“I had the privilege of doing “The Losers” for DC, a war story, and I put some real elements in there, some elements that I’d experienced, and of course that facilitated the realism for the story, which made it acceptable. It wasn’t a fantasy war story. It was the “Real McCoy.” But the characters had color, and they had a reason for being there. It was their story but their surroundings were real, and they were accepted by the reader.”
Jack Kirby interview conducted by James Van Hise, The Golden Age of Comics # 6, November 1983
Jack Kirby’s “The Losers”, originally appearing in the title series Our Fighting Forces, rated little attention in their original presentation, but it is one of the artists’ unsung classics. Though war comics were still a part of DC’s lineup in 1974, they were often ignored by the majority of comics’ fans, whose interests fixated primarily on the latest superhero fantasies. Even a monolithic creator like Jack Kirby could not engender excitement, but these stories are worth a closer examination.
The Losers premiered on the cover of G I. Combat # 138 (Oct/Nov 1969), as “The Born Losers.” Gunner, Sarge, Captain Storm and Johnny Cloud were familiar to fans of DC war comics, having appeared in various features over the years, some dating back to 1959. It is likely that either Joe Kubert, the series editor, or Robert Kanigher, the main writer and creator, decided on a team approach, in an attempt to turn the tide on waning fan interest for the individual characters. Their intent was to gauge the pulse on reader reaction, launching them in a popular series, The Haunted Tank, which headlined G.I. Combat. The story, entitled “The Losers” (the name was shortened from “The Born Losers” at the last moment, due to copyright issues), was written by Robert Kanigher and drawn by Russ Heath. Their try-out was a success: eight months later The Losers took over the lead spot in Our Fighting Forces # 123 (Jun 1970). Ken Barr was the initial artist, followed by Ross Andru and, for the longest duration, John Severin, an excellent storyteller who brought a sense of drama and authenticity to the stories.
In 1974, Jack Kirby was handed the editorial reigns of Our Fighting Forces from the departing Archie Goodwin. As with all the comics Kirby produced for DC, management expected him to both write and draw the strip. Kirby was reluctant to take over existing characters, preferring instead to work on projects of his own design. At Marvel, he and Stan Lee succeeded in reviving Bill Everett’s Sub-Mariner in The Fantastic Four, and later, at DC, Kirby lent his perspective to mainstays like Jimmy Olsen and Superman (who he inherited as a crucial supporting character in the comic). In almost every instance, any similarity to their traditional personas was negligible. Fans were dismayed by the abrupt shift from earlier Losers plotlines, and their harsh criticisms often filled the letters pages. For good or ill, Kirby’s individual take on characterization was a key aspect of all his comics work, and the Losers were no exception.
It has been reported that Kirby was at odds with “The Losers” moniker, which might not only be construed as a reflection of the veterans they portrayed, but of the book itself. Kirby’s naming of titles/characters usually tended toward the optimistic (Forever People, Mr. Miracle) but with no authority to alter the designation, he forged ahead. Despite any editorial division, Kirby’s strong work ethic, stellar professionalism and fierce independence paved the way for a freewheeling series of stories.
Kirby’s World War II experiences provided the impetus for the Losers’ adventures - shaping an intimate, insider’s look into the nature of combat. The result, quite often, exposed a bleak, malevolent landscape, punctuated by abrupt violence and swift fatalities. Comedic passages were also scattered throughout, in an effort to present an even-handed account. Additionally, it offered a glimpse of the defense mechanisms that were essential to a soldiers’ equanimity, and the means by which one could bear the incomprehensible.
Jack Kirby was no stranger to war comics. Paired with partner Joe Simon, he created The Boy Commandos for DC shortly after the outset of World War II (Detective Comics # 64, cover-dated Jun 1942). In the 1950s, he and Simon produced Foxhole for their own company, Crestwood. Kirby’s cover for the first issue (Oct 1954) showed a bandaged and bloody soldier, his one good eye staring out at the viewer. In the background, Medics assist the wounded and collect the dead. The soldier is observed writing a letter to his mother. Kirby uses the notepad paper as an integral component of the cover. The copy reads:
“Dear Mom: The war is like a picnic!—Today we spent A DAY AT THE BEACH!”
The cover was ironic in its adult depiction of life on the frontline.
"Nine Lives for Victory" as reprinted in Boy Commandos # 2, Dec 1973. Originally published in BC # 2, Spring 1943. Joe Simon inks.
"Booby Trap", Foxhole # 2, Dec 1954. Kirby story?
In all likelihood, Kirby wrote many of the stories, and may have performed similar duties for Atlas in 1959, on their anthology title,
Kirby's wonderful use of perspective is evident on the splash page to "Ring of Steel!", from Battle # 65, Aug 1959. Kirby pencils; Chris Rule ink; Kirby story ?
"A Tank Knows no Mercy!", Battle # 70, June 1960. Steve Ditko's crisp, vibrant inks add depth to Kirby's pencils. Kirby may have also scripted this story. A tank will also play a part in his Losers story 14 years later.
In 1963, responding to the popularity of DC’s war line, Kirby and Lee created Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, an offbeat, ethnically diverse WWII combat unit.
Dynamic splash page to Sgt. Fury # 2, July 1963
Lee and Kirby appropriated key aspects of the formula used in their other team books, notably Fantastic Four and The Avengers, sans super powers, and occurring in real locales during the European campaign. Kirby, who encountered warfare first-hand, reportedly took exception to the lighthearted touch favored by Editor Lee (who had a desk job during the war), and asked to be taken off the strip after seven issues. While replacement Dick Ayers supplied serviceable interior art, more often than not, Lee continued to assign Kirby cover duties (on Sgt. Fury and virtually the entire Marvel line), fully conscious of both their aesthetic quality and sales performance. One outstanding example was Sgt. Fury # 16, brilliantly inked by Chic Stone. It portrayed Fury and the Howlers on the verge of exhaustion as they stagger through the sweltering desert heat. Kirby’s use of body language strongly implies the weight of their burden.
Stan Goldberg's two-toned, yellow-brown colors add to the feeling of oppresive heat the Howler's confront. Sgt. Fury # 16, Mar 1965.
While the hodgepodge of tomfoolery and exaggerated physicality was unmistakable in Sgt. Fury, on Kirby’s watch there was – at the very least – a glimmer of realism. Almost a decade would go by before Kirby again found himself working in the genre.
Kirby’s first Losers’ story appeared in Our Fighting Forces # 151 (Nov 1974). There are no formal introductions to the “Special Forces Unit” (one of the few references that remained from Kanigher’s period): they (and the readers) are immediately thrust into a skirmish. Kirby’s opening caption sets the mood:
“Night is DANGER! –Night is TERROR! – Night is a WHISPERING voice!”
Kirby in action! John Severin's Loser's faces still adorn the right side. D. Bruce Berry inks. Our Fighting Forces # 151, Nov 1974
The Losers are assigned to rescue a famous concert pianist from a German stronghold in occupied
. In the guise of a humble maid, the woman goes unnoticed by her Nazi captors; her frumpish appearance being a benefit, in this instance. Soon after, Gunner is taken captive and brought to the house. Here he confronts the major, who takes great pleasure in playing Wagner on the piano. The Nazis threaten to kill every woman in the house if Gunner does not disclose her identity, but his teammates arrive in time to stop the bloodbath. The major is shot by Sarge in the melee, and as his life begins to fade away, he discovers the “maid’s” true identity. In his last moments, he is overwhelmed by Wagner’s haunting melodies; visions of Valkyrie’s hovering overhead, as the pianists’ fingers nimbly stroke the ivories. Kirby’s dialogue, often accused by critics of being problematic (this author included) is curiously effective here. The staccato delivery and blocky sentences, while awkward at times, manage to propel the drama, providing a good sense of the moment. France
A Small Place in Hell” (Our Fighting Forces # 152) showcases Kirby’s magnificent use of sound effects, echoing the work of two masters in the comics’ field - Harvey Kurtzman and Will Eisner. Both men achieved recognition by creating a sense of sound in a silent medium: Kurtzman for his signature war vignettes at EC; and Eisner for his innovative run on the Spirit newspaper strip. The noise of battle and unrelenting gunfire is palpable as words overwhelm the art. There is no sense of tranquility in the cruel world the Losers inhabit – a fact that Kirby articulated throughout his run.
The unrelenting sounds of war. Berry inks. Our Fighting Forces # 152, Jan 1975
In “The Partisans” (Our Fighting Forces # 155) Sarge is the principal player. He is wounded and stunned by a blast, and begins to taste his own death in the form of an advancing tank. Page 11 and 14 are particularly disturbing, and eerily reminiscent of the surreal, incoherent sights witnessed on 9/11. While almost all of Kirby’s work possesses a larger than life quality (which has particular potency in the comic book medium), he is also skilled at touching on real-life events with razor sharp precision. At times the drama is so harrowing that one can’t help but become immersed in it, and begin to comprehend why Kirby was traumatized by chronic nightmares throughout his life, as often recounted in interviews by his wife Roz.
Sarge stunned and devastated. Berry inks. Our Fighting Forces # 155, May 1975
Kirby’s war is an intricate web, populated by both those who sought a moral high ground, as well as unsavory types that lack principles. In Our Fighting Forces # 157-158 (Kirby’s only two-part story) we meet “Panama Fattie”, a woman who exploits the conditions around her, selling weapons to the Japanese in return for vast profits.
In swift, sadistic fashion, and with a casual smile, the plump woman coldly guns down an inspector who discovers her treachery. Despite her abhorrent behavior, and with minimal exposition, Kirby evokes a degree of sympathy for “Fattie”. The reader is informed of the pain and loneliness she has lived with throughout her life. Her words are tinged with cynicism and bitterness:
“The kinda guy I go for don’t go for ME---but soon I’ll have enough dough to buy one…”
When “Fattie” meets up with the Losers they are unaware of her crimes, and she escorts them to her club. She is attracted to Capt. Storm, who has mutual feelings for Lil (her real name). Tensions mount when Sarge callously refers to Lil as “Fattie.” Storm takes exception to the obvious affront and the two struggle, but their fight is cut short when they both lose consciousness, after having been drugged (along with their teammates) by Lil, and are faced with imminent execution.
In the conclusion, while the Losers remain captives of Lil and her gang of mercenaries, a Japanese Kamikaze mission is underway to blow up the
Panama Canal. Storm tries to sway Lil, asking: “Is this the way YOU want it?” Lil touches Storms’ cheek tenderly, explaining how she is consoled by the large sums of cash, rationalizing her dubious behavior. The Losers stall for time, mounting a frantic attack on their assassins, but in the scuffle Lil gets the drop on Storm and his team. She aims a gun at him, but is incapable of pulling the trigger. Lil makes her getaway in a truck, and now it is Storm who has her in his sights. Storm hesitates: their feelings are too strong and neither can hurt the other. Seizing Storm’s rifle, Sarge blows out the tires, forcing Lil to retreat into the jungle. Lil reaches the Japanese outpost, demanding to see the Lieutenant, as the squad sternly admonishes her to leave. She shoots a soldier and is gunned down in return, while in tandem, Storm races in vain to her rescue. In the aftermath, Kirby draws us in to a tender moment, where Storm closes the eyes of his dying Lil. Her end is violent as much as it is inevitable, a direct result of the path she chose in life.
An inevitable conclusion. Mike Royer inks, Our Fighting Forces # 158, Aug 1975
The Losers play a minimal role in “Mile A Minute Jones” (Our Fighting Forces # 159), a story that echoes the unusual friendship that transpired between runners Jesse Owens (an African American) and Carl Ludwig Long (a German) during the 1936 Berlin Olympics. In Kirby’s allegory, Henry Jones substitutes for Owens. He is a soldier whose platoon was massacred by the Nazis, and we observe him as he frantically tries to elude the enemy. Only one member of their division can keep pace with Jones: Bruno Borman, who fires a warning shot from his rifle. Both men are surprised to encounter each other in such bizarre surroundings, but despite the circumstances, Borman demonstrates great fondness and respect for Jones, a fellow athlete. Nevertheless, in the world they now inhabit, Borman must follow the orders of his commanding officers.
The Losers, whose task involves the capture of a general, stumble upon the scene, taking Borman prisoner. He soon escapes, racing through the fields in an attempt to warn his fellow paratroopers. Jones uses every ounce of stamina to overtake Borman; he focuses intently on a white line, similar to the one he trailed in the Olympics. As his thoughts drift back to the moment he beat his challenger, his desire to win overwhelms him. Jones leaps at Borman, but fails to stop him. In this contest, Borman is the victor, but his triumph is short-lived. Attempting to pursue the Losers he is blown up in a land mine. In the conclusion, Jones and company are rescued by a plane, but Kirby also explores the flipside of this dirty coin, as he focuses on the littered corpses of the paratroopers scattered upon the grass. In two panels he highlights Bruno Borman’s face in close-up: a frozen image, his mouth open wide and eye sockets hollow. Kirby’s visual choices are telling: by concentrating on the dead soldier, he accentuates both the senselessness and the finality of the moment. It reflects an artist who, even thirty years later, was still trying to come to grips with the brutality of warfare.
A pattern of death. Royer inks, Our Fighting Forces # 159, Sept 1975
“Ivan” (Our Fighting Forces # 160) is a story stripped bare of sentiment. In a double-page splash we view a group of civilians lined up against a wall; their faces denote fear, revulsion and resignation. With cold efficiency they are brutally mowed down in a hail of gunfire, their bodies ripped apart as they crumple to the ground. It is a chilling sight by comic book standards of the day (then heavily regulated by the Comics Code Authority), and while Kirby understood the limitations imposed on him, and had his own standards of good taste, his point was made with alarming intensity (without bloodshed or gory details). It was a scene he would reenact only a few years later in the Silver Surfer Graphic Novel. Kirby’s caption tells a stark tale:
“This is a war which has jumped all previous boundaries---civilians are killed, NOT by accident, but by DESIGN! They LOOK wrong---they THINK wrong---they TALK in ways intolerable to those with the gun---and when the gun begins to bark, it cannot see men, women and children---its sights are centered on labels---thousands of DYING labels---“
The senselessness and brutality of war. Royer inks, Our Fighting Forces # 160, Oct 1975
Kirby’s words suggest pain of a personal nature, one that hits uncomfortably close to home. While he does not specifically reference the Jewish experience, or emphasize his own religious background, they are part of the massacre, discarded like refuse by the Nazi machine. It is a poignant page, one of Jack Kirby’s finest moments in a long and noteworthy career.
The story involves a mother and her son, Ivan, two Russians who double-cross civilians, pretending to shelter them from the Nazis in exchange for cash. This is a ruse, for while in their care, the “benefactors” pillage their homes, steal their valuables, and, ultimately turn them over to the Nazis for execution. The Losers, disguised as SS troops, stay in the house of Ivan and his mother on an undercover mission (Kirby stretches credibility to the breaking point when he has Johnny Cloud, a Native American, disguised as a Nazi). Once The Losers discover their misdeeds, they leap into action. First, taking a group of soldiers by surprise, and then gunning them down. Although Sarge wants to kill Ivan, he opts for a more fitting end, knocking him out and placing the gun in his hand. When the SS find their fellow soldiers murdered, it is Ivan who is the obvious suspect. He is sent to be executed alongside men, women and even children. As he frantically pleads his innocence, Ivan becomes a victim of his own appalling actions.
Ivan joins those he betrayed. panel 3 is particularly effective.
Jack Kirby’s run on the Losers ended after thirteen issues, when he accepted an offer to return to Marvel. Robert Kanigher immediately resumed his role as writer and resolved his earlier storylines. Mark Evanier, Kirby’s former assistant, suggested to Marvel that a 1940s setting might better fit Kirby’s writing style (Kirby’s contract called for him to edit, write and draw his own material), either on a WWII era Captain America series, or a return to Sgt. Fury. Those ideas were rejected; the former due to Roy Thomas’s use of Captain America in The Invaders (a strip that teamed Cap with the Original Human Torch and Sub-Mariner); the latter due to a lack of interest in war comics (Sgt. Fury was still being published, albeit in reprint form). While Kirby had many more combat experiences to share, the Losers would be his final outlet for such fare in comics – although in person, and in interviews, the urge to relive those terrible moments was overwhelming.
Working from his heart and gut, Jack Kirby’s adaptation of the Losers explored conditions GI’s were apt to confront in the throes of war. As portrayed by Kirby, the Losers were a battered, gritty and tough lot, whose darker potential was suggested and understood in blink of the eye fashion, and certainly went beyond that which was depicted on the page. Kirby gave the sense that these guys let expletives fly and told dirty jokes. This was the true power of Kirby’s pen: you got the story outside the panel as much as the one told inside. Of course, you also had the attitude, so the low down was always in your midst. The mean streets of
New York City’s Lower East Side, where Kirby spent his formative years, ultimately informed both his personal outlook and professional life. In truth, The Losers is an autobiographical story buried in a mainstream package, and, arguably, the best solo work of Jack Kirby’s career.
“There is nothing that you would call “romantic” about war. Sure, in the movies and on television they paint a great picture of the fellowship that it creates. I’ve seen war bring lots of people together, but I can tell you that the cost is extremely high: not just in terms of lives, but in the human spirit. I think that we are diminished by war; our character as a race is somehow reduced by each war that we allow to happen. Hitler had to be destroyed, there was no choice and I was glad to do my duty – but if there were another way to bring him down I would have preferred it. Perhaps the Germans would have been defeated by their own ambition; they could not possibly hold all of
Europe forever – the more you force people down, the more they will push back. It is human nature to be free and I feel that eventually there would have been a revolt. Perhaps it was the right thing to do, but I do not think this applies to other wars that this country has fought. This country has always been at war – it was started by war. Perhaps that is how it will end.”
Conversations with Jack” by Ray Wyman, Jr. Based upon interviews with Jack from August 1989 through June 1992. Excerpt published in the Jack Kirby Collector # 27, February 2000.
With special thanks to Frank Mastopaolo, Barry Pearl and Mark Evanier for their invaluable editing, suggestions and assistance.