Showcase Presents: The Losers Vol. 1

This volume reprints stories from G.I. Combat #138 and Our Fighting Forces #123-150. Stories are written by Robert Kanigher, and penciled by Russ Heath, Ken Barr, Ross Andru and John Severin.

There's little earth-shaking here in this collection. For the most part, it's straight up war stories: there's a mission, there's a problem, there's a resolution. That being said, for the most part it's executed tremendously well.

The concept behind the Losers is that each member of the team has had a lot of bad luck. Captain Storm lost the entire crew of his PT Boat and his leg. Later he also loses an eye. Sarge and Gunner lost their squad of "greenies". Captain Johnny Cloud lost his wingman and his squadron. Ona lost her family when he Losers showed up to liberate the Nazi-occupied town she lived (not the Losers fault, just bad luck as usual). Their poor luck continues throughout the war, as while they are usually successful at part of their mission objectives, frequently they fail to fully meet their mission objectives, and in most instances they are the last ones standing on either side.

I think one of the reasons these stories work as well as they do is that they're all pretty short for the most part. There are a couple of extended stories (which I'll write about shortly), but most of them are of the 12-14 page variety. Because of this (and presumably because of Kanigher's style), the stories are tightly plotted and move forward quickly. There's some character development but it never bogs down the story, just explains motivations. There isn't any skimping on the "realism" too, for the most part. Very few characters besides the Losers themselves survive to the next story. Several of the Losers have psychological episodes that, while they're never explained as such, tend to stem from being in a war zone.

Thinking about it, there's something in the team dynamic that excuses the need to develop any sort of supporting characters. I'm usually of the opinion that for a property to thrive over the years, a strong supporting cast is required, but in this instance the lack of recurring supporting characters outside of the team works fairly well. Maybe it's a war comics thing, as it seemed to work well for The Haunted Tank crew, and for Sgt. Rock and Easy Company.

All things being equal however, there are some things that just plain don't work--they aren't story killers, just things that don't fit well. For instance, the Losers come from three different branches of the military, but somehow seem to have been formed into a kind of Commando unit, and there's little explanation as to why this happens. Ona, a civilian, is allowed to go on missions with them. Capt. Storm is allowed to serve in the field not only with a wooden leg, but after losing an eye as well. The team are bounced from the ETO to the PTO and back again. All of those points seem to be outside of the realms of a military unit. Additionally there's the usual "yeah, right" military heroics that tend to show up in war comics (shooting down a fighter plane with a bazooka, etc.).

I'm not forgetting the ongoing stories. The second one, with the team stranded in North Africa, works pretty well, but the other, after Capt. Storm "dies" and suddenly a pirate with a pegleg shows up really had me wondering exactly what DC thought of its readers intelligence, not to mention the intelligence of the other team members who meet the pirate several times but can't figure out who the one-eyed, one-legged man might be.

All in all, this was a very satisfying collection and a very quick read as well. If there is a Volume 2 in store, I'll be picking it up right away.

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Kirby's run, which came next, ran from ##151-162 and has been reprinted by DC in hardback.

"The Losers" was my favourite WWII series put out by DC, for the reasons you cited.  In addition, the interdynamic between the four major characters---Captain Storm, Captain Cloud, Sarge, and Gunner---was better than in either the Easy Company series or the Haunted Tank.  The friendly barbs involving service rivalry.  The occasional joking from Gunner and Sarge because of their enlisted status ("That's just like officers . . . the enlisted guys get stuck with the grunt work!")

 

One in-joke got a chuckle out of me.  It occurred during Bob Kanigher and John Severin's run on the series.  For some dozen issues, whenever the Losers were attacked by an enemy aircraft, the Losers would fire back from the ground; Captain Cloud, the aviator on the team, would shout---every time---"Don't shoot at the plane where it is!  Shoot in front of it!  Lead it!"

 

It was, more or less, an example of a standard WWII comic-book scene, the same way that every time Easy Company faced a German tank, Sergeant Rock would yell "Aim for the treads!" or "Bring the bazooka up!"  So, I didn't dwell on Cloud's perpetual advice overmuch.

 

Then, toward the end of Kanigher and Severin's time on the series, in Our Fighting Forces # 146 (Dec., 1973-Jan., 1974), the Losers are once again strafed by a Nazi aircraft, and Cloud barks, "You'll only plaster sky if you fire directly at him!  Lead him!"

 

And Gunner shouts back, "You yell that every time a plane hits us, ace . . . Don't you think we've caught on by now?"

 

But I did have some conceptual problems with the series.  Most of them you raised, yourself, Randy:

 

"All things being equal however, there are some things that just plain don't work---they aren't story killers, just things that don't fit well. For instance, the Losers come from three different branches of the military, but somehow seem to have been formed into a kind of Commando unit, and there's little explanation as to why this happens. Ona, a civilian, is allowed to go on missions with them. Capt. Storm is allowed to serve in the field not only with a wooden leg, but after losing an eye as well."

 

Some of those can be accepted, if taken with a sip of comic-book-reality tonic.  There are notable instances, during that era, of men returning to combat duty after losing a leg or an eye.  Captain (eventually Vice Admiral) John Madison Hoskins, of the Navy, was assigned to command USS Princeton.  During the turn-over, the ship was attacked during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, and Hoskins lost his right leg below the knee.  He eventually returned to command the re-built Princeton and also saw action in the Korean War.

 

Corporal Leo Major, of the Canadian Army, lost an eye during a reconnaissance mission on D-Day.  He refused a medical discharge and continued his duties as a scout and a sniper, eventually earning the Distinguished Conduct Medal for heroic action in 1944.

 

There are other examples, but as it applies to the Losers and Captain Storm, in particular, I do have to squint a little.  In Storm's debut, in Captain Storm # 1 (May-Jun., 1964), he is already has a wooden leg.  In a flashback, the readers learn that Storm lost his left leg on his first mission as the skipper of a PT boat, after a Japanese ship blew the PT boat to smithereens, killing all of its crew, except for Storm.  That first issue describes Storm's medical rehabilitation, his return to active duty, his assignment to command another PT boat, and how he earned the trust of his new crew.  The rest of the Captain Storm series follows from that point.

 

Now, I can readily accept the Navy returning Storm to duty on a ship.  But the regimen of a skipper at sea is much less physically demanding, in terms of the use of one's legs, than being an infantryman---which is essentially what Storm was, when assigned to the Losers.  While the first story in the Losers series, from Our Fighting Forces # 123 (Jan.-Feb., 1970), provided a justification for Storm's inclusion on the mission (he was a double for a military intelligence spy who also had a wooden left leg), it's tough to buy the idea that the U.S. military would routinely send a single-leg-above-the-knee amputee into ground battle.

 

And it's even tougher to accept that Storm would be certified for combat duty after losing his right eye.  I think even Bob Kanigher realised that and came up with the tale "½ a Man", for O.F.F. # 142 (Mar.-Apr., 1973), in which Storm proves he is competent for combat duty after the brass wants to bench him for his disabilities.

 

The presence of Ona Tomson, a Norwegian civilian, can be waved-away by the fact that she was part of the Norwegian Resistance, but it does raise the most crucial question of just what was the military hierarchy over the Losers.  Was it the O.S.S. or a conventional military outfit?  This was never made clear---perhaps, deliberately on the part of Kanigher.

 

That's because, as you point out, Randy, the structure of the Losers really doesn't make sense.  You have two services represented---the Army and the  Navy---and three different branches, the surface Navy, the Marines, and the Army-Air Forces.

 

Moreover, the series was instituted on the basis that all four main characters were wash-outs---Storm had lost a PT boat and crew; Gunner and Sarge lost a patrol of recruits; and Cloud lost his wingman.  Thus, they had been assigned to a replacement depot---sort of a military limbo---for their failures.

 

Now, under real-life wartime conditions, such things, if not connected to incompentency, were looked at as misfortunes of war and didn't necessarily result in banishment for the leaders involved.  But in the case of Storm and company, if you look at their individual series' runs, Storm lost quite a few boats and crews, Cloud lost quite a few wingmen, and Gunner and Sarge lost quite a few fellow Marines during patrols.  Kanigher's script didn't mention that fact, but by extrapolation, it makes sense that Storm, Cloud, Gunner, and Sarge went sent to the repple-depple.  The brass will only accept so many disasters before it marks a man.

 

The first Losers story, in G.I. Combat # 138 (Oct.-Nov., 1969), threw the four of them, plus Jeb Stuart, together as a group ad hoc.  The first story of the Losers series provided a justification for using those four particular men.  And for the next one or two missions, also tried to account for using them as a multi-branch squad by including land, sea, and air aspects to their assignments.  But after that, the Losers were simply employed as a special-force team, regardless of the nature of the mission.

 

This is where things got fast and loose.  The military structure to which the Losers were assigned was never specified; they did not even have a regular commanding officer, and that's where I started to feel that the Losers did not make sense.  It was illogical to send these four men, from disparate branches, with no special-forces training (except for maybe Gunner and Sarge), on critical missions.  Especially when these four had a military reputation for failing.

 

Not when it would have been much more advantageous to send a team of Army Rangers, or a Marine Recon squad, or a team of UDT frogmen---who had the individual training and the experience of working together as a team.

 

Kanigher never bothered to provide even a comic-book reason for the Losers' continued employment as a unit.  You couldn't even go with the "They're the best of the best" argument, since the Losers routinely failed to accomplish their objective.

 

As much as I enjoyed "the Losers", this was the biggest "Oh, come on!" pill that I had to swallow with each issue.  I don't even want to think about Kirby's run on the series, which not only aggravated these flaws, but screwed up on several other details of the characters.

I wasn't even aware that these characters had history before this series, although I think I remember hearing about Captain Storm at one point.

I was surprised that the original title was apparently supposed to be The Born Losers.

I enjoyed these stories greatly as the Losers were a band of equals as opposed to Rock and JEB Stuart. They all had their moments and I liked Captain Storm as a character. There was a nice story where Gunner had enough of being a Loser, literally and figuratively, and just wanted out, thank you very much. I think Sarge had the least action though he seemed more the voice of reason than Cloud or Storm. (Heh, "Cloud", "Storm". What are the odds!)

The only real issues I have was that Kanigher beating us over the head that Johhny Cloud was, in fact, a Native American, or an "Injun". Also you can only have depressing endings so often before you just want it to stop!

I think you have to consider the times in terms of Kanigher's treatment of Johnny Cloud.  When these books were written in the late 1960's-early 1970's there was a great deal of sympathy towards the plight of the Native Americans, and quite frankly, American Indians were all the rage.  Remember Billy Jack?

Also, the depressing endings didn't bother me much.  Firstly, they weren't all depressing, as some stories ended somewhat upbeat.  Also, it was war. Bad things happen, and in his way I think Kanigher was being sensitive to that in terms of not portraying it as all fun and games.

I remember when I was around 12-13 (round about 1977-1978) and I really got into the Haunted Tank (I will tell you right now that a large part of the appeal was Gus, as there just plain weren't many African-American characters around at that time, especially at DC).  They seemed like a cool bunch of dudes and the idea of going off and beating the bad guys sounded like a great deal, and I expressed an interest in the military to my father, who'd lived through WWII.  He quickly pointed out that the stories in those comics were decidedly one-sided and rarely showed any of the consequences of acting so gung-ho.  Then he explained the whole "Ronson Lighter" thing to me about Sherman tanks.  I did some research and realized that perhaps he was right.  I also stopped reading Haunted Tank stories at that time.

Please understand, this is not an indictment of the military on my  part, but a rejection of the what I would call the John Wayne syndrome, where the hero would casually show up, fire millions of bullets in a firefight and walk away with a clean uniform.  I can very much enjoy war comics, but I do appreciate a less gung-ho approach.

Philip Portelli said:


The only real issues I have was that Kanigher beating us over the head that Johhny Cloud was, in fact, a Native American, or an "Injun". Also you can only have depressing endings so often before you just want it to stop!

Is Kirby's run any good?  What  year was this?  I might seek out the hardcover on ebay if you recommend it strongly enough.

Luke Blanchard said:

Kirby's run, which came next, ran from ##151-162 and has been reprinted by DC in hardback.

"I remember when I was around 12-13 (round about 1977-1978) and I really got into the Haunted Tank (I will tell you right now that a large part of the appeal was Gus, as there just plain weren't many African-American characters around at that time, especially at DC)."

 

For much of its run, I found the Haunted Tank series to be rather boring.  It was the same trope repeated ad infinitum.  Stuart and his crew are sent on a mission.  The ghost of General J. E. B. Stuart appears and gives Jeb a warning or advice, all phrased cyptically; and of course, the ghost refuses to make it clear when Jeb asks him to explain it.  The tank crew hears Jeb talking to the ghost and think he's crazy.  By the climax of the mission, Jeb figures out what the general's ghost meant, which leads to victory.  His crew still think Jeb's crazy, but because he led through another risky situation, they decide to let it ride.

 

The series didn't show me anything interesting until the multi-issue sequence in which Gus Gray appeared as a G.I. who had just escaped from a German P.O.W. camp.  After Haunted Tank loader Arch Asher was killed, in G. I. Combat # 162 (July, 1973), Gray joined the team as its new loader.  And frankly, that made a hell of a difference.

 

Before Gus, the crew of the Tank---except for Jeb---were just a bunch of generic guys with no discernable personalities.  Gus not only had a personality, but his presence on the crew seemed to coax personalities out of the other two enlisted guys, Rick Rawlins and Slim Stryker.  Gus was the loader, but always wanted the chance at Rick's job---the gunner.  In response, Rick, the youngest member of the crew, always refused to let Gus take a shot at it.  (No pun intended.)

 

In a later era, the reason for Rick's refusal might have limned as a racist one, but in this case, it was because he jealously guarded his place on the crew and, to some extent, resented Gus for taking Arch's place.  Slim, the driver, was the older, level-headed peacemaker.

 

There was also the added dimension of Gus, the newbie, being startled at Jeb's "talking to himself" and believing in a ghost.  Rick and Slim, now used to it, served as the exposition, both for Gus and for new readers.  It was interesting to watch Gus's gradual acceptance into the Haunted Tank "family".

 

Naturally, I couldn't identify with Gus Gray from an ethnic standpoint, as you did, Randy.  But his addition to the cast definitely made the series a lot more readable and I liked his character.

Kirk G said:

Is Kirby's run any good?  What  year was this?  I might seek out the hardcover on ebay if you recommend it strongly enough.

The one issue I've read from the run was #158, and I found it very weak. It's possible some of the other issues are better. The collection is titled Jack Kirby's the Losers and was published in 2009.

My copy of Jack Kirby's The Losers arrived in the mail today.  I'm turning off the phone, TV and computer so i can sit down and read it without interruption tonight.

Thanks for the recommendation, guys.

I am jealous that you are discovering this book for the first time.

Kirk G said:

My copy of Jack Kirby's The Losers arrived in the mail today.  I'm turning off the phone, TV and computer so i can sit down and read it without interruption tonight.

Thanks for the recommendation, guys.

It was wunderbar!

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