Let’s keep on rolling and look at another of my absolute, all-time favorite stories The King ever did. This time up : the two-part saga of “Panama Fattie” from Our Fighting Forces numbers 157 and 158, cover-dated July and August, 1975 respectively.
As our story begins, some shady shit involving hijacked equipment and supplies has necessitated The Losers’ presence in the Panama Canal zone, but that doesn’t mean ultimate hard-luck heroes Captain Storm, Johnny Cloud, Gunner and Sarge don’t have time for a drink, and the bar favored by servicemen in the area is owned by a fellow American — specifically, a larger-than-life (in every respect) gal whose real name is Lil, but who everyone refers to as — well, you can probably already guess. Lil’s a fun-loving lady with a heart of gold (or so it would seem) and an eye for men in uniform, and she takes a special liking to Sarge right off the bat — and wouldn’t you know, despite being the hard-ass of the group, he seems to have a thing for her, too. Can Cupid work his magic even in the most unlikely, not to mention dangerous, situations?
Now’s not a good time for matters of the heart, though, for while our heroes don’t know it yet, “Panama Fattie” is leading a double life as the very leader of the gang of smugglers and hijackers they’d encountered earlier (in a scene that plays out very differently for “in the know” readers than it does for The Losers themselves), and she’s not too picky about who she does business with — and that’s put her in bed (metaphorically speaking, mind you) with The Emperor’s boys. If the Japanese want to pull off the audacious scheme they have in mind, though, they need both a “connection” and some protection — and Lil is happy to provide both for a price. Plus, as you can see from the double-page splash shown earlier, she’s a crack shot. Definitely not someone you want to mess with!
R &R is something that never last long for The Losers, of course, but they have some bad luck worthy of their name this time out and end up captured at the end of issue 157. It looks like it’s probably curtains for ’em as number 158 (entitled “Bombing Out On The Panama Canal!”) opens — it frequently does — but some serious on-the-fly ingenuity (that, fair enough, requires a heavier-than-usual dose of suspension of disbelief) sees them freed from their captors’ bonds and staring the true nature of their dilemma squarely in the face, as you can see below —
And so an honest-to-goodness Kamikaze run on the Panama Canal itself is what’s got to be stopped here, but hopelessly outgunned and outnumbered, The Losers are going to need some outside help if they want to put the kibosh on this tragedy-waiting-to-happen, as well as survive themselves. The odds are slim — but their potential ally is anything but. Kirby’s story structure here is downright cinematic (villain introduced first while going about her dastardly business, protagonists come in next in a heavy-action sequence that’s followed by an uncharacteristically casual scene, then the particulars of their mission as far as they know them are laid out, then full-throttle combat, then capture, then escape, then “big reveal,” then — we’ll get to that in a second), and his pacing brisk and dynamic. Even the few “slow” parts feel anything but and work in service to aid the eventual climax, which sees Sarge forced with a dilemma of both the mind and heart : stop “Panama Fattie” dead (literally) in her tracks, or return the favor she showed him (twice, but only once that he knows of) and refuse to shoot her even though it might mean death for them all — and countless others.
Moral quandaries are always fascinating — particularly when handled with the deftness and skill of Jack Kirby — but this one packs a double-wallop : Sarge doesn’t gun her down, but that actually turns out to be the right move both ethically and logistically, for it helps to cement a change of heart that Lil, as our heroes had already glimpsed, was already in the midst of. Tragically, she dies anyway — just moments later, in fact — but under far different circumstances than she would have had Sarge pulled the trigger, to wit : she sacrifices herself to save Sarge and, in turn, everyone else. As fate and circumstance would have it, then, by doing the “wrong” thing, Sarge has actually done the “right” thing — and doing the “wrong” thing for years on end actually puts Lil in position to do the “right” thing when it matters most.
This is Shakespearean drama at its finest, and Kirby’s keen eye for period authenticity and first-hand knowledge of the rigors of close-quarter combat drive it home with stunning vigor. Once Lil and Sarge have shared her dying moment there’s still a bombing raid to be stopped, though, and Kirby’s aerial sequences are just as stunning as the more quiet tragedy that plays out just prior, with Johnny Cloud and Gunner, pursuing their quarry in a technical, brazenly swooping directly under it and lighting it up from below with a mounted machine gun. Breathtaking stuff, as only The King Of Comics and inker par excellence Mike Royer can deliver.
Still, for all its blistering action, it’s the “human element” that elevates these comics to “classic” status in this reviewer’s humble estimation. There are clear rights and wrongs offered up here, to be sure, and an unwavering commitment to his conscience (never shoot a civilian, never shoot a woman) proves to be Sarge’s salvation (as well as everyone else’s), but Kirby knew that the “bad guys” were human being with lives, loves, and dreams of their own, as well, and were all too often simply stuck playing a hand they wished, in retrospect, they’d never been dealt — even if, paradoxically, they’d dealt it to themselves. The story told over issues 157 and 158 of Our Fighting Forces, then, is more than a simple tale of betrayal, tragedy, and redemption — it is a statement of belief on Kirby’s part that even under the most dire circumstances, we’re all more alike than we are different, and that the connections we make with each other, no matter how brief or small, aren’t just what we live for — they can literally save us, too.