Swingin' Through the Slow Burner of Harvey Kurtzman's 'Jungle Book'

by Gregory L. Reece

12 March 2015

This story is about what happened in between Mad and Playboy. It's the story of how one time the great Harvey Kurtzman played a real slow burner.
Harvey Kurtzman caricatured by
Drew Friedman 
cover art

Jungle Book

It’s a slow burner. Oh man, a slow burner.

This is no rapid fire rat-a-tat-tat. No whirlwind whirligig of gags and gaffes. No madcap madness. No humor in a jugular vein.

It’s a slow burner.

Clarinet solo. Brushes on the cymbals. Down and dirty. Hot summer night. Scotch on the rocks. Smoking. Smoldering. Slow burner. Oh man, a slow burner.

I just finished reading the beautiful new reissue of Harvey Kurtzman’s Jungle Book.  Dark Horse Comics calls it Essential Kurtzman: Volume One and essential it is. Essential for anyone who was taught to laugh by Mad Magazine, taught to raise a middle finger in salute to the powers that be, taught to snicker and snigger from the back of the room while the experts and the duly-elected great men and women pose and preen at the podiums of power. Essential.

Kurtzman’s Mad madness was pure jazz. It was wild, manic and free.

It was the kind of jazz that you only hear late at night after the beautiful people have gone back to their stylish apartments for a nightcap and who knows what else and only the band remains, the band and a couple of wild-eyed patrons, one with a nervous twitch and the other with his mind a million miles away. It was the kind of music that the band played just for themselves, with notes that would grate at the ears of the oh-so-sophisticated gentry who only came because someone told them this was the place to go, the place to be, the place to see and be seen. It was the kind of music that polite company would frown on, music that was fueled by bourbon and undoubtedly something more. It was music that was more than music, music that was a threat, an honest to God threat, to all that was decent and nice.

Kurtzman was the band leader that Wally Wood and Jack Davis and John Severin and Will Elder (oh God, Will Elder) followed. He laid down the groove and they filled in the gaps. What they did will take your breath away, knock you off your feet, make your head spin. It is more than sick, more than crazy, more than cracked. It is mad, man, Mad.

But it didn’t last. Kurtzman wanted more. More control. More class. More money. And Bill Gaines couldn’t have wanted to see him go, but had to let him go, had to let him move on. And move on he did. Kurtzman’s pal Hugh Hefner gave him what he wanted, gave him slick paper, gave him Trump.  But Trump didn’t last, so he fell backwards into Humbug.  But Humbug didn’t last either, and so he fell backwards into hard times.

(Kurtzman and Will Elder (oh God, Will Elder) would end up with Hefner, of course. But Little Annie Fanny is another story for another day. This story is about what happened in between Mad and Playboy.)

In between came this thing called Harvey Kurtzman’s Jungle Book where Kurtzman was a soloist, performing in a small, dark nightclub, on a small, dark stage. On a clarinet, definitely on a clarinet. And what he’s doing can only be called a slow burner. Oh man, a slow burner.

So, Kurtzman struck this deal with Ballantine Books which had been making a killing repackaging and selling reprints of Mad in condensed little editions, pocket books. But Gaines pulled a switch and cut a deal with Signet, and Ballantine was suddenly desperate to fill the gaps, to put something in all those empty pockets. Kurtzman seemed like the perfect fit. All new material. No reprints this time. And it was Kurtzman, the original Mad man.

Only it flopped. Really flopped.

Ballantine printed 150,000 copies and five years later had barely sold half of them. Sales weren’t helped by the fact that the lines on the paper that Kurtzman used for his compositions were reproduced in the printed version. Sales weren’t helped by the inexplicable title or by the book’s inexplicable cover. Sales weren’t helped by the fact that what readers found was definitely not the manic madness of Mad but something different, something that smoldered rather than sparkled.

Of course, the cover and title make a lot of sense. Kurtzman knew it was a jungle out there. Oh man, he knew. Ups and downs. Kill or be killed. Put on a suit, grab your briefcase, pack up your portfolio, and swing baby swing.

And the content, the stories and the art, they make sense too. They are pure Kurtzman. Probably as close to the real, true, thing as we were ever allowed to see. In the future his work would be edited and revised by Hefner and Playboy before being brought to life by Will Elder (oh God, Will Elder). For Mad, Kurtzman had developed and plotted the stories and the jokes and then turned the renditions over to the original Usual Gang of Idiots. They added zest, marginalia, gags, embellishments, ornamentation, flourishes, hooks.

Think of Will Elder’s “Mole.” Think of Jack Davis’ “Flob was a Slob.” Think of John Severin’s “Melvin of the Apes.” Think of Wally Wood’s “Superduperman!” They were all conceived, plotted, scripted by Kurtzman. They were composed by Kurtzman, lead by Kurtzman. But the scores he wrote were given life by this tight little four-piece band. All in all, Kurtzman and the gang, they took it off the rails, road it hard, and along the way they rotted the minds of a generation.

Thanks, guys. I mean it.

But Harvey Kurtzman’s Jungle Book was just that. Harvey Kurtzman’s.

Here there is no accompaniment. Just pure Kurtzman.

It’s Thelonious Monk alone in San Francisco in 1959

You know what I mean, baby? Yeah, you know.

The art looks like a first sketch, like something that Kurtzman would have given to Severin or Wood when he gave them their story assignments, directions for what he wanted to see, quickly drawn pencils that pointed the way to the madness that it was the job of the artists to find and define.

There are few complex backgrounds, few pure sight gags. The lettering is as loose as a goose. Half the time, the characters are Little-Orphan-Annie-eyed. It looks purely spontaneous, something he wanted to get back to later. But he worked to make it this way. What look like quick sketches are instead carefully refined and finished. Sophistication mixed with hard work to appear simple, spontaneous and true.

It’s Billie Holiday singing You’ve Changed in 1958.

You know what I mean, baby? Yeah, you know what I mean.

So what Kurtzman gave us in Jungle Book feels a lot like what he gave us in Mad only slowed way down.  It’s as if you cut away all the distractions, all the color and the grotesqueries and the snarky background billboards.

On the first read through, I found myself waiting for the jokes, waiting for one of the old gang to throw me a bone, drop a lighted bomb in my lap, hit me over the head with an anvil. But Harvey Kurtzman’s Jungle Book is not a comic strip where the jokes gotta come every three or four panels and it is not Mad where Kurtzman and Wood and Severin and Davis and Elder (oh God, Will Elder) piled joke on top of joke, packed each page with a hundred gags, forced more grins into a single panel than a whole month of daily comic strips could ever hope to contain.

That’s not Jungle Book. Jungle Book is a slow burner.

Of course, some of the stories here are better than others. “Compulsion on the Range” is probably the weakest. It’s a spoof of TV westerns with a little Freudian psychology thrown in to liven things up. It’s not really anything that we haven’t seen from Kurtzman before, back in his days at Mad when he teamed up with Jack Davis for “Lone Stranger” in issue #3 and “Hah! Noon!” in issue #7 or with John Severin in “Sane!” in issue #10.

“Thelonious Violence” is also familiar territory: the private eye spoof. But there is something different here for sure. The story is set to a catchy jazz riff that is communicated to the reader in a series of nonsensical sound effects that play across the page while private eye and gangster bust each other’s chops.

“Gunk! UNK! Unk! Unk! UNK! Unk! Unk! UNK! DooWookka DooWokka Vo-Do-De-O-Do! TOM tom tom tom TOM tom tom tom!”

It’s cool, man, real cool.

The real joys here, however, are found when Kurtzman turned his attention to things he knew well, with parodies, not of genre television, but of real life.

First up is “The Organization Man in the Grey Flannel Executive Suite.” In it, Goodman Beaver hires on with Schlock Publications to work as an editor for the company’s cross-word puzzle books. The men here are all in their business suits, smoking their cigars and their cigarettes, spending way too much time sending out for coffee and lunch and more coffee. The business is run on a shoestring budget. It’s a “Keep the investment low . . . the income high . . . and the margin of profit wide” kind of a place. Goodman Beaver is an idealist, but his idealism doesn’t last long. He is a decent human being, but his decency doesn’t last long. How could it? Not in a place like this. Not out here in the jungle.

Before you know it, he’s just like everybody else and chasing the secretary around the desk.

She calls back to him over her shoulder, “You wanted to do great things, Goodman . . . fine magazines. You had plans once.”

And from across the desk he replies, “You’ll find out I got plans, baby, when I catch you.”

This must have been something Kurtzman knew too well, the inside workings of a two-bit publisher; the shenanigans that go on behind closed office doors; the gradual decay of human decency that strips away our pretenses, our Sunday School lessons, our business school ethics.

And then, saving the best for last, Kurtzman gives us “Decadence Degenerated.” He calls it a story in 3-D: “D-cay, D-terioration, and D-generacy.” Drawing upon his military service when he was stationed in Paris, Texas this story is a clear-eyed and scathing rebuke of small town life, exposing the degeneracy that lurks on Main Street with the same vigor with which he exposed what he saw on Madison Avenue. There is murder afoot in Rottenville, murder and lust and political corruption.

And Kurtzman can sure write southern accents.

“Hain’t nothin happened here since the flood!”
“Wish there was some real action like a dog-fight or something.”
“Yeah. . . Maybea a chicken’ll get runned over by a auto-mo-bile.”
“Or maybe we kin hit somebody!
“Maybe we kin hit each other!
“Aww – same old thang as yesterday.”

All of these stories are the product of their time, especially in their depiction of women. Marshall Dollin gets googly-eyed over an Indian maiden; private-eye Thelonius Violence can barely contain himself around his school-girl client; everybody at Schlock publications is chasing the secretary; and all the men of Rottenville got a thang for “purty li’l Honey Lou.” Sometimes this stuff makes me cringe. At other times I suspect that Kurtzman was teaching us a lesson, even if he didn’t know that he was doing it, and that his portrayal of what men did to women was part of his spoof, part of his parody, part of his take-down of television, American mythology, the business world, and the supposed purity and charm of small town life. It’s definitely a man’s world in the pages of Jungle Book, as in much of Kurtzman’s work, and while he plays that for laughs, the fact does not escape his cool but withering gaze.

But like I said, Jungle Book was a flop, practically an embarrassment. Here it was, arguably the world’s first graphic novel, arguably the most personal note ever played by the Mad genius Harvey Kurtzman, and drug store clerks everywhere were tearing off the cover and pulping the rest.

Under the leadership of Al Fieldstein, Mad went on to great success, without Kurtzman. Kurtzman went on to Playboy and to Little Annie Fanny.

But listen to this. You just gotta hear this.

There was this one time when Kurtzman played all by himself. It was a dark room and the crowd was small, just a couple of regulars and this young couple on their first date. There was a look in Kurtzman’s eye. It might have been desperation. It might have been joy. It was certainly madness. And he played. Oh, man he played. It was and wasn’t like anything that he had done before.

To be honest, I’m not sure anyone in that room was even listening. They all had other things on their minds: wondering how he could get her back to his apartment for a drink; regretting she had ever said “yes” to this creep; wishing things could have turned out differently; thinking that just one more drink wouldn’t hurt.

But it didn’t matter if they were listening or not. Kurtzman played. He really played.

And it was a slow burner. Oh man, a slow burner.

You know what I mean? Yeah, you know what I mean.

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