Harvey Kurtzman: A ‘Jungle Book’ Appreciation – Damn, This Man Was Good
by Richard Bruton
The last Art For Art’s Sake I did had, as its endpoint, an appreciation of the genius that was Harvey Kurtzman. And that had me looking back on one of his great works, The Jungle Book. It’s just a magnificent thing. But that shouldn’t surprise you. Kurtzman was a god of comics after all…
The Jungle Book was the first of the Essential Harvey Kurtzman library that Dark Horse started putting out in 2014. Frankly, anything of Harvey’s could well be deemed essential, but it has to be said, The Jungle Book is something very special.
This is, after all, a man who’d reinvented comics over and over. Just the gag strip, Hey Look, would cement his place in comics history, but that was merely the start of it. After this, his career encompassed not just the brilliance of his EC Comics work but the game-changing Mad Magazine. And then came The Jungle Book.
He’d left MAD, he’d left EC Comics and his follow-up magazines, Trump and Humbug failed to find the audience they deserved. And then, still fighting, still absolutely undaunted, Kurtzman came up with The Jungle Book.
It was the first comic book created as a single entity, one of the many with something of a claim of being the first graphic novel. Certainly, the first time a major publisher, Ballantine, had put out a comic as a book exclusively targeted to an adult audience.
It was 1959 and Kurtzman had, once again, transformed the comics world.
The blurb for The Jungle Book reads thus…
Harvey Kurtzman’s Jungle Book is widely regarded as one of the greatest comic books of all time, and was voted into the ‘Top 100 Comics of the 20th Century’ by The Comics Journal. Written and illustrated by Kurtzman in 1959, Jungle Book takes a satirical swipe at the cultural monoliths of the day: detective shows, Western movies and the publishing industry in general. Equally unafraid to take on social issues, Kurtzman also satirises the lynch-hungry mobs still prevalent in the South, and the nascent rise of the Freudian movement within popular culture.
And yet, despite that being fulsome praise, it still doesn’t get over the absolute genius at work here.
Kurtzman channels all of the frustrations of what had gone before to give the reader a book that was uniquely, totally, completely all Kurtzman, free from influence, free from editorial meddling, this was just the man making comics as he saw fit.
And damn, it was impressive. Now, I’ll grant you that one of the pieces, Compulsion On The Range even had Harvey describing it as ‘This one’s kind of dated, isn’t it? This was the first story I did for the book, and I don’t really like it.’
But The Organization Man In The Grey Flannel Executive Suite where Kurtzman, through the innocent and idealistic viewpoint of his wide-eyed everyman Goodman Beaver, sets about savaging the publishing industry of the time, is a perfect comeback to the mauling the same publishing industry had gave him.
And the final piece of the quartet, Decadence Degenerated, is a satirical and abrasive parody of small-town southern USA.
But the thing that I keep coming back to, keep enjoying for it’s sheer perfection is the first tale – Thelonius Violence. Kurtzman takes the cool, hip jazz scene of the 50s TV series Peter Gunn and grabs all the music, all the atmosphere, all the relaxed hepcat tones, all the dissonant, freeform solos, all the smoke, all the noise, all the sex, all the style, and delivers it onto the page. Perfectly.
My name is Thelonius Violence. I’m a cool private eye. I don’t have an office. That’s for the square tin-badges. You can find me any time down in the Tasmanian Cellar … I dig jazz.
They play cool Dixieland down there. They play crazy washboard, plumbing, skins and licorice-stick down there.
Me – I play meat. When I don’t like a square, I play a riff on his face.
A detective meets jazz, it’s a masterclass of rhythm, a masterpiece of delivering sound in pictures, incredibly hard to get right, yet Kurtzman not only makes it look good, he makes it look effortless.
Just two pages in, the first page of actual art and there’s enough here to sell Kurtzman to anyone I reckon…
In just that page, you know, you just know that Kurtzman thought long and hard about how to show the sound coming out, about just how to show it on the page, and he sure does get it absolutely right, and the descriptions that go alongside the art… “Concussion by percussion and brass…”, that’s just perfect, that just gets the music, that’s just a line to savour.
But slow down, don’t move on, not just yet, there’s so much to savour in just one page. Just zooming in on one section gives us a better to get an idea of the style Kurtzman delivered, effortless and so intensely… the art. Look at the art, just look at the motion in that static image….
The trumpet players hand moving so fast it can’t be captured, that’s just perfection.
But it doesn’t end there, oh no, Kurtzman’s only really getting started.
Just looking at that page, there’s so much. But I love this little detail of the drummer…
Well, all you see of the drummer is the hand and a stick, but that’s enough, just the shorthand of the imagery and the surrounding motion creates the effect needed, the clarinet’s blur of fingers contrasting against the drummer’s single hand aloft… you just fill in the noise.
Every player is moving so fast, you can tell, Kurtzman makes you see, makes you hear, all the movement, all the motion, all the rhythm.
Move your eyes down and see the woman, as fluid and kinetic as the band, but without Kutzman needing to show it, she’s static but she’s moving.
And then there’s Thelonius Violence, the only animate object not moving on the whole page…
The art here is incendiary, incredible, magnificent, amazing. Every single page shows you something incredible, the unusual format, the pages way narrower and taller than we’re used to, but all of it in service to Kurtzman’s style, Kurtzman’s ideas, Kurtzman’s genius for motion.
There’s a deceptive nature to what you see, everything about the art looks absolutely loose, flowing, free, yet in actuality, Kurtzman put in so much work to every mark on the page, every line, every stroke.
His careful, meticulous flow is deceptive, his art looks so loose, freeform shapes implying movement, guiding the eye so easily around the page and panel. Yet his method was one of refining and refining and refining more, starting off loose, working harder and harder to minimise, creating something that looks effortless. It’s all about the stripping down of the complexity, Kurtzman creating something so beautiful, so perfectly relaxed, something that absolutely took so much work to create. The Jungle Book is absolutely full of this, gorgeous ink-washes, greys and greys and greys, the reproduction of this new edition finally able to take what Kurtzman threw at the page, it’s simply gorgeous.
Any Kurtzman piece needs to be read, watched at least twice before making any comment, the meticulous flow moves you along so easily, so fast, a river of images carrying you along. So the second read/look is essential to slow everything down, to force the eye to linger, all that background detail missed first time round, and it’s gorgeous, so much to see and enjoy.
And yes, even though it was incredible, as with most innovation, it was overlooked, totally ahead of its time.
Yet, ask cartoonists of note to list their most influential works and The Jungle Book will be in there somewhere.
Terry Gilliam has called Harvey Kurtzman a God. I reckon Gilliam undersold him.
And, in The Jungle Book, Kurtzman proves that.