My current comic reading habits tend to veer toward the influences of modern work. I often find myself enraptured by innovators, Jack Kirby or Carl Barks for example, and I can’t help but be completely enthralled by the creative output of these storytellers as they pushed the boundaries in a medium only a generation old. It was with this excitement that I picked up Harvey Kurtzman’s Jungle Book.
I had recently explored Kurtzman’s EC war comics (Corpse on the Imjin), and I was immediately hooked by his ability to both capture and evoke a particular voice with nothing but lines on paper. His war comics are a symphony of regret and fury; Kurtzman’s anti-war sentiment is plainly obvious. Kurtzman brought the same energy to satire as he did to his war comics; sharp, relentless, and totally absent of remorse or pity for the subjects.
The Jungle Book was originally published by Ballantine as a mass-market paperback. Ballantine had been publishing reprints of material from Mad Magazine in the early fifties, but when EC Comics switched to Signet Books for publishing Mad paperbacks, Ballantine turned to Kurtzman (who had himself recently left EC over financial disputes) to provide them with original content. The Jungle Book was, sadly, a commercial failure at the time of publication in 1959. It consisted of four short, graphic novellas, all written and drawn by Kurtzman. All were parodies of some form or another: “Thelonious Violence” was a send-up of Peter Gunn, “The Organization Man in the Gray Flannel Executive Suit” was a commentary on the publishing industry, “Compulsion on the Range” was a parody mash-up of TV westerns and pop psychology, and “Decadence Degenerated” was a satire of a southern town against a backdrop of a murder investigation.
Kurtzman’s artwork and composition in the Jungle Book was revolutionary. His figures were lean yet curvy, with long, dumb jaws that often hang agape with incredulity. Kurtzman pioneered the use of panel arrangement and layout to affect the reader’s eye as it traveled across the page, expressing fluid movement simply in the way he arranged the characters and word balloons in vertical or horizontal panels. The word balloons themselves were an experiment, as Kurtzman often showed characters reacting to the words in the bubbles.
Some comic historians have argued that the Jungle Book, an original, self-contained work of graphic fiction, can even be considered the very first graphic novel. The fact that it was aimed at an adult audience at the time was extraordinary in and of itself. Ultimately and unfortunately, the Jungle Book failed to sell, and Kurtzman himself abandoned the vehicle of the self-contained graphic novel as a viable creative endeavor. The Jungle Book did manage to influence an entire generation of underground artists, from Robert Crumb to Art Spiegelman.
Dark Horse and Kitchen Sink have published an incredibly handsome volume that is chock-full of extras. The brightest spot of this reprint is the inclusion of essays and commentary by Kurtzman himself. Each story is preceded by a short introduction from Kurtzman, providing a glimpse into his creative process and his general feeling towards each novella contained in the Jungle Book. This work is a significant piece of comic history and a vital contribution from one of the medium’s most celebrated artists.
Harvey Kurtzman’s Jungle Book
by Harvey Kurtzman
Dark Horse & Kitchen Sink, 2014