Monday, May 14, 2012

Storytelling Engines: The Losers

(or "Trust Me--Do NOT Play The 'Losers' Drinking Game")

In comics, there are really only two kinds of team books, regardless of genre--the kind where the whole team is created just for that series, and the kind where a group of prevously-established solo characters join forces. The former generally requires a lot more work than the latter (which may be why the latter is a lot more common than the former) but when it comes to getting a group of existing characters to coalesce into a team, a lot of thought has to go into the rationale for the team and the chemistry between its members. You can't just slap a bunch of people together into a group and assume they'll all want to hang out for no readily discernable reason. (Which is why we're not still seeing the adventures of the New Fantastic Four.)

Most of the time, people think of "team-up" teams as being the exclusive province of superhero comics; it's hard to imagine a bunch of soldiers meeting each other and deciding to form a unit. And for the most part, that's true. But there is one notable exception: The Losers, a 70s war comic that was formed by putting together Johnny Cloud, Navajo Ace (from 'All-American Men of War'), Gunner and Sarge and "Pooch, the Fighting Devil Dog" (from 'Our Fighting Forces') and Captain Storm (from 'Captain Storm', which ran for about twenty issues in the mid-sixties.) Unlike Sergeants Rock and Fury, this group of soldiers started out in their own separate units...and branches of the service...until Fate threw them together. (And apparently, none of the characters' superior officers ever thought to countermand Fate's orders.)

Again, the important elements of a "team-up" ensemble are the rationale and the chemistry, and 'The Losers' focused on the idea that these soldiers were all in some way "jinxed" in a manner that led to the deaths of their units, and that the four hung together in the belief that this way, they wouldn't spread their bad luck around. It's an interesting idea for a series, and the team does have good chemistry together; instead of downplaying the unlikely grouping of Navy officers, Air Force pilots and Marines as a group of commandos, the book goes out of its way to show how their different skill sets give them surprising advantages in combat.

However, it does take a while for the concept to fully gel in the mind of Bob Kanigher. (Which isn't surprising; to borrow a military metaphor, writing a comic book series is something of a "live fire exercise", with elements that don't work jettisoned on the fly, and new elements added as they come into the writer's imagination.) The early issues focus less on the emotional aspects of a group of lone survivors learning to rely on their teammates again, and more on the team's fatalistic acceptance of their status as "losers" performing impossible missions. (And just in case you're not clear about their luck, Kanigher makes sure to work in the word "loser" at least twice a page to remind you. I initially thought about doing a "Losers Drinking Game", but I realized that my readership is too small to risk anyone dying of alcohol poisoning.)

As the series goes on, and Kanigher begins to work with extended storylines, we start to get more of a sense of the bizarre, hard-luck heroes he had in mind; a Norwegian guerilla joins the team, and they go on an extended mission that sees them stranded in Africa for long stretches of the book. For every triumph they earn, they wind up seeing an equal setback that prevents them from seeing home; the mission that was to be their last before their furlough turns out to be a series of Odysseyan ordeals.

Unlike his fictional creations, Kanigher had a bit of luck on his side. Not every writer gets a chance to work out the bugs in their concept before the book gets canceled. But 'The Losers' demonstrates that almost no series starts out perfect, and it's worth taking a while to get to know a series before walking away. Because any comic book series is a work in progress, and the first issue is rarely more than a glimmer of what the story will be. Or, as Gunner and Sarge might have put it in the early issues of 'The Losers', "Losing losers like us only get a loser's break. Isn't that right, losers?"

(That's four shots right there, but I really don't recommend it.)


Anonymous said...

I had the same problem with Kanigher's Suicide Squad stories (a sub-series within The War That Time Forgot). The premise being two-man teams on suicide missions and invariably one of the men hates the other's guts, so we have a reminder every page that he thinks the other guy is yellow/incompetent/traitorous or whatever.
I look forward to you doing either Creature Commandoes or the War That Time Forgot.

John Seavey said...

I actually already did 'The War That Time Forgot'. Short version: Why is the writer spending so much time describing the two men on the apparent suicide mission WHEN YOU'VE GOT SOLDIERS FIGHTING DINOSAURS?!?!?!! :)