Unknown Soldier Vol. 2 #1-12 (Winter 1988 – December 1989)
Written by Jim Owsley
Penciled by Phil Gascoine
Inked by Phil Gascoine (#1-5, 9-12), Bruce Patterson (#6), Arne Starr (#7-8)
Colour by Carl Gafford
Spoilers (from thirty-two to thirty-three years ago)
If you’ve been reading this column for any length of time, you probably know that one of my all-time favourite comics writers is Christopher Priest, best known for his Black Panther, Deathstroke, and Quantum and Woody runs. Currently, he is writing Vampirella at Dynamite.
Before Priest became Priest, he was James Owsley, and he had a long career as a comics editor and sometimes writer under that name. As much as I’ve admired his work, there are a lot of gaps in my knowledge when it comes to his writing as Owsley. One series I remember always liking the covers of, but never read before, is his twelve-issue Unknown Soldier maxi-series.
Growing up, I never paid much attention to DC’s war comics. The Unknown Soldier always looked cooler, but I knew more about the Doom Patrol’s Rebus than I did him, beyond the fact that his face was wrapped in bandages. Vertigo dusted off the concept in the mid-2000s for an excellent series set in Uganda, but it had little to do with the original character (at least until the end). After it came out, I read a Showcase collection of the Joe Kubert Unknown Soldier, but it didn’t stick with me at all.
And so, I’m approaching this series with a pretty blank slate in terms of expectations and continuity baggage, but I do have some hopes for it to be entertaining.
Let’s track who turned up in the title:
- Wintley Roth (Army Intelligence; #1, 5-9, 11-12)
- “Libyan Guy” (#5, 7)
- Colonel Provansk (KGB; #8)
- The Fifth Man (Captain Bogdanov; #8)
- Tsu Na (#9-10)
- Denice Wilson (#9-10)
- Cortlandt (#12)
- Muammar Qadhafi (#5-6)
- Universal Soldier (the first one; #6)
- Roger “Saigon Kid” Simmons (#1-3, 5, 7-8, 10-11)
- Barry (CIA; #3-5, 7-8, 10-12)
- Colonel “Wally” Wallace (US military advisor; #4, 12)
- Charlotte (#6)
- Commander Holland (Navy; #8)
- Randy DeLoach (#9)
- Claudia Simmons (#11-12)
Let’s take a look at what happened in these books, with some commentary as we go:
- This series opens in Cambodia in 1970. The Unknown Soldier is working undercover, posing as a Soviet colonel who is helping supply arms to a Dutchman who then sells them to the Viet Cong. The soldier has been there for a while, and has perfected his disguise to the point that he can speak French with a Russian accent. This night is supposed to be the end of the mission – a group of green berets are expected to come and shut down the Dutchman’s operation. Instead, a truck full of Viet Cong arrive, and start shooting the place up. Dutch assumes the colonel betrayed him and is about to kill him, but the Soldier instead knocks him out. It seems he’s discovered that the Dutchman is also moving US weapons, and the Soldier believes the fact that his backup hasn’t arrived is connected to that. He kills the Dutchman and steals his Porsche, driving it into the jungle to escape. Eventually, he flips it and has to walk. He eventually discovers an Army convoy, and introduces himself as Captain Richard Miller, but the guy in charge won’t give him a ride. A young private does let him climb up into the back of a truck and ride with him. Miller sleeps, and remembers his childhood. We learn that his mother died, and that he promised her he’d look after his older brother, Harry, who was very sensitive, but also favoured by their domineering father, who’d decided that Richard was weak. We see that their father pushed the boys to learn to shoot, and that he took every chance to belittle Richard. A few years later, Richard had to help rescue his brother from some bullies, kicking the lead one in the nuts. Later, their father praised Harry for protecting his younger brother. Years after that, Harry and Richard ended up in a foxhole, pinned down by Japanese soldiers. Harry pulled out a grenade and then froze up, so that the grenade went off in his hand. When Richard woke up in a hospital in the Philippines, he was wrapped in bandages. Finally, Richard makes it to Saigon, where he removes the disguise that made him look like the Soviet colonel, and makes reference to his being immortal in his narration. Richard has figured out that he was set up to die, and wants to find out who is behind it. He’s had the young soldier from the truck, Roger Simmons, sent to him, and puts him in charge of tracking down the American weapons that the Dutchman had. A few nights later, Richard attends a fancy party, and confronts Major Wintley Roth, who Richard and Simmons, who he calls Saigon, have figured out was both behind selling the arms to the Dutchman, and also behind cancelling Richard’s operation, and setting him up to die. He shares what he knows, and leaves. Saigon finishes explaining the facts to Richard later, and then leaves. Richard drinks some scotch and collapses; it’s been doped. Two guys in ski masks bust into his room and give him a beating. As he crawls out of the bathroom, he sees Roth standing over him, burning the only piece of evidence Richard has against him.
- Issue two opens in Iran, on the last night of 1977. US President Jimmy Carter is there to visit the Shah of Iran, as protests against his rule continue to grow. The Unknown Soldier is there too, only now he is going by the name Jack, and appears to be about nineteen years old, and of Middle Eastern origin. Saigon goes to see him, and they talk about how Jack has been wanting to quit the army for a while, but has been struggling to type up his resignation letter. We learn that Jack has been working in Tehran for a year and a half, and he hates it there. His mission now, as the US prepares to pull out of its obligations to and support of the Shah, is to help extract an Iranian General who has been supplying them with information. He has the General dress as a police captain, while he is dressed as a typical student, and the plan is to get him to his flight out of the city. They take a cab, making it look like the General, who he is calling Fred, has arrested him. He decides to stop so they can both watch a film though, Deep Throat, and the woman who sells them their tickets notices that they are handcuffed together and makes a phone call. While watching the movie, Jack falls asleep, and dreams about his past, helping to fill in his story. We see the explosion when his brother Harry almost killed him, and then learn that in the hospital, he was left with no memory of who he was, and a badly disfigured face. The Japanese (who are coloured a bright yellow!) attacked the hospital and captured many of the patients there, who they marched to a camp. The Soldier woke up in a hospital where a Japanese doctor injected him with an experimental serum that gave him, and only him, abilities of cellular regeneration which led to him being stronger and having more acute senses than the average man. The Doctor called him Fred, and they became friends (the Doctor was forced to do this work by the Japanese, and had previously lived in the US). When American soldiers liberated the camp, they thought Fred/Jack was Japanese (he was still covered in bandages) and shot him after killing the Doctor. Jack wakes up in the theatre, finding himself and “Fred” surrounded by armed students. They start to lead “Fred” out, threatening to kill him, when a group of Savak agents, Iranian secret police, arrive and there is a firefight. Jack, who can’t find the handcuff keys, leads “Fred” to the roof. He figures that, since they are late to meet their rendez-vous, he should carry “Fred”, but the General objects, drawing the attention of more Savak agents. They fire on them from street level, and Jack has to carry “Fred” across some electrical wires to get away. Saigon waits in a helicopter, and it’s never quite clear why Jack is down to seconds to reach him, but as he rushes the last stretch to the chopper, with two cars full of Savak agents pursuing, he is worried to see a woman pushing a stroller in the path of the cars. The woman and her child are killed, causing Jack to hesitate before he sprints to the copter and Saigon lifts off. Saigon has the cuff keys, and when “Fred” starts complaining, Jack pulls a gun on him, threatening to kill him. Later that day, Jack is back to being a white-skinned redhead, and he finally finishes writing his resignation letter.
- Issue three is set in Afghanistan in 1982, during the Soviet invasion. We see some Mujahidin fighters shoot down a Soviet jet, and also see some Soviet soldiers harass a man on a donkey, searching his belongings for weapons. It turns out that man is Jack (he’s still going by that name), who now looks Afghani. After the soldiers leave, he approaches a cave where the local Mujahidin recognize him. Entering the cave, he finds Barry, a CIA agent who had hired Jack (he’s freelance now) to help train the fighters earlier. Jack has returned because Barry didn’t pay him the money he was owed for his work. When he threatens Barry, the Mujahidin raise their weapons. Barry talks about how they store and distribute food to the villagers, and how he doesn’t believe the information about Jack in his Army Intelligence file. Jack has no choice to back off, but has now realized that Barry purposefully stiffed him on his payment. When Barry calls him “the Immortal Loser” he either punches him in the gut or knees him somewhere lower, and leaves. He goes to a cache he buried before, and digs up a satellite transmitter that works off a Soviet signal. He uses it to call Saigon at his house, who confirms that the money still hasn’t been placed in his Swiss bank account. Saigon suggests Jack let this situation go, but Jack has other plans. At night, he starts to climb the mountain Barry is on, figuring that he can approach unseen from the sheerest side. He’s able to pound spikes into the rock face with his hands, but can’t move past the feeling that he’s wasting his life. When he slips and falls, he thinks about dying, but his rope holds him. It swings him into the rockface, and he gets knocked out. He has a dream wherein his bandaged self holds his amnesiac self at gunpoint, claiming he’s never going to have a real name, home, or friends. When he comes to, it’s daylight, and he continues his climb. A Soviet patrol is able to spot him, though, and calls in air support. In the cave at the top of the mountain, Barry talks to someone on a satellite phone, and sends a guard out to relieve the other one at the mouth of the cave. The guard finds that one knocked out, and is jumped by Jack. He moves around, taking out all the other guards, but one gets off a shot, alerting Barry. Barry heads out in time to see Jack taking down the last of the Mujahidin. He fires at Jack, but before they can begin to fight, a Soviet helicopter comes over the side of the mountain and starts firing at them. Jack rushes into the cave, grabbing a strongbox full of grenades. He primes one, and then tosses the very heavy box through the helicopter’s window. It explodes, and makes Barry believe in the stories about Jack. Barry is upset that he now has to move his whole operation, but Jack only cares about getting paid. He holds his gun to Barry’s face. Later, Jack is out of his disguise, and in the Hilton in Kabul. Saigon calls him to tell him that the money turned up in his account. The issue ends with Jack looking at himself in the mirror, and seeing his bandaged self reflected back.
- In Honduras, in 1986, a cargo plane has been shot down, and Barry is there looking at a body. We learn that Jack was on the plane, along with three mercenaries, making his way to Raiti, inside Nicaragua, hoping to connect with some US Senators who are there on a fact finding mission in order to determine if the US should restore its aid to the Contra fighters. Jack was trying to take a log book to them, and since Barry knew that, he had his friend Wally, a military advisor to the Contras, shoot the plane down. Barry knows that the burned body they found isn’t Jack though, and suspects that he’s disguised himself as one of the three mercenaries, Soto, Lewis, and Becker. Wally uses racial pejoratives for all three men (one is Hispanic, the second Black, and the third, Japanese, despite having a Western name). Barry explains that Jack hates him, and that’s why he’s going to be doing his best to ruin his mission. The three mercs stop to rest, and argue about how to proceed. We know from the narration that one of them is Jack, but it’s not immediately clear who. Lewis has hurt his leg, and Soto suggests they leave him behind. Eventually, they come across a small village that has been taken over by Contras. When Becker sees a Contra about to force himself on a local woman, he steps in and shoots him. Soto and Lewis take out some of the men, and we learn that Lewis will only kill if paid to. The villagers thank them for rescuing them. That night, as Barry and Wally look at their maps and plan their search, Jack uses a Contra radio to call Barry and taunt him. He stops when he hears a scream. It seems Becker is trying to force himself on the woman he saved earlier. Lewis tries to stop him, and Soto arrives suggesting they just shoot the woman. It’s at this point that it’s clear that Soto is Jack, and when the villagers come to him asking for more help, he turns them down. The next morning, Wally flies around with a Honduran helicopter pilot, looking for the three mercs. A man wants to kill Becker for sleeping with his wife or girlfriend, and Becker shoots him. The sound of the gunshot is heard in the helicopter (which seems unlikely), so Wally has the chopper swoop low over the village and shoot Becker dead. Wally heads off to get Barry, and Jack and Lewis decide it’s time to go. The suit up using Contra equipment, but before they can leave, the men of the village ask to go with them. They refuse them and head off, but the villagers start to follow them. Lewis gets angry and is about to shoot the men, but Jack shoots him first. He finally feels healed from the soldier injury he got in the plane crash, so taking only the radio with him, he climbs into the trees and starts making his way through the jungle, Tarzan style, knowing he doesn’t have much time to get the logbook to the Americans in Raiti. He slips and falls, and then notices a half dozen helicopters approaching. Barry and Wally start to napalm the village, and then, seeing the villagers in the jungle, head towards them. Jack realizes he has to save the villagers, so he calls Barry on the radio and surrenders. He’s expecting them to pick him up, but when the choppers approach, they instead start to fire on him. Later, Barry stands over Jack’s burned and injured body, and tells Wally to lock him up.
- Things start getting a lot more complicated with issue five. Jack is in a cell in El Salvador, heavily drugged, and being shown hours of footage of Libyan Colonel Muammar Qadhafi (it’s 1987). Barry is in LA, with some associates, trailing a Libyan man who has just arrived in the country. They believe he’s there doing Qadhafi’s bidding, and have codenamed him LG, for Libyan Guy. They get spotted trailing him on the freeway, and end up in a chase that also involves a police car. Barry shoots out the cop’s tire, sending them over the side of an overpass. About a week later, Roth, now a full colonel, goes to visit Saigon at home. He explains that he wants Jack to come back and work for him, on a mission that will mess up Barry’s plans, and intends to free him to make that happen. Roth believes that Barry plans to kill Qadhafi for the CIA, but Army Intelligence wants to capture him. Qadhafi is on a gunboat on the Mediterranean not that far from Tripoli, entertaining some women. Two company men on a nearby balcony, arguing over the merits of Coke and Sprite, fire a bazooka, blowing up the ship. In Nashville, Barry learns that his men killed a body double of Qadhafi’s, not the real deal. He also learns that Roth is in El Salvador. We see Saigon and Roth enter Jack’s cell, where Roth makes his pitch. Jack can tell that what’s really happening is that Roth and Barry are engaged in a turf war of sorts, but he decides to join them, and kills his cellmate who has been crying all issue. Three months later, Saigon kills Qadhafi’s security chief, and Jack takes his place, having to improvise. Qadhafi makes an appearance in Algiers, and Jack spots Barry in the crowd. When Barry returns to his hotel, he finds all of his men tied up in their underwear, and finds a note from Jack in one of their mouths. They meet at night, and Jack tries to warn Barry off. Some of Barry’s men are still tracking the Libyan Guy in the US, and one reports to him that the guy is chartering a plane. He’s spotted, and then we see that the guy has killed him. Roth calls Saigon to his office in the Algerian embassy, and Saigon is surprised to see Barry with him. Roth explains that the Libyan Guy has plans to hijack the plane he chartered, and to fly it into the United Nations Building, although part of the plan is that when Qadhafi gives a speech in Algiers that night, he will use a code word to tell the Libyan Guy to back down. We also learn that he has a hydrogen bomb in his briefcase (which says a lot about how poor a job Barry’s guys did of trailing him). Jack watches Qadhafi eat in Algiers, and is surprised to hear gunfire outside. He goes to make a call to learn what’s happening, and isn’t surprised to hear Saigon’s voice on the line. Saigon tells him that he has to keep Qadhafi alive and get him to make his speech, but as they talk, Qadhafi starts to choke and falls face first into his dinner. This means that the LG is going to continue his attack on the UN Building. As the issue ends, we see that Jack is now dressed as a white priest, and is getting on a plane, thinking about just quitting.
- Jack dreams about being attacked by American GIs while at the Japanese hospital in the Philippines. He wakes up on the airplane leaving Algiers, still dressed as a priest. He recaps last issue and thinks about a pair of soldiers on the flight, and how they aren’t likely to survive the coming war. In a flashback, we see Jack’s first meeting with Captain Roth, when he came to see him in the hospital after the American soldiers shot him, back in WWII. Jack didn’t have any memory, but didn’t like how Roth and some guys in suits were talking about him and his accelerated healing. When they kept ignoring him, Jack assaulted a doctor to get their attention, although it didn’t work. Later, Roth took him to meet Charlotte, a Black woman who helped craft masks and disguises for AI. She was blind, but was able to feel someone’s face and craft the required mask (which doesn’t make a lot of sense, as spies would not be able to always provide her with the face of the person they want to impersonate, but okay). Charlotte helped make a mask for the disfigured Jack, and commented on how he could be made to look like anyone. Later, Roth and some suits discussed how to best use Jack. He wanted Jack to pose as the “right hand” of a double agent in the French Resistance, so they could get close enough to kill him. Jack didn’t want to do the work, because he decided he didn’t care. Roth threatened to kill him if he didn’t complete the mission. Later, Jack wrapped his face in bandages and broke out of the room he was being kept in. Charlotte found him in her place, working with her masks. Charlotte had been putting on an act for Roth earlier, and was much more intelligent and aware than Jack had first assumed. She realized what type of mask Jack was making, and started to teach him how she operated. Later, Roth returned home to find that Jack, disguised as him, was hanging out with his wife. They fought, and after Jack got him on the ground and held a gun to his head, he pointed out that he’s better at impersonating people than Roth knew, and that if he was going to work for AI, he wanted to be a Captain, and to pick his own assignments. Later still, Jack posed as “Jacques” and went to see the man he was expected to kill. This guy, a fat older man in a hospital bed, ended up attacking him and escaping. Jack chased him through Paris, alerting Nazi guards. He realized that the guy he was sent to kill was like him, a spy who likely worked for AI too. He found him and the man explained that he was codenamed the Unknown Soldier, and that he knew Jack was there to replace him. He shot Jack three times in the chest, and told him that he shouldn’t let AI steal his soul the way they did his, and then he killed himself. Jack sits on the plane and thinks about how he should never go to sleep. He decides he has to do something about the UN situation and, pulling a gun from his bible, hijacks the plane.
- As the Libyan Guy keeps flying around above New York, Roth, Barry, and Saigon meet in the US embassy in Algiers, trying to figure out what to do, despite the fact that they all hate each other. They learn that a plane is returning to the Algiers airport, and figure that has to be Jack. He’s hijacked the plane, but somehow thinks that his priest disguise might make it easy for him to leave the airport. He’s recognized and chased by Algerian soldiers, who open fire on him while in a crowd. As he runs, Barry grabs him and helps him get to the helicopter that Saigon is piloting. They return to the place where Qadhafi is staying, and Jack dresses as his security man again. They search the dead man’s effects, trying to figure out what the code phrase in his speech is. Roth discovers surveillance tapes of Qadhafi practicing his speech, and they notice that there is a single phrase that is untranslatable, and that Qadhafi had trouble pronouncing. They go to the security guy Jack is impersonating (who is still alive, clearly), and try to interrogate him. Barry doesn’t have much luck, but when Jack comes in, looking like him, he talks more. They learn where the man who wrote the speech is, so they fly to Libya to get him. Jack wears his bandages for this, because the speech writer has been captured by leftists, and they need to infiltrate a castle. Jack and Barry split up as they enter through a sewer grate, and while Barry is attacked by guards, Jack manages to get to the speech writer. The writer isn’t too cooperative. Jack catches up with Barry, and they try to leave by hotwiring a vehicle. Jack says he got the information they needed, and that he shot the writer. They barely escape the castle, and to avoid a roadblock, have to drive into the sea, where Saigon picks them up in a float plane. Later, in Algiers, Jack delivers the speech while impersonating Qadhafi, and manages to deliver the codeword that calls off the attack by the terrorist in New York (although it’s never explained how his little plane held enough fuel for him to keep flying for that long, how he was able to hear the speech in the first place, or where he and the hydrogen bomb went). Later, Jack and the others sit around talking. We learn that Qadhafi didn’t die – that was a body double that Jack was with, and that the CIA is now less interested in Libya. Roth gives Barry the next job he wants him and Jack to deal with, a “puff job”, but Barry looks shocked.
- Jack and Barry are in a cabin in remote Siberia, and Barry is not happy about the fact that they’ve been sent there. Jack doesn’t mind much. A group of Soviet soldiers approach the cabin and start shooting at it, but Barry and Jack have escaped through a tunnel Jack dug. It leads them to a pair of snowmobiles they buried in snow, and they use them to escape. They are pursued by helicopter gunships, which try to napalm them, but they make it to some woods. Barry is increasingly angry about this mission. In New York, Roth meets with a KGB Colonel, and we learn that the two men have been friends for decades. Every ten years, they hold a contest where they send their best men against each other. For the last forty years, Roth has always won, but Colonel Provansk feels confident that this year his “fifth man” will kill the American agent. Jack and Barry find a lumber mill in the woods, and in it, Jack finds the Fifth Man. The thing is, he claims he doesn’t want to fight. Barry steps on a rotten step and distracts Jack, at which point the Fifth Man shoots him and runs. Jack goes after him, and catches him. Jack tells him the secret – that he’s been the agent used in each of these “missions” for forty years, but tells the kid that they don’t have to keep the game going. A little later, the Russian comes out of the lumber mill and talks to the Russian soldiers. He boards a helicopter, but after it takes off, it circles back and its crew are tossed out. It fires on the other helicopter and the lumber mill. We see that Barry is dragging the Fifth Man through the woods, and learn that Jack impersonated the Russian kid, having made a mask (and just happened to have the exact correct wig on him). Jack picks up Barry and their prisoner, and Barry helps jam any signals so they can fly their Russian copter without being detected. Saigon is on a US aircraft carrier in the Bering Sea, arguing with Commander Holland, who resents the Army telling him what to do. The carrier picks up Russian MIG jets on its radar. Jack is able to avoid the jets on their first pass, and figures the best way to stop them is to get Holland into the fight. He fires on the aircraft carrier, eliciting a response that drives off the jets. As the chopper approaches the carrier, Jack has to effect a crash landing that makes Holland even more angry. Jack insists that he needs a flight out immediately, and leaves with Saigon. A couple days later, as Roth and Provansk leave the conference they’ve been attending together, they are surprised to see Jack and the Fifth Man lounging on the hood of a car nearby. Jack tells them that their game is over with, but then the Fifth Man pulls a gun (from where?), and Jack has no choice but to shoot him in the head. Provansk pays up, and the two men walk away together.
- Issue nine opens in North Korea in 1951. Jack, then going by the name Captain Arthur Wilson, has spent months undercover with the Chinese Army in North Korea. He’s there because General MacArthur is convinced that the Chinese are going to invade the South, although Wilson has seen no proof of that. As he’s patrolling with the guys he’s infiltrated, they come across a group of American GIs. Wilson’s been expecting an extraction – there is supposed to be an attack by US troops so he can be “captured”, but this group is not large or prepared enough to make that happen. As the Chinese attack them, Wilson starts to shoot some of the young men he’s spent months with to protect the Americans. It’s not enough, and the GIs are slaughtered when more Chinese approach. The Chinese continue their patrol, but Wilson notices that a flock of sheep grazing a nearby field are avoiding something. He figures it’s an American who’s hidden himself. The shepherd finds a soldier, and the Chinese go after him. Wilson kills two of them, but is spotted and reported as a traitor. He catches up to the American, and learns from him that MacArthur has been fired, and that the American troops in the North are all operating without clear orders. Wilson points the young man East, telling him to radio Wintley Roth when he makes it to the US armor platoon stationed ten kilometres away. Wilson runs fast, trying to draw the Chinese fire. He runs through the sheep, most of which are mowed down, and then after he’s shot multiple times, is left for dead. Later, the young shepherd and his sister find the badly wounded Wilson. The sister nurses him for a few days, during which he rants in English while unconscious. When he wakes up, the woman, Tsu Na, reveals that she’s figured out he’s a disguised American. She’s even fixed his mask for him, to help him maintain his disguise. Wilson believes she might be Chinese Intelligence, or even working with Roth, and remains suspicious, but also at her mercy, as he needs more time to recover. The story jumps forward a few months, where we see some Americans in South Korea coming across an exhausted Tsu Na. She’s pregnant, and calling out Wilson’s name. Wilson is in Seoul, meeting with Roth before he is finally shipped back to the US. They argue with one another, and Roth keeps getting interrupted by his aide, who cannot seem to work their inter-office intercom. The assistant tells him that a woman has come looking for Wilson. Wilson sees that Roth is talking to her, and immediately recognizes her to be Tsu Na, and takes her presence there as confirmation that she was working with Roth all along. Because she’s sitting, he doesn’t notice that she’s pregnant. She tells Roth that the child is Wilson’s, because she took advantage of him while he was unconscious. Roth refuses to help her. As Wilson is driven away (his driver is the guy he rescued in North Korea – Randy DeLoach), he spots Tsu Na on the street, but as she yells out her love, he drives away. The story moves to the present (i.e., 1987) and we see that Jack Helfer (as he is called now) is in Rikers Island for killing the Russian soldier. He’s annoyed that Roth hasn’t gotten him free yet, and when he learns he has a visitor, he assumes it’s Roth. Instead, it’s a beautiful woman who is part-Asian; she reveals that she is his daughter.
- Jack has accompanied his daughter, Denice Wilson, to Seoul, where she wants him to see her mother. Saigon is following them, and gets jumped in the airport bathroom by a couple of guys he easily takes out. Jack goes to meet Tsu Na, who is supposedly dying, but appears fine. She’s running a very wealthy company, and lives in a massive penthouse apartment. She claims to be very angry with Jack for abandoning her. When Jack goes to see Saigon at his hotel, he discovers Barry in his room. He’s there because the Company is trying to buy up Tsu Na’s company by acquiring as much stock as they can. Tsu Na is trying to have a secret meeting with her main shareholders to fight off Barry’s efforts, so Barry had his people kidnap the swing vote shareholder. He tells Jack that she’s lured him there to help her, and he wants Jack to do nothing. He tells Jack where they’ve stashed the guy, and asks him to sit this all out. Jack wants to mess up Barry’s plans, and has had Saigon figure out where all of Barry’s men are in Seoul. He figures that a building that he has some lower-level guys guarding in a ghetto is the likely spot where he’s stashed the guy. Jack talks to a man about buying a double-decker bus, and later, after they’ve armored it some, Saigon drives the bus right up to the building while Jack, in his bandages, opens fire with a mounted machine gun. He rushes into the building and grabs the guy, getting him to the bus, which is stuck. Jack has to push it to get it going, but as they make their escape, they get cornered on a bridge that has a tank on it. The bus falls on its side, so Jack, Saigon, and the guy have no choice but to jump into the river below. Tsu Na is holding her meeting at the Olympic Sports Complex, so that’s where they go. Denice sees them, and sends Saigon into the meeting with the guy, while she pulls a gun on Jack. Barry is outside the meeting room, and he threatens the Korean guy’s family before he enters the meeting. Barry tries to justify his actions to Saigon. Denice tries to tell Jack off for how he treated her mother. Jack denies being her father, and we see her raise her gun. Tsu Na is meeting with her shareholders, where she accepts defeat. She steps out on a balcony and hears a gunshot. Saigon and Barry approach Jack, who is standing over Denice’s body. As Jack walks away, his narration tells us that ever since he got the cellular regenerative formula, he’s been sterile.
- Jack is standing in front of his childhood home holding a bazooka. He’s remembering how his father never fought in any war, and was weak, leaving Jack to look after his dying mother. He blows up the house, but it turns out it’s just a dream. Jack remembers the end of the Second World War, when Roth told him that people like them will always be involved in war. Jack remembers being in Vietnam when Saigon showed him a photo of his daughter Claudia. Now it’s 1989, and Jack is sleeping (in his clothes) at Saigon’s house. Claudia, now 19, comes to get his opinion on her dress, but Jack is not really responding to her. She goes to see Saigon in the basement, but Jack interrupts, telling him he’s not interested in hearing about the new orders they got from Roth. Barry comes to the door, and Jack tries to leave. Barry tells him he has some news for him. In Washington, we see that Roth is being confirmed as the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but an aide interrupts his hearing to tell him that Jack has quit again. Jack has bought the house he grew up in, and also a new truck and a dog. When he pulls up to the house, Barry is on the porch waiting for him. They talk about how Jack reminds Barry of all the bad things he’s had to do in his job. He also warns Jack that Roth is going to come after him, but Jack dismisses it. Back in Queen’s, Claudia gets ready for a date with a nice young white man (this worries Saigon a bit). A few hours later, as they leave the concert they went to (they are dressed like they were at a prom), some guys jump the boyfriend and start beating on him while Claudia runs. Jack is woken up by his dog, and finds a note on his door telling him to call his friend. Claudia makes it home and tells her parents what happened. Saigon is getting his gun when Jack calls; Saigon decides to not tell him anything, and then goes after the Dragons, the gang that attacked the boyfriend. Luckily, they have a clearly marked storefront clubhouse, but when Saigon knocks the door down, he’s confronted by half a dozen of Roth’s men, who gun him down. Jack goes to Saigon’s house to comfort his wife (by telling her that she’s lucky he didn’t die twenty years ago). He attends his funeral, where he has a short conversation with Roth. Roth tells him that he wants him back on his payroll, and threatens to kill anyone he ever cares about. When Jack gets back to Kansas, he finds his dog was murdered and left on the porch. Just then, the house explodes as well. Jack takes a bazooka from his truck, and uses it to blow the truck up. He decides to go after Roth.
- It’s November 1989, and Jack is in Egypt trying to put a stop to a massive drug smuggling operation being run by a former associate of his named Cortlandt. He’s there working for Roth, and manages to kill all of them. He gets picked up by Wally, who talks about how pleased he is that Jack is working for Roth again, and not upset about Wally and Barry locking him up in El Salvador. Jack finds Barry in his hotel room; Barry is surprised to see that Jack has capitulated to Roth completely. A couple of weeks later, in DC, Roth continues to scheme against Jack. Barry comes to see him, suggesting that Jack isn’t as beaten down as he thinks. Roth admits he’d rather go out at the end of Jack’s gun than to grow old and die. Jack visits Saigon’s grave, and runs into Claudia. Jack feels guilty that Saigon was killed because of him, and it doesn’t help that one of Roth’s men approaches and gives Jack a letter. On Christmas Eve, there is a big party in New York for Roth’s confirmation. He’s concerned that Jack might make a move, and has security watching things closely. Barry is also there with his civilian agents, but since Jack is so hard to spot, they don’t know what to look for. As Roth leaves the party, he speaks down to Barry, who notices that Roth doesn’t normally smoke. At Roth’s hotel, we learn that Jack has already captured the older man, leaving him tied up in his underwear, and it was Jack we saw at the party. Jack says he wants to kill Roth. Just then, Barry tries to get to his room, which is being guarded by some MPs who open fire on him, thinking he is Jack. Jack finishes taking off his Roth disguise. Barry convinces the MPs to go into Roth’s room ,and when they do, they see Roth and open fire on him, killing him. Barry yells at them, and then Jack pops up from behind a desk and starts shooting at them. He jumps out the window and takes off; we learn from his narration that he can no longer kid himself that he was a hero. The next day, Barry goes to meet Jack on a park bench, and starts talking to the wrong man. Jack, disguised as someone else, identifies himself, and tells Barry that he’s done. As he walks away, we learn from his narration that Jack didn’t have any bullets in the gun he held on Roth, and so his conscience is clear. He intends to keep fighting his own war.
I ended up enjoying this series more than I expected to. I like how Owsley used this series to explore some of the darker moments in American interference in foreign countries, while building Jack’s story. This series would have come out around the same time as the Brought To Light graphic novel, illustrated by Bill Sienkiewicz, that “revealed” the dirty dealings of the CIA, and just after the Iran-Contra hearings were all over the evening news.
Since becoming Christopher Priest, Owsley has made his career on telling non-linear, complicated stories, and this fits with that in a lot of ways. Over decades and many operations, we get to know Jack better, but more importantly, get a fuller picture of the terrible men who like to pull his strings. The covers keep declaring that “It only looks like a war story”, and that became increasingly true as the book caught up to its publication date.
I never gained much of a liking for Jack, Barry, or Roth. Saigon is probably the most sympathetic character in the book, and he doesn’t actually do all that much. Instead, what propels this story is slowly building intrigue. I do think that the ending is a little bit of a letdown though, as I’m not sure why Jack would want to keep fighting any war once he’s free of Roth and Barry.
Phil Gascoine’s art is very nice. He has a bit of a Joe Kubert vibe in a lot of places, which makes a lot of sense for this title, and he does a good job of subtly aging the supporting characters. The issues that he didn’t ink are markedly inferior to the others, but overall, this is a handsome comic.
I did have a lot of issues with the colouring in this comic though, as the people of colour in this comic often were coloured in extreme hues. I know that might be a limitation of the colouring of the day, but it really stood out and bothered me.
It’s odd that this is a “Suggested for Mature Readers” title, as there’s not a lot of potentially objectionable content, and I wonder if that phrase was put on the cover as more of a marketing ploy than an actual content warning.
In the final analysis, I much prefer the Dysart/Ponticello Vertigo take on the Unknown Soldier, but I’m glad I finally read these comics. I feel like this series is an important chapter of the development of Priest as a writer.
For my next column, I’m going to return to some characters I just wrote about, as I dive into a title that I expect to be completely mediocre, yet have some fondness for (while not being able to remember a single thing about it).
If you’d like to see the archives of all of my retro review columns, click here.
If you’d like to read any of the stories I talk about here, you can follow these links for a trade paperbacks that collects it:The Unknown Soldier (12 Issues)