Friday, March 13, 2009

Not What They Appear To Be

This week, DC Comics, in their continuing program to get all of Jack Kirby's 1970s output for the company into hardback volumes, released a collection of Jack's 12 issue run on the World War Two series, The Losers. I haven't read any of those comics since I originally bought them back in the late seventies so it was interesting for me to go back and re-read them. There were also a couple of issues that I hadn't owned back then so there were at least two 'new' Kirby stories. Always a thrill.
As I read my way through the first couple of stories I began to notice something. Kirby, one of best, if not THE best and most influential comic book artists in the history of the medium was known for having a 'tin ear' when it came to dialog. Even those of us who dearly love Kirby sometimes wince at his syntax and we do a lot of good natured kidding about his cover blurbs. (Grab it Chum!) Kirby's dialog was often overblown and overly melodramatic, even for comic books.
But as I read the Losers volume I began to realize that Kirby's dialog was pared down, almost to the point of minimalism and much more naturalistic than in his super hero comics. The four man special military unit known as The Losers spoke in quick terse sentences.
Now someone who doesn't know much about jack might think that he simply wasn't putting in the effort he had on some other series. Not Kirby. The man didn't know how to give less than 100%. Another idea might be that it was the more realistic nature of the stories Jack was telling, and that's more possible.
But I think it had more to do with the fact that Kirby had served in World War Two and that he was drawing on his personal experiences, his memories, as he spun the tight and hardboiled tales of the Losers. Folks who knew Kirby well always mentioned how he never tired of telling stories about the war. In my one meeting with Kirby, back in the late 1980s, he spent a good deal of the hour or so I sat listening to him talking about World War Two. And in fact, the plots of two of the issues of the Losers are roughly based on two stories that he told me, one about getting stuck in a small ruined European town as the Nazis moved in, and one about seeing German soldiers in lines for Broadway shows in New York. (They had presumably taken their submarine up into the Hudson River and gone ashore.) As Jack said, it was a nutty kind of war.
Reports vary on how Kirby came to the Losers assignment and about what he thought of working on the comic, but there's no questioning the effort he put into it. Kirby is known for his fantastic science fiction machinery, but here he depicts handguns and machine guns and tanks and jeeps and grenades every bit as convincingly as he ever drew the Fantasti-car or the S.H.I.E.L.D. Heli-Carrier. His soldiers looked rumpled and unshaven, as if they've slept for days in their clothes. Their uniforms change in different climates and Kirby always took the time to draw the scarves wrapped around the heads of the freezing men or the layers of clothing and the ill fitting boots. His web belts and canteens and such are dead on.
So yeah, I figure Kirby enjoyed working on the Losers and finally getting some of his old war stories told on paper. It is a personal work and it seems closer to real life than anything else of Jack's I've ever seen. Along with my pal Cliff, I was once fortunate enough to actually sit with Kirby and his wife Roz and listen to Jack tell his war stories. For those of you who didn't get the chance there's the new collection of the Losers. Jack's gone now, but his work remains. Grab it, chum.

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