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Monday, November 11, 2019

Judging a book by it's cover: Unknown Soldier (1977 - 1982)

With Veteran's day quickly approaching (it's November 8th as I write this), I was hoping to review the Unknown Solder ongoing series that ran from 1977 to 1982. Sitting in front of me I have nearly 65 Unknown Soldier comics to peruse in less than 3 days -- which is a daunting task, even for me. Instead, I'll be trying something new -- I'll take a look at the cover, decide if it's interesting enough to flip through, and review those ones -- essentially 'judging a book by it's cover'.

Who or What is the Unknown Solder?


Created by Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert in 1966, the Unknown Soldier first appeared in 1970s's Star-Spangled War Stories #151.

The Unknown Soldier [name never revealed] was a young American soldier who witnessed his older brother (also a soldier) sacrifice himself by jumping on a grenade thrown into their foxhole. Despite being wounded, the young American soldier managed to destroy the enemy patrol in an adrenaline rage before collapsing. When the young American soldier awoke in the hospital, he was informed that his face was damaged beyond repair. Rather than receive an honorable discharge, the young American solider decided to list himself "dead" on official records, but live on as "one man" who could make a difference. He mastered the art of disguise (he keeps a make-up kit on him at all times), hand-to-hand combat, the proficient use of almost any weapon and the ability to pilot almost any military vehicle. He became The Unknown Soldier -- he was the man that no one knew, but was known by everyone. He also had a few field operatives he relied on: Chat Noir, the Sparrow and Inge.

As Joe Kubert recalls, the initial inspiration for the Unknown Soldier came from the actual Tomb of the Unknown Soldier -- located in Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington, D.C. The Tomb is a memorial to all of the U.S. service members who died, but who's remains were never identified. Kubert intended the Unknown Solider to be a living symbol representing this idea. Kubert raised this idea to Carmine Infantino (DC executive at the time), and it was green lit. In order to distinguish the Unknown Soldier from the other DC soldiers (such as Sgt Rock), it was decided that the Unknown Soldier would have no identity of his own -- his face was taken away from him -- and so his main symbol of identity would be stripped from him. Hence, the bandaged face.



There's a bit of a debate on whether or not 1966's Our Army at War #168 was the Unknown Soldier's FIRST appearance -- and here's the scoop on that: OAaW #168 was a story in which Sgt Rock is saved by a mysterious unknown soldier who saves his life and disappears. Four years later, in Star-Spangled War Stories #151, the Unknown Soldier is introduced.


Scott Harris, a regular on the CGC comics forum, explained it as such: "The Unknown Soldier as a character and series doesn't debut until 1970, with Star Spangled War Stories #151. This is where we are introduced to the character, and the concept - he's a secret agent whose face was blown off during a battle in the Pacific, and who now uses his amazing acting skill, mimicry, and special effects make-up talents to take the place of various people of different nationalities, allowing him to go undercover in any situation. None of this is remotely hinted at in OAaW #168, because this character had not yet been conceived of. "

"Where this gets tricky is Star Spangled War Stories #157, which reprints OAaW #168 and retcons that standalone story into being an official appearance of The Unknown Soldier; since you never see the soldier's face in the story, it's easy enough to do. As a result, in continuity, OAaW #168 is the first story with Unknown Soldier that was published, but in reality, the character wasn't created until SSWS #151 four years later. OAaW #168 is a very clever retcon, but still a retcon. So for me, SSWS #151 should be more expensive than OAaW #168, because it's much more important. OAaW #168 is an interesting curiosity, and most Unknown Soldier fans would probably want both issues - I have them both - but it's definitely of lesser importance." 
 

Left: Our Army at War #168 (1966), Right: Star-Spangled War Stories #151 (1970)


If you need more evidence, the letter column of Unknown Soldier #263 lists Star-Spangled War Stories #151 as the first appearance of the Unknown Soldier.

Why was DC comics still publishing comic books about World War II in the late 70s/early 80s?


In 1978, DC was still publishing: G.I. Combat, Men Of War, Our Fighting Forces, Sgt Rock, Unknown Soldier, and Weird War Tales (some of these were being printed bi-monthly). Recurring WWII characters appearing in these books included Sgt Rock, Unknown Soldier, the Haunted Tank, Dateline: Frontline, Enemy Ace, The Losers (Johnny Cloud, Captain Storm, Gunner and Sarge), Mademoiselle Marie, Fighting Devil Dog, Codename: Gravedigger, and Viking Commando.

As far as DC was concerned, it wasn't just soldiers fighting in WWII, super-heroes were also battling Hitler and his Nazis in the 1970s and 1980s. The All-Star Squadron and Seven Soldiers of Victory both formed in 1941 to assist with the war effort. The Young All-Stars operated during 1942 to battle Nazis. The Freedom Fighters fought on Earth-X -- an alternate reality where Germany won World War II.

World War II ended in 1945, why was DC still publishing stories about World War II? Haven't they strip-mined that era of history enough? Why not cover Vietnam, the Korean War or the Cold War?

Simply put: stories about World War II sell. World War II holds a very strong and favorable sentiment among (most) North Americans. Other factors for DC focusing on World War II tales:
  1. There was a very specific enemy (Adolf Hitler and the Nazis) that nobody felt sympathy towards.
  2. Unlike all the other wars you can think of, World War II was a war America actually won.
  3. Nick Cardy, Bob Haney, Dick Ayers, Joe Orlando, Robert Kanigher, Dan Spiegle, Bill Draut, Doug Wildey, Murray Boltinoff and Sam Glanzman regularly edited, wrote or drew the stories in DC's War anthology comics. They were also World War II veterans. Who would know the source material better than someone who was actually in WWII?
  4. For an adventure/sci-fi writer, using World War II as a historical backdrop offers unlimited story possibilities. There were plenty of rumors that Germany was working on new technologies that could've changed the outcome of the war in their favor, and just about every crackpot theory has been put out there about the Nazi's involvement with mysticism, the occult, or aliens -- it's gotten to the point that we just kinda accept that it could be within the realm of possibility (see: Netflix specials about WWII Germany).

In contrast, Marvel Comics tried to keep things "fresh" by keeping things contemporary. Nick Fury and his Howling Commandos became Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD. The Nazis were now Hydra. The Punisher was a Vietnam War veteran. From 1986 to 1993, Marvel published The 'Nam -- a critically-acclaimed ongoing series about the U.S. War in Vietnam... and the list goes on and on.

Okay, so this isn't a REAL answer, but it's the best I've got. So...
 

Unknown Soldier issues #205 to #268


Star-Spangled War Stories was re-named to The Unknown Soldier in 1977. [This wasn't the first time this series had experienced a name change; it was originally called Star Spangled Comics and featured the Star Spangled Kid, and then at issue #131 was re-titled to Star-Spangled War Stories.] Another DC war comic, Our Army At War, had been re-named to Sgt. Rock in 1977 as well.

Also occurring around the same time as the title change from SSWS to The Unknown Soldier, David Michelinie -- who had been writing the Unknown Soldier feature in SSWS since issue #183 -- was being replaced by Bob Haney starting with issue #203. Haney had written Unknown Soldier stories before for SSWS in 1971 and 1972.

The Unknown Soldier had pretty much been the lead feature in SSWS since his introduction in issue #151. Why the sudden name change? Not sure, to be honest.

Staying true to our namesake (i,e.: DC in the 80s), we're going to start with the first 'official' The Unknown Soldier comic from 1977 -- issue #205:

Unknown Soldier #205 (1977)


It's really difficult to pass up a Joe Kubert-illustrated cover; he's the definitive Sgt Rock artist (he co-created Sgt Rock, dontcha know?) and has a distinct style that really encapsulates how miserable these soldiers are probably feeling running through the sleet and snow while getting mowed down by enemy fire. Also, it's got Sgt Rock's younger brother, Lawrence (aka: Fighting Devil Dog), in this issue. How could I resist?

This was a quick 11-page story about the Unknown Soldier impersonating a Colonel in order to give an American infantry unit the morale boost it needed to hold their location. This story was written by Bob Haney and illustrated by Dick Ayers and Gerry Talaoc. Joe Kubert only illustrated the cover of this issue. Haney made sure to take a moment to remind us that war isn't all sweeping victories and courageous moves on the battlefield -- many good soldiers died fighting for our freedom, too:


   
 
I skipped over Unknown Soldier #206 (the cover didn't really do anything for me), but decided to have a glance at DC Super Stars #15 thanks to another great Joe Kubert cover:


This cover got me interested in the story inside: two Sgt Rocks and one's trying to kill Mademoiselle Marie? Yeah, I couldn't pass on this one. The cover basically sells itself. Mlle Marie and the Unknown Soldier have a bit of a rivalry going on (aka: she wants to kill him) -- this would be a recurring theme throughout the regular series.


I skipped a few more issues, but these ones piqued my interest:



Both of these issues were very good. At 11 pages, issue #209 was a story about how resilient to enemy torture the Unknown Soldier is, and issue #211 contains an 11-page story about the Unknown Soldier persuading an American tank patrol from mutinying their crazy colonel (this was a reprint from an earlier issue of SSWS). Thanks to reader demand, The Unknown Soldier went from being a bi-monthly to a monthly series starting with issue #209. 

With Bob Haney as the new writer, the Unknown Soldier started off as more of a 'morale boost' for demoralized soldiers -- teaching them the valor of holding their position and that 'one man in the right place at the right time, can make the difference [in the war effort]'. Michelinie's Unknown Soldier mainly had him in spy/espionage tales. Readers noted that while Haney was good, Michelinie spent more time on characterization and gave more insight into what kind of person the Unknown Soldier was.

While the issue #211 of The Unknown Soldier story was good, what I really enjoyed was the "In Country" entry written by Larry Hama (Marvel's GI Joe) and illustrated by Russ Heath. It was an anecdote about a American soldier name Luthor who (I'm assuming) Larry knew personally. Either way, it was an interesting read:



  Two more Joe Kubert issues that jumped out at me (are we noticing a trend, yet?):



Issue #212 featured Unknown Soldier's ally, Chat Noir, in a 17-page story about the Unknown Soldier infiltrating a gang of Nazi saboteurs (with no back-up story). Issue #213 was a 12-page story about the Unknown Soldier capturing and rehabilitating a Hitler Youth who had been brainwashed. This issue has a back-up feature.


Gradually, the series started to do away with back-up features and start running full-length Unknown Soldier stories (some of them were even spanned multiple issues). They'd play with the format a bit throughout the course of the series. It was later explained by the editor that...



Issue #214 was a continuation of the events that occurred in DC Super Stars #15 (there's your continuity, folks). This was editor/writer Robert Kanigher's first Unknown Soldier story. This one's a bit heavy -- in this issue, the Unknown Soldier's mission is to rescue French Resistance leader, Mlle Marie, from the Auschwitz concentration camp. I had problems with this story -- while Kanigher took the time to mention the sheer terror of Auschwitz and how it was probably the closest thing to hell on earth...


...it all seemed to be down-played by how easily The Unknown Soldier and Mlle Marie were able to free themselves and coerce the prisoners to turn on their captors. Now, I realize this was only a 17-page story in a book targeted to young adults (and adults) that had to meet the Comics Code Authority's guidelines -- so Kanigher couldn't really delve into the horrors of Auschwitz or what it's prisoners experiences. My recommendation? Read Art Spiegelman's Maus at least once in your life.


I skimmed the next two issues. While the covers were nicely illustrated (Kubert again), there wasn't enough there to really make me want to read them:


Writer Bob Haney served in the Navy during World War II, so Unknown Soldier #215 (left) would've been right in his wheelhouse.



The Unknown Soldier #217 is the beginning of a 3-issue story arc (written by Bob Haney) about the Unknown Soldier's failed assassination attempt on Hitler, getting killed and then having a Nazi imposter pretending to be the Unknown Soldier to assassinate Winston Churchill. This cover made me laugh because you don't typically expect to have explosives hidden in a painting.



The Unknown Solider #218 also had a cover that made me laugh. Without any context of who the Unknown Soldier was, it would appear that Hitler wants to allocate all of his resources into killing a fourth-degree burn victim. Like, it's bad enough that this guy has to walk around for the rest of his life with charred skin, but now Hitler wants him shot, too? Harsh. All kidding aside, this was a great issue and would pretty much cement the Unknown Soldier/Adolf Hitler rivalry that could only end one way at the end of the series. (hint hint)

Staring with issue #219, the price of the book went up (from 35 cents to 50 cents) and books now had 40 pages. Welcome to the 1978 'DC Explosion' (soon followed by the 1978 'DC Implosion' three months later).



For reasons I can't really explain, the cover of issue #221 intrigued me -- so I gave it a read. This issue's story is about a Tokyo Rose-type radio personality who is feeding Japanese military intel to American troops in coded messages during her radio programs. What struck me about this issue is that, contrary to what I'd normally expect, the Unknown Soldier was unable to prevent the pretty young radio announcer from getting discovered and murdered by her husband/Japanese colonel. Huh. These guys play for keeps.  


Alright, so the book prices have been re-adjusted: 40 cents now gets you 32 pages:


So this cover jumped out at me -- it appears that the Unknown Soldier is trying rescue allied soldiers on a German plane... that won't land! This cover was actually misleading -- it was about American aircrafts getting captured with with a Nazi "capture beam" and the allied aircraft crew being brainwashed into fighting for Germany. So, really, there was never any danger of the plane NOT landing. The Unknown Soldier thwarts their plans -- all within 13 pages. So far, this has felt like the most sci-fi/adventure/superhero story of them all.





On the cover of The Unknown Solider #232 is the Unknown Soldier and the closest thing he has to a comrade-in-arms, Chat Noir, securing a secret envelope with the name of a secret traitor. A 17-page story about the Unknown Solider using his detective skills to uncover who the traitor is in a French Resistance group. The story moved quickly and had plenty of action. Very enjoyable.




It's the Third Reich on a submarine... saluting the Unknown Solider? Also, it's a really nice cover with a high contrast between the oranges and grey/blues. The Unknown Soldier impersonates a German submarine captain in order to infiltrate an impregnable German naval base and blow it up. This was a quick 17-page story.





This cover reminded me of a scene from The Deer Hunter, and I remembered enjoying the film --so I had to give this one a read. The Unknown Soldier needs to convince an American being held in a Japanese-American internment camp to pose as an Imperial Ordnance Specialist to plant bombs in a Japanese army stronghold. There's a bit of suspense as we wonder if the American will betray his adopted homeland for his ancestral one. I applaud writer Bob Haney for not trying to pull the wool over our eyes and pretending like the Japanese-American internment camp "guests" had the best living conditions:
 






This was one of the sillier issues I read. The Germans are using children to stop the Allied forces from bombing a town, as they bide their time for their own Panzer squad to arrive to counter-strike against the Allied forces. The Unknown Soldier's solution? Dress up like the Pied Piper and lure the kids safely out of town so the Allied forces can attack:


Paul Levitz leaves as editor on The Unknown Soldier (to work on Batman and it's spin-off comics), and Len Wein comes in as the new editor.




It was hard to resist this cover: the Unknown Soldier hanging from the front of a charging locomotive while dodging a Nazi officer swinging a giant mallet. Don Heck illustrated this cover. This was a story that drew a lot of criticism from readers and sparked the whole 'Realistic vs Unrealistic war stories' debate in the letter column pages of The Unknown Soldier. Another misleading cover: at no point does the Unknown Soldier fight a guy carrying a giant hammer on the front of a train -- but this story does read a bit like Raiders of the Lost Ark as the Unknown Soldier is desperately trying to keep famous French artifact, The Hammer Martel, out of Nazi hands. Great read.



Around this time, GI Combat becomes a monthly book (it was previously a bi-monthly book).



It's the Unknown Solder guest-starring Captain Storm (of the Losers). Prior to this issue, I've never heard of Dateline: Frontline!, but in this issue it looks like we're getting 8 extra pages of it (and a ten cent price increase). In this issue, the Unknown Soldier and Captain Storm team-up to take out a mysterious 'ghost sub' that's blowing up Allied ships. It was a good story, but what really stood out for me was the 2-page 'Big Daddy' story written by Robert Kanigher and illustrated by Tom Yeates:







I was drawn to this issue because it kind of reminds me of the cover of that Punisher issue where Frank Castle is all chained up, but has a grenade hidden behind his back with the pin halfway out. "Like, ha, you guys think you have me beat? You have no clue what you're in for." There is no scene in this book where the Unknown Soldier hides in a sewer where a dozen Nazis march around him -- but he does meet his female German counterpart:



How were war comics doing around this point? Well, the Men Of War ongoing series was cancelled sometime between Unknown Soldier #246 and #247.




It's the Unknown Soldier, and he's leaving in a cart of dead people with a little red-haired girl [?] who is clearly alive. This was a great story about the Unknown Soldier trying to escape a Jewish ghetto with a secret formula to create the atomic bomb. This issue also contains part 2 of Cary Burkett's 'Ruptured Duck' feature.




Well, I'm a sucker for 'secret origin' issues, so I couldn't resist reading this issue. This was actually part 1 of a 2 part story in which a top SS espionage agent learns of the Unknown Soldier's true identity and seeks to hold his dad hostage. It does re-tell the Unknown Soldier's origin. It's continued in the following issue... and the Unknown Soldier retcons his own origin -- it turns out that he was inspired by a Battle God to become the 'Immortal GI':







How could anyone pass on a cover like this? Guest-starring Sgt Rock and Easy Company, Mlle Marie, the Haunted Tank and the Losers... and they're all trying to kill the Unknown Soldier. In this issue, the Unknown Soldier pretends to defect to the Nazis and become Hitler's right-hand man, so of course there's a giant target on his head. This issue gives you exactly what it professes -- all of these characters are trying to kill the Unknown Soldier, only to realize it was a giant scheme at the end. A really fun issue.

Mike W Barr (Batman and the Outsiders) becomes the editor of the title starting with issue #256.



The cover of this issue looked intriguing, so I gave it a shot. In issue #261, The Unknown Soldier goes on a secret mission to a French Chateau to rescue his paramour, Lady Jade, who is being tortured by Nazis. [Lady Jade was introduced in issue #254]. This issue has plenty of supernatural overtones, and probably should've been a Weird War Tales story. Still a fun read, however.   




I liked this cover because it introduces a mystery: what is the secret of the Death Sub? This easily could've been a Weird War Tales or House of Mystery cover. Unfortunately, this was not a submarine piloted by zombies, but a bunch of crew members who were sick with an experimental Japanese virus. It was a quick read, and the cover definitely drew me in.




Another whodunit cover. Who murdered the general? This was part 1 of a 2-part story that finished in issue #266. In typical DC fashion, we discover that the person who first confessed to the murder was only trying to protect his squad from being court-martialed, and that the REAL killer was actually a German soldier posing as an American soldier. Great story -- a quick and easy read.



Okay, so this is the LAST issue of the series. It's set on April 30th 1945 --  the day of the Gotterdammerung -- the day Adolf Hitler dies. It's a 23-page story. This is how you end a series. The Unknown Soldier is in Berlin, hot on Hitler's trail. All of his supporting characters are getting wiped out: Sparrow is discovered and killed by an SS firing squad, Inge sacrifices herself for the Unknown Soldier and trips on a seemingly inert bomb, and Chat Noir is gunned down while trying to rescue the Unknown Soldier from a tight situation. With the fall of Berlin looming, Hitler has one crazy scheme left up his sleeve: blood-sucking octopi that are to be dropped on Allied forces from the sky.


The Unknown Soldier manages to infiltrate Hitler's bunker, and shoots Hitler (making it look like a suicide). Throughout the course of their struggle, Eva Braun accidentally swallows her cyanide tablet. The Unknown Soldier uses his skills as a master of disguise to impersonate Hitler and shuts down the crazy Nazi 'octopi from the sky' scheme. While leaving Hitler's bunker, in one last selfless act of heroism, the Unknown Solider sacrifices his life to save an innocent child:

 
...and that's the end of the Unknown Soldier, folks. Or is it? The final panels allude that he may have dodged death and disguised himself as a GI. It kinda leaves the ending open for interpretation.

-----

This series was cancelled due to low sales. I don't have an accurate number of how many issues they were selling by the end, but in issue #249 (1981) they estimated that they had more 100,000 readers. It's really hard to make sense of the then-current war comic landscape since some war titles were getting cancelled, and some were going from a bi-monthly to a monthly schedule. Sgt Rock would outlast them all.  

A popular demand among readers who wrote in were for longer Unknown Soldier stories. Most readers wanted more than 13-page Unknown Soldier stories since he was the lead feature. It was explained by editorial that it simply wasn't possible since the regular inkers, Romeo Tanghal and Gerry Talaoc, lived in the Phillipines and that more than 13 pages would be too big of a workload on them.

It was later revealed by editorial that the back-up features were meant to expand their audience and (hopefully) bring in new readers. Popular back-up features included Enemy Ace by Robert Kanigher and John Severin, Dateline: Frontline! by Cary Burkett and Rick Estrada, and pretty much anything Robert Kanigher and Tom Yeates were cooking up. Unpopular back-up features included Andy Stewart: Combat Nurse and Fighting Devil Dog. Somewhere in the middle was Mlle Marie, the Losers, Balloon Buster and Viking Prince.

What's interesting about this series is that it doesn't pull any punches -- while the Unknown Soldier always wins at the end, many American soldiers are killed in the process. Often the scenes are grim -- Nazi (and Allied) soldiers are stabbed, hung, having their necks broken or shot. It's not just limited to men in uniform, either -- civilians and bystanders are captured, shot, blown up or tortured. That's war.

When I was a pre-teen, I could not stand war comics. I had a whole pile of Sgt Rock comics and the odd issue of Charlton Comics' Fightin' Army thrown into the mix, and I absolutely did not care for them. To this effect, I feel that war comics are an acquired taste -- since I love reading them now. I would definitely recommend the Unknown Soldier.

-Justin