KC’s Bookshelf: DC’s Jack Kirby’s The Losers

Losers by Jack Kirby

Losers by Jack Kirby

review by KC Carlson

Part of DC Comics’ ongoing efforts to reprint Jack Kirby’s best works for the company, Jack Kirby’s The Losers collects The King’s run from DC’s classic war comics title Our Fighting Forces #151-162. Kirby initially balked at the project, which was originally published in 1974-75, following the cancellation of most of his Fourth World titles, but he ended up producing an extremely memorable set of stories, largely based on his own experiences in World War II.

These were the original Losers, long before the Vertigo series based on modern-day special forces soldiers who battle the CIA after they are betrayed by the Agency and left for dead (and soon to be a major motion picture!). These Losers were a ragtag combo of some of DC’s second-banana war characters whose features had all been canceled. Cap’n Storm was a P.T. Boat skipper with a wooden leg who had his own 18-issue comic book named Captain Storm (1964-1967). (And no, I don’t know the name of his other leg, nor the comic book it appeared in.) Air Force Captain Johnny Cloud was a Navajo pilot who regularly appeared in All-American Men of War #82-115 (1960-1966). Gunner (Mackey) and Sarge (Clay) (occasionally with their dog, Pooch) were Marines who first appeared in All-American Men of War #67 (1959) before moving to Our Fighting Forces #45-94 (1959-1965).

They first appeared together (along with Fighting Devil-Dog Lt. Larry Rock) in an issue of Captain Storm #13 (1966), but the first official teamup of the Losers takes place in the Haunted Tank story in G.I. Combat #138 (1968) titled The Losers. It was explained that the four war heroes were assembled as a Special Forces group, but the men didn’t feel like heroes, as they had all lost personnel under their command for which they felt responsible. Thus, they called themselves “Losers”.

The Losers series first appeared in Our Fighting Forces #123 in 1970 and continued in that title until 1978’s issue #181. The Losers are probably most famous for how they died, which has been depicted in three distinctly different ways: They were originally killed by the Monitor’s shadow demons in Crisis on Infinite Earths #3 (1985). Later that year, in the Crisis tie-in The Losers Special, they were depicted as dying in action in a battle in 1945 while destroying a German missile site. This seeming contradiction was later explained away; the Special was said to have shown the characters’ demise once the events of the Crisis rearranged the DC Universe. In 2004, the Losers died again – this time in the opening pages of Darwyn Cooke’s incredible DC: The New Frontier. In this officially out-of-continuity story, their pivotal and dramatic death on Dinosaur Island becomes the inciting incident for the entire New Frontier story. (This was done so well that I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that this should be the “official” version, as heroes who inadvertently went to their deaths after encountering a major threat to the planet and everyone on it.)

But what of Jack Kirby and the Losers? Prior to Kirby’s arrival, the series was written by Robert Kanigher, whose downbeat approach (over-) emphasized their bad luck. Kanigher’s Losers title was firmly in the mold of “war is hell”, the same aspect he was bringing to his other war series of the time (most notably Sgt. Rock). The feature was drawn by a number of different artists, including Ken Barr, Ross Andru and Mike Esposito, and John Severin, who all tended toward more human-level work (as opposed to all-out action artistry). Severin’s run, which he mostly inked himself, is remarkably beautiful.

So when Jack Kirby arrived to take over the series in 1974, many fans were shocked and upset, as Kirby’s stories were nothing but action, with his dynamic artwork to match. While not exactly pro-war – The Losers were still depicted as being battle-weary, and frequently injured – the stories and art were much more adventure-oriented and gung-ho than anything Kanigher was currently writing. But in the overall history of the strip and its legacy, Kirby’s run trumps all. It is the only run of the series that has been reprinted and collected, due to Kirby’s fame, even though the characters are largely forgotten, except to hardcore DC war fans and to those who loved every page of Cooke’s DC: The New Frontier, where he gives them a hero’s memorial.

Our Fighting Forces #153

Our Fighting Forces #153

As called out by Neil Gaiman (who credits the initial observation to Cooke) in his introduction to this collection, The Devastator vs. Big Max (from OFF #153) is so brimming with Kirby “Big Ideas”, even the sound effects become supporting characters in the story. It’s almost like a Godzilla vs. King Kong battle in scope, impact, and imagination – except the fight is being waged by two ginormous war machines (think Big Wheel, not Rhodey), one of which has been invented and operated by a young science-fiction fan with the unlikely, but typically Kirby, name of Rodney Rumpkin. Gaiman sagely points out that Rumpkin actually is “PFC Kirby, imagining a future where things could be different, because he was all of us.”

The Kirby stories are filled with heinous German war villains and almost as many quirky characters as Simon & Kirby’s Fighting American. Panama Fattie is a grotesque war opportunist who seems destined for a cruel death, but she is actually redeemed in a fleeting human connection with Cap’n Storm, who defends her against his own teammates. Yamashita is a Bushido with a personal code that could mean life or death – or both. Mile-a-Minute Jones is an Olympic runner turned soldier who finds himself in a different race when one of his previous opponents turns out to be a German soldier. Helmut Steger is a man so obsessed that he attempts to attack NYC’s Theater District from a hidden submarine in the Hudson River while the Losers are on furlough back home. The story A Small Place in Hell! reads like a scene out of Saving Private Ryan, when the Losers become trapped in the wrong small French town – occupied by the Germans – and must fight their way back out.

Probably the best story here is The Partisans, which spotlights Sarge in his crazed efforts to save the injured Gunner with the assistance of a strange man in a fur hat (of whom I cannot say more). This story is a flurry of unrelenting devastation as Kirby proves Sarge to be an indestructible soldier. He’s blown up so many times in the course of these 18 pages that his battered face is completely unrecognizable by the end of the story.

Jack Kirby’s The Losers is a 256-page hardcover collecting Kirby’s entire run of the strip. It’s reprinted on the newsprint-like paper (but whiter and slightly thicker) that DC’s been using more of lately. I normally don’t like it, but it is really effective here, as Kirby’s one of those rare artists whose art just doesn’t look right on glossy stock. All of the original covers (even the non-Kirby ones) are also included (as full-size pages) as well as many reproductions of Kirby’s pencils for selected covers or splash pages, courtesy of John Morrow’s Jack Kirby Collector magazine. Other than Gaiman’s introduction, there are no additional text features. And don’t forget to slip off the book’s dustjacket for some cool hidden Kirby artwork.

Other books in the highly recommended Jack Kirby hardcover series include Joe Simon & Jack Kirby’s Sandman and the recently published Jack Kirby’s Newsboy Legion, Volume 1 featuring his classic Golden Age work for DC Comics. DC has also published collections of Kirby’s Fourth World comics (New Gods, Forever People, Mr. Miracle, and Jimmy Olsen), as well as OMAC and The Demon volumes. There are also DC Archive collections of Kirby’s Challengers of the Unknown and Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth series.

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KC Carlson (along with Roger Ash and more of the Westfield gang) will be at this weekend’s C2E2 comic show in Chicago. Westfield will have a booth (booth number 1111), so stop by and say hello if you’re at the show! We’re looking forward to seeing you!

The Our Fighting Forces cover comes from the Grand Comics Database.

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