One of author David Eddings two mainstream novels, written in the 1970s, before the publication of The Belgariad, The Losers examines the effect of the welfare state on a group of misfits living in a seedy area of Spokane, Washington, as seen through the eyes of his lead character Raphael.

At the beginning of the book, Raphael is a golden boy, in Metalline Falls, a star football player, and an all-round decent, if rather detached, kind of person. From school, he enrols in Reed College (Eddings' own university) where he meets up with Jacob Damon Flood, a rich cynical young man from Detroit. Flood's influence is insidious and destructive, as he introduces Raphael to drink, and to Bel, an older woman and a friend of the Flood family, who seduces him.

After a row with Bel, engineered by Flood, Raphael takes off drunk in his car and collides with a train, leaving him without one leg, and genitalia.

He runs away from his friends and family, to hide and to adjust to his new situation, and finds himself in Spokane. A small private income from a trust fund and a compensation payout from the railroad, mean that he doesn't need to rely on welfare, but can't live luxuriously, so he takes an upstairs appartment overlooking a run-down neighbourhood inhabited mostly by 'welfairies' -- unmarried mothers, drunks, the mentally ill, and no-hopers of various descriptions.

He observes the patterns of their lives while simultaneously fighting to keep himself out of the clutches of the Social Services -- people that Flood once described as 'girls who never learned to type'. Through his observations, he comes up with a theory of 'loserhood' -- a cycle of dependence, desperation and crisis which is encouraged and nurtured by the Social Workers, unintentionally, but inevitably.

Into this situtation, comes Flood, who has sought Raphael out, and who is not content to merely be a detached observer. He gets involved with the people in the neigbourhood, with disastrous results for them and for himself -- loserhood is an infectious condition.

The novel is a scathing attack on 1970s social policy, but it is also an involving and compelling story, well written and beautifully characterised. It shows Eddings' talent for dialogue which made his fantasy stories so popular, but it is darker than the fantasies, more original, and more tightly plotted. This book is probably Eddings' best work and is well worth reading if you can get hold of it.

Pooch: “Hell, let’s just say it out loud. We’re talkin’ about declarin’ war on the Central Intelligence Agency.”

Clay: “They started it.”

A Vertigo monthly comic book, creator owned by Andy Diggle (author) and Jock (artist). It was nominated for the Best New Series Eisner award in 2004, and the creative team were awarded the Ninth Art Roll of Honour for Breakthrough Talent, 2003.

The Losers were a CIA black ops team set loose in central Asia. Sometime in early 1998, the helicopter they were on went down in flames somewhere near the Kyber Pass from Pakistan into Afghanistan. The CIA believed it had killed them. They were wrong. Now the Losers are out for some getback.

The Losers was originally pitched as a four-part short, but Vertigo liked it so much, they commissioned it as an ongoing series. So far it has been collected in three volumes, Ante Up, Double Down and Trifecta; the latter will be published in mid-May 2005. The first comic was published in June 2003, with pre-release publicity including full page advertisements in sister Vertigo title 100 Bullets.

This was some canny advertising; fans of 100 Bullets’ quick wit, sinister conspiracies and cinematic influences will feel right at home with The Losers. The strip plays out as a crossbreed of Ocean’s Eleven and the A-Team, by way of Michael Mann’s Heat and last week’s front page. Hyper-slick heists mix with snappy dialogue and some sharp observations about America’s war on terror. (Incidentally, this is not the first time Diggle has written about people on the pointy end of the anti-terror campaign in order to lambast its political masters. Snow/Tiger, his 7 part series for British weekly 2000 AD, used the same device by following British and American agents of a counter-terrorism task force.)

Jock’s art is a huge draw (so to speak) to this series. When he first appeared in the pages of 2000 AD, he was seen as an up-and-coming young Turk with an impressive and individual style. His work here and on the Judge Dredd Megazine earned him the Best Newcomer award at the 2001 British National Comic Awards. The Megazine saw his first collaboration with Diggle, a noirish series called Lenny Zero. It was apparently on the strength of this that Vertigo boss Karen Berger imported the creative team wholesale for The Losers.

His style is scratchy, gritty and moody. He uses light and shade exceptionally well – meetings in seedy warehouses and covert night operations alike are infused with a darkness exuding from the moral to the actual. Although his line art has been compared to Eduardo Risso, I find the comparison misleading – Jock’s pencilling is more realistic than Risso’s exaggerated and sometimes cartoonish characters and his inking is more atmospheric. The spooks and soldiers Jock puts on the page are put there looking like they’ve been around the block and can kick ass.

And kick ass they do – while much has been made of the political motivations of this series, at heart it’s an action thriller in print. Accordingly there is ordnance a-plenty, with some exhilarating shoot-outs and combat sequences. These guys being from the darker end of black ops, half the fun is how they get into and out of wherever it is the shootout is happening.

Diggle says, ‘“I gave Jock a big list of movies to give him a sense of the tone I was aiming for. They included 'Heat,' 'Ronin,' 'Way Of The Gun,' 'Three Kings,' 'Ocean's 11,' 'The Usual Suspects,' 'Leon,' 'Payback'... You get the idea.”’ If this constant pop-culture referencing irritates you, you most likely will not warm to The Losers. Well-scripted and well-drawn it may be, but hugely original it is not. As the man says, you get the idea. All well and good, but aiming for such a “cinematic” vibe can leave The Losers occasionally feeling like it hasn’t quite found its own feet. You can end up looking at each sequence sideways, subconsciously trying to work out what it’s referencing.

Suffice it to say that if you are a fan of any of the other series, films or shows mentioned up to now, you will probably like The Losers and as such you should waste no time in getting down to your local neighbourhood comic store and snapping it up. Or just get onto Amazon and pick up the collections. I like it as a rollicking good action-thriller, with plenty of intrigue and a few well put digs to the Man to keep the interest.

There are some spoilers in the following section of the review. With series like this where so much of the appeal is built on plot twists and mystery, I tend to get hyper-sensitive on spoilers, so I understand if anyone wants to bail out here.

Spoiler shields ON!

Still with me?

Diggle is creating a story in which what is known is precious little, and what is unknown is hinted at with smoke, mirrors and misdirection. What seems clear so far is that the Losers’ Agency handler, Max, set them up (the bomb), arranging for their helicopter to be shot down.

Payback’s first stage is stealing an Army Chinook from the White Sands Missile Test Range in New Mexico. Moved by road, resprayed and outfitted with a big-ass electromagnet, the helicopter is then used in a marvellous set-piece sequence to pluck a CIA security van from the Staten Island bridge –with SWAT team guards still inside!

This, however, is just a warm-up. In the meantime, the Losers’ next big score is going after Goliath, a multinational conglomerate with fingers in oil and mercenary pies. The rationale is that the Agency protects American interests. American interests are big business; so going after the business hurts the Agency. Of course, it helps that the CIA uses Goliath’s Customs-exempt service ships as mules to run heroin and cocaine into America. The plan is to lift a hard drive containing the off-the-book drug accounts from the Goliath refinery in Houston. This can then be bargained for immunity and a return to real life. But once in the oil complex, it all goes snafu, with Roque betraying the team for a cargo container full of a cold $250 million cash. Luckily enough, the oil terminal is also a way-point for another CIA operation moving arms, and the remaining Losers get trapped in a warehouse housing a fuel-air bomb big enough to level most of Houston. Lucked out. They use this to hold the entire oil refinery hostage while they make their escape.

One daring, hair-trigger getaway later, and Clay tracks Roque and Wade to a hangar at George Bush International. They are loading the $250m into a cargo plane, and it transpires that they are working for Max, who wants the money for activities unknown on Montserrat. Showdown here – think Face/Off or Die Hard 2 – with Wade eventually meeting a rather gruesome end at the hands of 1) a speeding pick-up truck, 2) a concrete bollard 3) a glass windscreen and finally 4) a turning jet turbine. The damage caused by the human/jet engine interface causes the destruction of the cargo plane a few seconds into its flight.

Roque bails out of the plane with a parachute and carjacks his way into the sunset, while on the phone to the mysterious Max. The first collection, Ante Up, ends here. Roque seems to be set up for a position as Max’s recurring henchman throughout the rest of the series. Tune in next week ...

The Losers roll call:
Aisha – Afghan mudjahedin. Knives, eyebrow piercing and an attitude.
Clay – the leader. The man with the plan, he uses anything from an M16 to a MOAB.
Cougar – laconic sniper. Long haired Latino, not that you can tell under the Panama hat that seems to be welded to his head.
JensenECM nerd, hacker and adrenaline junkie. Hobbies include cracking computer encryption in his underwear.
Pooch – pilot and driver. Terminally relaxed, and the only one of the Losers who seems to have a family (in the first episode, he says, “I miss my girls, y’know?”)
Roque – all round bad-attitude bad-ass. Second in command. Usually carries a submachine gun or pistol. Turns coat in the Houston refinery raid.

Dramatis personae:
Fennel – feckless CIA staffer. In charge of the security convoy jacked in New York. Killed by Wade.
Mutchell – works for Credit Cayman Internationale, a Goliath subsidiary. Arranges the money transfer to the Goliath terminal in Houston, after which he is (you guessed it) killed by Wade.
Sanderson – CIA Deputy Director, Operations. In the loop on Goliath’s CIA sponsored drug- and arms-running operations. Although he works for the CIA, he claims to know nothing about Max. It’s unclear whether Sanderson is a “goodie” or a “baddie”.
Wade – psychotic mercenary in the employ of Paradigm Security, another Goliath subsidiary. Involved in the Santa Maria massacre witnessed by the Losers in Colombia. Killed at George Bush International.

And …

MaxKeyser Soze. The one frame he is glimpsed in Ante Up, he is seen from behind in a plushly decorated office, heavily shadowed. Smoke curls from a cigar resting in an ashtray; a huge American flag is hung on the wall in front of him.

Diggle and Jock, 2004. The Losers: Ante Up, DC Comics

"Ask my family and they'll tell you I was a Navajo.
Ask the Army Air Force and they'll say I was an American.
But if you ask my brothers, they'll set you straight.
John Cloud was a Loser."

Long before the Vertigo comic or the movie based on it, "The Losers" was an old-school war comic published by DC Comics.

The series was created by writer Robert Kanigher (with illustrations by a variety of DC's artists, including Sam Glanzman, Russ Heath, and John Severin, with Joe Kubert providing outstanding covers and occasional interior art) and appeared in a comic called "Our Fighting Forces" in early 1970. It starred a team of characters who had previously appeared in other DC war comics -- a pair of Marines called Gunner and Sarge, a Navajo pilot named Johnny Cloud, and Captain Storm, a PT boat commander with a wooden leg.

All of Kanigher's war comics tended toward the fatalistic, with war nearly always portrayed as a difficult, painful, and ultimately futile business, but "The Losers" really dialed that up to 11. While the Losers usually completed their assigned objectives, they would also suffer serious setbacks that sometimes made their missions completely moot. They would obtain desperately needed intelligence, but the hostages they rescued from the Nazis would be slain or turn traitor. A successful mission would be attributed to a blind act of god or ignored entirely, leaving their efforts unacknowledged by the brass. They would destroy a Nazi base, but another Allied unit would end up claiming the credit, leaving the team looking like, well, losers. Their equipment and transport would malfunction or be destroyed, forcing them to walk back to HQ. And no plan ever worked right the first time. The Losers had the worst luck of anyone on either side of the lines.

At one point, Captain Storm was seemingly killed by a bomb, and he was briefly replaced on the squad by Ona Tomsen, a member of Norway's resistance forces. Another occasional team member was Gunner's pet dog, Pooch. Storm eventually reappeared, having lost an eye in the explosion. He suffered from a bout of amnesia and plagued his old friends for a while as a stereotypical pirate, though he finally regained his memory and rejoined the team.

The Losers have had several different endings, official and unofficial, in and out of continuity. During the Crisis on Infinite Earths, they were killed by the Anti-Monitor's shadow demons. In the post-Crisis continuity rewrite, they were killed in action while destroying a German missile facility. Gunner was resurrected as a cyborg during a revival of the Creature Commandos series. Gunner and Sarge were stuck in a POW camp on a time-lost Dinosaur Island and rescued in an issue of "Birds of Prey." A backup story in the "DC Universe: Legacies" miniseries established that all four survived the war -- Sarge owned a chain of gas stations, Gunner was a veterinarian, Captain Storm worked for the Bureau of Disabled Veterans Affairs, and Cloud served at least three terms in Congress.

The ending I prefer comes from Darwyn Cooke's amazing DC: The New Frontier series. The tale is told from Johnny Cloud's POV. On a mission to a mysterious island, the Losers encounter a host of dinosaurs. Gunner is killed by a Tyrannosaur, Sarge goes missing while trying to get revenge on the monster, and Captain Storm is lost to a pterodactyl. Even Pooch is killed by a booby trap. Cloud ends up sacrificing himself by leaping down the T-rex's throat armed with a couple of live hand grenades. The story is short and has little bearing on the rest of the miniseries, but the affection for the Losers and their dedication to each other really shines through beautifully.

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