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The Comics 8 Ball: Top 8 Comic Book Soldiers

May 25, 2015 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas

Top 8 Comic Book Soldiers
Welcome, one and all, to the Comics 8 Ball! I’m your host Jeremy Thomas, taking over while Anthony Kennedy is taking some time off. As always, we will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You’re free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is “wrong” is just silly. With that in mind, let’s get right in to it!

Today (or tomorrow if you’re reading this in my time zone within the first few hours of it going live) is Memorial Day in the United States. While to some that might mean little more than the start of the summer, it’s a day in which we honor those who have given their lives in service to their country. The military and its soldiers will be on most of our minds, and that brings us to this week’s topic. Comic books have had more than their share of great military men over the years, whether they came as adversaries and allies in superhero comics or the rough and ready primary heroes of their own war comics, especially in the 1940s to the 1960s. This week we’re taking a look at the greatest soldiers to find their way into our lives through the pages of comics.

Caveat: The primary caveat I was taking here was simple: I was looking at a character’s military background and how important or prominent it was to their identity and role in their comics. A character like John Stewart, for example, missed the list because while he was a veteran that was more a part of his background than any strong aspect of his depicted identity. Carol Danvers is along the same lines. The other caveat is that I was looking at soldiers and not spies, mercenaries or government agents. Characters like Black Widow, Deadpool and the like were less soldiers than warriors-for-hire, which didn’t fit the idea of a Memorial Day column to me. One final note: G.I. Joe was a toy first and then a cartoon and comic book. That was a bit much in terms of defining them as “comic book characters” so I left the Joes off the list.

Just Missing The Cut
• James “Bucky” Barnes
• James Rhodes
• Zinda Blake (Lady Blackhawk)
• The Comedian (Eddie Blake)
• The Punisher (Frank Castle)

#8: Unknown Soldier

First on our list is a classic DC-published soldier. The Unknown Soldier is a commonly-known concept from history, often represented in countries as a tomb to commemorate all of the soldiers killed in a war. It’s a piece of wartime iconography across the world, and one that Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert drew inspiration from when coming up with the character for DC in 1966. The Unknown Soldier, appropriately enough, has no name although some have suggested he may be Eddie Ray from 1970’s Star Spangled War Stories #153. Kanigher and Kubert tried to make the character as much a representation of the nameless soldiers that have fought America’s wars as the Arlington tomb for which he’s named. In the comic book case he actually had a story though, being a US special ops solder whose face was severely disfigured to the point that no one can identify him. The Soldier conducted several missions over the course of World War II, with his tale seemingly coming to an end shortly after he assassinated Hitler and Eva Braun in their bunker, impersonated the Fuhrer and called off the deployment of a Nazi superweapon. He later appeared in two limited series in the 1980s and 1990s, brought into the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths-era continuity. The Unknown Soldier was a bridge between the World War II heroes who were actually created during the time of the war and later, less blatantly patriotic versions. The ’60s were a time when comic books were not delving directly into war characters because of Vietnam, leaving characters like the Unknown Soldier to provide a bridge for that era.

#7: Sam Lane
While many of the characters on this list are the primary heroes of their stories, some of the supporting cast members have been exceptional soldiers in their own right. A good example of that is Lois Lane’s father Sam. While Sam was originally created as horse farmer, the post-Crisis continuity turned him into a hardline US Army General who’s relationship with Lois was strained. Sam Lane provided a foil to Superman both in and out of costume, being skeptical of Kal-El’s refusal to get his hands dirty with the necessity of war and unimpressed by Clark’s famous mild-mannered demeanor. While that ostensibly made him an antagonist — a problem exacerbated when he became Lex Luther’s Secretary of Defense — he remained one of the better-written supporting characters in Superman. We may disagree with the issues he has with Superman and Clark, but the power of his convictions makes him compelling, even when he loses a bit of sympathy for using his other daughter Lucy in his crusade against Kryptonians or when he kills himself rather than be turned over to an international court. We may not like him as a person, but that’s in part what makes him a good character.

#6: Steve Trevor
Steve Trevor didn’t have the best start as a character, at least in terms of being taken seriously. When William Marston and H.G. Peter created the US Army officer, he was intended to be their way to flip the idea of a damsel in distress by making Wonder Woman’s “damsel” a man and a military officer to boot. This led to Steve ending up in all sorts of situations where he looked foolish, but it worked for that era. After Marston’s passing Steve turned into a bit of an ass, as new Robert Kanigher undid a lot of Diana’s strength as a character. It wasn’t until (again) the post-Crisis era that Steve started to come into his own. The new Steve was a retired four-star General and older than the Amazon, negating any romantic aspects. Instead he became a close friend and ally of Diana with his own filial ties to the Amazonian island of Themyscira. Steve Trevor was in many ways the flip-side of Sam Lane; a military mind who was supportive of his primary superheroic counterpart and it made for just as interesting a read as Lane did an adversary.

#5: Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross

Heading over to the Marvel side of the military antagonists, General Thunderbolt Ross carries several similar aspects to Sam Lane…not the least of which is a daughter with a romantic attachment to their enemy. On the other hand, Ross is a much more sympathetic villain because while he is undoubtedly an antagonist for the Hulk, you can understand why much easier. Superman is an unknown quantity, to be sure, but he’s demonstrated his benevolence many times. The Hulk is a walking threat of nuclear proportions and it makes sense that a guy like Ross would oppose him. Now certainly, Thunderbolt goes too far in his vendetta on many occasions. That’s the danger of obsession, and the shades of grey that this obsession gives him makes for some interesting moral debates. It’s hard to argue that he’s not justified for going after Hulk in the World War Hulk storyline, after all. Eventually Ross becomes part of a new super-soldier program to battle the Hulk and becomes a Hulk himself in Red Hulk. Ross is the most interesting and iconic military adversary in comic books to date and his run both before and after becoming Red made him a fantastic character.

#4: Edward Marks

Coming in at #4 is a character who started out a one outside of Marvel’s continuity. The ‘Nam is a comic that has faded from view in later years, but Marvel fans of the mid-1980s may remember it as fondly as I do. Created by the legendary Larry Hama and Doug Murray, the series shouldn’t have succeeded. It was created in an era when comic books were under the strict authority of the CCA and any idea behind a Vietnam War-set comic just didn’t seem like a good idea in that period. In addition, comic books had a bad history with that conflict, often portraying the Vietnamese in a highly racist light. Hama and Murray relied on their experiences as veterans of the war to tell a story that in no way could be considered a “funny book.” This was a harsh, unrelenting tale about what it meant to be a soldier in Vietnam, told through the eyes of PFC Edward Marks. The ‘Nam was a comic that changed the way many readers in that era thought of the medium; it was now an era where serious tales really could be told and PFC Marks was our gateway into this more serious world. Thoughtfully told and heartbreaking at times, Marks’ run through the comic series made for one of the best-told and nuanced portrayals of a soldier at war that the medium has ever seen.

#3: Captain America

Some people are probably raising an eyebrow that Cap is not #1. After all, he is THE Super-Soldier, the beacon of America and all the rest of that. And I don’t disagree. Cap is, in many ways, the definitive soldier and has been so throughout most of his history. The only reason that he doesn’t come in at the top spot is that his identity is split between “soldier” and “superhero,” and for much of his history he’s been the latter more than the former. That being said, there is no way that you can’t put Steve Rogers near the top of the greatest comic book soldiers. Here’s a guy who is so patriotic that he tried to fight despite his body betraying him, and his moral code is so strong that he was the perfect candidate for the Super-Soldier program. Cap has gone a bit rogue from time to time, but always because of that unflinching set of ideals. He is the shining beacon of the Marvel Universe and even when he went full-superhero upon his 1964 revival, he never lost that military mindset. He’s the gold standard when it comes to Marvel’s list of upright soldiers.

#2: Sgt. Rock

While Sgt. Rock is no superhero, he makes up for it by being ten times the hero than most of the current crop of heroes could hope to be. The classic DC Comics character is very much the quintessential soldier and was created by Kanigher (again) and Kubert (yep, again) to be exactly that. Franklin John Rock was another example of a soldier from that post-war era of World War II stories that the Unknown Soldier came from, although he was treated better by his writers and had a longer shelf life. Rock was everything that you could possibly want in a military man: he was deadly, secure in his mission and absolutely iconic. His grounding in the war was so strong that when DC tried to take the character forward into the post-Crisis era and have him interact with superheroes, Kanigher declared that “As far as I’m concerned Rock is the only authentic World War II Soldier. For obvious reasons. He and Easy Company live only, and will eventually die, to the last man, in World War II.” And that seems to be the right call for him as DC’s greatest soldier to date.

#1: Nick Fury

Sure, these days Nick Fury is a Samuel L. Jackson-looking guy who heads up or works for S.H.I.E.L.D., depending on when and where you’re reading. But the original Nick Fury, as we all know, was a Sergeant in the Howling Commandos in World War II. He was the epitome of a special ops NCO and like Captain America, Sgt. Rock, the Unknown Soldier and others he took the fight right to Hitler. Nick Fury was one of the toughest military men ever created and what’s more, unlike many other characters of war comics he was able to smoothly cross over from those styles of books to the superhero books without needing to put up a pair of tights or gain much in the way of superpowers. (Yes, he got the Infinity formula but that just makes him not die of old age.) Nick Fury is the ultimate soldier and even when transitioned into the ultimate spy, you never stopped thinking of him as that Sergeant from the old days, whether you read those earlier comics at some point or just knew about them. He is the most popular old soldier-type character and the truest military man I can think of within the medium.


And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don’t forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411wrestling.com! JT out.