First published in 1959, Harvey Kurtzman’s Jungle Book was a bold experiment of the time, albeit one borne out of necessity.
Kurtzman, creator of satirical magazine MAD for publisher William M Gaines in 1952, had quit the title amid a number of disagreements, and was intent on setting up his own version. But after failed attempts with Hugh Hefner (Trump) and his own group of artists (Humbug), Kurtzman desperately needed an income for his family, and so his next project was to take him solo – Jungle Book features four extended parodies written and drawn by Kurtzman himself.
This new edition comes at the start of an Essential Kurtzman collector’s library from Dark Horse. It features two introductions, plus an essay and epilogue, with underground comics alumni such as Art Spiegelman, Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton talking about how influential the book was to them. Indeed, this package assumes a great deal of the knowledge of the reader; if you’ve never read Kurtzman before, ignore everything and head straight into the source material to avoid spoilers.
And what of the original material itself? Jungle Book came in at number 26 in the well-respected Comics Journal‘s Top 100 comics of the 20th Century. The strips don’t really hold up quite as well, now almost 60 years after they were first published but – as the essayists note – they set the stage for much that would come after.
Kurtzman’s writing tells short, humorous stories satirising the culture of the time. Most successful perhaps to more modern eyes are the private detective with the base in the underground jazz club of the 1950s (complete with ‘vaboodle de-daah’ soundtrack); and the (semi-autobiographical) tale of a businessman joining a big publishing empire.
His art has a loose, energetic feel, that belies the effort. And it’s worth rereading the stories to see all the background extras (what we might call Easter Eggs), that really enhance the strips.
Kurtzman has a very readable visual style, combined with an excellent ear for dialogue. But these strips feel a little throwaway, and, indeed, were originally published as a small pulpy paperback – the posh hardback edition feels like it’s trying too hard. Still, it’s a fun and clever read.