Jack Kirby’s The Losers

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

There’s a glorious profusion of Jack Kirby material around these days but much of the best and rarest stuff is still – unforgivably – somehow hard to access. This astounding collection of his too-brief run on DC war comic Our Fighting Forces is, for far too many, an unknown delight. You can still find it in the original 2009 hardback edition, but as far as I know, there’s neither digital or even an English-language trade paperback edition to satisfy the desires of fans lacking an infinite bank balance…

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, Kirby’ combat comics always looked and felt real: grimy, tired, battered yet indomitable.

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

The Losers were an elite unit of American warriors cobbled together by amalgamating three pre-existing war series that had reached the end of their solo star roads. Gunner and Sarge (supplemented by “the Fighting Devil Dog” Pooch) were Pacific-based Marines; debuting in All-American Men of War #67, (March 1959) and running for 50 issues in Our Fighting Forces (#45-94, May 1959 to 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 (December 1960). He flew solo until issue #115 (1966).

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 beyond) when their somewhat nihilistic, doom-laden anti-hero group adventures took the lead spot in Our Fighting Forces #123 (January/February 1970). Once again written primarily by Kanigher, the episodes were graced with art from such giants as Ken Barr, Russ Heath, Sam Glanzman, John Severin, Ross Andru and Joe Kubert.

With the tagline “even when they win, they lose” the team saw action all over the globe, winning critical acclaim and a far-too-small, passionate following. In an inexplicable dose of company politics, the discontented Kirby was abruptly given complete control of the series with #151 (November 1974).

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-books, the King’s run was a spectacular and singularly intriguing examination of the human condition under the worst of all possible situations.

The combat frenzy kicks off in ‘Kill Me with Wagner’ as the Losers infiltrate a French village to rescue a concert pianist before the Nazis can capture her. The hapless propaganda pawn has one tremendous advantage… nobody knows what she looks like.

As with most of this series, a feeling of inevitable, onrushing Gotterdammerung permeates the 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 find themselves the advance guard for an Allied push, but dropped in the wrong town: one that has not been cleared…

The spectacular action here is augmented by a potent 2-page Kirby fact feature: Sub-machine guns of WWII, and it should be noted and commended 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 traditionalists squeak. Behind another Kirby cover, the story of ‘Devastator vs. Big Max’ veers dangerously close to science fiction, but the admittedly eccentric plan to destroy a giant German rail-mounted super-cannon isn’t any stranger than many schemes actual Boffins dreamed up to disinform the enemy during the actual conflict, actually…

That yarn – with two beautiful info-pages on military uniforms and insignia – is followed by a superb parable about personal honour. A bombastic Kirby cover segues into the team’s deployment to the Pacific to remove a Japanese officer whose devotion to ‘Bushido’ has inspired superhuman loyalty and resistance to surrender among his men. The means used to remove him are far from clean or creditable…

Bracketed by 2 pages on war vehicles plus a wonderful pencil cover-rough, and two more on artillery pieces and the pencils for the cover to that issue, ‘The Partisans!’ (OFF #155) takes the Losers into very dark territory indeed, before the team return to America for ‘Good-bye Broadway… Hello Death!’, wherein the lads experience the home-front joys of New York whilst hunting for a notorious U-Boat commander. Naturally there’s more to the story than first appears…

This fast-paced thriller is complemented by a history of battle headgear and another pencilled rough. Issues #157 and 158 comprise a 2-part saga concerning theft, black marketeering and espionage featuring truly unique personage ‘Panama Fattie!’ Her criminal activities almost alter the course of the war; and conclude 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 (#159), ‘Mile-a-Minute Jones!’ details a smaller-scaled duel between a black runner who embarrassed the Nazis at the 1936 Olympics and the Nazi ubermensch he defeated, reigniting on the battlefield with the Losers relegated to subordinate roles.

Kubert and Ernie Chan handled the three remaining covers of this run, an indication that Kirby’s attentions were being diverted elsewhere, but the stories remain powerful and deeply personal explorations of combat. In ‘Ivan’ (OFF #160) the Losers go undercover, impersonating 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 2-page tanks feature) whilst the hellish jungles of the Burma campaign prove an unholy backdrop for traumatic combat shocker ‘The Major’s Dream.’

The volume and Kirby’s DC war work ends with a sly tribute to his 1942 co-creation the Boy Commandos. ‘Gung-Ho!’sees young Gunner training a band of war orphans in Marine tactics only to find fun turn to dire necessity when Germans overrun their “safe” position. This is an optimistic, all-out action romp ending on a note of hope and anticipation, even as the King made his departure for pastures not-so-new. From 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 his work from 1939 onwards 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 still garners new fans and apostles from the young and naive to the most cerebral of intellectuals. Jack’s work is instantly accessible, irresistibly visceral and 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.