Saturday, May 15, 2010

Termite (Sequential) Art: Jack Kirby's The Losers

Yeah, it's a film blog. Guess what: I like comics too.

Decades after World War II, legendary comics artist Jack Kirby -- best known as the co-creator of The Fanastic Four and The X-Men with Stan Lee - still had nightmares about it. A seemingly routine assignment to one of DC's war series in 1974 gave Kirby the forum to put those nightmares to paper and resulted in some of the most personal and powerful comics of his career. The book was Our Fighting Forces, home to The Losers, a platoon of misfit World War II soldiers created by writer Robert Kanigher in 1970 (their name would get repurposed in 2002 for an unrelated Veritgo comic which served as the source material for this year's action film of the same name).

At the time, Kirby was required under the terms of his exclusive contract to DC to write, draw, and edit fifteen pages of comics art a week, about as insane a deadline as you could possibly have (today, many extremely popular and successful comics artists struggle to draw -- and just draw -- fifteen pages a month). Most would crack under that kind of pressure; according to the introduction to the hardcover collection of Kirby's OMAC: One Man Army Corps, the pressure to keep up with Kirby was too great for his regular inker, Mike Royer, who quit to escape the endless grind. Kirby, though, channeled that stress, refracted it through his nightmares, to create one of the most urgent, anxiety-laden comics I've ever read.

The de facto mode of comics was, during Kirby's heyday, action and adventure. More than almost any artist in the medium's history, Kirby had a gift for using the language of comics -- pacing, panel size, sound effects -- to evoke excitement in the reader. But where most of Kirby's work is escapist -- and with his flair for elaborate mythologies, alien races, and grand, otherworldy vistas, it's often a literal escape -- Our Fighting Forces applies those skills to horrify readers instead of entertain them. Instead of granting us escape, it traps us in the sweaty frenzy of war. Consider this page from Kirby's best Losers story, "A Small Place in Hell," from Our Fighting Forces #152:

In the story, the Losers have wandered into a town they think the Allies have captured for a little R&R. Instead, the village is a Nazi stronghold where they're quickly surrounded and heavily outnumbered. Note the way Kirby pins that soldier to the corner of panel three with the exaggerated muzzle flash and the enormous sound effect (of his own scream), creating a sense of claustrophobia and tension. Also notice the absolute chaos of the last panel, which is choked with soldiers, and bullets. Every single centimeter of available space is covered, conveying the idea that The Losers have nowhere to run or hide.

There are a couple questionable choices -- I would love to know the thinking that went into the creation of The Losers' nemesis "Panama Fattie" -- but there are also more than half-a-dozen outstanding issues in Kirby's year-long run (now collected in a gorgeous hardcover) that reject the glamorous, consequence-free violence of most comics for the bleak realities of war. Interestingly, with the exception of one two-part storyline, there are no connections between any of Kirby's issues of Our Fighting Forces. One mission might be set in Europe, the next in the Pacific. As to how The Losers get from one place to the other, the book offers no explanation. Nightmares rarely do.

(The scan from OFF #152 is taken from this impressive analysis of the issue that is definitely worth the time of anyone looking for further reading on this subject.)

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