Strange Comic Books: Unknown Soldier #268

Those with good memories may recall that last year I wrote about the Showcase Presents: The Unknown Soldier trade paperback.  I tremendously enjoyed the stories collected in that book, and that in turn led me to purchase a bunch of the later issues of the series on Ebay.  One of those comics was the final issue, Unknown Soldier #268, which was published in 1982.  This is a memorable yet also quite strange issue, one which sees the Soldier embark on his final mission, which brings him face to face with his most hated enemy, Adolf Hitler.

Unknown Soldier 268 cover

Like most issues of Star Spangled War Stories and Unknown Soldier, #268 is topped off by a superb cover drawn by the legendary Joe Kubert.  This macabre image shows the corpses of Hitler and his bride Eva Braun sprawled across the floor of the Fuhrer’s bunker.  Hovering before them is a ghostly image of the Unknown Soldier.

Inside is “A Farewell to War,” written by Bob Haney, with pencil layouts by Dick Ayers and finishes by Gerry Talaoc.  Haney was one of the writers of the character’s early adventures in Star Spangled War Stories, and he returned to chronicle the Soldier’s adventures after the series was re-named after the character.  Ayers, among his numerous credits, worked on Marvel Comics’ war titles in the 1960s.  In the mid-1970s he moved over to DC, and Unknown Soldier became one of his regular assignments.  As I’ve mentioned, I used to live about ten minutes from Dick, and I visited him a couple of times.  Finally, Talaoc is one of the very talented Filipino artists who broke onto the American comic book scene in the 1970s.  As a kid, I first saw his work when he was inking Sal Buscema and Mike Mignola on Incredible Hulk.  It was a pleasure to re-discover his art through his lengthy stint drawing Unknown Soldier, a series where he did amazing work.  Nowadays Talaoc lives in Alaska, but he was kind enough to autograph a few books that I mailed to him.

Unknown Soldier 268 pg 1

Unknown Soldier #268 opens with a splash page, a combination of Ayers & Talaoc’s artwork and a photo montage, which harks back to the pieces Kubert would use to open his stories a decade before.  It is May 2, 1945, and the Soviet army has discovered the corpse of Hitler.  The story then flashes back four days, to April 28.  The war in Europe is nearing its end, and Berlin is undergoing intense bombing by the Allied forces.  The Unknown Soldier is parachuting into the besieged city, hoping to make contact with the German Resistance, which is in possession of a dangerous secret.  The Soldier slips into disguise, but is unable to do anything as, one by one, his confidants are killed by a fanatical Nazi officer named Kessler.  All the Soldier is able to learn is one word: Nosferatu.

Finally, the Soldier himself is unmasked by Kessler, who pursues him into the city’s subway system.  Furious at having seen those close to him, his adopted family, brutally murdered, the Soldier attacks Kessler in a darkened tunnel.  After a furious fight, the Soldier knocks Kessler against the third rail, electrocuting him.  The master of disguise assumes the identity of his fallen foe and slips out across the city, heading to the Reich Chancellery, hoping to learn what the dreaded secret is that his friends died trying to uncover.

Unknown Soldier 268 pg 15

Still disguised as Kessler, the Soldier is admitted to Hitler’s bunker, coming face-to-face with the infamous ruler of the Third Reich.  There, he learns the horrific, not to mention utterly bizarre, meaning of Nosferatu.  It is Hitler’s doomsday plan.  In the event of Germany’s impending defeat, the Nazis will unleash a swarm of genetically engineered bio-weapons, flying octopi mutated with vampire blood that will swarm all across Europe, decimating the Allies.  Yes, really!

Before Hitler can give the order to release the Nosferatu, the Soldier attacks him.  Grappling with the madman, he calls up the memories of his fallen comrades and summons the strength to shoot the dictator in the face, killing him.  Quickly altering his disguise, the Soldier takes on the identity of Hitler himself.  He issues the order for the Nosferatu to be destroyed.  Then, once again donning his Kessler mask, the Soldier slips out of the bunker, having staged the bodies of Hitler and his wife so that they appear to have committed suicide.

Back in his usual outfit of trench coat and bandaged face, the victorious Unknown Soldier attempts to make his way out of Berlin alive.  However, he spots a child about to be killed by a falling bomb.  Quickly throwing her to safety, the Soldier is caught in the blast, seemingly perishing.  But before Bob Haney closes the story, he includes a hint in the final panel that maybe, just maybe, the Soldier might possibly have survived.

Unknown Soldier 268 pg 23

Whew!  What an exciting, jam-packed, strange comic book!  Bob Haney really brings the saga of the Unknown Soldier to a cataclysmic conclusion, doesn’t he?  I classified this as a Strange Comic Book because not only does the Soldier kill Hitler, but because of the whole Nosferatu subplot.  It what is a very gritty, hard-edged story of war and sacrifice, the inclusion of such a far-out science fiction concept is just plain weird.  Perhaps this is a misstep by Haney.  He might have been better off having the Nazis planning to release some sort of super-virus.

Also, from a dramatic standpoint, it would have been more exciting if, during the struggle with Hitler, the Soldier’s mask would have been torn off.  It seemed a bit odd having Hitler think he was fighting a traitor, when instead he really ought to have found out that his opponent was the Allies’ greatest covert operative.

But aside from these two points, “A Farewell to War” is quite well written.  It brings definite closure to the Soldier’s story.  For a figure who had dedicated himself to the destruction of war, it is appropriate that he meet his (seeming) demise at the end of the conflict that spawned him.  Somehow, it just would have not had the same impact if he’d retired or, worse yet, lived to become some sort of post-WWII superhero who fought costumed criminals alongside the Justice Society.  No, Haney made the right decision to close out the final issue the way he did.

The artwork on issue #268 is stunning.  Dick Ayers does solid work with his layouts and storytelling.  There’s a great deal of drama to his work.  And the finishes by Gerry Talaoc are exemplary.  He gives the story a real, tangible sense of atmosphere and gloom.  Talaoc’s inking brings to vivid life the chaos and destruction of a crumbling, ruined city under siege and its tragic, desperate inhabitants.  It really communicates the horrors of war.

Ihe likelihood of DC publishing any additional Showcase Presents volumes of Unknown Soldier seems rather small, unfortunately.  So I do not know if this issue will ever be reprinted.  Fortunately, it is quite easy to find rather inexpensive back issues of this series for sale online.  These comics are definitely worth tracking down.  Joe Kubert’s magnificent covers and Gerry Talaoc’s lushly illustrated interiors are among the best artwork I’ve ever seen.

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