In May, DC Comics is giving new life to their classic war comic book series “G.I. Combat,” bringing in artist Dan Panosian and writing duo Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray to tackle the tale of the Unknown Soldier for the new anthology.
“G.I. Combat” was first published by Quality Comics in 1952, National Periodical Publications (the company that would transform into DC Comics) acquiring it a few years later. An anthology of war stories, “G.I. Combat” included the Haunted Tank, the Bravoes of Vietnam and The Losers, running for decades before finally being cancelled in 1987.
The “Unknown Soldier” has a history nearly as long, first appearing in 1966 in “Our Army At War” in a story written by Robert Kanigher and drawn by Joe Kubert. The Soldier went on to appear in various comics throughout the years, including a titular DC series that ran from 1977 through 1982 and two Vertigo series, one written by writer Garth Ennis in 1997 and another from writer Joshua Dysart in the late 2000s.
One of DC’s Second Wave of New 52 titles, the new “G.I. Combat” also features a “War That Time Forgot” story by writer J.T. Krul and artist Ariel Olivetti. “Unknown Soldier” writers Gray and Palmiotti spoke with CBR about their half of the new anthology, working with artist Panosian and the challenge of writing a war story based in Afghanistan while a real war wages in the Middle East.
CBR News: You guys have a lot of stuff going on these days, from “All-Star Western” to your work on “The Ray” miniseries and your other, creator-owned projects. What interested you in tackling the Unknown Soldier?
Justin Gray: Unknown Soldier, like Jonah Hex, is one of those iconic concepts that is always in the back of the line in terms of mainstream appeal. Superheroes remain a constant, but I think there is an underlying need for these kinds of stories and characters, the underdogs, the outlaws — the black and white rule breakers with their own morality that stands in contrast to the four color heroes. We see them particularly relevant in times of social strife, political instability and when people lose their moral compasses.
Jimmy Palmiotti: The character has a great legacy and we are happy to be a part of it. I just love the basic idea of the character and what we could do with him, given the chance. Getting the call from DC was exciting because we had just finished “The Ray,” and the two books couldn’t be more different. Its great to get to flex the creative muscles on different projects, and this one is top shelf for us.
Getting down to the basics, what is your “Unknown Soldier” story about? Who is this new Unknown Soldier?
Gray: The phrasing of the question falls in line with the established mentality of modern comics — what new hero or incarnation is expected to reach a new generation and what will make us embrace him? None of that was important in what we were doing. “Unknown Soldier” as a concept is and should be timeless. He is a reflection of the world as seen through a distorted filter of warfare, strife and heroism. He is an antihero for the disenfranchised and jaded survivors of a decade of living in the shadow of terrorism with no end in sight.
Palmiotti: We tried to ground the character a bit more and get the reader to care about him and his life story. With war material, there is always a chance that the action overtakes the humanity and we set out to keep both alive in the process.
The Unknown Soldier is a character that has undergone a number of revisions since his debut in 1966, most recently in Vertigo’s “Unknown Soldier” by Joshua Dysart, which took place in Africa. Did his series or any of the other permutations influence your take on the character in “G.I. Combat?”
Gray: I absolutely loved what Joshua was doing and told him so, even going so far as to predict he’d win an Eisner, but so often great work is overlooked and a good deal of what we do as storytellers is hinged upon being in the right place at the right time. “Unknown Soldier,” however, is one of those concepts that is eternal. We will always have wars and warriors, we will always turn to the person or persons that sacrifice, train harder and reach elite status. We will always identify with men and women driven by personal loss — all of which war absolutely demands from those on both sides of any conflict. The influence for me comes from that.
Palmiotti: Josh’s series was brilliant and working on the character after him is really intimidating, but we are giving it our best and taking it someplace else. I think the biggest influence for us is what’s going on in the world, trying to capture the delicate nature of the politics of war and, at the same time, giving the reader the big moments within the story. Our job is to entertain and not preach, but the very nature of a war story dictates this in some respect.
What do readers have to know about the character prior to your story?
Gray Nothing at all. You walk in clean in the same way you turn on your TV and see a new show for the first time.
Palmiotti: We made it a point that it’s an easy entry character. Those familiar with the character will have a different perspective reading it, but, I think, will enjoy it just the same. We get put into this position a lot. With “The Ray,” “Freedom Fighters,” “Hex,” and so many other books we do, we have learned how important it is not to alienate the reader.
Given the current political climate, how do you approach writing a war comic about Afghanistan that doesn’t sensationalize or downplay the actual operations happening in the country?
Gray: We’re telling a fictional story. This is part escapism, part wish fulfillment and part reality, skewed through the lens of a comic book format. The hero is larger than life and yet very human.
Palmiotti: If you approach a story about current headlines, it is dated by the time it comes out — we are looking at the subject with a broader view.
Is striking that balance the most challenging part of “Unknown Soldier?”
Gray: For me, personally, the most challenging part is trying to make sure we don’t offend the real heroes who fought and, in many cases, died defending the ideals of this nation.
With “Jonah Hex,” you took an old DC genre hero and created an episodic, character-driven series. Would you like to do the same with “Unknown Soldier” — spin him into his own title and focus on character and short, single-issue stories?
Gray: I think we’d both agree that, given the chance, we’d pour as much blood, love and guts into an Unknown Soldier title as we have done with Jonah Hex. He’s just that kind of character.
Palmiotti: It’s up to the readers and DC if they feel we should continue to bring more stories to you all, and feedback is important. In a heartbeat, we would take the character head on monthly.
Gray: It is no secret we’d love to do more with Unknown Soldier and write more war comics beyond this, but as usual our focus is on the task at hand in an effort to deliver quality work.
Palmiotti: One day at a time — that’s how we work. Dig in and do the best we can and hope we get the call to do more. We have been very lucky with our fan base, so you never know. With “Jonah Hex,” we never thought we would get past issue twelve. Even we get surprised now and again.
Because “G.I. Combat” is an anthology, with J.T. Krul’s “The War That Time Forgot” appearing right next to your “Unknown Soldier,” did you guys think a lot about how the two different stories would go together, or try to change your story to compliment Krul’s?
Gray: Part of working in comics, particularly when you’re working for a company with the publishing pedigree that DC has, your focus has to be on telling the best stories possible with these characters. The fans demand excellence, regardless of how popular a character might be. To be honest, we had no idea what book our story would ultimately be featured in. We simply focused on the task of living up to the great work that came before.
Palmiotti: I am thrilled to be working alongside J.T. He is a great writer and a good friend. We know the two stories are completely different from each other, and think that’s great. In a way, their content will compliment each other.
Finally, you’re working with Dan Panosian on art. From the black and white images we’ve seen, he’s got a fairly gritty look to his pages. What visual approach are you three taking to the comic?
Gray: It is absolutely gorgeous work that looks unique and dynamic. Dan’s style is perfect for the tone and vision of “Unknown Soldier” and we couldn’t be happier about working with him.
Palmiotti: It works because Dan and [colorist] Rob [Schwager]Â know and understand storytelling. Knowing for whom you will be writing makes all the difference in the world when creating comics. Both of these guys are killing it on every page and we are really proud to have them on board. What you see on the page is a real labor of love and a passion for storytelling that we wish we could have for every project we do.
“G.I. Combat” and the first chapter of “Unknown Soldier” hit stores May 2.