Saturday, April 09, 2011

Even the Losers Get Lucky Sometimes

Even though Jack Kirby was best known for his superhero comic work (the genre that he revolutionized in the forties and the sixties), my first exposure to his comic book work was not a superhero comic. That's because before I began reading and collecting superhero comics, I was a big fan of DC's line of war comics. (I liked Marvel's SGT FURY AND HIS HOWLING COMMANDOS too, but even as an eight year old the DC war comics seemed to have more gravitas, with their brooding Joe Kubert covers and their "Make War No More" slogan in the last panel of every story.) So the first Kirby comic I ever bought, back in 1974, was what turned out to be his first work on the OUR FIGHTING FORCES comic feature, The Losers.

Last week, memories of that first encounter were brought back as I bought and read the hardcover collection of Kirby's LOSERS stories that was published two years ago.

In the introduction to the volume, Neil Gaiman notes that THE LOSERS was arguably the last great Kirby comics feature; and reading the stories nearly thirty years after their publication, I must agree. These weren't Kirby's characters (they were all former stars of their own strips who had lost their slots -- hence, perhaps, the feature's title)but Kirby had written and drawn many, many war comics before he worked on THE LOSERS -- including the aforementioned SGT. FURY. Artistically, Kirby was still at the top of his game, his panels loaded with the violent poetry that brought to life his Marvel work on THOR, FANTASTIC FOUR, and CAPTAIN AMERICA, along with the Fourth World books he did in the early seventies for DC. When Kirby draws a Nazi rail mounted Supergun, it looks gigantic, like it goes on for miles; when he depicts a town shelled by the allies, it looks as if hell itself is erupting out of the ground. In terms of writing, Kirby shed the quirks of weird dialogue and jarring punctuation that marked his other written work of the seventies and eighties. Instead, his dialogue is straightforward and rings true, even if stylized in comic book form.

And then there are the stories. As Gaiman points out, Kirby devoted little time to developing the main characters of the strip. Instead, his focus is on the side characters they meet -- the classical pianist who bangs out "Ride of the Valkyries" as the Nazi officer who was searching for her lies dying; the Jesse Owens-like Army supply officer who meets his rival from the 1936 Olympics, now a German paratrooper, and races him through a minefield; the science-fiction-fan private whose ideas are used for a decoy operation. Kirby is unstinting in depicting the Nazis as evil (after all, he and they fought each other during the real World War II); but he also approaches all of his characters as human beings, rather than caricatures.

I recommend THE LOSERS to anyone who knows Kirby only from his superhero work; or who thinks Kirby's strengths were only his art. It's excellent comics work.

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