Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Poor Forgotten Ona

The DC war-themed books of the time didn’t usually do extended story lines or multi-part stories. But when Archie Goodwin became editor in the early 1970s, Sgt. Rock, the Haunted Tank and the Losers all suddenly became involved in long, multi-issue adventures. I assume this was Goodwin’s decision as editor.

If so, then it was an excellent decision. I’ve talked in that previous post about how good the Sgt. Rock story was. Goodwin himself wrote the concurrent Haunted Tank story arc—something I’ll get around to discussing eventually.

Bob Kanigher, who was writing Sgt. Rock, was also writing Our Fighting Forces—featuring the ad hoc commando group known at the Losers.

The Losers had an odd origin. Each of its members—PT boat skipper Captain Storm; fighter pilot Johnnie Cloud; Marine grunts Gunner and Sarge—had each had their own solo series during the 1960s. When those various series came to an end, Kanigher used an issue of G.I. Combat and a team-up with the Haunted Tank to bring them together as a unit.

The theme behind the Losers was that they were assigned the most difficult and dangerous missions—and that they never completely come out on top. Often, those who are helping them get killed or the mission turns out to be unnecessary. Sometimes, this would come across as a little contrived. But the stronger stories often carried a sharp emotional impact.

In Our Fighting Forces #132, John Severin became the regular artist on the series and stuck around for 19 issues--a run that represents the best of the series. It was during this time that Goodwin became editor and long story arcs became the norm.

For the Losers, this meant that Captain Storm was presumed killed during a mission in Norway, though it later turned out he had amnesia and had become a pirate. (It’s not as silly as it sounds when you read the actual story.)  During this time, a young woman from the Norwegian underground joined up with the Losers.

This was Ona, a very pretty and brave young lady had the willingness and determination to stick a dagger into an SS officer should the situation call for it. It’s no wonder that Gunner soon falls in love with her. 

After Storm regained his memory and rejoined the group, the Losers are sent to Africa to recover a cache of industrial diamonds before the Germans get to them. Things go somewhat awry—as they always did for the Losers—and they end up wandering through the Sahara, getting involved in a series of mini-adventures. They ally themselves with a French Legionnaire, a not-quite-sane British officer and some vengeful Bedouins.

During this time, Gunner’s feelings for Ona trump his experience as a soldier and he nearly gets everyone killed by trying to protect her. Feeling this makes her a burden to the group, Ona strikes out on her own during a sandstorm.

The next time the Losers see her, she’s making nice with a German officer. Has she turned traitor?

No, she hasn’t. In a situation that is probably a little over-the-top in terms of melodrama, Ona has met a German officer she dated before the war. She’s making nice to him because a prisoner in the camp he commands is a Norwegian that Ona has once been engaged to. The Norwegian is wounded and blind, but Ona won’t abandon him.

Of course, the Losers know nothing of this and can’t help but suspect Ona has turned traitor. But when Gunner confronts her during a raid on the German camp, he can’t bring himself to pull the trigger.

Despite the melodrama, the story works. Severin’s excellent art linked with Kanigher’s storytelling skills (which always improved when he had an exceptional artist to work with) ties this all together and gives both the individual mini-adventures and the overall story arc both excitement and emotional impact.

But by then, Archie Goodwin had moved on. Starting in issue #151, Jack Kirby took over as writer and artist for the Losers. If I remember correctly, he was assigned the book by DC and was reluctant to write for someone else’s characters. In fact, he wasn’t familiar with the characters at all. Someone (I can’t remember who—perhaps Mark Evanier) has pointed out that there’s nothing in Kirby’s run that indicates he knew Captain Storm had a wooden leg. And, if he was going to have to work with these characters, he’d do it his way.

Kirby tossed aside the current continuity and took the book in his own Ona-less direction. Suddenly, the Losers were out of the desert, carrying out missions in Europe and the Pacific. It was as if Ona never existed.

Kirby’s run on the Losers is a strong one—Jack Kirby was probably incapable of doing anything other than quality work. (Our Fighting Forces #152 is a particularly engrossing story.) But, though Kirby had long since earned the right to have complete creative control over anything he did—I have to say I think he was mistaken to so abruptly cut off an ongoing story. The regular readers of the Losers were unhappy and they had a point. They wanted to see the story they had been reading come to a proper end.

Well, Ona wasn’t completely forgotten. Kirby eventually returned to Marvel for a time and Kanigher once again became the writer. In Our Fighting Forces #168, the Losers are on a mission in Norway and they meet Ona once again. All the characters seem to have forgotten the details of their previous adventures—the Losers simply say she was presumed dead, while she explains she was ordered back to Norway to rejoin the Underground. There’s no mention of her blind boyfriend or the suspicion that she had turned traitor.

Probably, Kanigher didn’t have time to go into detail and simply did the best he could in bringing some degree of closure for Ona.

According to the DC Wiki, she also appears in Our Fighting Forces #173 (an issue I haven't read), but then seems to have disappeared. The poor girl has been forgotten. And that’s too bad. Women both that pretty and with the grit to eviscerate SS officers are all too rare in the world. 

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