Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Graphically Speaking: The Losers by Jack Kirby Hardcover

Words: Christopher Irving

When Carmine Infantino gave Jack Kirby the Keys to his own Editorial Kingdom at DC Comics in the ‘70s, King Kirby ran amuck with the high-falootin’ and concept heavy Fourth World books. As brilliant as The New Gods, Mister Miracle, and Forever People were, they were an editorial mess, firing off in numerous directions. That raw energy was also a huge degree of the books’ brilliance, but ultimately the Anti-Life Equation behind their downfall.

Because The Losers, which Jack took on around 1974, was set in World War II, it put a cap on Kirby’s wildly crackling creative energies, but not in a stifling way. Without Mother Boxes and Boom Tubes, Jack relied on what he knew best: the horrors of war, and he injected his experiences into The Losers’ own.

The Losers are Johnny Cloud, Captain Storm, Gunner, and Sarge, four misfits from different branches of the military, their combined failures somehow equaling successes on their missions -- missions filled with violence, struggle, conflict, and ass-kicking as only Jack Kirby could present it. DC’s hardcover, Jack Kirby’s The Losers (from the Our Army at War comic), is more of the same old comics reprinted on a newsprint-like stock, and bound between two covers designed with  blown-up detail images stretching over the cover.

Unlike the Sandman hardcover that I reviewed last, that was shot directly from old comic books to reproduce the look of an old comic book, The Losers features new flat computer coloring that smartly doesn’t compete with the power of Kirby’s art and design, and presents the material in a clean and well-packaged form.

Kirby’s Losers stories are as mired in the cold reality of war as The Fourth World is the vibrant make-believe of outer space, and weighted with the pathos of the characters, be they American or Nazi. His first story, “Kill Me With Wagner” follows a Nazi Major’s obsessive quest to find a famous concert pianist before the Losers do. The explosive finale involves a music soundtrack of Wagner on a printed page, as the Major meets his final fate.

“Devastator Vs. Big Max” is the only time Kirby jumped the shark in his Losers run (yes, even our much-loved King slipped every once in a while), with the Losers creating a large science-fiction tank to lure out the Nazis’ super-weapon. Other stories feature Gunner teaching a group of war orphans to become Marines, the four caught in a town razed by Nazis, or Johnny Cloud honoring the Japanese code of Bushido!

Another jewel in the King’s crown is, perhaps, his most lauded Losers story: “’Mile-A-Minute’ Jones” features a rematch between an African-American Olympic racer and his Nazi counterpart. When African-American track star Jesse Owens cleaned up four medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympics (taking the air out of Hitler’s ‘Aryan Supremacy’), it made world news. When Jones races his German opponent a second time, it is on a battlefield and amidst firing guns. The personal tension between the two men, the civil tension, and the sheer danger make it one of Kirby’s most noted narrative sequences.

Ironically, the Losers themselves are rarely given the personal development that their supporting characters and enemies are. That's fine, because the four soldiers serve as catalysts for each story, illustrating the horrors of war. 

In The Losers, like in war, there are no ultimate victories for either side.