Everyone’s MAD about Harvey! Harvey Kurtzman, that is. Surely you’ve heard of him. He’s the guy who both invented and then effectively saved MAD magazine by suggesting it become a magazine rather than a comic book. He’s also the namesake of the prestigious Harvey Awards, given for achievement in the field of comics. Furthermore, he’s the subject of an exhaustive biography recently authored by Bill Schelly titled Harvey Kurtzman, the Man who Created MAD and Revolutionized Humor in America.
Serendipitously, Dark Horse has also recently reprinted another of Harvey Kurtzman’s signature pieces of work with Harvey Kurtzman’s Jungle Book. This collection of superb satirical stories was unique for the day in that it was a Ballantine pocket book containing all new material rather than reprints and in addition it was 100% a solo effort by the great Harvey Kurtzman, from the writing to the artwork and as best as can be discerned, even the lettering.
Originally published in 1959, it was something of a gamble and unfortunately one that did not pay off as hoped. Denis Kitchen’s excellent foreword offers historical context as well as a wonderful viewpoint of Kurtzman and this particular work from his fertile imagination. Kitchen’s intro is 9 pages in and of itself and it nestled among other commentary from Art Spiegelman from 1986 and Gilbert Shelton, not to mention an afterword including none other than Kurtzman fan Robert Crumb.
The heart of the book, however, is vintage Kurtzman satire, featuring 4 stand-alone stories featuring popular culture of the day, such as Peter Gunn and Gunsmoke along with a send up of the publishing business and a look back at “Rottenville,” based on Kurtzman’s time in the service during World War II in Paris, Texas.
“Theolonius Violence”, like “Private Eye” the Peter Gunn parody, features imaginative use of sound effects by Kurtzman in such a way that you get a feel for the vibe of the jazz club “office” of the womanizing, hard-boiled gumshoe. Witness such touches with, “Va Doodle-De Blah Daa” and “Doodle-de Blaht! Blaht! Blaht! Blaaahht!” All utilized, of course in the service of the story of a suave, sophisticated private dick, who is ultimately on the clueless side with both regular dialogue and running narration that wouldn’t look out of place in a noir piece.
The next tale is titled, “The Organization Man in the Grey Flannel Executive Suite,” and chronicles the experiences of a young and idealistic naïf, one Goodman Beaver, who is seeking his career and fortune in the publishing business.
Obviously Harvey Kurtzman had plenty of source material to draw from, seeing as how he’d been involved with MAD from the beginning and then other projects such as Humbug and the short-lived Trump for Hugh Hefner, not to mention Timely/Marvel, which he admits this was loosely based upon and the references to “Men’s sweat magazines” make that apparent.
Goodman Beaver soon learns of the treachery and double-dealing in the publishing business and the often soul-destroying nature of the environ, finally succumbing to it all himself as the years roll by. This is a superb send-up of the biz and like all genuine humor it contains those grains of truth that help the reader to understand and feel the frustrations inherent with deadlines, demanding publishers, fool editors, brown-nosers, ne’er-do-wells and so on and so forth, particularly from this place and time. Could the writers for Mad Men have been influenced by this story? You just never know… For my money, this was the most entertaining in the collection.
Next up in the queue is “Compulsion on the Range,” which is the Gunsmoke paroday. In an excerpt from a 1986 interview, Harvey states that this is his least favorite and one can see why. The artwork isn’t as strong and the storyline gets a bit repetitive. While the American Western is a well-known bit of popular culture and there are cliché’s galore to exploit, this just wasn’t quite there with the goods. It has its moments, but…
The final story is “Decadence Degenerated,” and according to Kurtzman, it is inspired by his memories of Paris, Texas while stationed there as a young G.I. Now having spent time in Texas myself (11 years, but who was counting?), albeit 5 hours south of Paris, I can, to some extent, vouch for the provincialism that Harvey portrays. While this is, along with the entire book, a satire, once again those grains of truth show through. For this Pacific Northwest native, Southeast Texas was a shock to the system and I can only guess how a Jewish kid from Brooklyn felt in a 1940’s era Texas, but Kurtzman give us a pretty good and hilarious viewpoint of a small Texas town and what they do to gin up a little excitement. There is also, of course, that inherent suspicion of anyone being different in any way. I’ve probably just managed to offend all native Texans, but honestly, y’all, the notion that there is TEXAS and then those 49 lesser states is a bit off. Sorry to have to be the one to break it to you.
This is another well-written and drawn story from Kurtzman’s imagination and one thing in particular that stood out to me was the clever placement of word balloons, allowing a single panel to cover quite a bit of ground and perhaps laying the foundation for the future layering of them in titles like Claremont’s “X-Men” run.
Overall, particularly for dinosaurs like myself who love nostalgia and learning about the pioneering efforts of the medium, this is wonderful and entertaining reading. My one gripe, if you can call it that, is the simple fact that the Theolonius Violence and Compulsion on the Range pieces are dated and if you, like myself, had never seen an episode of Peter Gunn in your entire existence, there is likely a number of references that will fly right over your head. Still, it’s a worthwhile read and something of a shame that Harvey Kurtzman didn’t enjoy more success with this groundbreaking effort.
Tantalizingly, this tome is identified as the first volume in the Essential Kurtzman library, which means we have more to look forward to from a man whose influence and insights cannot be overestimated. Hat’s off to Dark Horse for reintroducing this material to a new generation of readers who can only benefit from learning more about the legendary Harvey Kurtzman.