CODA - TIME TO FACE THE TRUTH
Strauss' opera "Der Rosenkavalier" ends with a half hour scene of
searing emotional and musical intensity, winding the feelings of
the audience up and up and up almost to breaking point. At the end
of the scene the players leave the stage - the story is finished.
But Strauss knew that it couldn't be left there, that the audience
could not be left in the state to which he'd calculatedly brought
them. A soft chord is held by the orchestra: alight, lilting new
theme is introduced. A little boy runs on stage, darts around, searches,
then finds a handkerchief which had been unobtrusively dropped.
Picking it up, he darts offstage as the theme crescendos into the
final chords of the opera and the curtain drops. That little scene
is absolutely extraneous to the opera's narrative: emotionally,
however, it is absolutely necessary to the audience. The last two
story pages of OUR FIGHTING FORCES #152 serve the same purpose -
but Kirby also makes more of them than just a "release".
WON'T like this town... it's a lousy town." said Gunner in the last
panel of page 16: as noted, an expression of weariness, but also
an echo of the anonymous soldier's statement in page 1 panel 3 -
"We'll go into that lousy town...". The troops have fulfilled that
statement, the Losers have shambled out of the town, the story is
page 17 panel 1 the dazed file of Losers stumble on, across the
path of an oncoming jeep: by taking the rear of the jeep as his
POV, Kirby neatly implies its motion towards the group, obscured
in the background, and thus avoids having to waste space showing
it appearing. Re-using one of the switchback cuts he has employed
so often in this story, he shifts the POV of panel 2 back to the
Losers, placing the readers just behind them and showing us the
figure of a general leaning over the jeep's windscreen. "How in
hell did you get here?", snaps the general, and Cloud, speaking
as he would to one of his comrades, flatly replies "You won't believe
this, but we walked in... and almost stayed."
with a whiplash response, the Losers are pulled back into reality.
Panel 3 switches us to the general's POV, looking down on the motley
crew: from off panel, his voice reprimands "Those are STARS on the
bumper plates of this jeep, Captain..." and the Losers, roughly
grouped across the panel, snap to attention. Cloud stutters an apology.
The others suddenly realise just who this general is, commenting
"Look at his guns!" "Two pearl handled revolvers". To those of the
readers in the know, this is a giveaway, but Kirby is saving his
full revelation for next page (SEE
FOOTNOTE 6). In panel 4 he gives us a closeup on the general's
midsection, showing one of those special revolvers as the general
asks what was going on. Panel 5 closes up on the general's hand
resting on the jeep's windscreen as Cloud, standing in the background,
still stuttering, responds "I-it was ROUGH, sir. "Sharply, the general
redefines the situation for him: "Yours is NOT a bright group, Captain.
You look like LOSERS to me!"
the story he has been strong and authoritative, ordering the progress
of his team with certainty: now, faced with a superior officer,
he is sharply compelled to realise that with authority comes responsibility,
not just for split second decisions while in action but for the
overall welfare of the group. Whether by accident or not doesn't
matter - the whole episode of the group's "furlough" has been fouled
up, and as commanding officer the responsibility for the foul up
is his. Patton actually lets him off lightly, in panel 3 recommending
the group for medals even as he dismisses them as foulups: but Cloud's
new awareness that the whole situation and the responsibility for
it rests heavily on his shoulders seem beautifully conveyed by Kirby
in panel 4. There, Patton's jeep drives off into the blazing rubble
of the town: filling the right of the panel is Cloud's head and
shoulders, his face frozen in a bleak expression as he watches the
departing jeep. The whole complex issue of bringing the Losers back
to normality and all that that entails has been quietly, subtly
The remaining three panels gently rub the message in. The war rolls
on: in panel 4 the Losers are reduced to tiny figures, standing
aside as an armoured car roars past. Either Sarge or Gunner, it
is impossible to tell which, simply hasn't understood the import
of the encounter with Patton: "Say... HOW did he guess?". To which
Cloud can find no reply: "Aw... shut up." Still, it is understood
that the military hierarchy has been re-established, if not how
or why. As the Losers wander across panel 4, either Sarge or Gunner
- again it is impossible to tell- addresses Cloud by rank for the
first time, asking him if the group can maybe have that three day
pass again. Storm chimes in, echoing the request. The last word
and gesture are given over to Cloud: panel 6, a strikingly downbeat
ending to the story, depicts him at medium range from behind, shoulders
slumped, head buried in the collar of his greatcoat. "You heard
the General.", he responds: "If we can find the medics... we'll
even Losers win - but not this time. This time nobody wins, nobody
loses - and the war just rolls on.
last word on this remarkable story has to be Jack Kirby's. My apologies
to those of you who are familiar with the text piece Kirby wrote
for OUR FIGHTING FORCES #151 for the following substantial quote
- but it's worth reading again. And I would certainly not presume
to be able to express these ideas as well as Kirby did. However,
I *will* presume to add a few comments on those more technical matters
which he seems to have preferred never to discuss... :-) but first,
seems to me that the Losers is [...] a "people" thing. A small squad
of "everymen" caught up in the crushing tide of events, pushing
their "know-how" to the limit in a wild effort to survive. Incredibly,
the panorama of war covers massive situations in which "everyman"
is as likely to brush shoulders with history as well as mingle with
some G.I. once jump in the same foxhole with a "biggie" to avoid
a simultaneous cessation to existence? Did a Wehrmacht dumkopf accidentally
run his tank over General Rommel's monocle? Did a lead-lined duck
ever sink in a pond? You can bet on it!
are plagued with these embarrassing spinoffs because they release
a flood of "Everymen" who zig-zag across historical landscapes,
spoil a scene of triumph by their sloppy appearance and test the
tempers of the mighty.
the common tragedy they share, the violence that spills from the
combat centre and ripples out in horrid waves to the rest of the
world, makes of all these Losers something human and spectacular
to look back upon. Those that lived and died are forever images
that we want to watch. Their immortality lies in the visions that
march across our minds.
see the Losers in this manner. They'll be people that you and I
will want to watch. Not only that, they will be in places and situations
which will hold our interest. In combat they will not lapse into
Hamlet's soliloquy, but let fly with the clipped jargon of men under
stress. If they can't avoid a wound, they will take one. The idea
is to make it a true war experience for the reader."
those words Kirby laid claim to the concept of "The Losers" and
redefined it to fit his own storytelling imperatives. In O.F.F.
#152 he put his words superlatively into practice. We can be sure
that he was less than happy to have to take on characters and a
concept created by someone else - but my own feeling is that, having
done so, what he turned out was no less a Kirby creation than THE
DEMON, or KAMANDI, or even the Fourth World books. Other creators
might have carried on from where previous editor Archie Goodwin
had left off: not Kirby (ironically, one of the key players in the
introduction of strict series continuity into the American comicbook).
Never mind the previous plotlines; never mind Captain Storm's wooden
leg; never mind the fact that, under Kirby, pilot Johnny Cloud never
made it into the air: unconcerned with continuity, Kirby instead
devoted his energies to making this series a reflection of his own
experience and knowledge of warfare, his own understanding of human
nature. And, as I hope this monstrously long review has demonstrated,
what a magnificent job he made of it!
the mid-point of this essay I shifted from a fairly dispassionate
assessment of the techniques used by Kirby to excite the reader
and keep him involved to a somewhat more emotive analysis of how
the characters reacted to and were affected by the situations in
which they found themselves. In several instances I described the
technical rendering of the comic as being "weak": looking back,
I think this is just sloppy methodology on my part. Once the Losers
are engaged in battle, Kirby subtly shifted the manner of storytelling
so as to focus more closely on "men under stress". Perhaps in the
final two pages he shifted it yet again. The introduction of General
George S. Patton brought Kirby's personal experiences into play:
as I hope I've managed to suggest, he used that experience to express
a key part of his intentions for the series, the notion that the
Losers are "Everymen who zig-zag across historical landscapes [and]
spoil a scene of triumph by their sloppy appearance". But this synthesis
of personal experience and storytelling aims is not unique to that
final section - the whole story is, I think, a triumph of artistic
integration, a whirlwind display of storytelling mastery, a *complete*
work of art by a *complete* artist. I think that, for Jack Kirby,
life and art were inseparable, indistinguishable. That's why he's
still the King.
quoted dialogue and quotations from Jack Kirby's essay "War - My
Look and Yours" copyright DC Comics Inc. 1974
Kirby was at this time still producing KAMANDI, a creation of his
which was at least successful enough to survive after he left DC
- but it should be remembered that Infantino has always claimed
that KAMANDI was his idea. Thus he would presumably have
regarded it as his success, not Kirby's.
Thanks to Kirby Lister Richard Morrissey for pointing out that Kirby
was apparently completely unaware that Captain Storm had a wooden
Kirby Lister Garrie Burr has argued that the solid bar beneath the
logo may have been placed there by DC's production department rather
than by any decision of Kirby's. He may well be right - but Kirby's
composition is so perfectly constructed asit stands that I find
it almost impossible to believe that he intended it to extend beneath
and around the logo. Whether he specified the solid bar is
another question: but since the solid bar was a occasional feature
of many DC series covers at that time, he may simply have turned
in his cover drawing as it stands, expecting that the production
staff would react by inserting the bar of their own accord.
Throughout this essay I've referred to the Losers' antagonists as
"Nazis", in a deliberate semantic attempt to shift the focus of
the conflict from the nationalistic, which would have been evoked
if I'd used the word "Germans", to the political. However, as Kirby
Lister Colin Stuart has pointed out, Kirby didn't use the term "Nazi"
himself: moreover, by no means all Germans fighting in World War
2 were adherents of National Socialism. Colin also observed: "in
this story, Kirby wasn't interested in ideology, only in the struggle
to survive. In most war comics the Germans are propaganda-spouting
Nazis, liberally adorned with swastikas, sometimes in the most peculiar
places. Here, we don't know whether a single one of the Germans
we see is a fanatical party loyalist, or an unwilling conscript.
All that matters is that they're The Enemy; the story could almost
as easily have been set in WW1, or WW2's Pacific Theatre, or Korea,
or Vietnam." I agree wholeheartedly: however, since to substitute
the word "Enemy" for "Nazi" throughout would be somewhat artificial,
I have, despite misgivings, retained the latter term.
In contrast to Kirby's apparent ignorance of Storm's disability
(see footnote 2), his characterisation of Sarge as the group's humourist
- and the back chat between him and Gunner - is the only thing in
the story which suggests that he had any knowledge of the series'
history. The tough, bantering relationship between the two had been
a hallmark of their series back in the 1950s and had been retained
by Robert Kanigher when he developed the concept of "The Losers".
Thanks to Kirby Lister Tom Morehouse for pointing out that in this
scene Kirby was drawing directly on his own war experience. He served
in the Third Army under Patton, and when he first saw him was immediately
struck by Patton's legendary pair of pearl-handled revolvers.
G. The Jack Kirby Treasury Volume 2; New York, Pure Imagination
M. America at War - The best of DC War Comics; New York, Simon &
http://kirby.nvnet.k12.nj.us - Tom Morehouse's "KIRBY'S WAR" website
http://www.angelfire.com - The George Patton website
thanks, in no particular order, go to Lynn Walker, Lyle Tucker,
Gene Fama, Tom Kraft, Stan Taylor, Garrie Burr, Mark Evanier, Colin
Stuart, Mark Resnicek, Chris Harper, Rich Morrissey, Randy Hoppe
and anyone else who posted messages of support during the two and
a bit weeks it took to put this essay together. I'd like to offer
special thanks to Pat Hilger, who obtained for me some issues of
OUR FIGHTING FORCES without which I couldn't really have done this,
and to Tom Morehouse and his students for the information contained
in their website at http://kirby.nvnet.k12.nj.us - if you haven't already visited it, give yourselves a treat. Last,
I'd just like to say a big thank you to Chris, Matt, Randy and all
Kirby Listers for creating, maintaining and contributing to a venue
where I could place this thing! I've thoroughly enjoyed getting
down to the details of "A Small Place In Hell" - I hope you've found
something to enjoy in this result of that process.