Tuesday, January 13, 2009

STAR SPANGLED WAR STORIES 189: "The Cadaver Gap Massacres"

Here comes perhaps the craziest story in the Michelinie/Talaoc run of Unknown Soldier.

Some American soldiers on the Austrian Front are set upon by huge, monstrous figures who are unstoppable by bullet or bayonet. Three units end up ripped to pieces by these creatures.

Watching a short film obviously shot by one unit's cameraman, the Soldier receives his orders from Allied HQ in Corsica. The intel is sketchy, as all the Allies have are rumors of experimental research in an Austrian castle. An important SS Officer is traveling to the castle to provide a demonstration of the new "weapon" for the Nazi higher ups. The Soldier must take the place of the Officer and discover what the weapon is, and sabotage it.

On a road in the Alps, a car carrying SS Major Wollheim is stopped by an obstruction. The driver struggles to move the rocks and branches. Wollheim is garroted while the driver is occupied. When the road is clear, the driver is met by Wollheim, returning from "the call of nature." Wollheim arrives at Castle Todesfall, greeted by an eyepatch-wearing Colonel named Rolf.

Moments later, local Resistance fighters escape their cells, and take off across the fields. This gives Rolf the chance to demonstrate one of the Reich's new inventions: small pipe jets in the field release what appears to be lasers which utterly incinerate the Rebels. Afterward, Wollheim is introduced to the lead scientist, Dr. Schopfer and his small daughter Gudren. A brief conflict erupts between Schopfer and Col. Rolf over the morality behind murder, even during war. Rolf makes implies once again that Gudren will be harmed if the scientist does not remain loyal to the Reich.

Wollheim is led about by Col. Rolf, who introduces him to "...everything from gases that turned the nervous system into jelly--to land mines set to explode at the mere heat of a human body." But none of these deadly weapons match what the Soldier saw in the film. Wollheim quickly finds the most guarded project and attempts to bluff his way inside "Project Omega." Col. Rolf arrives curious why Wollheim would try to enter, since it was under his orders that only Rolf, Dr. Schopfer and the Fuhrer himself be allowed in. Wollheim passes it off as a "security check" to insure his orders are being carried out. Later, the Soldier determines he must take the place of Col. Rolf, become Rolf, if he is to infiltrate "Project Omega."

However, the suspicious Col. Rolf has baited Wollheim, and holds a gun on the spy, taunting him. The Soldier quickly disarms Rolf and batters him into unconsciousness (Talaoc's art shows Col. Rolf with one staring eye, quite dead...but this is a mistake, or Col. Rolf sleeps with his eye open.) When the Colonel awakens, he looks up to find himself. The duplicate Rolf forces a Wollheim mask over the Colonel's face, and leads the new "Wollheim" gagged and at gunpoint outside.

Col. Rolf instructs "Wollheim" to begin running, and the real Rolf flees directly into the field of lasers. The Soldier as Rolf takes a long time to finally push the button, milking the sadistic Rolf's terror before finally obliterating him, and the Wollheim personae.

The new Col. Rolf determines to get inside the guarded room. Meanwhile, Dr. Schopfer stands over his sleeping daughter, whom Rolf has threatened. Coming to a final decision, Schopfer takes up a Luger and promises to assassinate Col. Rolf at the first opportunity.

The story is more science fiction oriented than perhaps any Unknown Soldier story ever written anywhere (outside of the unfortunate revision series from the 1980s that cast the Unknown Soldier as a "super soldier" via chemical enhancement, giving him quick healing and a measure of superior physical strength...good stories but just not quite right.) Massive lurking man-monsters and lasers aside, the story concentrates on the brief test of intellects between Col. Rolf and the Soldier (which Rolf actually wins, resulting in a gruesome death.)

The SF elements actually don't harm the formula of the war story, and as usual Editor Joe Orlando follows the compelling story wherever it leads. Also, here in this comic and ish 188 as well, the letters pages begin to reveal reader opinion on the new direction. One reader , Bob Rodi, calls the Unknown Soldier comic the "most promising series of 1975." Joe Orlando calls out for more feedback, asking if readers want, "more two-part stories? Or feature novel-length adventures...more frequently?"

I miss the way the world used to work, when an actual letter meant something, both for the writer and reader.

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