Kurtzman!

Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories: edited by Gary Groth, written by Harvey Kurtzman; illustrated by Harvey Kurtzman, Gene Colan, Ric Estrada, Joe Kubert, Alex Toth, Dave Berg, John Severin, and others (1951-54; collection 2012): Harvey Kurtzman was one of the giants of American comics and American cartooning from the late 1940’s until his death in the early 1990’s. His most wide-ranging, influential creation was Mad magazine (originally an EC comic book) in the early 1950’s, which he edited and wrote and partially drew over the first five increasingly popular years of its existence.

And then there were the dramatic stories for EC, contained in the other two comic books Kurtzman edited for EC at the time — Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat. The focus of these comics tended towards historical and contemporary stories of war.

Kurtzman would be labelled an obsessive micromanager if he edited a comic book today. He drew the covers. He spent immense amounts of time researching these short tales for narrative and artistic accuracy. He gave immensely detailed instructions to the artists. And he drew a number of stories himself.

The result was extraordinary. This volume brings together two seemingly disparate story streams from those two EC titles in an instructive way. These are the stories Kurtzman both wrote and illustrated, and the stories illustrated by artists, many of them to become famous later, whom Kurtzman didn’t judge good enough at the time to become regular artists for his war books.

Interviews included in this volume give some of Kurtzman’s reasons for not making certain artists regulars (Alex Toth eschewed detail for shadowy suggestion, thus driving the detail-oriented Kurtzman nuts; Joe Kubert was sloppy and occasionally imprecise). Keep in mind that Toth and Kubert are critically lauded giants of the American comic book. Kurtzman isn’t necessarily “right” or “wrong” in his judgment — they just didn’t fit his aesthetic ethos. Nonetheless, their stories included in the volume are excellent.

More excellent, though, are the stories Kurtzman both wrote and drew. His command of both detail and shadow is extraordinary — the stories look absolutely terrific in black-and-white, so much so that colour would seem a distraction from the artistry, though the colour covers included here show the sort of effects Kurtzman’s colourist, Marie Severin, could achieve with the limited palette available to comic books at the time.

While a couple of stories descend into patriotic goofiness that Kurtzman himself derides in the interview, most are concerned more with the horror, and the horrific decisions and subsequent results, of war. The Korean War raged during Kurtzman’s time at EC, and the three most striking, essential stories — “Big ‘If'”, “Corpse on the Imjin”, and “Air Burst” — all focus on incidents during that war. But Kurtzman’s sensibilities are more Ambrose Bierce than Sgt. Rock.

Kurtzman’s best stories are thick with absurdity and sorrow, beautifully observed and executed, haunting as Hell. These are the best stories about war that American comic books would generate for decades afterwards, and really should be read by anyone who doubts the ability of comic books to be ‘adult.’ They’re adult, without a trace of profanity or graphic violence; short, concise, laden with meaning and metaphysics. Highest recommendation.

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