Posts Tagged ‘The Losers’

I said we’d probably be looking at this title again as “Kirby Month” went along, and here we are, with one of my absolute, all-time favorite stories The King ever did, the two-part saga of “Panama Fattie” from Our Fighting Forces numbers 157 and 158, cover-dated July and August, 1975 respectively.

As our story begins, some shady shit involving hijacked equipment and supplies has necessitated The Losers’ presence in the Panama Canal zone, but that doesn’t mean Captain Storm, Johnny Cloud, Gunner and Sarge don’t have time for a drink, and the bar favored by servicemen in the area is owned by a fellow American — specifically, a larger-than-life (in every respect) gal whose real name is Lil, but who everyone refers to as — well, you can probably already guess. Lil’s a fun-loving lady with a heart of gold (or so it would seem) and an eye for men in uniform, and she takes a special liking to Sarge right off the bat — and wouldn’t you know, despite being the hard-ass of the group, he seems to have a thing for her, too. Can Cupid work his magic even in the most unlikely, not to mention dangerous, situations?

Now’s not a good time for matters of the heart, though, for while our heroes don’t know it yet, “Panama Fattie” is leading a double life as the very leader of the gang of smugglers and hijackers they’d encountered earlier (in a scene that plays out very differently for “in the know” readers than it does for The Losers themselves), and she’s not too picky about who she does business with — and that’s put her in bed (metaphorically speaking, mind you) with The Emperor’s boys. If the Japanese want to pull off the audacious scheme they have in mind, though, they need both a “connection” and some protection — and Lil is happy to provide both for a price. Plus, as you can see from the double-page splash shown earlier, she’s a crack shot. Definitely not someone you want to mess with!

 

R &R is something that never last long for The Losers, of course, but they have some bad luck worthy of their name this time out and end up captured at the end of issue 157. It looks like it’s probably curtains for ’em as number 158 (entitled “Bombing Out On The Panama Canal!”) opens — it frequently does — but some serious on-the-fly ingenuity (that, fair enough, requires a heavier-than-usual dose of suspension of disbelief) sees them freed from their captors’ bonds and staring the true nature of their dilemma squarely in the face, as you can see below —

And so an honest-to-goodness Kamikaze run on the Panama Canal itself is what’s got to be stopped here, but hopelessly outgunned and outnumbered, The Losers are going to need some outside help if they want to put the kibosh on this tragedy-waiting-to-happen, as well as survive themselves. The odds are slim — but their potential ally is anything but. Kirby’s story structure here is downright cinematic (villain introduced first while going about her dastardly business, protagonists come in next in a heavy-action sequence that’s followed by an uncharacteristically casual scene, then the particulars of their mission as far as they know them are laid out, then full-throttle combat, then capture, then escape, then “big reveal,” then — we’ll get to that in a second), and his pacing brisk and dynamic. Even the few “slow” parts feel anything but and work in service to aid  the eventual climax, which sees Sarge forced with a dilemma of both the mind and heart : stop “Panama Fattie” dead (literally) in her tracks, or return the favor she showed him (twice, but only once that he knows of) and refuse to shoot her even though it might mean death for them all — and countless others.

Moral quandaries are always fascinating — particularly when handled with the deftness and skill of Jack Kirby — but this one packs a double-wallop : Sarge doesn’t gun her down, but that actually turns out to be the right move both ethically and logistically, for it helps to cement a change of heart that Lil,  as our heroes had already glimpsed, was already in the midst of. Tragically, she dies anyway — just moments later, in fact — but under far different circumstances than she would have had Sarge pulled the trigger, to wit : she sacrifices herself to save Sarge and, in turn, everyone else. As fate and circumstance would have it, then, by doing the “wrong” thing, Sarge has actually done the “right” thing — and doing the “wrong” thing for years on end actually puts Lil in position to do the “right” thing when it matters most.

This is Shakespearean drama at its finest, and Kirby’s keen eye for period authenticity and first-hand knowledge of the rigors of close-quarter combat drive it home with stunning vigor. Once Lil and Sarge have shared her dying moment there’s still a bombing raid to be stopped, though, and Kirby’s aerial sequences are just as stunning as the more quiet tragedy that plays out just prior, with Johnny Cloud and Gunner, pursuing their quarry in a technical, brazenly swooping directly under it and lighting it up from below with a mounted machine gun. Breathtaking stuff, as only The King Of Comics and inker par excellence Mike Royer can deliver.

Still, for all its blistering action, it’s the “human element” that elevates these comics to “classic” status in this reviewer’s humble estimation. There are clear rights and wrongs offered up here, to be sure, and an unwavering commitment to his conscience (never shoot a civilian, never shoot a woman) proves to be Sarge’s salvation (as well as everyone else’s), but Kirby knew that the “bad guys” were human being with lives, loves, and dreams of their own, as well, and were all too often simply stuck playing a hand they wished, in retrospect, they’d never been dealt — even if, paradoxically, they’d dealt it to themselves. The story told over issues 157 and 158 of Our Fighting Forces, then, is more than a simple tale of betrayal, tragedy, and redemption — it is a statement of belief on Kirby’s part that even under the most dire circumstances, we’re all more alike than we are different, and that the connections we make with each other, no matter how brief or small, aren’t just what we live for — they can literally save us, too.

When most people think of Jack Kirby, war comics don’t immediately come to mind. Super-heroes, absolutely. Science fiction, no doubt. Westerns, you bet. Kid gangs, heck yes. Romance — heck, he created the romance comics genre. But war mags? Those were the domain of Kurtzman, Glanzman, Kanigher, Kubert —

And yet, no one knew that war really is hell better than The King. He was on the front lines of the European theater in “The Big One.” He helped liberate more than one concentration camp. He’d seen the horrors of both fascism and the bloody struggle against it firsthand. So if the time ever came when he was assigned a war book, there was no doubt he could do the job.

That time came in the waning months of 1974, when both Kirby and DC’s editorial “brain trust” were well aware that he was essentially riding out his contract there and wouldn’t be “re-upping” once it was done. Kamandi was still selling well, but the entire Fourth World saga had been scuttled, The Demon was likewise suffocated in the crib, and Jack suddenly found himself with a sizable hole in his 15-page-per-week (written, drawn, and edited — damn!) workload obligation. The long-running WWII title Our Fighting Forces — which of late had been featuring the adventures of a hard-luck special forces unit known as The Losers — wasn’t exactly a fan favorite anymore, so the decision was made to shift Jack onto the series in the hope that a little bit of that patented “Kirby Magic” would go some way toward making it stand out from the pack on the newsstands once again. Those who were there at the time, most notably his assistants Mark Evanier and Steve Sherman, have related tales of Kirby being less than thrilled with the gig — a persistent comic-industry “urban legend” has it that he stated he preferred to chronicle the exploits of “winners” — but damn, his reluctance never showed on the page. In point of fact, I have no problem stating that Jack’s brief tenure on OFF (collected in hardcover by DC a few years back as Jack Kirby’s The Losers) contains some of the very best war comics ever made by anyone.

Still, if I had to pick a single stand-out yarn of the bunch — no easy task, I assure you, which is why we might be returning to this title as “Kirby Month” goes along —in a pinch I would probably go with issue number 153, cover-dated February/March 1975 and bearing the compelling, attention-grabbing title of “The Devastator Vs. Big Max.”

A brief run-down of the series’ premise is probably in order here for those not exactly in the know : the then-titular starring foursome of the book — composed of Captain Storm, Johnny Cloud, Gunner, and Sarge (no fuller name given) — were essentially the ultimate in plausible deniability, given that they were inserted (often by means never even explained) into supposedly “hopeless” situations anywhere the war effort was underway, immediately seconded to whatever branch of the armed forces was in need of their services, and then left on their own to either solve the mess they found themselves in, or die trying — in which case, hey, they were never even officially there, anyway. Issue 153 sees them tasked with taking out a new Nazi “super-cannon” — known as “Unser Max” to “Jerry” or “Big Max” to the Allies — that’s got greater range and firepower than anything ever devised and needs to be obliterated before it can re-shape the course of the entire war.  It’s no easy task, to be sure — no job The Losers get stuck with ever is — but fortunately, a shuffle through the sci-fi and adventure pulp magazines and comic books of an imaginative young private named Rodney Rumpkin yields a potential solution : a futuristic tank-like vehicle known as “The Devastator.”

Of course, any potential “Devastator” the Losers can build will be no more “real” than its printed-page counterpart, but by haphazardly slapping together a bunch of junked aircraft parts, they’re able to “MacGuyver up” a reasonably convincing facsimilie of the battle vehicle from Rodney Rumpkin’s funnybooks, and even throw the red-headed GI himself a bone by putting him in the driver’s seat and outfitting him in a gaudy super-hero costume, to boot! Who says dreams can’t come true?

The calculated gamble works — the Germans believe “The Devastator” to be real and haul “Big Max” out into the open in order to meet it head-on, at which point Allied aircraft bomb the shit out of the uber-weapon — but the admittedly clever plot is really secondary to the the story’s thinly-disguised analogy for Kirby’s own situation at the time : yeah, he wasn’t on this book by choice, but dammit, like his stand-in Rodney Rumpkin, he was still fueled by the power of his imagination, and he was still going to do the best he could under less-than-ideal circumstances. You could put Jack Kirby on a less-than-great comic, but you couldn’t stop him from making it great, and this story is certainly “evidence A” of that. Rumpkin may be hopelessly naive, but he represents a sort of eternal optimism that was sorely needed in order to win the war, and he emerges from this adventure mildly disappointed that his “Devastator” was a mere prop, but otherwise unscathed, and just as enthusiastic as ever for his fantastic four-color escapism.

Even in a small-scale story such as this, Kirby’s penchant for the grand spectacle holds sway : “Big Max” isn’t just “big,” it’s huge — the scale of the deception The Losers are employing to get it out onto the field of battle is equally preposterous — but the biggest thing of all is the scale and scope of Rodney Rumpkin’s starry-eyed, childlike imagination. Granted, there’s charm aplenty to be found in this simple tale, and Kirby illustrates the action flawlessly with able assistance from his best and most faithful inker, Mike Royer, but there’s also a timeless message about the power of the human spirit in the face of seemingly-insurmountable odds that’s delivered with such admirable earnestness that one could be forgiven for thinking this comic was the product of a guy who was absolutely thrilled to be making it.

And, ya know, I’m thinking it was. Our Fighting Forces may not have been precisely the comic Kirby wanted to be working on, but it was still a comic — and any comic was a place where he could display his limitless imagination on paper and inspire others to follow their own dreams. So maybe Rodney Rumpkin isn’t mean to symbolize his creator, but us. Or maybe both. I guess the jury’s out on how to interpret some of the rich metaphor on offer in this story, but one thing’s for certain — “The Devastator Vs. Big Max” is an extraordinary piece of work, created under circumstances where most writers and artists would merely be “running out the clock” and “mailing it in.” Kirby had too much respect — both for his own gifts and abilities and for his readers’ hard-earned money — to ever “half-ass it,” though. He accepted an unwanted assignment not as a burden, but as a challenge — and proved that he could produce some of the best work of his singularly stellar career in the pages of a book that he didn’t choose to have fall into his lap, but was nevertheless determined to make the most of once it did.

Hmmm — yeah, maybe he was Rodney Rumpkin after all.