Welcome to the third part of our multi-part look at the great EC cartoonists! In the first column in this series, Jason Sacks wrote about one of the greatest comics storytellers of all time, Bernard Krigstein. In our previous column, Eric Hoffman looked at one of the finest craftsmen of the EC line: the amazing Wally Wood. In this week’s column, Jason Sacks gives us a unique look at the art of the sublime Harvey Kurtzman.
In a few short years Harvey Kurtzman, the creative auteur behind EC Comics’s sublime war comics produced a body of material that is so spectacular, so perfectly realized and driven by a specific clear vision of pure comics art that his stories are still considered to be the most brilliant war comics ever published, sixty years after their first publication.
Kurtzman’s stories are great because they’re driven by an intense passion for realism combined with astonishing storytelling skills and a deeply personal and idiosyncratic artistic style. There really has never been an artist quite like Kurtzman; as you’ll see below, his comics are brilliantly realized and amazingly powerful. No wonder his work is still studied in art colleges even now.
I could write a few thousand words in celebration of the astonishing artistry of one of our finest comic book storytellers, but I’ve been beaten to that job by men who are better writers than I am. Fantagraphics’s must-buy collection Corpse on the Imjin and Other Stories by Harvey Kurtzman contains several essays by luminaries of comics criticism such R.C. Harvey, Jared Gardner and Frank Stack. I could try to equal the insight that these outstanding writers bring to bear when discussing the great Kurtzman, but let me make a point of not burying the lede of this essay: Go buy this book. Right now. You simply will never buy a better, smarter, more passionate and better-told collection of stories than you will in this book. You will treasure this book unlike any other in your graphic novel collection.
This sumptuous collection, produced with the astonishing production values for which Fantagraphics is justifiably famous, is a worthy tribute and collection of EC war stories written, edited and frequently drawn by Kurtzman. In this book we receive reprints of the 11 tales from Two Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat that the master cartoonist wrote and illustrated himself, along with an additional 13 pieces for which he wrote and provided his usual meticulous layouts. Those 13 stories come from a group of artists that Kurtzman believed didn’t meet his high standards to be included his comics. That set of creators includes some of comics’ finest names: Alex Toth, Russ Heath, Reed Crandall, Gene Colan and Joe Kubert, among others. Yes, Joe Kubert didn’t meet Harvey Kurtzman’s high standards for drawing war comics. That should give you an idea of how high his ambitions were.
Rather than have me expound any further on this book, I thought it might be interesting to see a few excerpts from the book – a tier of panels here, a page there, a single panel another place – that demonstrates the brilliance of Kurtzman’s art and storytelling. Harvey Kurtzman was constantly paying attention to the way a reader perceived the page, constantly paying attention to filmic methods as a technique to emphasize the drama of the stories he told. There’s a feeling throughout that he is earning the passion in every brushstroke, working hard with innovative techniques and a creative passion to ensure that the reader is deeply engaged.
One of the first things you observe when looking at Kurtzman’s solo stories is how abstractly he draws his characters. The men on his pages – there are seldom women in these war stories – are barely sketches, loosely held together figures drawn with intense, almost shocking passion. That abstraction is an ideal fit for his subject matter – notice the energy of the two panels above and the sheer panic on the face of the man running at us in panel two. This was a style ideally designed for the crude comics production technology of the era.
Another Kurtzman hallmark was the use of sound effects as a connecting force. Observe how the sound effects of the machine gun bisect the tier presented above, driven into bold life by the gritty soldier who seems to emerge from a deep darkness to cut down the enemy.
Maybe my favorite Kurtzman hallmark is the way he draws a silent progression of panels, a unique trope to Kurtzman that he repeated frequently. As far as I can tell, Kurtzman was the first cartoonist to embrace this technique, shown beautifully above in the story “Contact!”
Notice the sense of movement and energy in the scene above – the manner in which the nonexistent background emphasizes the drama of the fight while the shifting camera angle conveys the shifting of the battle.
Or notice how the slow movement of the camera in “Kill!” dramatizes a man slowly going war-crazy. Isn’t it lovely how tier two builds upon tier one as the action develops?
The brilliantly moving “Rubble” ends with another classic Kurtzman trope: The way that the impersonal mechanical devastation of war impersonally crushes all plans, ambitions and life from every single object in front of it. See how this devastating final page studiously avoids showing any specific faces or gives any real life to the people it depicts. Everybody is crushed by the machinery of war.
That faceless nature of war is overplayed somewhat in the massacre scene in “Prisoner of War!” I can’t help but to wonder if this moment would have more impact if the reader was forced to specifically drawn faces rather than abstract shapes, if we were pushed to feel the fear that these men were experiencing rather than feel the intensity of the gunfire to which they were subjected.
This page from “Air Burst!” shows all those skills on display together – the breathtaking progression of the first tier (and notice the spectacular manner that negative space is included in that tier as the plane closes in on ‘Big Feet’ and Lee). Then see how the men start to get more specific as the page progresses. The few small, perfectly depicted details on their faces tell so much. The bold, minimalistic linework conveys personality in a way that feels both completely dashed off and thoroughly well-considered.
And then, in the transcendent “Big If”, Kurtzman takes his techniques to a whole new level of transcendence. This tale is one of the finest comic stories ever created, a piercing existential consideration of pain and fear and the massive capricious inhumanity of war, all drawn in a bravura kinetic, raw art style that makes the reader feel the sheer pain, stress and sheer unadulterated panic just as the characters in the story feel it.
The penultimate page of “Big If” is as horrible a moment of fear as the EC horror comics included, but this moment is even more horrifying because it’s real, it’s personal and it could have happened to almost anyone. After all, at the same time Kurtzman was producing Frontline Combat and Two-Fisted Tales, the Korean War was raging. Young men were losing their lives in much the same way as the young man in this story. “Big If” ends with one of the most devastating endings ever to appear – an ending I’m specifically leaving out of this article because I want to encourage you to discover its sublimely painful genius yourself.
As I mentioned, Kurtzman only draws roughly half of the tales in this collection. The other half of these tales feature material by the artists who only drew a handful of material for EC. Among those men is Alex Toth, a creative genius who simply didn’t mesh with Kurtzman — perhaps because the two master cartoonists had diametrically different theories on comic art. Reportedly Kurtzman didn’t like how Toth used his blacks, in Kurtzman’s eyes to cover up the details of the scene. You can see that use of blacks on display here in this tier from “Dying City!”
Toth only drew three tales for Kurtzman. His two “Air Force” tales are absolutely gorgeous. “Thunder Jet” is a breathtaking display of panel construction and negative space to tell a spectacular action tale.
And Toth’s “F-18 Sabre Jet” is one of the most beautiful use of negative space presented in comics. If ever a collaboration showed that “less is more”, the Air Force stories by Kurtzman and Toth make a reader desperate for more material that never was created.
Other collaborations are less successful. Kurtzman felt that Joe Kubert rushed on his story, emphasizing the wrong elements of the tale and not delivering what Kurtzman wanted. The panel progression on the bottom tier here is nice. Notice how the technique on display shows the deft Kurtzman touch – the editor laid out every page that his artists drew, so their tales always had a bit of him in it.
“Rough Riders”, drawn by Ric Estrada (who would later work with Kubert on many classic DC war comics) demonstrates several sequences of Kurtzman’s stable camera angle technique.
Maybe the most disappointing collaboration is the Gene Colan story “Wake!” By all accounts, a very young Colan was thrilled to work with Kurtzman, but their only piece together doesn’t quite gel. Colan’s gorgeously specific technique is dramatically at odds with Kurtzman’s more abstract approach. Colan always presented the intensity of his stories in different ways than Kurtzman did. That principle is at play in this tale. But Colan grew as an artist. By the time he illustrated a handful of brilliant war tales in the 1960s Blazing Combat, Colan showed he could play in the war comics game.
But even the failures in Corpse on the Imjin! show the genius of Harvey Kurtzman. The piercing vision and ambition of the master editor and cartoonist only lasted a handful of years in the war books, but his techniques still contain essential lessons today for young cartoonists: stay simple, consider the camera angles, and never, ever forget that emotions are important. I’ve come back to the pieces in this indispensable book many times over the years. Like all great art, the astonishing stories in this book reveal their sublime mysteries to me over a lifetime of experiencing them.