Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Doesn't He Seem Familiar?: The Many Faces of the Unknown Soldier

The Unknown Soldier is a classic DC property, a character who became popular enough in the '70s to take over the title of Star Spangled War Stories and make it his own. I have extremely limited experience with this original incarnation, only grabbing a spare issue here or there when I find it, but I've read all three versions of the title that have been published since. Now that Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray are once again re-envisioning the so-called "Immortal G.I." as part of The New 52's Second Wave, I thought I'd take a look back at the preceding series from authors Jim Owsley, Garth Ennis, and Joshua Dysart to see what they share and where they differ. What has The Unknown Soldier meant over time, and how has he changed? Of course, there's the ever-present notion that one man in the right place can change a war, but the similarities are deeper than that. There is an insanity, a righteous but often blind rage that seems to be a necessary component, or at any rate a consistent one. But the victims of that rage vary, as do the reactions of each series' main character to their personalized brands of madness.
     That madness is generally fueled by the same thing: trying to escape an inescapable situation. In Owsley's series, the Unknown Soldier continually attempts to quit his job. He lasts a little bit longer each time, but is always sucked back into the killing one way or another, because it's all he knows. And because there are several high-powered individuals who refuse to leave him alone. Ennis' Soldier also wants out, and his entire story is based on him trying to find an adequate replacement. He still believes in the need for an international enforcer of America's might and will, but can no longer personally live with the incessant war and lies. Finally, there is Dysart's version, who is by far the craziest of the three. In many ways, Dysart's whole run is a character study of a man slowly but oh-so-steadily going insane. So rather than merely trying to get out of the job, he is fighting to escape the persona of the Unknown Soldier and return to that of pacifist and healer Dr. Lwanga Moses. For all three, the constant violence becomes overbearing, but their methods for trying to bring it to an end are quite different.
     Naturally, none of them succeed. Owsley's guy strikes back against the people who control him, but even once they're dead his final sentiment is, "The war goes on." The potential replacement in Ennis' series, CIA Agent Clyde, kills himself in defiance of the Soldier's wishes. And by the end of Dysart's book, Moses gives himself up entirely to the voice in his head who, once in control, remembers that Moses was an invented personality anyway. The Unknown Soldiers all futily thrash against their cages, sometimes upsetting or frightening those around them, but never truly freeing themselves.
     The other side of this coin, though, is that in all of the Soldiers there exists the contradictory belief that some of the killing they do is justified, even necessary or good. For all their supposed desire to escape, they also find joy in war. It makes sense to them, it's what they've been groomed for, and even if the people in charge of them are despicable, the opposing forces are often many times worse. So what we get is a character not only at war with the world, but at war with himself, simultaneously depending on the violence and trying to get away from it. Owsley and Dysart's characters both seem to take things moment-to-moment. One day they're retiring to a house in the sticks, or working as a doctor, or announcing out loud that they're through with all the death. Then some villain pisses them off or provokes them and they change their minds entirely and switch back into vicious killer mode, often fighting more fiercely and determinedly than ever before. And often openly admitting to themselves that they like it, even reveling in it. The internal conflict for Ennis' version lies, as I've said, in the fact that he thinks of himself as a necessity but can't stand to play his part any longer. So he sabotages himself, trying and failing for, we learn, the second time to select a successor.
     Why is it, exactly, that the Unknown Soldier always struggles with these opposing wants? Is it impossible to imagine him as a Punisher-esque anti-hero who fully believes in killing the bad guys? Or alternatively, can we not picture him as a wholly unwilling agent of an overbearing, bloodthirsty government or agency? All of the other elements of the character could, in theory, remain: his namelessness, his seemingly superhuman skill, the respect and fear he commands with his presence, even his insanity. Yet all the writers who have offered their take on the Soldier have held onto this notion that he is a character torn, a man at odds with himself, wishing to escape the never-ending war that is his world but not knowing how to live a life free from bloodshed. Is it coincidence, or is this duality in some way essential to the spirit of the timeless, faceless warrior?
     In the fourteen pages we've seen so far, Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray certainly seem to be going in a different direction. All the craziness is apparent in their Solider, as is his righteous anger and the pleasure he takes in killing his foes. But rather than feeling trapped, this newest incarnation actually forced his way into the war after the military turned him down. He is the Unknown Soldier all his of predecessors were scared they'd become, a voluntary weapon in the arsenal of his superiors. This is mostly speculation, of course, as we've had only the briefest introduction, but if that is indeed the route Palmiotti and Gray have decided to take, I'll be curious to see how it holds up. Is removing the trying-to-escape aspect of the character an improvement, a detraction, or just an interesting and unusual choice? Certainly it gives me hope that this version might be more popular or successful than those which have come before, if only because it's trying something new.

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