In researching and writing these entries for War Comics Week, I've become convinced that DC's war books were quite probably the greatest things they ever published. Today's star is no exception. Who is he? Hey man, I don't know. Nobody knows.
Previous installments of this column can be found in the archive.
153. The Unknown Soldier
"The man no one knows, but is known by everyone!" The Unknown Soldier (named for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) was the first of many "master of disguise" characters at DC, and the only one to operate in World War II. With his face horribly disfigured by the same grenade explosion that killed his brother Harry, a nameless G.I. becomes the "one guy [that] can affect the outcome of a whole war! One guy in the right place, at the right time..." The soldier takes it upon himself to honor his brother and trains to become the intelligence operative known as the Unknown Soldier, using his expert disguise skills to infiltrate the enemy and take 'em down from the inside. He uses latex masks and make-up to assume the identity of others, and has only one tell... the masks are itchy against his scar tissue, and he finds himself having to scratch.
The Unknown Soldier was created by jolly Joe Kubert, the master artist of war books, in Star Spangled War Stories #151. The character would later dominate the title so much that it would be re-named after him. Other creators who worked on the stories include everyone's favorite Bobs, Haney and Kanigher, as well as Frank Robbins, Dan Spiegle, Dick Ayers, and more.
Really, the Unknown Soldier is just a great, great concept. A faceless war hero who could be anybody, fighting a one-man-war against the Nazis? Awesome. Hell, it would work great for some spy-smashing, Commie-fightin' 50's stories, too! And his default appearance is beautifully iconic-- mysterious figure, face wrapped in bandages. Yeah, the Invisible Man and the Doom Patrol's Negative Man beat him to it, but the Soldier made it his own. It looks darn fine with a trench coat or army uniform.
I know I said Sgt. Rock was comics' greatest badass, but Unknown Soldier has to earn some points, too. After all, he did kill Hitler. That's right-- in the final issue of his series, the Unknown Soldier snuck into Hitler's bunker, capped Der FÃ¼hrer, made it look like suicide (in order to have Adolf perceived as a coward), and got the hell out. Then he was all blown up saving a girl from certain death... or was he? After all, that guy over there seems to have an itch...
After his original series ended, the Unknown Soldier appeared in a maxi-series by Jim Owsley (a.k.a. Christopher Priest) and Phil Gascoine in the late 80's. I don't know much about it, but apparently this version of the Soldier was literally immortal. In the late 90's, Garth Ennis and Killian Plunkett produced a four-issue Unknown Soldier mini-series for Vertigo, with the title character in the role of a living urban legend, a spooky bogeyman searching for a replacement and being tracked by a CIA agent.
Me, I wouldn't mind seeing Joe Kubert return to the character for another story, much like he did for Sgt. Rock with The Prophecy mini.
Quite a few of the original stories can be found in a lovely Showcase Presents volume, found here on Amazon! The Ennis mini was also traded, but it seems to be out of print.
Here's another link for you: The Unknown Soldier's entry in the Hembeck Files.
Bonus Edited-In Content Addition!:
I think Unknown Soldier would make a great movie, you know, if you found an actor who only played the lead half the time and didn't mind not showing his face for the entirety of the film. Any suggestions?