So I’ve been feeling a little under the weather, and that hasn’t left me much time to prepare anything for the nerd farm. So instead of trying to rush putting together reviews for all the funnybooks I bought last week, I thought instead that I’d tell you a story about Jack Kirby that I ran across in a collection of essays called Comic Book Apocalypse: the Graphic World of Jack Kirby.
I’ve been working my way through the collection slowly, as I often do with scholarly work such as this. It’s a mixed bag of fascinating perspectives, over-thought analysis, and stories from Kirby’s life. It’s one of those stories that I wanted to tell today.
Jack Kirby fought in World War II. And unlike some other cartoonists with more impressive resumes and a greater ability to sell themselves, Kirby was a grunt. He arrived on D-Day, and fought with the 11th Infantry in the long, slow liberation of France. And the only thing his artistic ability got him in all that time was the job of scout. Kirby would be sent out ahead of the main forces, alone, to reconnoiter and draw pictures of the French villages he found, to give the troops a better idea of what lay ahead.
It was dangerous work that often lead Kirby into close calls with German troops. He learned to be stealthy, and to be careful, but sometimes conflict was unavoidable. On one such occasion, in the fall of 1944, Kirby got distracted by a rare sight: an abandoned tavern in which the liquor bottles were still intact. But when he went inside, he found that he wasn’t the only one answering the siren call of the booze: three SS officers were already there, and they caught Kirby flat-footed. They forced him to his knees and, upon examining his dog tags, realized he was a Jew.
At this point, Kirby’s own accounts of the story often became disjointed. He remembered maddening details of the scene, especially the knife one of the Nazis had holstered in his boot. And certainly, that would have been a powerful image: a German dagger, right at eye level as he knelt down, the Nazis taunting him in preparation for doing god knows what.
Kirby said in interviews that a “red sheet” came down over his eyes, then, and he didn’t have a clear recollection of what happened next. He grabbed the knife, that much seems clear. There was stabbing, and shooting, in what order he obviously didn’t remember. But when it was over, and that red sheet lifted, Jack Kirby was alive. And those three Nazis weren’t.
I’ve taken that story from an essay called “The Red Sheet,” by Glen David Gold, who looks at many later Kirby works and wonders if they weren’t examples of him working out post-traumatic stress in story form. He makes a convincing case, especially in relation to Kirby’s 1960s work on Captain America. But it wasn’t Cap I thought of as I was reading of Kirby’s war-time experiences. I was thinking about The Losers.
The Losers was a World War II strip starring characters whose solo features had all been canceled. So they were all put together as a makeshift commando unit whose missions often ended in soul-crushing failure, living object lessons in the horrors of war (ergo, “The Losers”). It was unusual, at that point in his career, for Kirby to agree to take on a strip featuring characters he didn’t personally create. But he did take on The Losers, and in his hands they became… well… winners. Hard-luck heroes who couldn’t catch a break, but who nonetheless found a way to succeed in the end.
In part, I think this was because the idea of heroes who lose went against Kirby’s basic philosophy. But also, I think he saw a lot of himself in The Losers. They were often thrust into unreasonably dangerous situations, too, and had to fight their way out with little else but their own sheer ferocity. There’s also a sense of them being trapped in some of the imagery. Whether they’re being caught unawares as in that cover above, or fighting against impossible odds…
…this could be a pretty claustrophobic book. Even when the story called for something as wide open as a sky filled with Nazi flares, the staging was cramped:
Kirby also echoed his own war experiences on one occasion, having The Losers head into an abandoned French village filled with hidden enemies:
I’m picking my Losers images carefully here, of course. I could just as easily (and far more spectacularly) have chosen this aerial view of a sea battle…
…but it wouldn’t have fit my point as well. Hell, for that matter, I’m not even sure I really have a point here. It’s just that, knowing more about Kirby’s experiences as an Army scout really makes me want to see how he wrote about World War II in his later years, at what I personally consider his creative peak. Time for a Losers re-read, then, I think. I’ve often thought of it as one of his lesser works, but knowing what I know now… I may have to rethink that opinion.