Corpse on the Imjin! And other stories by Harvey Kurtzman
When I first heard that Fantagraphics had acquired the rights to the EC Comics archive I was initially a little wary. Over the last few decades there have been several attempts to reprint the EC library in various different formats culminating with Gemstone Publishings short lived plan to reprint all the comics in their entirety, with each hardback volume containing 6 entire issues. This reprint series, which would have included all the classic EC titles – including Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror and Weird Science amongst others – stalled after only a dozen or so releases.
Fantagraphics then acquired the rights after Gemstone and made the unusual decision to collate the reprints not by the comics original titles (as all previous collections had done) but rather by artist. As I already own most of the Gemstone books I was a little dismayed to learn of this as I’d selfishly hoped Fantagraphics would continue where Gemstone left off and I wouldn’t have to buy the collection again. However, after reading this first release from Fantagraphics I can now say I’m more than happy with their approach – organising the collections by artist works very well and allows readers to concentrate on their favourite artists. And out of the selection of artists and comic titles to choose from, the war comics of Harvey Kurtzman seems an ideal place to start.
Harvey Kurtzman was that rare commodity in the publishing industry: a jack of all trades and master of all. At times author, comic artist, satirist and publisher Kurtzman’s work displayed a diligence, intelligence and wit that endures to this day. After toiling on EC’s horror and science fiction anthologies for most of 1950 Kurtman jumped at the chance to work on EC’s new line of war comics, initially acting as writer, artist and editor for all of the 6-8 page stories published in Two-Fisted Tales and later Frontline Combat, which was launched a few months later to capitalise on the success of Two-Fisted.
Kurtzman’s approach to war comics was, at that time, unique. He eschewed the easy option pursued by other publishers, that of showing seemingly indestructible American soldiers undertaking impossible acts of heroism against sub-human enemy soldiers. Since America was at that time involved in a real-life conflict (the Korean War) Kurtzman believed that the ‘super-soldier’ approach to story telling would be patronising to both the soldiers actually fighting in that war and his readers on home soil. He also astutely reasoned that comics with a heavy peace slant would be equally condescending. So Kurtzman pitched his stories in another, less conventional direction: he showed the horror and wastefulness of war without undermining the sacrifice and efforts of real soldiers. He also didn’t take the easy road by vilifying enemy soldiers – all his combatants are treated with the same level of sympathy and compassion. Kurtzman would sometimes spend weeks researching his stories, ensuring that even the smallest details were accurate and giving his stories a sense of realism rarely seen in comics of that period. Again he reasoned that soldiers reading the comics would immediately latch on to any mistake and he wanted his stories to have an increased sense of verisimilitude.
The 6 page Corpse on the Imjin is one of his best known tales and a prime example of Kurtzman’s powerful story-telling and his even-handedness. As a soldier watches bodies float down the Imjin river contemplating their origin, he is suddenly attacked by an enemy soldier. A vicious hand-to-hand fight ensues and he is forced to drown the soldier who then silently floats away, adding to the river’s ever increasing grim detritus. The soldier’s death is neither quick nor painless and Kurztman spends a whole page showing the graphic nature of the killing and it’s effect on the surviving soldier.
At first glance Kurtzman’s art style doesn’t immediately seem well suited to war comics. His drawings are very fluid with smooth curves and sweeping painted brush strokes. In fact his art style borders almost on the cartoonish. But somehow his style works and he successfully portrays the fear, anger and horror of war. He was also a master of comic-craft, an artist and writer in full command of the language of comics – as the page above demonstrates. The four tall panels on the top row depict speed and energy with quick cuts between images that then change to wider panels, slowing down the pace as the doomed man’s struggles begin to weaken. As we progress through the 10 panels we are pulled closer to the action and then, after the soldiers death, we pull away almost in disgust. And note the increased use of black in the middle row, used to symbolise death. Lastly all the panels in the story have a 3 line caption giving the story an even tempo and pace, something Kurtzman worked hard to achieve. All of these elements combine to give drama and pathos to the story.
After Two-Fisted Tales proved a seller and Frontline Combat was launched Kurtzman’s work load increased to the extent that he began writing for other artists, providing them with detailed layouts that they deviated from at their peril. Some artists chaffed under this restriction: Gene Colan and Joe Kubert – who would both find fame working for Marvel and DC respectively – didn’t appreciate having their creativity stifled and only worked for Kurztman on a few occasions. Other artists such as John Severin and Wally Wood seemed to relish the challenge of working with Kurtzman and so were rewarded with more work, in the process producing some of their best work for the medium. This volume is therefore split in two, with a text essay by Comics Lecturer Jared Gardner separating the stories drawn by Kurztman and those drawn by other artists.
Kurtzman eventually quit EC comics in 1956 after a bust-up with publisher William Gaines over ownership of Mad magazine – which Kurtzman had written single-handily for the first 3 years of it’s publication – and he moved on to launch other satirical titles such as Trump, Humbug and Help! for other publishers. However, it was his work for EC that would have a long lasting effect on the comics industry, influencing a new generation of artists and writers. As a fitting tribute to his impressive body of work the Harvey Awards were created in 1988 to celebrate individual achievement in the art of comic-craft.
Last word should go to this new range of Fantagraphics releases. As is typical of their other collections the book is lavishly printed on high quality white stock and is beautifully designed. Printing the stories in black and white allows the artwork to shine without the distraction of colour. The book also features several text essays on Kurtzman as well as an interview with the artist/writer, an in-depth assessment of his covers for both Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat and a brief history of EC Comics. All in all it’s a suberb package that impressively pays homage to one of comics’ great talents. If Fantagraphics continue this high standard with the other books planned for this series then the entire EC library will finally receive the respectful treatment it so richly deserves.
Corpse on the Imjin! And other stories by Harvey Kurtzman
Published by Fantagraphics, November 2012, 240 pages
The EC Comics Library at FANTAGRAPHICS
Corpse on the Imjin! from AMAZON