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"A People Thing"

An Examination Of Jack Kirby's "The Losers" Story In Our Fighting Forces #152 - Part 4

by & © 1998 Mike Kidson (Posted to Kirby-L at the end of June 1998)


Richard 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".

"They 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 over.

In 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."

And, 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!"

And we turn the page to see a close-up on the general's face. Sad to say, Kirby's little surprise, the joke in this story's "release", may have aged badly - how many readers today would recognise General George Patton, one of the legendary Allied commanders of World War 2, or be aware that Patton was, like the fictional Losers, something of a maverick? Kirby could have expected readers in 1975 to get it - Franklin Schaffner's movie "Patton -Lust For Glory" was only a few years old then... But although this joke may now be obscured by time, Kirby's overall point is not. Patton stands for authority, slapping the team down with one hand - "You're Losers!" - and raising them up with the other -"But you're FINE boys. Kept some enemy of our backs too." And his status as an avatar of authority cuts deeper than the clipped criticism and praise he delivers - Cloud is surely stuttering not because he is overawed but because the general's presence has forcibly reminded him of his role in the chain of command.

Page 18, Our Fighting Forces Volume 21 Number 152. December-January 1974-1975. Published by & © 1974 National Periodical Publications, Inc. a.k.a DC Comics.

Throughout 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 handled here.

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 be ahead.".

Sometimes even Losers win - but not this time. This time nobody wins, nobody loses - and the war just rolls on.


The 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, here's Jack.

"It 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 history makers.

"Did 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!

"Wars 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.

"Fortunately, 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.

"I 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."

With 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!

Around 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.

All quoted dialogue and quotations from Jack Kirby's essay "War - My Look and Yours" copyright DC Comics Inc. 1974


1. 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.

2. Thanks to Kirby Lister Richard Morrissey for pointing out that Kirby was apparently completely unaware that Captain Storm had a wooden leg!

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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".

6. 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.


THEAKSTON, G. The Jack Kirby Treasury Volume 2; New York, Pure Imagination , 1991

USLAN, M. America at War - The best of DC War Comics; New York, Simon & Schuster, 1979

http://kirby.nvnet.k12.nj.us - Tom Morehouse's "KIRBY'S WAR" website

http://www.angelfire.com - The George Patton website


My 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.

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