EDITOR’S NOTE: This column arrives a day late, but I hope SBC readers still find relevant and interesting. Apologies for my tardiness.
For Memorial Day, I wanted to do a special article about war comics, and one series in particular. The war comics genre is practically dead. There are no monthly series dedicated to men and women in combat, and only the occasional mini-series about soldiers. During the Silver Age, you could find literally dozens of titles dedicated to combat. Maybe it’s because society’s perceptions about war and military life have changed since Vietnam. Modern fiction about war paints a decidedly negative picture. War is shown as brutal, horrifying, and often insane. It is the antithesis of civilization. That’s why the best war comics series are those that portray the human tragedy inherent in conflict. DC’s Sgt. Rock, EC’s Two-Fisted Tales, and Marvel’s The ‘Nam displayed the terrible realities of war to varying degrees.
DC comics seemed to publish more war comics than anyone else. Their characters ranged from the off-beat to the downright bizarre. There was Hans Von Hammer, the Enemy Ace of WWI, who mourned the pilots he killed in battle; Jeb Stuart, commander of a tank haunted by the ghost of his Confederate ancestor; and “The War that Time Forgot”, a recurring series in Star-Spangled War Stories about battles fought on an island of dinosaurs!
But my personal favorites were The Losers.
The Losers were four men and a dog who all seemed cursed with incredibly bad luck. Not only had they all lost men under their separate commands, they’d also each lost a series! (This was one of the earliest examples of the “take some cancelled solo characters and make them a team”-team concept.) Capt. William Storm debuted in his own series in 1964. He’d lost his first crew and his leg to a Japanese sub painted with shark’s teeth. Storm gained command of another boat and searched relentlessly for that sub. His series was cancelled in 1967 after 18 issues. Johnny Cloud, the Navajo Ace, debuted in All-American Men of War #82 in 1960. His first story is an unusually subtle study in racism. Cloud was the lead feature in that series until issue #111. Cloud had lost a young pilot that flew with him. Our Fighting Forces #46 introduced two Marines known only as “Gunner” and “Sarge.” They were joined by a dog called “Pooch” in issue #49. This unlikely trio was the lead feature until issue #94, making them the most successful of the Losers. They were the only survivors of a platoon that ran into a mine field.
Separately, they were 2nd and 3rd-tier characters close to being forgotten. Together, they became one of DC’s most distinct teams. The Losers first came together in a Haunted Tank story in G.I. Combat #138. Reader’s reaction to the team (and the return of a fan-favorite character for some of them) was positive enough to make the gathering permanent. The Losers became the lead feature in Our Fighting Forces #123. Their first story set the tone for the series. The Losers were given an assignment they weren’t supposed to succeed–or survive! Capt. Storm had to impersonate a British intelligence agent, then “break down” and confess false information about a commando attack. The rest of the team would stage that attack to distract enemy forces. In other words, The Losers were being used as decoys.
This was a decidedly darker take on the military than normally seen in war comics. Men were often sacrificed in battle. But using men as a “diversionary tactic,” to all but tell them they were being sent to certain death, sends the reader a clear message about the armed forces: People are expendable. Perhaps the political climate of the time influenced Robert Kanigher when he wrote the story. The comic is dated February 1970, putting its creation sometime in late 1969. By then, the Vietnam War was at its peak. It was becoming clear to most Americans that the United States should never have gotten involved in that Asia country, and victory was growing less likely. Even the normally conservative Kanigher must have realized the U.S. government regarded all soldiers as expendable.
The Losers continued to star in Our Fighting Forces until the series’ end with #181 in 1981. Their stories displayed the team’s bad luck and miraculous triumphs over impossible odds. In 1985, The Losers lost big when they were killed by Shadow Demons in Crisis on Infinite Earths. Since Crisis rewrote history, (and negated the first 10 issues of itself), The Losers got a new “official” death in The Losers Special. The story was appropriately called “Losers Die Twice.” In 2004, The Losers appeared in DC: the New Frontier just long enough to die on Dinosaur Island from “The War That Time Forgot.” Wow. How unlucky do you have to be to die three times!
Currently, there is a new team of Losers. Published under DC’s Vertigo line, The Losers stars a team of rogue deep-cover agents fighting to expose the secrets of their former employer. The series is currently up to issue #24, with the first 19 issues collected into paperback.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the military and its culture. I’m currently trying to join the Air Force Officer’s Training School. While I look forward to improving my mind and body, and helping to protect my country, the day may come when I have to risk my life in combat. In the case of a prolonged war, surviving one battle means living long enough to fight again. And someone several ranks above me, someone I’ll never meet, will decide to put me in harm’s way. They’ll consider me and my crew as a “diversionary tactic” or “acceptable loses.” They will construct strategies where success runs counter to my survival.
So today, while we remember and honor all the brave men and women who fought in war and in peace, let us also take time for those we often overlook:
–The families of fallen soldiers, those who’ve lost spouses, parents, and children.
–The soldiers who fought in Korea, Vietnam, Gulf War II, and all the other “mistakes” made by our leaders.
–Those ordered to their deaths to provide distractions, to infiltrate enemy positions, and anything else deemed “for the good of the war.”
–The civilians killed on both sides of every conflict, remembered only as “collateral damage”
–The poor and underprivileged whose social programs were cut while military spending expanded.
Here’s to them and anyone else who lost everything except their lives; who were branded cowards because they decided to live rather than kill; who paid for the folly of leaders that never saw combat; who were branded “unpatriotic” for protesting wars they considered unjust and unnecessary.
Here’s to the hippies, the Lost Generation, the Bonus Army, the blacklisted, the dissenters, the widows, and the orphans.
Here’s to the losers.