Storytelling Engines: The Unknown Soldier
(or “How Real Is ‘Too Real’?”)
Other war comics might be more famous, might have had better creative teams on them, or might have wound up telling better individual stories, but no war comic had a better storytelling engine than ‘The Unknown Soldier’. (And it’s a great title, too.) It begins with a great origin; the series focuses on a soldier who learns the hard way that the right soldier in the right place at the right time can turn the tide of a battle. He and his brother are manning a foxhole and wind up in between their own lines and a wave of attacking Japanese troops. His brother dies saving him from a grenade, and although he stems the tide long enough for reinforcements to arrive, he’s badly scarred by the same grenade that killed his brother.
Instead of heading back to the States, though, he becomes a one-man army, a secret agent and master of disguise who conceals his ruined features with a variety of disguises so as to impersonate any soldier, anytime, anywhere in the war. He impersonates key individuals at key moments, because after all, the right soldier in the right place at the tight time can turn the tide of a battle. (He also has one of the iconic looks of any character; underneath his disguises, he wears a set of bandages reminiscent of the Invisible Man. It’s almost a shame when they finally show his face; as horrible as Gerry Talaoc depicts his injuries, nothing matches the face you imagine to be under the bandages.)
Obviously, this is a storytelling engine that has some serious legs. World War II, in case you hadn’t heard, was quite a big war; because of his position as “troubleshooter” for the Armed Forces, writers like Joe Kubert, Bob Haney, Bob Kanigher, Archie Goodwin, Frank Robbins and David Michelinie could insert the Soldier into any theater of the war at any period. They even manage to ring in a very nice “nemesis” for the character towards the end of Volume One of the ‘Showcase Presents’ collection; he’s a German soldier whose face was scarred by one of the Soldier’s more successful ops, who has learned his techniques and is obsessed with destroying the man who ruined his face. And while “war stories” tend to be a bit formulaic at times, they could use any of the different formulas, because the Unknown Soldier could be any soldier.
Which must have presented an awful large temptation, at times. After all, World War II has a number of iconic moments to it that just about every schoolkid knows; it’d be tempting to have the Soldier be one of the men raising the flag at Iwo Jima, or storming the beach at Normandy, or dropping the bomb on Hiroshima or Nagasaki.
Wisely, though, the series avoids any such temptation for the most part, instead creating “small but crucial” junctures of the war for him to act in. This is probably the final point that makes ‘The Unknown Soldier’ work so well. Just because the Unknown Soldier could be anyone doesn’t mean that he has to be; in fact, it’s extremely dangerous to just plop the title character into a famous point in history, because it undermines the very point the series makes. “The right soldier in the right place at the right time.” The central theme is that any soldier can be a hero if the circumstances are right. The more times that said soldier turns out to be secretly replaced by a disguised super-hero with every kind of combat skill imaginable, the less we believe the main idea.
Any time you insert fictional characters into history, you risk devaluing the achievements of the real people who lived during that era. There are ways to pull this off, of course; ‘Doctor Who’ does it all the time, showing its central character as more of an observer and occasional influence than an actual maker of history (and when he does help out a historical figure, it’s generally with an alien invasion that happens to be going on right around then, which Leonardo da Vinci can be rightly expected not to be able to handle.) But the Unknown Soldier is a character who could quite easily become bigger than the heroes of the war he’s in; managing to keep his actions “human-sized” goes a long way towards making this series the classic it is.
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