Here’s a very brief history of humorist Harvey Kurtzman’s career: He created the comic book MAD for EC comics in 1952. EC’s publisher, William Gaines, owned MAD outright, and refused to give Kurtzman a percentage. Kurtzman’s new friend, Hugh Hefner (a MAD fan who created Playboy) lured Kurtzman away from MAD by letting Kurtzman launch an expensive color humor magazine for Playboy called Trump. But Hefner shut it down after two issues and Kurtzman was out of a job.
Kurtzman couldn’t go back to MAD, and he never regained his footing. He tried publishing his own magazine, Humbug. It failed. He tried again with a magazine called HELP! It, too, suffered a similar end.
It’s a sad fate for this brilliant humorist and cartoonist, who nurtured the careers of many successful creators, including Robert Crumb, Terry Gilliam, and Art Spiegelman. Crumb, who contributed to Kurtzman’s HELP!, called Kurtzman a “tragic hero.”
Jungle Book was Kurtzman’s attempt to produce an ongoing series of long-form satirical comic stories over which he retained creative control. in 1959 he proposed the idea to paperback publisher Ian Ballantine, who had made a great deal of money publishing MAD paperbacks consisting of reprints of MAD magazine articles (almost all of which were written by Kurtzman). Based on the past success of the MAD paperbacks, Jungle Book would surely be a success, figured Kurtzman and Ballantine. As Denis Kitchen, producer of this new edition of Jungle Book, writes in his essay, “Both men would be very disappointed.”
The original Jungle Book paperback was a commercial flop. Kurtzman, who had a wife and three kids (one of them severely autistic) to support, never earned out his puny $1,500 advance. To add insult to injury, the Ballantine edition was poorly printed on cheap pulp paper, making Kurtzman’s delicate line art and sumptuously varied ink washes look crude and blotchy. He never did another Jungle Book again.
This 2014 edition, edited and designed by John Lind, is how Jungle Book should have been presented. Kurtzman’s four satirical stories (lampooning popular TV show genres of the era) are a treat to behold. This edition includes great new material, including the aforementioned article by Kitchen, an introduction by Kurtzman protégé Gilbert Shelton (creator of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers), another introduction by another protégé, Art Spiegelman, and an interview with cartoonists Peter Poplaski and Robert Crumb about the book. It’s a fitting tribute to a talented, unlucky creative genius.
Jungle Book is the first volume published in the “Essential Kurtzman” series that cartoonist and underground comic book publisher Denis Kitchen launched at Dark Horse.