continued from Monday last, and concerning the "DC Showcase Presents: The Unknown Soldier" collection;
If Joe Kubert's few "Unknown Soldier" tales seem to reflect a patriotic and kindly conservative frame of mind, respectful at times of difference and yet committed to and trusting of traditional forms of power and authority, Bob Haney's tales of the nameless and faceless warrior which followed read today as if they were founded in a somewhat more left-of-centre sensibility. From the very beginning of his ten issue run on "Star Spangled War Stories", Mr Haney's scripts dealt not just with the hi-jinks of assassinating Hitler and the like, but with the fallibility of military authority, racial prejudice in the US Army, the decency of combatants on all sides of the fighting, and the strength and bravery of women and their essential contribution to the cause. And yet, despite all these symbols of what even then would've been understood, correctly or not, as tokens of a liberal mind, Mr Haney's vision of America is remarkably close to that of Mr Kuberts. He portrays more flaws in the system than did his predecessor, and recognises more sources of virtue within it too, though that may merely be a reflection of the fact that he wrote three times more stories than Mr Kubert did, but in the end, the two creators are united in never questioning the necessity of the war or the superiority of the American way against all-comers.
Hindsight makes Mr Haney's first story, the Joe Kubert-illustrated "Invasion Game", appear to be a possible response to the depiction of the Unknown Soldier's exceptionally polite and subservient Black Sergeant in Mr Kubert's first few stories. After all, to read the panel wherein Mr Kubert's Soldier discusses undertaking a mission to his Sergeant and declaring that it'll ".. raise the morale of our people!" is to wonder whether the Soldier has ever considered that Black Americans might not have felt so closely aligned to the White majority at all (151:4:5). In truth, it reads today as an insensitive speech, particularly given that the panel in question focuses on the duteous and agreeable face of the Black Sergeant as he listens to such a one-nation declaration, as if he too must share his superior's convictions. And yet it can't be denied that such an assumption would have come easily to the lips of many if not most white Americans in that conflict. In fact, given the extremes of racial hostility felt by large swathes of white American troops to their comrades of colour in that conflict, extremes that shocked even the racially-unenlightened British of the period, the Unknown Soldier's speech might even be read as well-meaning rather than ignorant; at least he considers that America is composed of a people who are both white and black rather just the former.
It's a reading of the Soldier, as a sympathetic but typically-ignorant man of his times, which sits well with Mr Haney's tale of his meeting with "Chat Noir". Faced with a Black American soldier on the run from the US Army in France who claims to have been "rail-roaded into a court-martial" (155:6:3), the Soldier responds by declaring, "Sounds like sour grapes to me." (155:6:4). Later, he taunts "Chat Noir" by accusing him of running " ... out on (his) buddies because of a 'bum' rap!" (155.8:3), and the distrust between the two characters is maintained until the stories' end, when, as you might expect, the Black American saves the life of the White American while declaring "I guess ... we've been fighting the same enemy ... Maybe ... we're still part of the same country!" (155:11:3). But, for all that the differences between the politically powerful and the powerless are resolved in just 11 pages, what's most noticeable is how unsentimental the reconciliation between the two is, and, indeed, how powerful and competent Chat Noir has been represented as while leading a French partisan cell. Indeed, the Unknown Soldier is often shown helpless without his reluctant comrades aid, and the closing of the tale, with Noir back in his Army uniform with his Sergeant's stripes conspicuously in place, seems an obvious acknowledgement that he had indeed been the victim of racial prejudice.
And yet, as with many a popular story written to entertain while engaging with wider social issues, "Invasion Game!" is as disturbing a text as it is a heartening one. For there's a clear sense that Mr Haney's America is still a morally superior state, even if some of its servants are clearly ethically compromised. Indeed, wherever the State is shown acting dishonestly in "Invasion Game!", such as in deceiving a French resistance cell into sacrificing itself as an unknowing decoy prior to D-Day, it's deception is portrayed as being to the ultimate good. "Chat Noir" may have had his stripes unfairly removed from him, to take another example, but with the intervention of the kindly if rather socially naive Unknown Soldier, everything is restored to an equitable state of affairs. All that's needed, it seems, for a better world to appear is for the American government to be trusted to do the right thing, or, at worst, to rectify the mistakes which its servants have committed. As Mr Haney has his Black hero declare at the tale's closing, "Figure that this country is worth any effort!" (155:11:4)
All of which, it must be said from the perspective of 2010, sounds rather willfully naive. The Black American man, Mr Haney seems to be saying, has to accept the duty of fighting his way up from the bottom of the pile against incredible odds, and he has to rely on the unlikely patronage of passing White secret agents to maintain whatever small advantages he's earned. It's an impossibly long-term vision of political chance that's both well-meaningly wishful and grounded in a faith that the American state will eventually do the right thing for "Chat Noir" and his fellow people of colour. The idea that the American state has been culpable in deliberately and institutionally supporting racism, and that prejudice isn't just the responsibility of a few bad apples, doesn't, on the evidence of this tale, seem to have occurred to Mr Haney, or his Unknown Soldier.
And yet, given how uncharitably most majority cultures are to any minorities who seek even nominal parity where social justice is concerned, Mr Haney's apparent message isn't an unreasonable description of what the long road to a greater equality will involve. The truth of the matter is that it's only by individuals, and groups of individuals, working within the state and fighting generation upon generation for their rights that systems change. It's just that Mr Haney hasn't acknowledged how unbearable hard the struggle would be for Chat Noir and his people, nor of how venal as well as how ignorant much of the entrenched power elites of the Western world would prove to be.
What would the politically correct form of this tale have been? Should "Noir" and the Soldier have hunted down and exposed the racists who "rail-roaded" the Black man? Should the Soldier have dedicated himself to fighting for justice on the home-front, and in the social context too, as much as in battlefields against the Axis powers? Should the Soldier have apologised for the racism of the state, or perhaps joined Chat Noir in exile to set up some non-conformist underground army to make their own way to their own ends during the war, and beyond it?
And at what point is it acceptable to simply accept the good intentions and progressive kind-heartedness of Mr Haney and Mr Kubert's work, to note what an impressive and able man "Chat Noir" is, and to abandon the belief that every 11 page tale must perfectly reflect a modern agenda and its take on a social injustice before it can shake off the suspicion of incorrectness?
Reading these tales of Mr Haney's is to finally be shaken free of the Seventies-borne consensus that his work was in various ways irredeemably marked by anachronistically careless and shallow style of writing. Yes, those qualities can at times undoubtedly be found in Mr Haney's work here, but they at worst work to compromise rather than utterly discredit his scripts. In truth, his craft as evidenced in these Unknown Soldier stories is invariably entertaining and, unexpectedly perhaps, thought-provoking too, and there's a fierce intelligence that's expressed playfully therein even as it tries not to draw too much attention to itself. So, the Black American rebel leading a French underground band is of course code-named "Chat Noir", since that was, according to its creator and owner Rodlophe Salis, the "most extraordinary (19th-century) cabaret in the world ... (where) foreigners from every corner of the world" could be met. And the Nazi death camp so convincingly labelled Totentanz by Mr Haney (158:1:1) is, of course, named after the German for the Danse Macabre, or the Dance Of Death, a Medieval allegory describing how death is ever-present at each moment of one's short and vulnerable life. These touches, which are so embedded into the text that the reader can barely notice that they're there at all, show how seriously Mr Haney must have taken his popular entertainments. A far more pretentious intellect might have made greater play of such cleverness, but even when Mr Haney was under attack from many in fandom for disregarding the sacred tenants of continuity in his superhero books, he choose to produce laudably solid rather than showy work.
And so his work repays some greater measure of respectful attention than has at times been granted to it, for Mr Haney's scripts appear even today to reflect a belief that the reader is a bright penny who can trusted to think for themselves and to make sense of what's in front of them in their own way and to their own ends. This, of course, is an approach that stands in direct contradiction to that of the politically correct, who invariably demand water-tight ethical maps through which plot and character illustrate the worthy and the intolerable approaches to the acceptably moral life, as if fiction's purpose was to serve as a secular version of the Medieval Mystery plays, popular entertainment that the ignorant and the uneducated might learn from and emulate.
But for all the intelligence and entertainment that marks his stories, Mr Haney's preference for fast-paced and wide-ranging adventures told over the course of a very few pages often meant that he time and time again cut the corners of his plots. For every moment that he delights with, as when he recalls that the Soldier will need a different accent for each new role, as with "the Lootenant" (159:11:4) in "Man Of War", there's a plot convenience put to use that destroys the credibility, and much of the moral sense, of his tales. In "Totentanx", for example, the business of both breaking into and out of a death camp is made counter-productively simple. If the camp itself is quite rightly portrayed as a hell on Earth, a literal dance with death, and if the reality of the camp's ovens is never obscured, the effect is still undermined by the story-fact that a smart and well-prepared American can not just break out, but escape with another prisoner in a fine staff car while disguised as Adolf Eichmann! With the best of intentions, it's a business that demeans the millions upon millions of souls who could never, with all the smartness and planning in the world, escape what the Nazis had designed for them.
What's more, it's a carelessness which casts Mr Haney's fictional America in a bleaker light than anything else we've discussed so far. Because with both the Soldier's experience and the escapee Erika's testimony, the facts of the Holocaust would have been utterly unarguable long before the liberation of the first camps. As a consequence, the failure of the Allies to interfere significantly in the business of both the extermination as well as the work camps in any whole-hearted and systematic fashion could never have occurred in this Haney-verse. With his character and his contacts, the Unknown Soldier would surely never have rested until the fact of Genocide was public knowledge as well as a primary aspect of military policy.
But The Unknown Soldier obviously never did anything of the sort, for such a personal crusade and its inevitable success was never referred to again, although the business of the Holocaust was shown continuing as it did in our world in many of DC's other books, which leaves the reader regretting, for this and other reasons, that this whole unfortunate if well meaning story was ever told at all.
Despite that unfortunate business, Mr Haney's scripts for the Unknown Soldier are marked in their intent if not always their effect by a progressive and liberal frame of mind, and both the ranks of his heroes and villains are drawn from a wider cast of types than was always evident in some brands of American war comics. The woman codenamed "Berengaria" in "Totentanz" is as brave as a character can be, imprisoned in a death camp and yet courageously conspiring with the Soldier who's pretending to be her imprisoned husband, despite the secret pain of the fact that her husband has long since been murdered and "destroyed ... in the ovens" (158.11.5). The mad "Colonel "Bloody" Barton, who's driving his men to their unnecessary and cruel deaths, is portrayed as ever bit as dangerous, if somewhat less contemptible, as the players on the other side; to be American here is not, as Mr Kubert had declared in the Soldier's first tale, always to play fair and only kill if it's unavoidable. (SSWS: 159) And there's respect shown even to enemy commanders who've filled the role of cruel antagonists in the Soldier's adventures too; Colonel Funaga is is a torturer, but the Soldier accepts their common humanity and regards his foes suicide as "a soldier's price! One more cost to add onto war's tally sheet!" (159:12:5), while the Nazi Colonel Lutzen, the "Black Eagle", willingly testifies to save an American soldier unjustly accused of cowardice and sentenced to death by firing squad. (Later in the story, the Soldier can't even bring himself to shot Lutzen when the German escapes captivity. 159.14.6).
Mr Haney's vision of the War is therefore somewhat different from any stereotypical representation of a great crusade wherein noble America acts to save the world while providing her men with a glorious cause to prove their manhood by. Mr Haney's America may ultimately be in the right, but her men on occasion bully their fellows, sentence innocent men to death and allow madmen to lead their divisions into battle. It's an America where the well-meaning likes of the Unknown Soldier has to learn that everything in the political garden isn't as straight-forward and fair as he'd presumed, although for all of that, matters do seem remarkably easy at times to put to rights. It's a world where women can be braver and more resilient than men (*2), where the enemy can be as honourable as "our" own fighting forces, and where those ordinary civilians not in uniform are often as important to the cause as those with the badge-caps and the equipment manuals.
Indeed, given that Mr Haney's Soldier is far more likely to be found working with civilians rather than standing next to his fellow soldiers in need of his skill and courage, there's far less of a sense than previously that the typical American man isn't up to the responsibilities of his patriotic task. There's none of that sense of the Wandering Jew with a bazooka that permeated even the very first appearance of the Soldier in a Sgt Rock tale, where he could achieve all that the typical grunt couldn't and dare what the everyday G.I. might not. (SSWS:157: Kanigher/Kubert) And, especially since he had so many more issues to write than Mr Kubert did, Mr Haney takes the opportunity to show some ordinary G.I.'s as being quite frankly drunkards and, oh dear, may we say frequenters of alien females of easy and commodified virtue (166:10:5). The WASP dreams of excellent comportment and self-evident superiority have quite evaporated in the mud and squalid combat of the Italian Campaign shown in "The True Glory" (SSWS 166), for example, as Mr Haney makes his case that even men with a taste for the bottle and the flesh were every bit as able to serve the cause as a more well-laundered and restrained West Pointer might be.
And it's that popularism, that sympathetic take on the potential inherent in each and every American, and indeed American ally, that most marks Mr Haney's vision of America in "The Unknown Soldier". If Mr Kubert's short tenure on the strip produced a vision of America and its cause which was both decent and respectfully traditional, Mr Haney's USA is a more flawed nation full of fallible but usually decent folks. And if Mr Haney's America also contains patriotic madmen and racist soldiers, well, with a few good men of influence to help the oppressed fight back, things will be OK eventually.
*2:- Consider also Elrika in "The Long Jump" (161), although it should be noted that these brave women are still remarkably young and beautiful. They're no more typical women than the heroines of most Hollywood blockbusters are today.
A far more radical, and far less optimistic, take on the "Unknown Soldier" was offered by Archie Goodwin, Bob Haney's successor as the writer of "Star-Spangled War Stories". For Mr Goodwin, it seems, there was nothing glorious on any level to be associated with the business of war, and even a successful mission was to be considered as nothing more meaningful than a temporary relief from further suffering. Certainly the endings of his Unknown Soldier stories are never a cheering business. In "Three Targets For The Viper", for example, the Unknown Soldier succeeds in protecting the lives of F.D.R., Churchill and De Gualle, but at the cost of destroying the life of a Vichy spy reduced to a "quiet, unresisting young woman" (167:14:4). The sinking of the Nazi submarine carrying plans for secret weapons to Japan in "Destroy The Devil's Broomstick" involves the sacrifice of a U-Boat captain who's family has already been "shot down by ... (the) Gestapo ..." (169:14.3), and, most disturbing of all, in "Appointment In Prague", an aged old Czech actor and his estranged and virulently-Nazi grandson are both killed as the Soldier barely concludes his mission (172:12:1-6).
Mr Goodwin's Unknown Soldier is a quite different character from Mr Kanigher and Mr Kubert's hyper-confident and super-heroic G.I., the comforter to and inspiration of beleaguered front-line troops. Instead, Archie Goodwin's faceless soldier is a man who can barely save the day despite his very best efforts, who brings death with him wherever he goes, and who can do little but attempt to patch up wounded fighters and carry out hopeless missions by the skin of his teeth. He's certainly not a man who by the fact of his fighting beside the ordinary foot-soldier inspires super-human deeds, unless he's impersonating a man who's already raised such confidence in his men. In fact, super-human achievement on the battlefield is regarded by Mr Goodwin as a self-destructive chimera, an ideal of military heroism which sets impossible standards for ordinary men and destroys them accordingly. The legendary Major Edge, in "Legends Don't Die", is a leader "worshipped by every man serving under him" (170:5:6), a warrior who has "reaped medals and glory performing near superhuman feats" (170:5:4), and even the Soldier baulks at impersonating him. And yet Major Edge has, unbeknownst to his troops, gone quite insane with what would today be referred to as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, unable to stand the stresses of the role he was forcing himself to lead. War, in Mr Goodwin's tales, isn't a testing ground to survive with a measure of patriotic decency and nobility. Instead, war seems to be a horror that in one fashion or another is completely unsurvivable, for whatever a person is when they enter the fighting, the war will change them utterly and rarely if ever for the better.
In fact, those that won't adapt in the face of the realities of war, those who retain their illusions about noble sacrifice and glory are shown being broken by Mr Goodwin where more malleable humans survive. In addition to poor Major Edge, there's Captain Ransom in "The Glory Hound" (SSWS:168), who fulfils every criteria of a dashing war hero and who yet proves to be a self-regarding idiot, a Sergius Seranoff for the Second World War, capable of little more than leading his adoring troops towards disaster. And yet, Ransom is shown performing with the same unshakable confidence and bravery that the Unknown Soldier himself was in his first appearance. (The foolish Ransom is even shown inspiring his men exactly as the Soldier used to, rousing his troops with the clarion call that "If it means fightin' til we die -- we'll do that, an' nobody ever won one by running away!" - 168:12:1) And yet now, in Archie Goodwin's hands, the Unknown Soldier is no more confident nor physically able than his peers. Indeed, he's overwhelmed with self-doubt when told to impersonate Major Edge, saying "And I'm expected to take his place ... ?" (170:5:7), and now he wins his battles, if he wins them at all, through a quiet and modest competency, through wisdom and restraint, rather than a pulp-heroesque derring-do. As he tells the horrified Ransom, while revealing his war-ruined face to the self-obsessed Captain;
"You think you know war, Ransom? I'm going to show you what it's really like Ransom! It's not winning medals ... and it's not a game! And it's not fighting and gloriously for Baker Company. I'm going to show you war's true face, Ransom. This is the face of war, Ransom .... MY FACE! Do you like it? Maybe you can win one of these for you or your men?" (168:12:3-6)
And so, in the space of just three years, the Unknown Soldier had gone from being a patriotic superman inspiring his fellow soldiers to deeds of great and necessary heroism, to a vulnerable and insecure everyman, terribly wounded and yet absolutely determined, a symbol of war's inevitable and unavoidable brutalities. No longer an example of the individual given over entirely in service to the Nation's endeavours, Mr Goodwin's Unknown Soldier was a symbol rather of what the Nation's endeavours, necessary or otherwise, wreck on the individual.
And Mr Goodwin's scripts would have nothing to do with the concept of an soldier's "honour" which appears from time to time in the work of other writers on this strip. To Mr Goodwin, there's no difference between the desperate business of civilians and soldiers in their common plight before the devastation of war. The only character who speaks of "real men, warriors -- not foolish weaklings like you!" (171:13:2) is the boy Josef, a brainwashed boy conscripted from the Hitler Youth, with a head full of ideology and its promised glories and an exceptionally early and bloody death before him. No, there's no support for any ennobling philosophy of war that in any way separates the individual fighter from the consequences of their action through high-flying ideals of duty and self-sacrifice. Commander Gunther, for example, the U-Boat Captain who willingly dooms himself and his despicable passengers by valiantly taking his own submarine to the bottom of the ocean, declares that "In war, we do what we must, not always what we like ..." (169.4.3), but the Soldier makes no attempt to sentimentally define Gunther as a "warrior". Instead, the Unknown Soldier remembers him as "an enemy, but more ... a man." (169.4.4)
Even the very label of "soldier", it seems, separates those who bear it from their own identity as individual human beings, and from their responsibilities as such to each other. The lost and exceptional Major Edge, to both Mr Goodwin and his "Unknown Soldier", is no "living legend" at all, but a "fine fighting man" (170:5:2), and the Soldier's final advice to the disgraceful Captain Ransom sums up, or certainly seems to, Mr Goodwin's philosophy where the duties of each man at war are concerned;
"Forget the glamor, forget the glory ... save your men, Captain!" (168.13.1)
And yet it's not that America and the nation's cause is in any way being denigrated in Mr Goodwin's stories. The saving of President Roosevelt's life in Morocco in "Three Targets For Thee Viper", for example, is presented as an unmitigated good (167:14:2), and the Axis armies, if not their nation's citizens, are an obvious evil which must be unquestionably defeated. But the war itself was no longer being presented as a crucible in which the patriot citizen might valiantly reach a greater measure of their own potential while fulfilling their duty to the nation. Instead, the focus of Mr Goodwin's stories during his brief six-issue stay on "The Unknown Soldier" was on the dehumanising effect that war itself has upon everybody who comes into contact with it, rather than upon America's effect upon the progress of the war. And in doing so, this year's worth of stories became the first of those in this collection to meaningfully reflect the logo of "Make War No More" which had been placed in the final panel of each of DC's war tales for several years up until 1973, and which had ironically been removed with the beginning of Mr Goodwin's tenure on the title. (Until then, a more accurate logo might have read; "We know war's a destructive business, but make it as a decent American and you'll win out if your cause is just".) For although his stories were in no way either pacifist or anti-imperialist, their sense was straight-forward; even when war must by necessity be entered into, war itself is always the enemy, and the inevitable victor too.
This stance of Mr Goodwin's constituted the most complete reversal of a title-character's purpose that I can recall. Unlike the brief tenure of Mr Kanigher and Mr Kubert, which identified the ordinary soldier as heroic and just fighters in need at times of assistance and inspiration, and that of Mr Haney, which argued that the nation's cause and methods were moral even as some few of its servants might be incompetent or bigoted, Mr Goodwin focused only on how the best of us can be damaged and even corrupted by the experience of warfare. For Major Edge and Captain Ransom, for Commander Gunther and Shandra, are all characters who possess those admirable qualities which mark out the very best of us, regardless of whose side they're fighting for. They're brave and loyal, able and daring, and yet war destroys them all, killing them, taking their liberty or their sanity, or simply destroying their most cherished values.
To Mr Goodwin, it seems, the issue was never who was in the right and who wasn't, because the necessity of America's war against Fascism was beyond doubt. But the matter of how to survive the waging of war without becoming either one of war's monsters or its victims, or both, is what most concerns his stories of The Unknown Soldier.