Saturday, November 8, 2008

STAR-SPANGLED WAR STORIES Starring The Unknown Soldier! Part One Introduction

As discussed here the Unknown Soldier had one of the finest series of stories I've ever read produced from December 1974 to December 1976, approximately.

Written by David Michelinie, most well-known for lengthy writer stints on Spider-Man (and he created Venom, for better or worse) and Iron Man through the 1980s, and drawn by the much less-known Gerry Talaoc, another of those talented Filipino artists like Tony De Zuniga, Pablo Marcos, the brothers Redondo, the Unknown Soldier stories came out of the oceanic darkness of comics, movies, and novels in a way I hadn't expected. A wholly unique but recognizable shape from the bottom of the sea, and worth far more than gold.

I first saw Talaoc's work on the INCREDIBLE HULK, as inker over Hall of Famer Sal Buscema and young gun Mike Mignola (creator of Hellboy,) which continued in the Mignola ALPHA FLIGHT for a time. I was never nuts about Talaoc's style on those books, as like Frank Robbins (INVADERS) before him, Talaoc was best suited to Non-Superhero fare. Like the Unknown Soldier.

Before revealing the last ingredient of this great run of exactly twenty comics, I'd like to say I picked up this run of comics sold for a dollar apiece at a comic book "con" in Northern VA, nearly two years ago. The thing was, I'd owned exactly one Unknown Soldier comic in my life, which I hadn't appreciated as much as I should have--mind you, the Soldier and his little bowie knife vs a grizzly bear while Nazi soldiers close in on him (UNKNOWN SOLDIER ish 251.) Thusly:

And that's not even part of the run we're discussing here, that's just a cog in the Faceless Avenger's Awesome Machine.

So, at this con, I ran across some STAR-SPANGLED WAR comics, starring the Unknown Soldier. I hadn't heard good or bad about these stories, but I wanted to try them on the blind chance. A blind purchase, with only a brief perusal of these unbagged, unboarded comics, noting Talaoc's art with an Okay Shrug. I bought issues 187-201. Later I'd pick up the last three issues on the strength of that initial exposure.

After discovering what would be a defining comic book run that I never knew existed, that apparently no one knows existed (which is the point of these entries I'll be making,) DC Comics released the SHOWCASE: UNKNOWN SOLDIER trade, completing my run with issues 183-186 included, in black and white but still...gorgeous to behold.

In interviews I've read with Michelinie, he was a young guy at the time and this was one of those books a young writer could mess with to learn his craft. I'm guessing anyway. Michelinie is also the guy who had a supervillain kill Aquaman's son, yes Aquababy, in a vengeance ploy...and that's about Aquaman's defining moment right there. But that was slightly later. For now, circa 1973, Michelinie is doing what so many rookies had done before him, taking a character who isn't integral to the company, a character without much invested in him, and trying out the formula of the war story as understood in previous issues. Writing for the audience, writing to entertain, and writing for Joe Orlando.

The other part of this equation during the 1970s at DC was Editor Joe Orlando, for whom Michelinie was part of a "stable" of fresh-faced writers breaking into comics. DC had an "apprenticeship program" back then, and Orlando ended up with Michelinie's scripts and saw something in the man, enough to bring him in under this apprenticeship banner. Joe Orlando was a former artist/writer for EC Comics, whose horror-themed books like TALES FROM THE CRYPT and VAULT OF HORROR during the 1950s influenced a young Stephen King, and eventually drew the ire of one Dr. Fredric Wertham, who claimed comics led to juvenile delinguency in his book SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT. This treatise led to one of the first "witch hunts" of the 1950s, as a Congressional Hearing went after EC editor Bill Gaines, and the Comic Code Authority (to censor comics) was formed by the publishers to "self-police" their lines. This led to the dissolution of EC and the beginning of "Mad Magazine" for Gaines, a popular title even today. All those writers and artists from EC who had known wicked creative freedom under Gaines' editorial now found themselves working for the blossoming Marvel or old reliable DC.

In 1973, there's something to be said for Joe Orlando's time at EC, and how his editor skills seemed to push imposed limits. Prior to Orlando, Michelinie, and Talaoc, the Unknown Soldier stories had been exercises in typical War Comic irony, stories with clear meanings and conclusive monochromatic plotting. With Vietnam raging, the Unknown Soldier had already been introduced as a faceless "spirit" of the fighting man of World War II, a rubber-masked mummy-bandaged saboteur who achieved his mission and didn't stray very far from the rigors of the War Comic formula. With Michelinie and Talaoc, under Orlando's steady guidance, that was about to change.

Part Two tomorrow.

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