Jack Kirby’s The Losers

By Jack Kirby with D. Bruce Berry and Mike Royer (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-184856-194-6

¡Perfect Christmas Present Alert! – for boys of all ages

There’s a glorious profusion of Jack Kirby material around these days and this astounding collection of his too-brief run on the DC war comic Our Fighting Forces is for far too many an unknown delight. Famed for his larger than life characters and gigantic, cosmic imaginings, the King was a decent, spiritual man from another generation, and one who had experienced human horror and bravery as an ordinary grunt during World War II. Whether in the world-weary verité of his 1950s collaborations with Joe Simon or the flamboyant bravado of his Marvel creation Sgt. Fury, his combat comics looked real: grimy, tired, battered yet indomitable.

In 1974, with his newest creations inexplicably not setting any sales records at DC, and as he tentatively considered a return to Marvel, he took over the creative chores on an established but always floundering series that had run in Our Fighting Forces since 1970.

The Losers were an elite unit of American soldiers formed by amalgamating three old war series together. Gunner and Sarge (later supplemented by the Fighting Devil Dog “Pooch”) were Pacific-based Marines; debuting in All-American Men of War #67, (March1959) and running for fifty issues in Our Fighting Forces (#45-94, May1959-August 1965), whilst Captain Johnny Cloud – Navaho Ace and native American fighter pilot – shot down his first bogie in All-American Men of War #82. He flew solo until issue #115, (1966), and the final component of the Land/Air/Sea team was filled by Captain Storm, a disabled PT Boat commander (he had a wooden leg) who had his own 18 issue title from 1964 to 1967. All three series were created by comics warlord Robert Kanigher.

The characters had all pretty much passed their sell-by dates when they teamed-up as guest-stars in a Haunted Tank tale in 1969 (G.I. Combat #138 October), but these “Losers” found a new resonance together in the relevant, disillusioned, cynical Vietnam years and their somewhat nihilistic, doom-laden group anti-hero adventures took the lead spot in Our Fighting Forces #123 (January/February 1970), written by Kanigher and illustrated by such giants as Ken Barr, Russ Heath, Sam Glanzman, John Severin and Joe Kubert.

With the tag-line “even when they win , they lose” the team saw action all over the globe, winning critical acclaim and a far-too-small, passionate following until #151 (November 1974) when Kirby was given complete control of the series. His radically different approach was highly controversial at the time but the passage of years has allowed a fairer appraisal and whilst never really in tune with the aesthetic of DC’s other war titles the King’s run was a spectacular and singularly intriguing examination of the human condition under the worst of all possible situations.

In ‘Kill Me with Wagner’ the Losers infiltrate a French village to rescue a concert pianist before the Nazis can capture her, but the hapless propaganda pawn has a tremendous advantage, as nobody knows what she looks like. As with most of this series a feeling of inevitable, onrushing Gotterdammerung permeates this tale: a sense that worlds are ending and new one’s a-coming. The action culminates in a catastrophic wave of destruction that is pure Kirby magic.

Most of DC’s war titles sported Kubert covers, but #152 featured the first in a startling sequence of hypnotic Kirby illustrations, almost abstract in delivery, to introduce the team to the no-hope proposition of ‘A Small Place in Hell!’ as they found themselves the advance guard for an Allied push, but dropped in the wrong town: one that has not been cleared… The spectacular action is augmented by a delightful two page Kirby fact feature: Sub-machine guns of WWII, and it should be noted that this collection is also peppered with un-inked Kirby pencilled pages and roughs.

Our Fighting Forces #153 is one of those stories that made the traditionalists squeak. Behind another Kirby cover, the story of ‘Devastator vs. Big Max’ veered dangerously close to science fiction, but the admittedly eccentric plan to destroy a giant German rail-mounted super-cannon wasn’t any stranger than many schemes the Boffins dreamed up to disinform the enemy during the actual conflict…

That tale, with two beautiful info-pages on military uniforms and insignia, is followed by a superb parable about personal honour. Behind another bombastic Kirby cover the team deployed to the Pacific to remove a Japanese officer who’s devotion to ‘Bushido’ had inspired superhuman resistance from his men. The means used to remove him were far from clean or creditable…

Preceded by two pages on war vehicles and a wonderful pencil cover-rough, ‘The Partisans!’ (OFF #155) took the Losers into very dark territory indeed (with two pages on artillery pieces and the pencils for the cover to that issue, before the team returned to America for ‘Good-bye Broadway… Hello Death!’ wherein the team experienced the home-front joys of New York whilst hunting for a notorious U-Boat commander who escaped the sinking of his submarine. Naturally there’s more to the story than first appears… This fast-paced thriller is complemented by a history of battle headgear and another penciled rough.

Issues #157 and 158 comprised a two-part saga about theft, black marketeering and espionage featuring the truly unique personage ‘Panama Fattie!’, whose criminal activities almost altered the course of the war; a tale concluded in the highly-charged ‘Bombing Out on the Panama Canal’ with accompanying pages on ships, subs and Nazi super-planes. Behind the last Kirby cover ‘Mile-a-Minute Jones!’ in #159, is a smaller-scaled duel between a black runner who embarrassed the Nazis at the 1936 Olympics and the Nazi ubermensch he defeated, which reignites on the battlefield with the Losers relegated to subordinate roles.

Kubert and Ernie Chan handled the three remaining covers of Kirby’s run, an indication that his attentions were diverted elsewhere, but the stories remained powerful and deeply personal explorations of combat. In ‘Ivan’ (OFF #160) the Losers go undercover as German soldiers on the Eastern Front and have an unpleasant encounter with Russian Nazi sympathizers whose appetite for atrocity surpasses anything they have ever seen before (supplemented by a two page tanks feature) whilst the hellish jungles of the Burma campaign prove an unholy backdrop for the traumatic combat shocker ‘The Major’s Dream.’

The volume and Kirby’s war work ends with a sly tribute to his 1942 co-creation the Boy Commandos (for more of which get yourself a copy of The Best of Simon and Kirby. ‘Gung-Ho!’ sees young Gunner training a band of war orphans in Marine tactics only to find fun turn to dire necessity when the Germans overrun their “safe” position. This is an optimistic, all-out action romp that ends on a note of hope and anticipation as the King made his departure. With issue #163 Kanigher resumed the story reins, with artists like Jack Lehti, Ric Estrada and George Evans illustrating, and the Losers returned to their pre-Kirby style and status, with readers hardly acknowledging the detour into another kind of war.

Jack Kirby is unique and uncompromising. If you’re not a fan or simply not prepared to see for yourself what all the fuss has been about then no words of mine will change your mind. That doesn’t alter the fact that Kirby’s work since 1939 shaped the entire American comics scene, affected the lives of billions of readers and thousands of creators in all areas of artistic endeavour around the world for generations and which is still, more than 15 years after his death, garnering new fans and apostles from the young and naive to the most cerebral of intellectuals. Jack’s work is instantly accessible, irresistibly visceral, deceptively deep whilst being simultaneously mythic and human.

These tales of purely mortal heroism are in many ways the most revealing, honest and insightful of Jack’s incredibly vast accumulated works, and even the true devotee often forgets their very existence. As Neil Gaiman’s introduction succinctly declaims, “they are classic Kirby… and even if you don’t like war comics, you may be in for a surprise…”

You really don’t want to miss that, do you?

© 2009 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

6 Replies to “Jack Kirby’s The Losers”

  1. That is true; however Mr Miracle is part of the four-volume Jack Kirby’s Fourth World. I know it’s four books to get one series, but it is possibly the best comicbook superhero sequence of all time.

    Also, about ten years ago DC did release black & white softcover trade paperbacks of the Fourth World material which WERE series-specific.

  2. Yeah, I know about the Fourth World Omnibus. Maybe I’ll give them a try in a future, but they seem a bit overwhelming..

    As for the black & white trade, I think that to remove the color from Kirby’s is to kill him. And that is Regicide.

  3. I don’t think that’s true at all. After all, Kirby didn’t do the colour, he was only interested in the black and white line work. And that works exceedingly well — with or without colour.

    The real problem with those volumes was that completely unnecessary tone sheets were added to art, which ended up making the whole thing a bit of a muddy mess.

  4. and yet his “Spirit World” and “In the Days of the Mob” were some of the most intriguing and powerful works of his entire career. I still regret that these magazine forays never found a larger following and a greater longevity.

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