02 February 2010

Daily Breakdowns 059 - The Losers

Jack Kirby's The Losers
Writer/Penciler/Editor - Jack Kirby
Inkers - Mike Royer and D. Bruce Berry
Publisher - DC Comics. $39.99 USD

When Jack Kirby defected from Marvel Comics to DC, he entered into a contract that would have been backbreaking for a lot of artists even back in the early '70s, when he and his peers, those "Greatest Generation" guys, were pounding out pages to put food on the table for their families. Many of these men had work ethics strengthened by military experience as well. They took pride in their work, but the first goal was getting the work done quickly and getting paid for it. Adding to Kirby's time crunch was the fact he wasn't just the penciler, he was also writing the stories and plotting the course of his various series, to the extent he plotted anything out long-term. Flying by the seat of his pants, making it up as he went along--these qualities served Kirby well his entire career.

In this spirit of put-your-head-down-and-come-up-with-something-good, Kirby took on the assignment of Our Fighting Forces, one of several DC war books. Well, maybe he didn't just put his head down. He apparently grumbled about the assignment, as he felt the name of the team he inherited, The Losers, didn't fit his sensibilities. His characters were winners. I really don't know what The Losers were like before Kirby took them on, or how they were depicted after his twelve issue run collected here. But indeed, Kirby's Losers are winners.

Those who knew Kirby have often written of his propensity for telling tales of his WWII experiences over and over again. Whatever pain or horror he may have known in those days was largely private and bleeds through only occasionally in the stories here. But in a way, that's part of why they work. I'm not a great admirer of most war comics fan, but ones I've liked have been intense, realistic and based on actual battles, with clear goals and great attention to detail, like Garth Ennis' War Stories and Battlefields, or they've been humanistic stories dealing with the futility of war, the way it represents our failure as a species, such as Archie Goodwin's Blazing Combat or some of Harvey Kurtzman's Two-Fisted Tales. None of those works bear any relation to The Losers.

So why did I like this? Well, we all contain contradictions. Let's face it, more often than not, comics present an escape from an often grim reality. Reading war comics of any kind, safe at home, is something of an escape, sure, but Kirby's work is in a whole other dimension, and that's why I like it. Joe Kubert may give you the rumpled uniforms and unshaven faces, the grit and steely resolve, but The Losers are indefatigable, colorful, often grinning. They're a team incongruously composed of different branches of the armed forces, working together, appearing in various hot spots where they complete a tough mission together, make no lasting human connections with anyone, and next issue they're somewhere else, another theater of war. There's no debate--they're right to be at war, and whatever mission they're assigned is the right thing to do to help stop the Nazis or Japanese. Kirby never glories in death but doesn't shy away from it, either. Soldiers shoot or they get shot. That's what they do. He respects them enough that each issue even includes pages at the end with his depictions of various Allied and Axis weapons and armaments, insignia, and helmets throughout history.

It goes without saying that Kirby was unique among comics creators, but still, it's hard to imagine anyone else with military experience being able to throw away much of what he knew to be true in order to tell such entertaining but often outlandish stories, like "Devastator vs. Big Max," an over-the-top Freudian, wry, yet gripping tale of brinkmanship between the U.S. troops and the Nazis over whose weapon is biggest. It never happened, and the German Devastator is a pure Kirby creation that would never work (I'm guessing the heat, noise and noxious gases from its use would take out as many nearby Nazis as the Allies and citizens at the receiving end of its bombs).

Kirby comes up with a neat formula for the series that carries throughout the run. A sort of "cold opening" to set up the situation, then we get the title and the details of the mission The Losers need to accomplish. Within this framework, Kirby's able to tell a story of the danger of hubris in "Bushido," a ghost story in "The Partisans," and a good heart curdled by abuse in "Panama Fattie/Bombing out on the Panama Canal," as well as war and idealogy getting in the way of the purity of sport in "Mile a Minute Jones." In his Introduction, Neil Gaiman notes that none of the characters in these stories get what they want, and that's an astute observation, at least on the part of Panama Fattie and Jones and the others who grab the spotlight for an issue or two and then are killed or just left behind when the mission is over. What's interesting is that Kirby, perhaps carrying an aversion to the whole "loser" label, spends as little time as possible on the team of Captain Storm, Johnny Cloud, Gunner and Sarge. In some issues, Cloud would appear to be the leader instead of Storm, but aside from the two-part Panama Fattie story, where Storm showed real affection for Fattie and regret over the route her life takes, they're largely interchangeable cyphers. The same can be said of Gunner and Sarge, who are kind of the Johnny Storm (youthful exuberance) and Ben Grimm (sincere, stolid neighborhood fella) of the quartet, but much more hastily sketched. If the missions were more boilerplate and without Kirby's range and grandiosity, the thin characterization would be more of a problem, but most of the time readers will just be enjoying the imaginative action sequences to care.

Once again, few other war veteran cartoonists would be able to ignore their own backgrounds to create such bigger than life fantasy, but I think "would be able" is the wrong way to put it. I think this is how Kirby saw the world, and even his past went through this filter where every detail was enlarged, foreshortened, warped for maximum drama, or swapped for something better, like his subconscious was rewriting his own history. It's enjoyable to try to pick up the few bits of less-submerged feeling here, such as his obvious affection for the science fiction comics-obsessed soldier in 'Devastator," who obviously is meant for better things than war but will do his part regardless, or the obvious contempt for Nazi cruelty, and ceremony over compassion, in the first and arguably best story here, "Kill Me with Wagner."

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