Since the earliest days of comics, the medium has been used to tell war stories of all stripes. There have been a wealth of traditional stories (usually by guys like Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert) and tons of more far out and high concept adventures featuring military characters.
Readers have seen super-soldiers, robot soldiers, monster soldiers, dinosaur-fighting soldiers, the list goes on and on. Some of these soldiers were destine to become legends of their countries, while others were nothing more than thugs in fatigues. Without further delay, here are some of the best and worst (or maybe flawed is a kinder term) soldiers that readers have been introduced to over the years.
10 WORST: John Kowalski
The entire premise of John Kowalski’s adventures in War Is Hell is predicated on him being a coward. He was a Polish-America former U.S. Marine who had been court-martialed for treason and had his citizenship revoked. Deported to Poland, he refused to help contact the American Government on behalf of an Anti-Nazi underground resistance cell who had learned of Hitler’s plan to invade the country.
When the invasion of Poland begins soon after, the mortally wounded leader of the resistance curses Kowalski with his last breath. After Kowalski dies moments later, the female personification of Death makes him her human agent on earth. Kowalski is tasked with inhabiting the bodies of people recently killed in battle and trying to help others escape a similar fate. He may have been a coward, but at least he’s working on redemption.
9 BEST: Enemy Ace
The Hammer of Hell, Baron Hans Von Hammer was the greatest flying ace of the First World War in the DC Universe. Brutally efficient, Hammer managed to survive the Great War but found himself deeply disturbed by the unrelenting bloodshed he witnessed and partook in.
He would return to service during the Second World War, flying with the Luftwaffe over the Eastern Front. However, after making an emergency parachute drop into a concentration camp, he is horrified to discover the Nazi’s perpetration of the Holocaust. He leads his squadron in a mutiny at their airbase and together, they willingly surrender to advancing Allied troops.
8 WORST: Combat Kelly & His Deadly Dozen
The ’70s series Combat Kelly & The Deadly Dozen was Marvel’s riff on the popular The Dirty Dozen. The basic setup is the same: a hardboiled soldier (Corporal Kelly) is ordered to take a squad of twelve military prisoners (the Deadly Dozen) on dangerous missions so that they can work off their sentences.
The Deadly Dozen was a pretty rough group, and the series often depicted members of the squad shooting unarmed combatants and committing war crimes for fun. Occasionally, members of the Howling Commandos would guest star and register different levels of indignation at the Dozen’s actions. In the series’ finale, Kelly’s entire team is virtually wiped out in a final suicide mission.
7 BEST: General Joseph Colton
Marvel’s G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero series may have been created to help further the sales of Hasbro’s popular toy line, but talented writers like Larry Hama and Archie Goodwin helped flesh out the background and characters. One of the characters developed during this run was General Joseph Colton, the original G.I. Joe.
Colton was a West Point graduate and former Green Beret, tasked by President Kennedy to recruit and oversee the ultimate fighting force. Leading the G.I. Joe Team for a number of years, Colton eventually retired from active service to take on a secret position in the Pentagon.
6 WORST: General Wade Eiling
One of DC’s go-to’s whenever they need a military heavy, General Wade Eiling is proven to be an enduring enough threat that he’s been depicted across a wide range of mediums. Originally introduced to readers as the military figure who blackmails Captain Nate Adams into participating in the experiment that turns him into Captain Atom, he’s since popped up to engage in various war crimes and shady operations across the DC Universe.
His dubious record includes the formation of the superpowered Ultramarines and the memorable incident where he transferred his brain into the shaved body of the Shaggy Man. To say he’s a disgrace to the uniform is an understatement.
5 BEST: Martha Washington
Frank Miller’s Give Me Liberty starred Martha Washington, a computer programmer turned soldier. She’s also a resident of the Cabrini-Green housing project in Chicago who, after a series of hardships, joins the PAX Peace Force and serves in the Second American Civil War.
Her exploits include saving a rainforest from a warmongering burger franchise, battling extraterrestrials, sociopathic AI, and the crazed Surgeon General. She becomes one of the futuristic United States’ greatest heroes and an inspiration for millions of others.
4 WORST: The Golden Age Private Steve Rogers
Captain America may be one of the greatest Marvel heroes and played a crucial part in different important events in the Second World War, but readers often forget a major part of his origin. In Cap’s original Golden Age adventures (and flashback adventures in Tales of Suspense) he had a cover to hide his secret identity from all but the highest military officials.
As the bumbling Pvt. Steve Rogers, a Gomer Pyle-esque GI, Cap went through basic training at Camp Lehigh under the watch of the perpetually exasperated Sgt. Duffy. Cap made sure to look as incompetent as possible, so no one would suspect he was secretly the Star-Spangled Avenger.
3 BEST: Sgt. Rock
Sergeant Frank Rock, leader of Easy Company, is one of the most iconic characters in war comics. From his first appearance in Our Army At War #83 in 1959, he appeared in a new story every month until 1988. Rock hailed from the city of Pittsburgh and worked in the steel mills before enlisting in the U.S. army.
His fate following the end of the Second World War varies depending on whoever is telling the story. While an older version appeared in post-war stories as early as the ’70s , his co-creator Robert Kanigher maintained that Frank Rock was killed on the last day of the WWII European Theater, by the last bullet fired in the conflict.
2 WORST: The Unknown Soldier
The Unknown Soldier is a great concept partly undone by some very inconvenient weaknesses. He was an intelligence operative active during the Second World War, who was so disfigured that his face was covered at all times by bandages. This led him to become a master of disguise, utilizing a series of incredibly lifelike latex masks to help him accomplish his missions.
The problem is that his face’s scar tissue is especially sensitive to the latex from his disguises, meaning that on multiple occasions he must force himself to not scratch at it and give away his cover. Another issue he has when maintaining his various disguises is controlling his anger, which he finds hard to do when faced with the brutal atrocities committed during the war. Because of this, his missions often start out well enough before devolving into mindless slaughter.
1 BEST: The Original Sgt. Fury
Nick Fury holds a rare distinction of having fought in three major wars and countless smaller more covert ones throughout his career. Before WWII, Fury fought in the Spanish Civil War as part of the International Brigades. He later trained British commandos before the United States entered the war in 1941. Alongside his Howling Commandos, Fury played an active combat role in both the European and Pacific theaters of the war.
After the war ended in 1945, he became an agent of the CIA during the organization’s fledgling years before being recruited as the Director of SHIELD. Everyone knows the rest of the story! During his 70 year career, Fury never got older (Original Sin aside) as he only got tougher.
Soldiers are common characters in comics but who were the best and worst the army had to offer?