Unknown Soldier #1-4 Retro Review

Reviewer: Tim Stevens
Story Title: N/A

Written by: Garth Ennis
Art by: Kilian Plunkett
Colored by: James Sinclair
Lettered by: Ellie Deville
Editor: Axel Alonso
Publisher: DC Comics/ Vertigo

The Unknown Soldier was originally a figure from DC’s past, a character that benefited from the popularity of “war” comics and rapidly fading into anonymity (fitting, huh?) when the genre fell out of a favor. Garth Ennis and Kilian Plunkett resurrected the character in 1997 for Vertigo. The underpinnings were the same, he was a man literally without face (having lost in an unfortunate shrapnel encounter) who had become a master of disguise and the ultimate American soldier. However, he was hardly the same Soldier that he had been in those war comics of yore. Imagine Haunted Tank as a Vertigo property (seriously, do it. Kind of cool, huh?) and realize how different, even with the same origin, the Tank would be under that imprint. This is the Unknown Soldier of 1997.

It was also my first true exposure to the Vertigo label and Garth Ennis and it blew me away. Still relatively fresh faced in the world of comic book reading (I had really only been doing it with any sort of seriousness the past year or so), I was stunned by how visceral an affair the book was. Plunkett’s art was scratchy, immediate; something of an heir to the Sienkiewicz styling, without the occasionally over the top stylistic ticks of the latter. It felt entirely fitting to the world that Ennis had created, one of violence, darkness, patriotism (misguided and otherwise), and two anachronistic figures stumbling towards inevitability. His sense of layout is also impressive. I was hooked from issue 1 page 1, a scene that depicts an exhausted Soldier overlooking Arlington Cemetery and whispering, “I need it to be true just one last time.” It is a moment of utterly beautiful psychological brutality. It is heartbreaking and the reader does not even know why yet. Tim Bradstreet’s covers were the capper on the affair, beautiful mosaic pieces that hinted on the contents within but never gave anything away.

Does it still hold up to this 23 year old as it once did to that 16 year old? Pretty much, yes.

The story of a CIA agent William Clyde who stumbles onto the existence of Codename: Unknown Soldier and simply cannot let the thread go is, oddly enough, the spiritual cousin of Steve Darnall and Alex Ross’s Uncle Sam. Both plunge deeply into the great divide between America: The Dream and America: The Reality; of how the goals and ideals of our nation are often twisted by the people in power. How do we reconcile one with the other? Can such a reconciliation ever really be achieved?

Clyde is a great character, a straight shooter in every sense of the word who does not flinch from his work at the CIA, but often runs afoul of his supervisors because of an unyielding (belittled often as old fashioned) sense of right and wrong. Although his errant mission to unearth the secrets of the Soldier irrevocably changes his life, it never changes Clyde himself. To borrow from a cliché, even when he stares into the abyss, somehow the abyss does not stare back.

The Soldier, on the other hand, is a walking enigma. More whispered about legend than character for most of the story, he is the encapsulation of American foreign policy from WWII until now. The boogeyman approach works wonders for the story as we fear not only for Clyde’s life as he searches for the truth, but also for it if he ever encounters the figure at the end of the search.

Ennis, however, seems unsatisfied to rest on this “plot as character” approach, however, and when the Soldier finally makes his first present day appearance, it is stunning to find yourself actually caring for him. He is a tragedy, coming from the same world as Frankenstein’s monster. He is Clyde’s dark reflection, a man for whom country was everything. If the Soldier ends the story still a monster, he is an utterly human one.

The final scene, which I will not spoil here, so perfectly brings together the events of the previous 4 issues that I remain floored by it even after having reading this story over and over again. The tension crackles, but is undercut by a mournful, almost bittersweet tone. There isn’t a moment, a word, or a panel in that final sequence that I would change or omit. One of the best miniseries endings I can recall.