comics, Review

Friday Review: Harvey Kurtzman’s Jungle Book

Not to be confused with The Jungle Book, or a comic book adaptation of that work. No, this is something quite different, indeed. I’ve been meaning to read this book for some time, because I always hear about it while reading about comics. I’m kind of ashamed it took me this long. Kurtzman is one of the big names of American comics. If you’re unfamiliar, he worked on MAD Magazine in the beginning (even before it was a magazine), shaping it into what it would become. So, as I myself try to be a humor writer, I figured I should read more Kurtzman.

So, what is Jungle Book? It’s a collection of four humorous short stories. These stories are “Thelonious Violence, Like Private Eye,” which is a story about a beatnik influenced private eye who’s really not very good. This story is full of  late 50s lingo and punctuated with jazz music throughout, giving it a jazz era noir feeling. Then there’s “The Organization Man in the Gray Flannel Executive Suit,” which is a mouthful. This story is about a youthful and idealistic man named Goodman Beaver who joins a publishing business. He eventually loses his principles and becomes just like everyone else in the cut throat corporate world. This was an interesting one because I’d read the name Goodman Beaver in plenty of books, because he was used in several of Kurtzman’s stories. This was his first appearance. Next there was “Compulsion on the Range,” which is a story about a Marshall trying to outdraw a gunman, and failing several times. It’s a story about, as the title suggests, compulsion and neurosis. This was one of my favorites, but interestingly in the forward notes Kurtzman said it was his least favorite. Lastly there was “Decadence Degenerated,” a story about a small southern town where nothing ever happens. Then, one night, a woman is murdered, and the town erupts into a mob.

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OK, so I don’t know that I explained any of those in a way that makes them sound funny. But the thing is that Kurtzman didn’t need an entirely gonzo concept. He took genres, the noir, the western, etc, and turned them into humor stories. Kurtzman was a very witty guy. The strength is in the situation and, more importantly, the dialogue. Let me say right now that writing funny dialogue is hard. The big challenge is that there is no delivery in comics because it’s a silent medium. But Kurtzman is able to set up a joke through his story, and tie it up with his word bubbles. He had a natural way of lampooning not only genres, but the world around him. Corporate culture, small town life, sexism. He was able to pull of legitimate satire. And the easiest thing about satire is to do it wrong.

Kurtzman really had an understanding of how comics worked. Each of these stories flowed, and really used the potential of the medium. I.e. the words and pictures worked together to tell not only interesting, but genuinely funny stories. He also played with layout, which is something that’s always interesting for me to study. What blows my mind the most when I think about this book is that it was published in 1959. When you think of 50s comics, you don’t think of something like this. This is a high quality and ambitious book. This is not to say that there were no good comics in the 50s, but comics were not considered an art form back then. This is part of the reason Kurtzman is so important. He had a big influence on 50s comics, and the readers that would grow up to make them in the future.

Kurtzman was a man of his own style, in both writing and pictures. The drawings in this book look a little more sketchy, not as polished as what you might be used to today. But if you look at it closer, you get the feeling that it’s something that only Kurtzman could do. Sometimes we see drawings and think that it’s easy to replicate. But I suspect that’s not the case here. This is another one of those guys that you might be able to replicate, but you’d know it wasn’t the real thing. But I think his art fit the story perfectly. It wasn’t chaotic, but it wasn’t smooth, which went along with the fast paced stories like “Thelonius Violence” and “Compulsion on the Range.” Not to say it didn’t work for the other stories. Kurtzman was a cartoonist who had a unified vision, and you need to see his words coming out of his characters. It wasn’t always like that with MAD, but you get the sense of true freedom from his work here.

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I should also mention that Kurtzman had an ear for dialect. There are a couple stories that feature thick accents. “Compulsion on the Range” had lampooned cowboy speak, and “Decadence Degenerated” had about the most southern accent I’ve ever read in my life. It was actually pretty impressive. But I mention this because if you’re going to read it, prepare yourself.

And in the end I’ll say, you should read it. Or something by Kurtzman. He was an important figure in American comic, and has influenced countless creators. Many of whom have gone on to call him a genius. He was a visionary and something quite rare: a truly funny cartoonist.

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2 thoughts on “Friday Review: Harvey Kurtzman’s Jungle Book”

  1. There is only one Harvey Kurtzman, Mort Drucker, and William Gains.. Every week I swear I am going to add another artist or cartoonist to the list of titles I must get after reading one of your reviews. Thank you!
    Jeff Wilson

    Liked by 1 person

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