The Arty Semite

'Mad' Founder's War Comics

By Paul Buhle

  • Print
  • Share Share

Corpse on the Imjin! And Other Stories
By Harvey Kurtzman, Edited by Gary Groth
Fantagraphics, 227 pages, $28.99

Harvey Kurtzman (1924-1993) is today remembered as the Bronx-born genius editor who invented Mad Magazine, the most pervasive satirical influence of the 20th century.

That single claim-to-fame is hard to avoid, but Kurtzman’s larger role in the history of comics, mainly but not solely as an editor, has long been a favorite subject of aficionados. Kurtzman, a worker in the vineyards (that is to say, cramped Manhattan studios) of comics production in the late 1940s, took charge of several comic lines at EC, a small company on the verge of bankruptcy. He shunned the cash-cow horror comics that made the other work of EC possible, and the Science Fiction comics that still give goose bumps to nostalgiacs. Mad Comics essentially created a genre by brilliantly ridiculing rampant consumerism. But Kurtzman’s military and war comics were every bit as provocative — and more shocking by far.

The “Two Fisted Tales” (1950-1955) and “Frontline Combat” series (1951-1954) remain the most realistic war comics ever conceived, non-ideological but essentially antiwar by virtue of their realism. They contrasted with the chest-thumping patriotic comics of the Second World War period, and they contrasted likewise with the war comics that remained a steady feature of the genre for several generations. Kurtzman’s editorial products, which he often wrote for other artists, are best remembered for their accuracy of detail, right down to military buttons. The comics actually drawn by Kurtzman may be best remembered for their heart-breaking character.

“Corpse on the Imjin!” came, as many of his other tales, out of soldiers’ reports from the Korean War, sometimes in letters to Kurtzman. Like most of a dozen other stories here, ranging from the First World War to Korea (with sidelights going back to the 16th-century conquest of Mexico), “Corpse on the Imjin!” is narrated by a single dogface soldier whose main hope is to get out alive, and whose officers, generally speaking, are not much help. The emphasis is less on the blood and guts of battle (although we see some of this) than it is on the psychological state of soldiers, the terrors they experience and their deep sense of futility.

Kurtzman, one more draftee in the Big War who remained stateside, drawing for military publications, absorbed through others the immediate sense of endless horror. As seen here, Kurtzman was a brilliant craftsman who, hard-pressed to make a living and excited by the editorial process, never gave enough time to his own art. These strips reappear in black and white, thanks to the survival of the pre-colored originals. An introduction by comics scholar Robert C. Harvey, a 1979 interview, and a commentary on Kurtzman’s war comic covers by artist-scholar Frank Stack round out this remarkable collection.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Paul Buhle, Mad Magazine, Harvey Kurtzman, Corpse on the Imjin!, Comics, Books

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.