01 September, 2014
Things Not Worth Knowing
A review of Unknown Soldier (1997).
To him, the BBC is offensive enough, but Al Jazeera is a news company that is most definitely in the hands of Islamo-fascists (or "Islamo-Nazis," depending on the mood he is in and the beer he is on). The rest of the burger was eaten in an uncomfortable, one-sided silence as I wondered if he knew where Qatar was.
Nevermind that we were actually watching NHK.
But, as I began to think about, I realized that he had hit on something. Watching a piece of media that you think hates you can really put you off. But it really puts you off when the story isn't any good. By staring into Unknown Soldier, I finally understood my dad's madness. To engage with something and the overriding thought that you have is "I think this book hates me" is a bit distracting.
The story begins with a fine hook: Agent Clyde, an All-American, Boy Scout-type finds a list of mysterious names on his computer. The names all have one thing in common: A covert agent code named "Unknown Soldier," a man who does not, and should not exist. It's at that point that his whole world turns into a carnival of violence that only becomes more bloody and terrible as he gets closer to this legendary secret agent.
It's a story full of tropes, characters, and ideas that Ennis revisits time and time again-- especially in the exceptional Fury: My War Gone By. The difference is that with decades of experience under his belt, My War Gone By, is a story that manages to move quickly through conflicts and through time without ever sacrificing its themes. It's a story that doesn't get lost in its size. With Unknown Soldier, as soon as the premise is laid out, the story takes a nose dive. The last issue closer resembles wreckage than an actual, working story.
The problem is that the book never gets properly started. Clyde is a boring character. Which is fine. Superman is a "boring" character. James Bond is a "boring" character. The problem is that Clyde is a boring character that exists in a boring world. You neither like him nor do you want to follow him into interesting scenarios. It's pointless on both counts.
It is further frustrating (and a bit of a consolation) in that Ennis has written about the same subjects Unknown Soldier concerns it with, but he's done it better. Again, My War Gone By, stars a straight-laced true believer in the American way (and so does Graham Greene's The Quiet American. His CIA agent Pyle is basically the prototype for that archetype). In those cases, the "boring" character works because they're either in a world that is interesting or they exist as a counter-point to warfare's more cynical characters. This book has neither of those things.
When Clyde is confronts the actual Unknown Soldier he's less a character than an emotion with two legs.. He doesn't argue for some kind of sanity. He sits there and takes it and then rants for an entire issue, I guess, the story ends. And it's all wrapped up in this half-baked idea that he fights for America because it's "always right," whatever the hell that means. It's odd, because Ennis has written scenes where a scumbag argues with an idealist before. He has also written tightly plotted and compelling stories, but I guess nobody is perfect.
It makes me pine for better espionage books like Greg Rucka's Queen and Country or better thrillers like Who is Jake Ellis? and Velvet. Hell, it even makes me pine for lesser Ennis war books like the prurient Fury MAX or the nihilistic 303. Or even Dancer.
(But, hey, at least it isn't The Programme.)
Then there is Kilian Plunkett's art. Man. I hate to hammer on this book, any more than I already am, but Plunkett's art in this book is some of the murkiest, low quality work that I've seen in a book in a long while (at least since The Programme).
But the shame of it is that I mean, is that the actual scans and the printing quality is atrocious. The actual line work from Plunkett seems to be fine and so are his layouts, but it's completely compromised by the piss poor workmanship of whoever slapped this book together (or, possibly, whoever assembled it back in 1997). If DC was capable of shame they should find some time to be embarrassed about shabbiness of this book. If a comic is going to suck, at least let it suck as it was intended to.
Again, it's a point of both exasperation and consolation that there are much better espionage books than this poor mini-series. In fact, a better contemporary Unknown Soldier story is the run Joshua Dysart and his crack time of artists created back in 2008*.
The 2008 Vertigo run of Unknown Soldier is a book that, like the 1997 mini-series, has a sense of outrage. It's brutal, it's violent, yet, the difference with Dysart's story is that he doesn't get lost in the anger and the spectacle. Instead of it being driven solely by some poorly thought out emotion, it delivers a story full of action and intrigue. It's also one of a rare few books that I would call "important" without meaning it as an insult. It's a book that has something to say.
And if I could speak as a fan for the moment, my distaste for this book partially comes from the fact that Garth Ennis, of all people, has misread the character of the Unknown Soldier. He's turned him into the cynical, fist of American exceptionalism. It's a concept that doesn't develop into anything.
I might just be a drunk, barely employed loser, but I know the Unknown Soldier and this isn't him. Reading this book is like seeing Sgt. Rock burn a Vietnamese hooch or, I don't know, Superman snap a guy's neck. If you're going to break from tradition, it isn't enough that it's edgy, there has to be a reason. There has to be some kind of a heart. Unknown Soldier has none. Beyond the anger, beyond the pointless violence, it is this lack of meaning that makes Unknown Soldier so offensively ugly.
Or maybe he didn't misread it. Maybe it was all on purpose. And maybe I don't care.
What are we left with? Read a better book, first of all. If you want to read a spy story or a war story, go read Ennis' War Stories or Battlefields first. Then read Fury: My War Gone By. Then read Punisher Max. Then, if you have time, read Fury: Peacemaker. Or maybe even Adventures in the Rifle Brigade or even. . . anyways. . .
The other thing that we're left with is that as much as it seems that Unknown Soldier was written by an angry poli-sci major with an axe to grind, that is not the real reason you should hate this book. There are plenty of stories where I disagree with the politics, but I enjoy them anyways. A good story should transcend our petty political biases. It should give you something to think about or maybe teach you something. This book doesn't do any of that.
Saying that the Unknown Soldier is anti-American isn't strictly true. It just feels like it is. The reality is much more mundane and depressing. This isn't a book that has a point of view, anti or pro or otherwise. The reason that I hate this book is because it commits the most unforgivable sin of all: It's boring.
James Kislingbury is a writer, podcaster, and a war comics snob. You can follow him on twitter.
*Here's an interesting piece on the Unknown Soldier and Dysart's run with the character.