Showcase Presents The Unknown Soldier volume 1


By Joe Kubert, Bob Haney, Robert Kanigher, Archie Goodwin, Frank Robbins, David Michelinie, Irv Novick, Dan Spiegle, Doug Wildey, Jack Sparling, Gerry Talaoc & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1090-2 (TPB)

Digital comics are a welcome miracle these days, but still painfully uninspired and under provided for as regards certain genres. I’m not sure if it’s the platforms or the publishers who are at fault, but I do know that an incredible wealth of superb comics material – most of it in proven genres such as war or humour – remains locked in paper when it could be reaching new audiences at the push of a button. Here’s an absolute gem from DC’s venerable combat annals that can still be readily acquired in its physical form at least…

After the death of EC Comics in the mid-1950’s and prior to the game-changing Blazing Combat, the only guaranteed place to find powerful, controversial, challenging and entertaining American war comics was DC. In fact, even whilst Archie Goodwin’s stunning but tragically mis-marketed quartet of classics were waking up a generation, the home of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman was a veritable cornucopia of gritty, intriguing and beautifully illustrated battle tales presenting war on a variety of fronts and from many differing points of view.

When the Vietnam War escalated, 1960’s America entered a home front death-struggle pitting deeply-ingrained establishment social attitudes against a youth-oriented generation with a radical new sensibility. In response DC’s (or rather National Periodical Publishing, as it then was) battle books became even more bold and innovative…

This stunning monochrome compendium – collecting the lead feature from issues #151-188 (June-July 1970 to June 1975) of the veteran Star-Spangled War Stories anthology features one of the very best concepts ever devised for a war comic: a faceless, nameless hero perpetually in the right place at the right time, ready, willing and oh, so able to turn the tide…

The Unknown Soldier was actually a spin-off: having first appeared as a one-off in a Sgt. Rock story in Our Army at War #168 (June 1966, by Robert Kanigher & Joe Kubert).

In 1970, the artist had become editor of the company’s war division and was looking for a new (American) cover/lead character to follow the critically acclaimed “Enemy Ace” tales of a WWI German fighter pilot. Hans von Hammer had been summarily bounced to the back of the book after issue #150 and as Superheroes faded in popularity in favour of more traditional genres, Kubert wanted a striking new hero to front one of DC’s oldest war titles.

Written and drawn by Kubert ‘They Came Back from Shangri-La!’ introduced a faceless super-spy and master-of-disguise whose forebears had fought and died in every American conflict since the birth of the nation. Set in 1942 here, he took on the identity of B-25 pilot Capt. Shales as he participated in vital, morale-building retaliatory bombing raids on Japanese cities. When their plane is shot down over occupied China, “Shales” leads his crew through enemy-infested territory to the safety of the Chinese resistance…

From this no-nonsense start, the feature grew to be one of DC’s most popular and long-lived: with issue #205 Star-Spangled became The Unknown Soldier in 1977 and the comic only folded in 1982 with issue #268.

One intriguing factor in these tales is that there is very little internal chronology: the individual adventures take place anytime and anywhere between the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the surrender of Germany and Japan. This picaresque approach adds a powerful sense of both timelessness and infallible, unflinching continuity. The invisible man known only as The Unknown Soldier has always and will always be where he is most needed…

His second adventure ‘Instant Glory!’ finds a US patrol captured by the SS as they enter a German city in 1944. An excoriating examination of brutality, heroism and philosophy, this story sets the hard-bitten, bitter-edged tone for the rest of the series.

Always economy-conscious and clever with scissors and glue, DC reformatted a number of old stories at this time, particularly old westerns and mystery stories so it should be no surprise that they would try the same thing with their newest star.

‘Everybody Dies’ was retooled into a new offering via a framing sequence drawn by Kubert, but the body of the tale was originally seen as ‘A GI Passed Here’ (illustrated by Irv Novick in Star-Spangled War Stories #36). In its revamped form, the saga recounts a grim 24 hours in the life of anonymous Eddie Gray as he survives just one more day in the deserts of Nazi-held Africa.

The Unknown Soldier got a full origin in #154’s ‘I’ll Never Die!’, recounting how two inseparable brothers join up in the days before America was attacked and are posted to the Philippines just as the Japanese begin their seemingly unstoppable Pacific Campaign. Overwhelmed by a tidal wave of enemy soldiers, the brothers hold their jungle posts to the last and when relief comes only one has survived. His face is a tattered mess of raw flesh and bone…

As the US forces retreat from the islands, the indomitable survivor is evacuated to a stateside hospital. Refusing medals, honours and retirement, the recuperating warrior dedicates his remaining years to his lost brother Harry and determinedly retrains as a one man-army intelligence unit. His unsalvageable face swathed in bandages, the nameless fighter learns the arts of make-up, disguise and mimicry before offering himself to the State Department as an expendable resource that can go anywhere and do anything…

All DC’s titles were actively tackling the issue of race at this time and #155’s ‘Invasion Game!’ (written by Bob Haney) sees the Soldier parachuted into France in Spring 1944 to connect with the Underground’s mysterious leader “Chat Noir”. Sent to finalise the plans for D-Day, he is horrified to discover the enigmatic commander is a disgraced black US Army sergeant with a grudge against his old country. Chat Noir was too good a character to waste and became a semi-regular cast member…

Haney was on top form for the next epic too. ‘Assassination’ details the Immortal G.I.’s boldest mission and greatest failure as he impersonates but cannot destroy Hitler himself, after which that aforementioned Sgt. Rock classic by Kanigher & Kubert is recycled as an untitled but deeply moving yarn for Star-Spangled War Stories #157. Haney & Kubert then reunited for ‘Totentanz!’ as the faceless warrior breaks into a top security concentration camp to rescue a captured resistance leader.

General George S. Patton is the thinly-veiled subject of ‘Man of War’ as Unknown Soldier is dispatched to investigate a charismatic general who has pushed his own troops to the brink of mutiny, before ‘Blood is the Code!’ finds him captured and tortured by a Japanese Colonel until he snaps: revealing every secret America wants the enemy to know…

Doug Wildey illustrated Haney’s superb ‘The Long Jump’ as the Soldier infiltrates occupied Holland, only to meet more resistance from a stubborn, misguided Dutchman than all the Nazis hunting for the faceless spy, after which ‘Take My Coward’s Hand’ recycles 1960 Sgt. Rock story ‘No Answer from Sarge’ (by Kanigher & Kubert from Our Army at War #91) and ‘Kill the General!’ – by Haney & Dan Spiegle – pits the Man of a Thousand Faces against Nazi infiltrators determined to assassinate General Eisenhower at the height of the Battle of the Bulge.

‘Remittance Man!’ in #164 has the anonymous warrior replace a legendary spotter on an occupied Pacific island, directing Allied attacks on Japanese strongholds, after which Jack Sparling came aboard as artist in ‘Witness for a Coward’. Here, a US tank commander sentenced to death for desertion is saved by the testimony of a Nazi Officer – but only after he is abducted from his HQ by the Immortal G.I., after which a debt of honour has to be repaid…

Bill Mauldin’s legendary wartime dogfaces “Willie and Joe” (see assorted Up Front collections for further details) pay an unannounced visit in #166’s ‘The True Glory’ when the Unknown Soldier travels to Italy to find out what is holding up the advance in Haney’s last offering…

Archie Goodwin steps in to script ‘Three Targets for the Viper!’ wherein the faceless man hunts an assassin set on killing Churchill, Roosevelt and De Gaulle during a conference in 1943 Morocco. We jump to France in 1944 next, and a close encounter with an American officer determined to make a name for himself at any cost in ‘The Glory Hound!’

Goodwin’s tenure saw a stronger concentration on espionage drama, as with issue #169’s ‘Destroy the Devil’s Broomstick!’ which finds the Immortal G.I. infiltrating a compound where Hitler’s latest secret weapon is being built, after which the Soldier stands in for an irreplaceable Marine Major and captures an impregnable island fortress in ‘Legends Don’t Die!’

‘Appointment in Prague!’ offers a rare and tragic glimpse into the Unknown Soldier’s past as he follows the aged actor who taught him mastery of make-up and impersonation into Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia to rescue a grandson thought long dead, after which scripter Frank Robbins took over, moving the action to the Eastern Front in ‘A Cocktail For Molotov!’ wherein Nazis pull out all the stops to destroy Russia’s charismatic foreign Minister before he concludes a treaty with the Allies.

Star-Spangled War Stories #173 finds the G.I. infiltrating a Japanese Submarine base disguised as a Nazi wrestler invited to an exhibition match against a Sumo master. ‘No Holds Barred!’ proves that,, although allies, Japanese and Germans weren’t exactly friends…

‘Operation Snafu!’ begins an extended storyline as it found him impersonating a German tank-commander and forced to sacrifice his own Resistance allies in order to complete a mission vital to the Allied advance, whilst ‘A Slow Burn… From Both Ends!’ offers him the chance to make amends and #176’s ‘Target: The Unknown Soldier!’ ramps up the tension as the Nazis discover a way to identify the faceless warrior no matter how he is disguised…

With Von Sturm – his deadly Nazi counterpart – on his trail, the Unknown Soldier stirs up ‘The Hornet’s Nest!’ and is hunted and hounded towards a concentration camp where inmates work as slaves to construct V1 rockets. Trapped, with the net closing around him, he replaces one of the jailers but Von Sturm is determined to deliver ‘The Sting of Death!’ in a spectacular climactic duel to the death…

Star-Spangled War Stories #179 focuses on the aftermath of his close escape when the Soldier stumbles into ‘A Town Called Hate!’ where racial tensions between white and black G.I.s has devolved into tit-for-tat murders. Unfortunately, whilst disguised as a member of an SS infiltration squad, he can only exacerbate the situation. With the Germans about to deliver a devastating counter-attack, it’s a good thing the long-missing Chat Noir is also on hand…

‘The Doomsday Heroes!’ despatches the anonymous agent to the Leyte Gulf where Japanese suicide attacks have halted the US advance. However, before he can begin his mission, he is shot down and forced to work with a failed Kamikaze pilot to survive the cruel Pacific seas…

After that tragedy of honour the mission continues with ‘One Guy in the Right Place…’ as the Soldier links up with natives fighting Japanese invaders. Disturbingly, they are led by an unseen American who sounds like the brother he lost in the first days of the war. Can Harry have survived all these years…?

Robbins and Sparling bowed out with a classy mini-classic in Star-Spangled War Stories #182. Set in Tunisia, ‘A Thirst for Death!’ sees the Soldier and a crew of veterans on the sandy trail of Rommel’s hidden petrol reserves, after which new kids David Michelinie & Gerry Talaoc herald a change of direction with ‘8,000 to One’.

The horror boom in comics was at its peak in 1974 and new editor Joe Orlando capitalised on that trend with a few startling changes – the most controversial being to regularly reveal the Unknown Soldier’s grotesque, scar-ravaged face – presumably to draw in monster-hungry fear fans…

The story itself harks back to the Immortal G.I.’s earliest days as an American agent; sent to Denmark to rescue a ship full of Danish Jews destined for Hitler’s death camps. Disguised as SS Captain Max Shreik, the Soldier is forced to make an unconscionable choice to safeguard his mission. The degree and manner of graphic violence also exponentially increases to accommodate a perceived more mature readership as the Soldier takes a very personal revenge…

‘A Sense of Obligation’ places the cold, remorseless warrior in France, tasked with infiltrating a Special Kommando Training Centre and destroying it from within. However, as with all undercover work, the risk of going too deep and making friends who you might have to kill later inevitably leads to another tragic life or death decision for the increasingly grim and soulless Soldier, whilst ‘The Hero’ finds the faceless man invading neutral Switzerland to kidnap a British scientist held by Nazis. This time, his lethal final judgement costs him no sleep at all…

In ‘Man of God… Man of War’ (#186) a Catholic Priest duped into working with the Nazis in Italy becomes the Soldier’s latest target, but the plan is forestalled and a shocking situation revealed and rectified after ‘A Death in the Chapel’.

This imposing, impressive and thoroughly entertaining first volume concludes with Star-Spangled War Stories #188 and ‘Encounter’ as the Unknown Soldier strives to prevent the scuttling of a hospital ship by Nazis, unaware that his only ally is in love with the enemy commander…

Dark, powerful, moving and overwhelmingly ingenious, The Unknown Soldier is a magnificent addition to the ranks of extraordinary mortal warriors in an industry far too heavy with implausible and incredible heroes. These tales will appeal to not just comics readers but all fans of action fiction, and one day will make it to TV or movies and blow us all away all over again…
© 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975, 2006 DC Comics. All rights reserved.