Friday, June 7, 2013

Harvey Kurtzman's Jungle Book

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Harvey Kurtzman's Jungle Book (1959, reissue by Kitchen Sink, 1987).

Let's set the wayback machine for the 1950s. Ballantine Books was doing very well selling a series of pocket-sized reprints from the pages of Mad magazine. Harvey Kurtzman, who'd created that title, had left after a couple of years and set up a pair of rival humor publications with help from that usual gang of idiots. Trump folded almost instantly; Humbug lasted about a year and also resulted in a moderately successful Ballantine reprint. But then Mad's publisher took a look around at their options and contracted with Signet to handle their reprints, and Ballantine asked Kurtzman whether he had anything else that they could sell.

Harvey Kurtzman is one of my favorite American comic creators, but almost all of his work was in collaboration with others. Harvey Kurtzman's Jungle Book, which appeared to no applause and immediately sank without a trace, is the only long-form work by Kurtzman flying solo. It's very good and it's absolutely fascinating, if not particularly funny any more. Time has blunted Jungle Book's impact. You might, with a little help, be able to recognize that the first and third of these four stories are parodies of TV's Peter Gunn and Gunsmoke, but when was the last time that you let the cultural impact of either show wash over you so much that you can recognize the actual beats and tropes of each production as things ready for satire?

The second story, however, has a lot more life in it. "The Organization Man in the Gray Flannel Executive Suit" is set in the cut-throat world of publishing, and a wide-eyed, blank-eyed innocent new junior editor called Goodman Beaver comes in with big ideas and big dreams and finds the business much more depraved and mean-spirited than he could have imagined. It is completely terrific. Goodman Beaver was resurrected as a recurring character in Kurtzman's next project, the magazine Help!, which ran for six years, appearing in five comics by Kurtzman and Will Elder. Goodman later received a sex change and morphed into Little Annie Fanny, who appeared for decades in Playboy in similar "innocent fish in troubled waters" stories, albeit with lots of nudity. Whether as Annie or as Goodman, the template is a terrific one, but I don't know that the character ever had a better outing than the first one. "The Organization Man in the Gray Flannel Executive Suit" is not just brilliantly observed and paced, the loose and frantic artwork helps this story's sense of things spiralling out of control.

From what I understand, this book originally appeared as just about the most bottom-rung production that could be imagined, with the cheapest paper and virtually no promotion and distribution. Good condition copies are worth a small fortune. Even a new copy of the 1987 reprint often commands a high price. While it was originally printed as a pocket-sized paperback, Kitchen Sink's edition was considerably larger, allowing the artwork to appear at its original dimensions. The book was issued in hardcover and paperback, with additional material by Art Spieglman. I was thrilled to land an inexpensive copy and recommend that anybody with an interest in Kurtzman track one down as well. You probably won't laugh out loud much, but you'll find much to study and find it marvelous.

Now, when the heck is somebody going to reissue complete collections of Trump and Help!, I ask you? When?!


Denis Kitchen said...

You'll be happy to hear, Grant, that a COMPLETE TRUMP is in the works for 2015, along with other Kurtzman classics. First up is a new expanded edition of Jungle Book, for late 2014. All from Kitchen Sink Books, the new imprint at Dark Horse. "HELP!" is a bigger challenge, but also on the list. ---Denis Kitchen

Grant Goggans said...

Very happy indeed, Denis. Thanks so much for letting me know. I'll be on the lookout for all of them!