Golden Age Showcase: Unknown Soldier

This Saturday is Veteran’s Day.

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For our non American readers, this is a holiday where America honors those who have served in the armed forces in conflicts past and present.  It’s also an exciting time for this blog because it’s a great time to talk about war comics!

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When looking at the time period, it’s easy to see why war comics became so popular.  America found itself at war and sent thousands of young men and boys to go off and fight in Europe and the Pacific.

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However, America had the advantage of being separated from the conflict by two massive oceans and it’s people didn’t have to come face to face with the true horrors of war.  With that being said, the United States became a military industrial powerhouse during the war and almost the entirety of American culture became obsessed with doing their part for the war effort and protecting the home front.

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Comic books took advantage of this shift in popular culture, and stories about ordinary soldiers fighting against the forces of evil were quite popular during the Golden Age of Comics both during and after the war.  Many of the greatest artists and writers of the Golden Age of Comics made a living writing and drawing war stories which resulted in some of the most complex and interesting stories of the time, along with some absolutely breathtaking artwork.

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The intent and purpose of the war stories that were written during this time was also pretty varied.  War and combat stories ranged from fantastical adventure stories for young boys staring ordinary soldiers fighting in fantastic situations,

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to very thinly veiled propaganda stories promoting American patriotism and fighting spirit.

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It’s worth noting that most of these adventure and propaganda stories were created and published during the Second World War.  After that war was over and the Korean War began a lot of comics became much more realistic and brutal in their depictions of war.

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So there’s a brief rundown of the early history of war comics.  Unfortunately, since most of the early stories have so much talent behind them and were published by the big important publishers of the day, there isn’t a whole lot of material out there for free reading.  However, today’s comic is available in the public domain and is a pretty interesting look at the early days of the war comic genre.

Today we’re going to talk about the thinly veiled propaganda hero The Unknown Soldier.

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Origin and Career

The Unknown Soldier made his first appearance in Our Flag Comics in 1941.  He was published by a company called Ace Comics and was the title character of the series.

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The funny thing is, despite the fact that he was popular enough to appear on the cover of his debut issue, I can’t find any information on who created him or drew his story.

The hero himself has an interesting backstory, mostly because he really doesn’t have one.

Comic Book Cover For Our Flag Comics #1

He’s just a super being who appears out of nowhere firing explosive bullets and using his superpowers to defeat injustice and oppressive “gangster nations”.

What makes this kind of interesting is that this has some pretty close ties to real world American military culture.  In Washington D.C you can visit a memorial at Arlington National Cemetery that honors the unnamed American soldiers who died in every war America has ever fought.

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It’s called the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and while the comic doesn’t tie the hero to the memorial, I like to think the creators of the story had this monument in mind when they wrote it.

Anyway, in his debut issue the Unknown Soldier helps defeat the Nazi invasion of Britain.

Comic Book Cover For Our Flag Comics #1

It’s worth mentioning that in 1941 this was actually a scenario that was terrifyingly plausible.

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However, in this comic the Nazis don’t succeed because of superior tactics or planning, in fact their kind of idiots, but because of English traitors willing to betray their country to the Nazis known as Fifth Columnists.  We actually get to meet one and learn about his motives.  His name is John Jennings and he has made the classic mistake of believing that his country would be better under the rule of Nazism.

Comic Book Cover For Our Flag Comics #1

The Nazi war machine starts rolling and crushes everyone in its wake.

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Thankfully the Unknown Soldier arrives just in time to murder every Nazi he can lay his hands on.

Comic Book Cover For Our Flag Comics #1

Naturally, the invasion is turned back but not before the story does something really unique and interesting.  Remember the British fifth columnist John from the beginning?  He has a change of heart when he and his gang of saboteurs attempt to blow up a hospital.

Comic Book Cover For Our Flag Comics #1

He actually redeems himself and dies a hero’s death while protecting his mother.

Comic Book Cover For Our Flag Comics #1

Comic Book Cover For Our Flag Comics #1

All while the superhero stands by and does nothing.

So the story isn’t actually about the Unknown Soldier, it’s actually a story of redemption for a man who was once blinded by ideology and hatred and sacrificed himself for a noble cause.

Pretty good stuff for a Golden Age Comic.

After that first adventure the Unknown Soldier continued in a similar capacity.  While the stories were actually about ordinary people doing their part for the war effort, the Unknown Soldier would show up when it was time to knock heads or save someone from dying.

He wasn’t a hero with a secret identity, he was a representation of America’s fighting spirit.

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Also, he got a costume change.

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Despite all the murder done by our hero the creators were quick to make sure that the Nazis were just as bad if not worse.  Case in point, they invade Manhattan and use flamethrowers on civilians.

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So what happened?

Our Flag Comics only lasted five issues, but The Unknown Soldier was popular enough to be moved to another title called Four Favorites where he did pretty much the same thing.

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He lasted for over 16 issues until November of 1945 when he fell into the public domain.

While this Unknown Soldier would fade from the public eye, the idea and name would continue when DC comics published another character called The Unknown Soldier in Our Army at War #168 in 1966.

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The comic was created by DC legends Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert, two men who knew how to create a really good war comic.

This version of the Unknown Soldier was a lot more tangible and slightly more realistic.  Instead of a real superhero, the Unknown Soldier was an intelligence operative who was so disfigured that he had to bandage his face.

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He was actually a master of disguise and in his final appearance, he kills Hitler and disguises himself as the dictator to end the war without further loss of life.

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This iteration proved to be a bit more popular and he got a new limited series in 1997 under the Vertigo imprint at DC.

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As for the original Unknown Soldier, he would make a slight comeback in 2008 when Dynamite Entertainment launched their Project Superpowers title to bring many of the Golden Age public domain heroes back into the mainstream.

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He was renamed “Soldier Unknown” to avoid copyright issues with DC.

As a superhero the Unknown Soldier is not a very good one.  He’s bland, he has no backstory or secret identity, and he’s even more overpowered than Superman.  But that’s not really important.  The Unknown Soldier isn’t a hero, he’s a symbol of something much greater than himself, the creators who made him, and any single person.  He is the personification of the fighting spirit that rises up against tyranny and oppression, and while it would be nice to have known his name, it’s important that we know that he did his job so we could live.

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Happy Veteran’s Day everyone.

Golden Age Showcase: John Steele

I’ll be honest folks.  Today’s hero showcase barely qualifies as a Golden Age superhero.  In fact, if you look at his only comic book appearance he barely qualifies as a superhero in general.

But this is a blog dedicated to the obscure and silly aspects of the early days of the comic book industry and they don’t get much more obscure than this character’s single appearance in a superhero anthology title surrounded by much more popular and successful heroes.

With that being said, while today’s hero didn’t make much of a splash in the 1940’s, he was reworked in the modern era to become one of the most important characters in the thriving Marvel Universe.

Today we’re talking about the superbly named John Steele.

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ORIGIN AND CAREER

John Steele made his first and only Golden Age appearance in Daring Mystery Comics #1 in January of 1940.

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He was created by legendary artist Dan Barry,

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Who was one of the premier artists of his time and one of the main creators and practitioners of an art style known as “New York slick”.

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I could try to list all of the stories and characters that used this particular style of art, but all you need to know is that this was the dominant art styles of the time and would only be replaced by the legendary Jack Kirby’s career at the new Marvel Comics.

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Barry created John Steele as a soldier fighting in World War 1, which just goes to show you that even though the United States wasn’t officially at war with Germany yet there were plenty of people who were happy enough to dig up the violence of the past to get a head start on the violence of the future.

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The story was pretty straightforward.  Steele gets trapped behind enemy lines, discovers an Allied spy who needs to get back to headquarters, and the two make their way back home.

Pretty straightforward, pretty direct, kind of boring.

So what happened?

John Steele would have faded into the deepest, darkest pit of obscurity if it wasn’t for comic book creator Ed Brubaker turning him into one of the most important characters in the entire Marvel Universe.

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In Mr. Brubaker’s limited series The Marvels Project it was revealed that John Steele was actually a superhuman with increased strength, durability, and longevity.

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Apparantly, this small time obscure character from a single story in the 1940’s, was America’s first super soldier.

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While that’s pretty cool it gets even better.  Brubaker’s story explains that, during the First World War, Steele was actually captured by the Germans and placed in suspended animation for years.

The Germans discoverd his mysterious powers and were determined to duplicate them for their own uses.

One of these scientists was Abraham Erskine, the man who developed the serum that gave Captain America his powers.

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It’s a pretty bold claim to make, and Brubaker would go on to give Steele one hell of a story to go with it.

In 1940, the laboratory holding Steele was destroyed in a bombing and Steele was brought out of suspended animation.

Being a red blooded American with a penchant for war and a hatred of all things German he did what all comic book superheroes do best: kill Nazis.

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He teamed up with Nick Fury and several other World War 2 superhero teams to fight the Red Skull, but refused to come home with his countrymen due to his anger at the atrocities committed by the Red Skull and his understandable desire to not be experimented on.

He continued to act behind enemy lines and actually uncovered an Axis plot that would have prevented the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, but sadly his fellow superheroes could only lessen the damage.  He disappeared after the invasion of Normandy three years later.

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He would make his final appearance in the Secret Avengers comic books, this time as a member of a mysterious organization known as the Shadow Council,

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Where it was revealed that he had actually been alive for an unkown amount of time and had fought in the American Civil War.

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Being a super soldier working for an evil organization John inevitably came into contact with Captain America.  

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The two developed something of a fierce rivalry until Captain America captured him and managed to convince him to switch sides and spy on the Shadow Council on the inside.

Unfortunately, the Shadow Council learned about Steele’s new alliance and had him tortured and killed.  His last act was to warn the Avengers about the Council’s plans and he wound up dying as a hero.

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