Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The Man No One Knows, Yet Is Known By Everyone

It is generally accepted by comic book fans that, during the 1970s, the ever-experimenting Marvel was way ahead of more conservative rival DC Comics, as far as their superhero books go. I would tend to agree, even though I was (and still am, really) a bigger fan of DC heroes at the time. However, when it comes to the lesser-heralded western, war and mystery series, there is no doubt that DC held the edge.

To help prove my point is SHOWCASE PRESENTS THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER, which reprints the first 38 stories of the Unknown Soldier that appeared in STAR SPANGLED WAR STORIES 151–188. His identity has never been revealed, but the Unknown Soldier's story began in the Philippines, where he was sharing a foxhole with his older brother Harry. Harry was killed when a grenade exploded close by, and while his brother's life was spared, his face was mangled beyond recognition and repair. Choosing to continue to fight for democracy as a tribute to the late Harry, the young man, wrapped in bandages like Claude Rains, took the name "Unknown Soldier" and trained extensively in makeup, weaponry, hand-to-hand combat and linguistics.

Much like Rollin Hand on the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE TV series (to which the feature is clearly indebted), the Unknown Soldier was able to infiltrate Nazi strongholds and Japanese submarines by wearing disguises (usually rubber masks that would often tear off his face during heavy combat) and changing his voice. Joe Kubert was the original editor, writer and artist on the Unknown Soldier feature when it began in the June-July 1970 issue of STAR SPANGLED WAR STORIES #151, sharing the book with Enemy Ace.

Kubert stuck with the feature until #174, when he turned it over to writer Frank Robbins and artist Jack Sparling. Under the auspices of the great editor Archie Goodwin, the Unknown Soldier improved somewhat. While Kubert's stories were good, in general, they didn't read radically different than DC's other war stories. War comics by nature can be repetitious, and one feels that Kubert, who was also writing and drawing many other war stories for DC every month, could have been recycling old ideas by taking out names and replacing them with "Unknown Soldier." This is not a knock on Kubert, who is quite likely the greatest artist of war comic books who ever lived.

Robbins and Sparling did a terrific job playing up the adventure and espionage aspects of the Unknown Soldier, which are what made the character stand out from, say, Sgt. Rock. However, the character didn't really reach its full potential until #183, when writer David Michelinie and artist Gerry Talaoc took over under editor Joe Orlando.

"8,000 to One" gets the new direction off to a bold start, as the Unknown Soldier's true face is revealed for the first time on a masterfully horrific Talaoc splash page. Michelinie added depth to the character, filling the Unknown Soldier with angst over his raw deal in life and the futility of war. The violence and gore factor increased too. In "8,000 to One" (from #183), the Unknown Soldier is forced to kill an innocent woman to protect his cover and save the lives of 8000 Jewish prisoners. In "A Death in the Chapel" (STAR SPANGLED WAR STORIES #187), Nazis disguised as G.I.s mow over several children with a Jeep in order to lure the priest of a politically neutral village over to their side.

Talaoc was relatively new to DC, being one of several talented Filipino artists brought to DC in the early '70s by publisher Carmine Infantino and artist Tony DeZuniga (best known for co-creating the durable Jonah Hex for WEIRD WESTERN TALES). Michelinie was also a relatively inexperienced writer who had worked on DC's mystery books and SWAMP THING. He went over to Marvel to write THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN and many very good IRON MAN stories, including "Demon in a Bottle," which brought Tony Stark's alcoholism to the forefront.

Unfortunately, only five Michelinie/Talaoc stories are included in SHOWCASE PRESENTS THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER. As terrific as this 500-pages-plus trade paperback is, I'm more excited about a Volume 2.

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