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Harvey Kurtzman’s Jungle Book (review)

Review by Lily Fierro
Harvey Kurtzman’s Jungle Book: Essential Kurtzman Volume 1 HC
Written and Illustrated by Harvey Kurtzman
Introduction by Gilbert Shelton
Essay by Denis Kitchen
Conversation Between R. Crumb and Pete Poplaski
Published by Dark Horse Comics
ISBN: 978-1-61655-563-4
Pub. Date: December 03, 2014 / $24.99

Satires just aren’t made the same way anymore.

Creating in the long standing, early 20th century American tradition of utilizing satire to expose the underbelly of American business and culture, Harvey Kurtzman achieved something special with his Jungle Book in 1959.  Kurtzman inspired a generation of underground and independent cartoonists and comic book writers, but his Jungle Book, a departure from the usual comic books in its stories and in its publication process, was printed with shoddy materials, and, consequently, original copies are not in the best shape today.

Thankfully, it has been restored by the good folks at Dark Horse Comics for a special series called Essential Kurtzman, and this restoration of Harvey Kurtzman’s Jungle Book will be available for every graphic novel enthusiast in December.

The Jungle Book contains four individual stories, with each representing some cultural or historical artifact of America. As discussed in the introduction by Denis Kitchen, who loaned his original print for the restoration, the Jungle Book’s stories parody popular television shows at the time, the publishing industry, and the Old West, all relics which may be lost on current generations but no less insightful and clever in their messages.

Warning: Spoilers ahead!

The first story, Thelonious Violence, parodies film noir motifs, particularly poking fun at the private investigator Peter Gunn, the character who bears the name of the popular television show in the late 50s to the early 60s. In this first story, our main private eye is Thelonious Violence, a too cool, too smooth man who speaks to his overly pretty clients with a tone constantly laced with innuendo. Beyond the normal settings of the smoky jazz club and the mansion of a too-rich-for-her-own good client, Thelonious Violence quickly reveals itself as a completely insane derailment of the film noir private eye structure.

The second story, The Organization Man in the Grey Flannel Executive Suite must have emerged from a longstanding despise for the management of the industry Kurtzman created in. Following the decay of wide-eyed editor Goodman Beaver, the story satirizes the magazine publishing industry for its low quality standards and its gallery of boorish miscreants who run the business. Though the publishing industry may not be filled today with such buffoonery and baseness, other industries are, and they are eating away at the morality of generally decent people. When Goodman finally cracks and executes his final act of defiance, Kurtzman keenly exposes the consequences of capitalism on media, art, and morality.

Kurtzman’s quote from 1986 introduces the third story, Compulsion on the Range, as the first story written for the novel and one he did not like.

However, don’t be fooled by Kurtzman’s self-deprecation; Compulsion on the Range is a fine parody of the the protagonists in westerns. As a western lover myself, I readily admit that westerns have an occasionally hyperbolic nature in their portrayal of masculinity and heroism. Often, the heroes succeed in the most unfathomable conditions for the most unexplainable reasons, and Kurtzman toys with the idea of the usually cool and composed protagonist in his version of a western. Matt Dollin, the Marshall of Dodge City, works diligently to protect his town. Often embroiled in duels, Dollin cannot seem to succeed in drawing his gun quickly….or accurately. In most westerns, the protagonists seem to only battle their external enemies, but in Compulsion on the Range, Matt Dollin must eventually battle a subconscious internal enemy in order to overcome his failures in duels.

Lastly, Decadence Degenerated, probably the most successful story of the collection, recounts the story of the ill-bred citizens of the town of Rottenville, a place inspired by Kurztman’s experiences in Paris, Texas when he was a stationed there as an infantryman during World War II. The citizens of Rottenville seem to have it out for Si Mednick, an educated intellectual living amongst the other characters of the Old West. When the town’s prettiest lady and greatest object of desire is found dead, Mednick is immediately accused of the murder and expectedly lynched. What makes Decadence Degenerated great is that it makes you believe that it is a tale about the evils of cultural prejudice, but by the end, it becomes a whole other beast with a vastly different political message; I must admit that its ending is shocking, even over fifty years later.

Kurtzman’s Jungle Book is an amazing graphic novel admirably far, far ahead of its time (yes, yes, many folks have said that, but it is a point that I really cannot disagree with). Though the satires of each story have foundations in cultural products that no longer exist, their messages are still completely relevant.

As a total work, the Jungle Book conveys the simultaneous progress and decay of civilization. It fully captures the paradoxical nature of America as a once wild, revolutionary place transitioning into a full capitalistic machine and the difficulty in reconciling the two personas.

In addition, the Jungle Book manipulates themes that would not be tackled in the American mainstream media until decades later. Sex and the Single Girl in 1964 would later reveal the tawdry, sloppy nature of pulp magazines; Blazing Saddles in 1974 would caricature the nonsensical and politically incorrect parts of westerns; and, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid in 1982 would later parody the film noir detective world.

Kurtzman had a great ability to understand and critique popular media and culture with hyperbole and sharp wit with the Jungle Book. It’s incredible that this graphic novel is over 50 years old; it’s still able to make me laugh hysterically and then recoil in concern for the circumstances and the reason behind the laugh I blurted just a second before.

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