Sunday, November 9, 2008

STAR SPANGLED WAR STORIES starring the Unknown Soldier, Part Two

In an interview, David Michelinie (pronounced MIK-A-Lean) didn't really buy the notion of a man whose face was blown apart by a grenade wrapping his head in bandages and then using rubber masks over the bandages to infiltrate Nazis forts. To Michelinie, that seemed too far-fetched even for comics.

Michelinie decided to have the Soldier only wear the bandages when he wasn't on a mission. The Soldier's destroyed face during missions would wear masks with make-up applied directly to the Soldier's actual face. For the first time, the Soldier's true face would be revealed, and Joe Orlando didn't waste any time being coy about it. The cover of the team's first issue gives us Joe Kubert's version, which the great Joe K made a kind of "Death's Head."

Inside the comic, first page, Gerry Talaoc's version is even more horrific, as the Soldier is given his first view of the result of a grenade explosion, breaking down in tears as he's informed "plastic surgery is a young science. Perhaps in a few years..." "Yeah, Doc. Sure. A few...years..."

Thus begins the indictment of war which will inform Michelinie's run. The Soldier has faced the horror of his own maiming, his loss of any meaning outside of war, and is given the choice to become a "super-soldier."

Unlike Captain America and the Mighty Destroyer however, the Soldier is not assisted in this by a secret formula designed to boost his skills and physical abilities. Through sheer, torturous training of mind and body, the Soldier quickly becomes a top commando.

The revelation of the Soldier's true appearance disappointed a lot of readers, particularly War Comic readers who made up a nice portion of the DC Comics audience in those halcyon days of multi-genre offerings. In the letters pages, you get the sense the "old school" War readers didn't care for the approach. The logo of the comic reflected a new "mystery comic" angle, and the grotesque face of the Soldier represented a further exploitative discomfort.

Like many great writers of the era, Michelinie managed to subvert the genre without damaging the formula of the War Comic. Michelinie was breaking new ground (particularly at DC; Marvel had made the illusion of "change" a resounding call to arms, while DC maintained the "tried and true." This fundamental difference would define the two biggest comic book publishers for nearly two decades.) Stories were focusing on themes and situations more adult than any before. The understanding that this could be done in the "b-list" comics, the War and Mystery Comics, insured that the flagship titles like SUPERMAN and BATMAN remained gateways to new comic book readers, an audience that turned over every five years or so. However, the conventions of the medium of superheroes didn't affect the horror comics of the 1970s, like Steve Gerber's MAN-THING or Wolfman/Colan's TOMB OF DRACULA, and certainly DC's offerings like BEWARE THE CREEPER and HERCULES UNBOUND were found too unconventional to catch on with audiences.

Michelinie and Talaoc begin a process of adult story-telling, the kind we associate with later "adult" fare like WATCHMEN and KINGDOM COME, and they do it with a firm hand and eye toward the formula of the genre they're working in. The job presented these men with a chance to produce, while grasping what they produced. At this time in comics, no one thought subversion of genres was a necessity to or of the work.

The job was to produce War Comics for DC. And Orlando, Michelinie and Talaoc did that better than anyone else ever had. And for a side item, they decided to kick the bones of War Comics out of the way and discover something else buried in the ruins. Something gold.

Next up: the first Michelinie/Talaoc story: "8000 to One" in issue 183 of SSWS.

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