Like many real Americans in the early years of the Cold War, comic book defenders of decency who hoped to survive the harsh winter of McCarthyism often had to protect themselves by loudly praising “Democracy” and denouncing its ideological enemy on the other side of the Iron Curtain. It was during this time that Captain America returned to comics after a four-year hiatus. Proudly replacing his WW II “Sentinel of Liberty” sobriquet with “Commie Smasher,” Captain America embarked on a mission to recapture the hearts and minds of our nation’s youth. And he was not alone. Literally draped in the flag and fervently believing in their country’s moral infallibility, a long procession of American superheroes have served throughout the intervening years as mindless, musclebound cheerleaders for our country’s kinder, gentler brand of nationalism.
An encouraging sign that comic book readers no longer relate to this super-patriot ideal was the stunning success of the surprise hit, Unknown Soldier (demand was so great for the first issue of the original four part mini series that a second printing had to be run off). The unlikely hero of this story is troubled CIA agent, William Clyde. Reprimanded by his superiors for refusing to “sanction” a couple of ten year old witnesses to his latest assassination assignment in Central America, Agent Clyde is given a meaningless desk job as repayment for his insubordination. Soon he finds himself following a trail of cryptic clues and dead men that eventually leads him to the book’s title character: a ruthless Cold Warrior who is able to assume any identity, while his own battle-ruined face remains permanently hidden beneath bandages. The Pentagon’s ultimate undercover operative, after visiting Dachau during its liberation at the end of WWII, the Unknown Soldier became convinced that any act of violence performed in his relentless mission to protect national security was justified by the even more heinous atrocities committed by other nations. Casting him as the fictitious behind-the-scenes player responsible for such factual U.S. covert operations as the Shah of Iran’s coup, the Bay of Pigs Invasion, and the secret wars in Cambodia and Nicaragua, author Garth Ennis shows just how far, and low, Machiavellian “morality” can lead us.
While the subversive politics of this story were right up my alley, it is characterization that makes this story so gripping. The innocence, loyalty, and determination of Agent Clyde, perhaps the last “good guy” in the CIA, make this much more than just another spy adventure or political diatribe.