July 13, 2024

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Slightly Misplaced Comics Heroes Case Files #2: The Unknown Soldier

"Hey, Unknown Soldier, STOP HELPING THE NAZIS!"
“Hey, Unknown Soldier, STOP HELPING THE NAZIS!”

He was a mystery man, a soldier and assassin who made Axis agents tremble during World War II.  He also had no name.  That was deliberate.

He was…the Unknown Soldier!

While today the big two seem content to mostly publish superhero comics, once upon a time, there were other genres.  DC had war comics.  Marvel did, too, since that was where Nick Fury originally came from.  Even when DC did a minor revival of the genre with the New 52, they still stuck the characters in the middle of their usual universe and had metahumans all over the dang place.  The war comics weren’t the only compromise as far as this went, which is why John Constantine, onetime Hellblazer and longstanding Vertigo protagonist, is now a member of a Justice League team.

Yes, this picture does show John Constantine, among others, meeting He-Man's friends.
Yes, this picture does show John Constantine, among others, meeting He-Man’s friends.

But we expect horror comics to have weird stuff going down.  Swamp Thing has to make sense in the context of his setting, and its not like the superheroes haven’t had to deal with supernatural menaces as well.

The cake? Devil's food, of course.
The cake? Devil’s food, of course.

But the war comics, ostensibly at least, had to have one foot in the realm of realism.  Yeah, Sgt. Rock would routinely shoot down enemy fighter planes with his hand-held rifle, and then he and Easy Co. would apparently punch Nazis to death, but there had to be some sort of realism.

And then there was the G.I. Robot…the War that Time Forgot which was largely an excuse to show soldiers shooting dinosaurs…OK, forget what I said about realism.


But DC must have done something right with the Unknown Soldier.  In his first actual appearance, he and his brother Harry are apparently the only guys defending an entire beach from the Japanese army.  Harry gets a name, but only a first name.  The future Unknown Soldier doesn’t even get that much.  As expected, these two guys could not hold off the entire Japanese army, Harry died, and the other guy took a grenade to the face and ruined it beyond repair.

So, the military trained him in all the forms of combat they could, taught him how to make fool-proof disguises, and would send him off on covert missions.  Without his masks, he had his whole head bandaged for the longest time (more on that below), but with a mask, he could fool anybody except the reader who could keep an eye out for his tell-tale scratching since the masks were somewhat itchy.

Disguise technology later foiled by some meddling kids and their dog.

The Unknown Soldier was the creation of writer Robert Kanigher and artist Joe Kubert, both of whom worked heavily on DC’s war comics.  These guys created Sgt. Rock, and Kubert’s linework often had him doing covers even for books he had little to do with.  Kanigher’s other contributions include a number of Silver Age Wonder Woman stories, the Metal Men, and the Viking Prince.  Kubert’s best known perhaps outside the war comics for drawing Hawkman.

The Unknown Soldier as the character is best known first appeared in Star Spangled Comics #151, which came out in 1970.  There were a couple prototype versions of the guy before the more familiar bandaged man came along.  He was “the man no one knows–but–is known by everyone!”

Just like Oprah!
Just like Oprah!

What made the Unknown Soldier’s earliest adventures a bit screwy is how many of his stories ended.  After a series of exciting, thrilling escapist fun, the slogan “MAKE WAR NO MORE!” would appear.  Not a bad idea, so it’s too bad the preceding pages went so far as to make war look so entertaining.

By the way, continuity was never a strong suit on these books.  Sgt. Rock could be taking Easy Co. through the forests of France one month and the deserts of North Africa the next.  Most any war comic that wasn’t a special two-parter could be read as a solo adventure.  Besides, in the reprint I am currently reading, some general calls the Unknown Soldier to his face a civilian, proving literacy was apparently not a requirement in the officer corps during that particular conflict.

Kanigher and Kubert eventually left the book and writer David Michelinie and artist Gerry Talaoc would later go so far as to show the unbandaged face of the Unknown Solider.  It…wasn’t pretty, obviously, but the book, in my honest opinion, changed a bit then.  The tone got moodier and more inclined to show war crimes and atrocities, while the Unknown Soldier himself tended to get more and more maudlin.

That's him on the left.
That’s him on the left.

The Unknown Soldier never exactly went away.  Garth Ennis wrote a Vertigo mini-series depicting the character as a shadowy assassin following World War II, convinced that because America stood up to the evils of Nazism, his country must have always been right, and his efforts to force another man to take his place before old age and guilt got the best of him showed a more monstrous side to the character.  There was also an attempt to create a new character by that name in a Vertigo series set in Africa, but really, that guy even had a name before he lost his face to violence.  He was hardly an unknown soldier.

To the best of my knowledge, the character has never been depicted outside of a comic book, but director Sam Raimi may have accidentally gotten the basic concept down before he did any sort of Spider-Man, or star Liam Neeson had anyone he knew Taken.  It was called Darkman, and in its own way, it was glorious.

Sometime after this he did "Schindler's List".
Sometime after this he did “Schindler’s List”.

Unlike the frequently-mentioned-above Sgt. Rock, the Unknown Soldier was implied to have outlived the war.  I’m sure someone remembered his name at some point.