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Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Harvey Kurtzman's Jungle Book

By: Harvey Kutrzman (Introduction by Gilbert Shelton, Essay by Denis Kitchen, Art Speigalman's 1986 introduction, and a conversation between Peter Poplaski and R. Crumb)

Published:  Dark Horse Books (December 16, 2014) (originally published by Ballentine Books 1959).

Hardcover 176 pages

Finished 4/3/2017

Amazon Listing 


          “This will not be a pleasant story or a story for weak stomachs. It will be a story about a lynch-mob. ‘Why then’ you ask, ‘are you telling it’ And we answer- for this reason…the reason so many lynch-mob stories are told and have to be told today. Lynch-mob stories are very entertaining. There’s nothing like a lynch-mob story…”
          Originally published in 1959, the author had soared to great success with the creation of Mad, then plummeted after he left the magazine in a huff. He had demanded 51% controlling interest from Mad, was offered 10%, and he rejected it outright. Had he stayed, he would have been set for life. So now he was drifting, and when Mad reprint books shifted from Ballentine Books to Signet, he approached the company with creating an original work of Mad-like material. Leaping for the big bucks, they agreed and produced this text. It was a commercial failure and, in my ever ever ever so humble opinion, a creative failure as well.
Author Harvey Kurtzman
          There are four stories presented here, all of which feel rushed. He was up against the wall and needed to produce material, so he did. Just not refined material. These all come across as half-digested ideas from his Mad days. They are satirical, but it feels tired and deflated. As if he was trying too hard to recapture the magic. 
          Two of the stories are parodys of TV shows at the time. “Thelonius Violence”, a takeoff on Peter Gunn (which the only memorable part of the show it Mancini’s opening score), where he tackles the TV private eye genre. He comments on its mindless violence, where the participants never seem to actually get hurt, the reliance of the protagonist on sheer luck, and a style over substance approach. The best part of this parody is the use of sound effects, a jazz type riff, to punctuate the action of the script. VA-VOODL-DE BLAH DAAaaaa. What I found the funniest was the use of slang in the script, which formerly hip, is now so dated its makes the story actually funnier.
          The second TV inspired story is also extremely dated. “Compulsion on the Range” is a send up of all those TV westerns which dominated the airwaves (26 of them were being produced over the three networks in 1959). It makes the same points about violence with no consequences as “Theolodius Violence”, and has an appearance as Zorro, demonstrating that the TV western hero is essentially an unmasked Zorro with the same morals. Otherwise it generally falls flat with the same tired jokes made over and over.
Thelonius Violence
          “Decadence Degenerated” is apparently based on Kurtzman’s reflections of Paris, Texas, where he was stationed during his bit in the war. He dubs the town Rottenville and describes a lynch-mob who goes haywire after an attractive girl was murdered. It has a few good moments, but again it has aged badly. An old story, told ad nauseum with a few interesting twists.
          The last story is the most interesting. “The Organizational Man in the Grey Flannel Executive Suite” is derived from the author’s own disappointments and frustrations from dealing with the publishing industry. Its protagonist Goodman Beaver comes in full of dreams and hopes, only to have them squashed under the daily grind and quantity over quality mentality of the bosses, eventually turning him in a cynical wreck of a human being. Goodman Beaver actually had a life after this publication, eventually morphing into the Little Annie Fanny strip which appeared in Playboy magazine. As this is the most personal it has much more depth to the overall story and is an interesting read.

The art is definitely not Kutrzman’s best, ugly grey and poor shading, which may have been to the cheap production values of Ballentine, rather than Kutrzman’s skill at the time. Many of those writing introducing the work, all big art knobs, praise it, but I feel it’s more due to nostalgia than actual appreciation. They all cut their teeth on his work, were inspired by it, and many were first published by Kutrzman, so they praise him. But I feel their admiration of the man overrides their critical analysis. They want it to be good, so they act as if it is.
          While the original was a cheap paperback, badly printed, and stuck together with Elmer’s glue, the Dark Horse edition is a beautifully bound large edition book. Well-crafted and very attractive looking.

         

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