Kobro - Why So Blu

How did you first come in contact with your late friend John?

I met him through a good friend who thought we might connect creatively.

It is really a story that is entwined with the fictional universe that this story takes place in called Aria Kalsan. I created Aria Kalsan in 1999 as a satire of the world at the time. I used fantasy, science fiction, humor, and symbolism to reshape global events into a galactic scale. I did not want this fictional universe to be a singular vision like George Lucas’ Star Wars — where only one author controls the official canon — so I immediately opened it up to collaboration. I also didn’t want the universe to be Eurocentric, so I put out a call for artists from around the globe. It just happened that I got the most responses from Japan, India, and Africa. Before I was even introduced to John, one of the artists from Africa began talking about the situation in the Congo, and I wrote it into part of the first Aria Kalsan story, “The Kalsan.”

After September 11th, 2001, the whole world changed, and so did Aria Kalsan. A lot of what was being critiqued and examined no longer existed, and the tone of Aria Kalsan became a little more serious.

In 2002, a good friend and humanitarian working in the Congo asked if I would be interested in becoming a pen pal with John, a former child soldier. We started writing and hit it off.

In 2004, I started an international art exhibition for Aria Kalsan, and that is when I got the idea to shed some more light on the Congo Wars, and I began to expand what I was hearing from John with what was happening in the fictional universe.

How long did you two know each other before his untimely passing?

We actively exchanged letters, poems, drawings, and phone calls for six years. The last I heard from him was in 2008, when we wrapped up the outline for his biography. Then, my first child was born, and, unfortunately, I lost contact. In 2009, I actively started producing the comic, and a month later I learned he had passed.

With the atrocities that John experienced in the Congo conflict and what he told you of them, how much of that did you choose to include in KOBRO to create that parallel and how much is imagination?

“Truth is always strange, stranger than fiction.” I always enjoy when a story is historically accurate, so I’ve taken great pains to present a truthful depiction of the war. My goal was to tell the story as truthfully as possible. Understanding “truth” and “justice” are the main themes of the entire series. What these concepts are and how they fit into the war are not easy questions, and I explore them throughout all five volumes.

More so than anything, though, I wanted to accurately portray John’s version of the events, so I began with an outline of certain historical milestones. Everything that he experienced is covered from beginning to end inside that timeline. I did not change any of the dates for the convenience of the story. So, there are often weeks or months between one chapter and the next, and the entire series spans ten years.

Because this book is largely inspired by the late John Onuba, a Congolese soldier, why did you decide on a comic book format as opposed to a non-fiction book or even a documentary?

With a graphic novel you can do things that you cannot in a documentary. Also, it would be impossible to recreate or re-enact these scenes because there is so very little footage. That’s what’s really unbelievable about this — you have one of the largest wars ever fought and there is practically nothing about it. I want people to have a sense of wonder about this unknown and secret war that was raging for many years with little coverage. Secret wars are nothing new, but the scale of this is rather unprecedented.

Kobro - Why So Blu

The title of this book and series is KOBRO.  What is that name derived from and how did it become the badge of these stories?

Kobro means “cobra” and is the name given to main antagonist in the series. Snakes are traditionally a symbol of evil, and some snakes, like the King Cobra, are not only venomous but also swallow prey whole. This is a powerful metaphor to illustrate the way evil becomes all consuming.

In the story, the heroine is caught in this struggle with this sinister warlord. The warlord wants to increase his power by profiting from armed struggles in the galaxy, but the heroine intervenes and throws a wrench in the plans of the warlord by demolishing a vital mining facility. The explosion triggers  superstitions that a monster called the Kobro – believed to be trapped under the mine – has been unleashed. The locals believe the Kobro can control the minds of those he captures. The Kobro then becomes an excuse for all of these feuding planets to go to war.

You obviously have a mind for the sci-fi and your Aria Kalsan universe has been around for some time, which is where KOBRO takes place.  Tell us a little about who or what Aria Kalsan is.

I don’t actually consider Aria Kalsan science fiction. Crazy, huh? At one time, I called it speculative fiction, but the problem with labels is that we often stop looking at something for what it is.

Aria Kalsan allows us to look at things differently. I de-emphasize technology just a little bit, but you cannot really separate biology, technology, and culture from the evolution of our species — so that’s all in there too.

To me, I call it straight fiction or just satire. It is a fiction that just so happens to take place in the future. I use satire as a surgical tool to cut away at the worst parts of our societies and cultures to expose the good aspects underneath. I do think that the best science fiction does all of these things too, though. The best sci-fi really looks at humanity along with technology and science, but over the years I’ve had too many debates with the “Genre Guardians” and their narrow definitions. So, I let people call it what they will.

Will Dixon on pencils - Kobro - Why So Blu

Roughly, how many major characters will readers see on the pages of KOBRO and what does each of them represent?  Is your friend an inspiration to one of these specific characters or would you say a little bit of him is spread out amongst each of them?

Each character represents a certain organization, like a rebel group or NGO, and many are blended together. However, Tai represents John. He is the guide and is pretty much unfiltered from the young man that I knew. Many of the things he says in the comic are taken verbatim. However, I chose not to include any of his poems because they were too personal. Instead, I commissioned a poet to write a version of one of his poems so that readers could get a sense of his style. He was fond of creating poems that had a certain count of letters or syllables. So there is a lot of numerology in the book. We both shared a love of symbolism like that.

For example, the readers will see the number five pop up throughout the series. There are five main leaders, five planets, five stages of grief, five poems, five years of freedom, and there are five books in the series. Each number 1 – 12 has meaning and is used consistently throughout the series.

Everything, from its characters to the shape of the book, has some sort of deeper meaning so that readers can really read into every little detail and nuance.

There seems to be a general grittiness and consistent level of tension in this story.  Would you say that’s accurate?

The book is about war and is very violent. Some people are surprised by this, but the violence –although extreme at times — has purpose. This first book is building up to the outbreak of the war, so there is a lot of tension.

You mentioned the physical book itself has an irregular shape.  Why is that and what kind of symbolism is represented in the layout, number of pages and use of colors?

The book is shaped in what I call a keystone. The edges are slightly diagonal so that it is a little skinnier at the bottom. All of the Aria Kalsan books deal with the form of the book in one way or another. It’s just another way to create another layer of meaning, so that readers can, as they say, “peel back a layer of the onion,” — which is the metaphor for personal change.

Another example is that each chapter of the book has twelve pages, which was the age in which John was captured and forced into soldiering. Again, these things are there only if reader wants to dig into them. The narrative is very simple and easy to understand, though, so someone can appreciate it as just a story with mercenaries, rebels, and larger-than-life villains.

With the first book completed, how far into the future has your vision carried KOBRO?

There are four other volumes in the series that will take another two years to complete. There’s also some short films and an interactive website on the way that will allow readers to become contributors and collaborators too. They will be able to create stories for KOBRO that could become a part of the canon or maybe even work into the next volumes.

Congo landscape - Why So Blu

It is important for people to remember KOBRO, although a work of fiction, is based from a very real conflict that took place in the Congo and claimed millions of lives.  What is the current state of that and what can people do about it today?

Estimates range from 5 million to 8 million lives lost as a result of the war. Different organizations split hairs on those numbers, but the number is probably much higher. It’s hard to fathom the loss of life, but it’s about the equivalent of the entire population of New York City.

This tragedy, however, is only one of many that the Congolese have suffered since the reign of King Leopold II began a legacy of violence in 1885.

In the news most recently, we heard about the M23 group instigating the situation in the Congo, but there is still a lot of unsettled business between the various countries and rebel groups.

For starters, awareness is key. I think that it is important to understand the circumstances and catalysts for any major world event. I believe the Congo Wars were one of the most complicated wars fought on this planet. You can’t just boil it down into one thing. However, I also believe the massacres of civilians could have been avoided. There were many decision points leading up to the war where the world at large failed to act. It was not a conflict like what is going on in Syria or Bahrain, where politics are preventing outside intervention or monitoring.

Awareness is not enough though, but the good news is that there is a lot that can be done. Volumes 4 and 5 of KOBRO really get into the specifics of how regular, ordinary people can shape the discussion of humanitarian intervention in the world. However, there’s plenty of opportunities to connect with people locally too.

Specifically, in regards to the Congo, we need to begin with the Child Soldiers Prevention Act, which was recently waived by the US. We also need to pressure our leaders to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Both basically say that children should not fight in wars. However, these have become very difficult and complicated issues over the years, but I’m quite certain that, if people begin to understand more about this war, that reason will prevail.

Thanks for your time, Wilhelm and best of luck with Kobro!  For all of you comic fans out there, there is still time to contribute to the campaign on Kickstarter and get your hands on the premier book and some sweet perks:


Kobro - Why So Blu


1 Response to “Congo Conflict Leads to Artist’s Latest Work”

  1. Brian White