Even as the San Diego Comic-Con becomes more and more of a pop-culture/movie-and -TV/ glitzy Hollywood event with each passing year, I always make sure to attend a few of the strictly comics-focused panels, just to keep alive that spirit of what I originally fell in love with about Comic-Con. A few years back, one of those panels I attended was the Jack Kirby Tribute Panel, an annual event in which moderator/comic-book writer/former Kirby assistant Mark Evanier assembles a group of comics luminaries and historians to discuss Kirby, his life and, most important, his work.
That year’s panelists, along with Evanier and the attorney for the Kirby estate, included Neil Gaiman, Erik Larsen and Darwyn Cooke. Certainly not a bad way to spend a Sunday morning. As the panel moved along, Evanier asked the gentlemen onstage to name the first Kirby comic they’d ever read and their favorite Kirby comic. To my surprise, when mentioning his favorite Kirby comics, Gaiman cited an issue of DC’s 1970s WWII comic THE LOSERS, specifically a story entitled “Big Max vs. Devastator,” which involved a young science-fiction fan taking some ribbing from his fellow soldiers. And at the mention of the comic, both Larsen and Cooke lit up, both jumping on the microphone to talk about how much they loved that comic.
All this was rather a shock to me, as I didn’t know Jack Kirby had ever done any work on DC’s LOSERS feature. As I left the panel at Comic-Con International, I thought to myself, “gee, if only there were someplace I might be able to find some of these Jack Kirby LOSERS comics. Ah, yes: downstairs.“
A couple of hours later, I found myself the proud owner of two issues of DC’s OUR FIGHTING FORCES, issues #152 and #155, featuring covers, scripts and art by Jack Kirby. There were probably more issues down there, but Comic-Con is an overwhelming place, even on a Sunday afternoon.
Before we get to the comics themselves, a word or two of backstory on The Losers is probably in order. First appearing in November 1969 in an issue of DC’s G.I. COMBAT, The Losers are probably historically significant for being the only team created to house characters who had all been cancelled from their own solo features. Johnny Cloud, Navajo Ace an Air Force man who had appeared in ALL-AMERICAN MEN OF WAR from 1960 to 1966, Captain Storm, a one-eyed, wooden-legged U.S. Navy officer, had been featured in his own solo series from 1964 to 1967, and Gunner and Sarge had headlined OUR FIGHTING FORCES from 1959 until 1965. The four were united in G.I. COMBAT #138 (written by Robert Kanigher and drawn by Russ Heath) by another perennial DC WWII favorite, the Haunted Tank, a supernatural character that’s, well, pretty much exactly what it sounds like. The Haunted Tank rescued Cloud, Storm, Gunner and Sarge from doomed missions, and since they all considered themselves responsible for the deaths of fellow soldiers under their command, they elected to stay together and fight the war as a unit, and dubbed themselves “The Losers.”
There’s a pretty unhealthy dose of self-loathing within the Losers when you think about it; it seemed like every issue’s cover featured one or all of the Losers in very dire straits, with one of them yelling “Just another reason we were BORN to LOSE!” or something to that effect. For example:
However, none of that self-hatred is on display in the Kirby LOSERS stories I have here. Indeed, at the Kirby Panel in San Diego, Mark Evanier commented on how the very title of the feature must have rubbed Jack Kirby the wrong way, as “he would never think of a U.S. serviceman as a loser.” Kirby himself had been drafted in the fall of 1943 and served in the Third Army combat infantry, landing in Normandy on Omaha Beach only 10 days after D-Day.
If these stories are representative of Kirby’s whole run, Kirby was far more interested in focusing on the Losers as minor cogs against what seemed like an unstoppable German war machine, and stressing their continuing to fight against seemingly unbeatable odds.
OUR FIGHTING FORCES #152, “A Small Place in Hell,” finds the Losers on a three-day pass to what they think is a French town in friendly, Allies-held territory, instead finding themselves surrounded by German infantry and tanks.
Kirby has a great flair for understated, tense dialogue here (something I don’t usually associate with Kirby), although Kirby keeps the dialogue to a minimum while packing the panels with figures, action and sound effects, trying to visually approximate the confusion and chaos of the battlefield.
Here Kirby almost takes an Eisnerian approach to sound effects, making them a hugely visual part of the story, as the Losers are overwhelmed by the sound of approaching combat:
Luckily for them, the approaching forces are American, and they rout the German forces, leaving Storm, Gunner, Sarge and Cloud face to face with General Patton himself, who declares the four servicemen “losers,” but with a caveat:
Kirby also put his years of army experience to good use in a series of informational pin-ups highlighting the weapons of war in WWII. Here are the examples from these two issues:
Issue #155, “The Partisans,” focuses on Sarge and a wounded Gunner, as the two Marines fall in with a group of Yugoslavian partisan fighters determined to destroy a Nazi-held railroad bridge. Sarge has his doubts about the mysterious silent partisans led by a silent man wearing a fur hat, who doesn’t respond well to Sarge’s quips:
Sarge watches as the partisans attack the German ammunition station in order to draw attention away from the bridge, allowing him to run to the bridge and plant the explosive charges.
Sarge doesn’t make it though, and is caught by an artillery blast from a German tank. Downed and wounded, Sarge watches helplessly as the German tank turns its cannon on the hillside, which is manned by the partisan fighters. Little did the Germans suspect that the entire hillside had been mined with high explosives; the tank’s blast sets off the charges, with the collapsing hill burying the tank and the bridge under tons of debris.
A shellshocked Sarge tries to wander out of the rubble, and is nearly killed by some surviving Nazis, before being rescued by Johnny Cloud and Captain Storm.
Back at the medical tent, Sarge mumbles only “fur hat,” referring to the leader of the partisans. The phrase has a chilling new meaning to Cloud and Storm when they talk to the remaining partisan who tells of his brother and his forces, who had died a year prior trying to destroy that same railroad bridge.
One of the oldest ghost stories in the book, yet it still seems fresh and vital under Kirby’s pencil.
If these two issues are any indication, Jack Kirby’s LOSERS run is a hidden gem in DC’s library, well worth seeking out.