First published in 1959 in a low-budget pocket book format, Harvey Kurtzman's Jungle Book captures the creator of Mad in full flow and is arguably one of his greatest works. It is also an important milestone in the development of the comic book as a mature medium, and a devastating demonstration of its satirical power. And thirdly - or is that fourthly? Well, let's reverse direction and say firstly - it's funny. It's not just funny, but Lord, funny it is. How funny? Let me put it this way: it makes me laugh, and that's how I test for funny.
Now, Jungle Book became something of a rare treasure in its original 1959, Ballantine Books form; the print was murky, the binding stood no chance, and the artwork was reproduced at a cripplingly tiny size. But if humour was a currency, this was a torn and crumpled billion dollar bill. And this little, spunky pulper was the only way to dig the contents for the next twenty-six years.
Ballantine had scored some major bread with their paperback reprints of the Kurtzman-edited Mad, and a collection of original HK material probably seemed like a foolproof idea. 'Twas not. Maybe the stories were too long; maybe they were ahead of their time; maybe the public didn't grok Harvey without Bill Elder or Walt Kelly on visuals. Whatever the sad, sad reason, all Jungle Book could do for the next two-and-a-half decades was amass reputation and mystique, and sit just out of reach of the average Melvin. And should Melvin somehow find a copy, it would typically shed two pages each time the big lug opened it. This was unacceptable.
Fortunately, in 1986, Kitchen Sink released a magnificent reissue of Jungle Book; hardback cover, full-size artwork, good quality paper, and excellent reproduction shot from the original artwork. Three years down the line in '89, they set this beauty loose in softcover. For fifteen dollars! Great news for Melvin, who was nearly fifty by this point.
Fact! One of the features that makes Jungle Book special is that it's 100% Kurtzman; he wrote it, he drew it, he lettered it. Even the furshlugginer copyright page is laid down in Harvey's hand. There are earlier examples of pure Kurtzman, of course; Hey Look! and Potshot Pete are prime examples, and several Mad covers fit the bill. But this is post-Mad, post-Trump, post-Humbug - Harvey is peaking, and here is is unfettered.
This gives the whole package a hermetic quality, and each element - layout, artwork, lettering, dialogue - compliments and reinforces the others. Now, I'd throw my own sweet mother down or up a flight of stairs to defend the honour of Harvey's collaborations with other artists, because nothing tops Superduperman!. But Jungle Book is special; it doesn't just breathe on the page, it laughs out loud. One man's vision.
The artwork in Jungle Book is atypical Kurtzman for the time; they're doodly, sketchy and often rough. But they retain the Kurtzman energy, no more so than in the monstrous transformation of Goodman Beaver on page 60. Beaver has witnessed his cold-hearted Madison Avenue boss drive a colleague to leap twenty stories to his death. As the boss instructs his secretary to inform payroll, Beaver seethes behind him, a hunched and fanged demon. The commercial corruption of the naive and earnest executive is complete, but he still cannot speak out against his employer. The page all but shakes in your hands as Goodman swallows his rage and quietly snaps inside.
In another story, a group of Southern degenrates leer at a local belle as she walks past. Split across two pages into six vertical panels, the scene operates on three levels. At the bottom, we see the girl, Honey Lou, as she walks by our fixed view, observed by the locals. At the top of the page, speech balloons display their friendly greetings. In the dead centre, an extra speech balloon - sitting between the observers and their innocent comments - Kurtzman draws the naked Honey Lou they are all visualising. She leads the reader across the spread and delineates the townsfolk with every step. Humourous, sinister and functional (and sexy), this is sublime and sophisticated graphical storytelling. It seems among the most confident pieces of comic strip narrative I've ever seen, and a powerful validation of the medium's potential; it could only work in comics. Here's something only these throwaway, ten-cent rags can achieve. Something worthwhile. Something great.
The writing is a match for the artwork. Very few words appear outside of speech balloons, save for each story's preface, and as a result Kurtzman's ear for dialogue and rhythm shines through. And I think we can all agree that a shining ear is a pretty funny thing. A full pair would be going too far, but Harvey knows when to stop. From the predatory cut-and-thrust of a publisher's meeting to the lazy, deadly drawl of the deep south, the characters in Jungle Book define themsleves as much with their language as their appearance and actions.
You may recall I mentioned that there are actual stories in the book. I'm about to get to them. If you need to freshen up, now is the time.
The first story is Thelonious Violence, a parody of the Peter Gunn jazz-detective genre. From the outset, Thelonious' hard-boiled narration is persistently interrupted by a loud, phonetic jazz score - VA VOODLE DE BLAAAAH DAAAA! - as he slopes through a beatnik landscape of hysterical violence. A knuckleduster is attached to a trombone slide and characters don gumshields and - DOODLE-DE BLAHT! BLAHT! BLAHT! - head protectors prior to vicious (and one-sided) fistfights. Later, the detective's karate skills allow him to dominate a two-page brawl with a single finger. BLAAAHT!
In terms of story and dialogue - the jazz band excepted - Thelonious Violence is perhaps the weakest of the stories herein. But Kurtzman was pleased with the rhythm and movement of the art, and it's easy to see why. The dynamics of the fight scenes are worthy of any superhero epic, and the deadpan hero is masterfully captured by jaw alone.
As with all the stories, the nature of the target threatens to stamp a laugh-by date on Kurtzman's parody, and it helps to be familiar with the subject matter. By today's standards, Thelonious Violence would be a remarkably quaint programme. But it scores a direct hit on Peter Gunn and Johnny Staccato. A modern-day equivalent is sorely needed, and it's not going to come from Scary Movie or, sadly, Mad.
Next up is The Organization Man in the Grey Flannel Executive Suite, the tale of a bright and keen newcomer's moral destruction at the hands of Madison Avenue. Drawing on his many years in the publishing trade, Kurtzman introduces Goodman Beaver, a character he would return to in Help! magazine and a later strip collection and later evolve into Little Annie Fanny, his long-running Playboy strip with Bill Elder.
Recounting the plot of Organization Man would be a disservice to those who have yet to read it, but suffice to say it's a pint of tragedy with a Kurtzman chaser. Empathy with Goodman is quickly established, and our emotions are placed at Kurtzman's fingertips. The opportunity is not wasted. On top of this, Kurtzman clearly has some issues to take up with the publishing world, a task he rises to with aplomb. The parody's relevance today is once again an issue - the evils of Madison Ave. have long since been surpassed - but the underlying theme still communicates; just replace the publishing world with the Force, if you still have the energy.
Only two more left, soldier! The third story is Compulsion on the Range, an assault on the Gunsmoke school of TV western. This is the tale that is closest to Mad, in my opinion; the recurring gags and shameless puns would fit right in with little or no editing. As a result, while Compulsion is vintage Kurtzman in many places, there's nothing save the (exemplary) artwork to particularly identify it as a Jungle Book piece; it's a very good Mad strip, which is nothing to be ashamed of. It does contain some of my favourite jokes in the whole book, such as the gringo who's not afraid to get a drink thrown in his face in the saloon, until it turns out his cowboy target has been drinking hot soup (from a shot glass, natch).
But Harvey saves the best 'til last; Decadence Degenerated is a sharp take on Tennessee Williams and an attack on racism so thinly veiled it's almost indecent - one full page is devoted to a character running self-referentially through layer after layer of metaphor, stopping short of declaring the race card - "Youu know what I'm talking about - Youu know..." - to the bemusement of her fellow townsfolk. Decadence is by turns a funny, scathing and horrifying tale of prejudice and mob rule. It fits the subject matter to the medium by making the victim a beret-wearing, black-clad beatnik, but is no less powerful for this - further testament to Kurtzman's talents. His exaggerated Southern dialects are wonderful - after three or four pages they fit like an oily glove - and the pages are thick with a heavy, brooding air of corruption and potential violence. The twists in the last several pages are genuinely surprising and the story is a satisfying whole that Kurtzman was rightly proud of.
And that's Harvey Kurtzman's Jungle Book, one of my favourite paper artefacts. I don't believe it's in print at the time of writing, but at least there are a good many more second hand copies on the market nowadays. I urge anyone who likes satire, comics, Mad or life to track a copy down and cherish it. I also urge you to get up and stretch your legs. You've been very patient.
Kurtzman, Harvey. Harvey Kurtzman's Jungle Book. Princeton: Kitchen Sink Press, 1988