Comic Book Review: Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories by Harvey Kurtzman

Comic Book Review: Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories by Harvey Kurtzman edited by Gary Groth

In later years, Harvey Kurtzman was better known  for his humor work, among other things being the first editor of MAD.  But while he worked at EC Comics in the early Fifties, Mr. Kurtzman was also known for some very impressive tales of action and warfare in Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat.  He was a pioneer in the area of more “realistic” war comics, ones that didn’t treat the enemy as subhuman or inherently evil.

Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories by Harvey Kurtzman

This book reprints many of those stories, divided into two sections, those Mr. Kurtzman illustrated himself, and those done by other artists from his layouts.  (He was notoriously unhappy when those artists deviated from his vision, and as he was also the editor of the books, those artists usually didn’t get invited to work with him again.)

The volume opens with “Conquest!”, a story set during Spain’s expansion of its empire into Central and South America.  Captain Juan Alvarado and his conquistadors initially have great success against their under-gunned native opponents, but their lust for gold undoes them.

The final story (with art by Reed Crandall) is “Memphis!” about a battle between Union and Confederate gunships on the Mississippi River during the Civil War.  The enthusiasm of the spectators, especially the children, is contrasted to the horrific cost of the battle.

The Korean War was going on during the run of these comic books, and the majority of the stories concern that conflict.  Several of these are top-rate.  “Rubble!” is about a Korean farmer building a doomed house, with step-by-step coverage of the hard labor he puts in–the art in some panels reminds me of WPA heroic friezes.  “Air Burst!” is the tale of a Chinese mortar squad as they try to survive a UN attack, their numbers dwindling.  “Corpse on the Imjin!”  was one of Mr. Kurtzman’s favorites, about two soldiers fighting to the death near the title river, with narration that’s deliberately poetic.  And “Big ‘If’!” is a meditation on the randomness of death that focuses on one soldier considering the choices that have led him to this place, sitting facing five “devil sticks.”

Some of the stories are not quite as good–“Contact!” about a U.S. patrol looking for the North Koreans and finding them ends with a patriotic speech straight out of Hollywood propaganda.  And “Bunker!” (art by Ric Estrada) about two disparate units trying to take a heavily-defended hill, has some unfortunate exaggerated features on the black soldiers that would not fly today, despite the well-meant message of the story.  But overall, most of the stories are solid to excellent.

The stories are reprinted in black and white, which favors the strong inking skills of Mr. Kurtzman, but there is also a color cover gallery that shows off his sense of color design and the work of Marie Severin as a colorist.

The volume is completed with several essays about Mr. Kurtzman’s work and EC Comics in general.

While the violence level is high as you might expect from war stories, these tales don’t lean on the gore as some of EC’s horror titles did–even visible blood is rare.

Highly recommended to EC fans, war comics buffs and those studying the Korean War and how it was seen at the time.

Manga Review: My Hero Academia #1

My Hero Academia #1 by Kohei Horikoshi

Izuku Midoriya’s dream is to become a superhero, like his idol All Might.   The problem with that idea is that Midoriya belongs to the minority of people on his world who were born without a Quirk, a superpower of some kind.  His former friend Katsuki Bakugo, who has a powerful Quirk and is naturally gifted, rubs this in at every opportunity, calling Midoriya “Deku” (no good qualities.)  Midoriya has been training hard, but even when he meets his idol, he’s told that there’s no way he can become a superhero if he doesn’t have any powers.

My Hero Academia

But then Midoriya proves he has the heart of a hero, attempting to rescue Bakugo from a powerful villain despite not having a chance of doing so.  All Might reveals that there is a way Midoriya can earn a Quirk, and go to U.A. High, the magnet school for aspiring superheroes.  Izuku Midoriya can turn around the “Deku” nickname, and make it mean “never gives up.”

This shounen manga homage to American superhero comics was something of a sleeper hit; Mr. Horikoshi’s previous two efforts had a lukewarm reception, and the immediately preceding series, Barrage, tanked.   So the online edition of Shonen Jump didn’t even bother running a preview when it debuted.  But this time Horikoshi is firing on all cylinders.

The setting is an alternate Earth where superpowers began appearing about five generations ago–it’s not clear if it’s the present day with huge changes, or a future where fashion and technology stagnated.  Eighty percent of the population was born with some sort of power, called Quirks.  Most Quirks are pretty minor (has tail, can attract small objects to hand from a foot away) but others are very impressive (Bakugo can create firey explosions from his sweat, Mount Woman can become a giant.)  There are many criminals who use their Quirks for evil, so there are professional superheroes who stop them.

There’s a lot to like about this series.  Deku (as everyone winds up calling him) is not the idiot hero so common in shounen, but a thinker who wins battles and solves problems with observation and planning.  Even when he earns the powerful Quirk “One For All” the power is difficult to use, so his brain is his greatest weapon.  And yet he still possesses the compassion and courage of a true hero.

There’s also a good supporting cast.  Bakugo makes a strong contrast as the kid who has had all the advantages handed to him by birth, and takes it as his rightful due.  His arrogance and sense of entitlement make him an ass, and he doesn’t lose much of that even after learning that no one at U.A. is going to put up with his crap.  He does, however, quit with the bullying after events in Volume Two.

Other classmates include nice (but dangerous) girl Ochako and the overly serious Iida, who get the most focus in this volume.   Unlike other school-based series, where we only follow the hero and a handful of his friends, every classmate is a distinctive person and many will get spotlights in future volumes.  There’s also an assortment of teachers with varying personalities.

The tone is closest to Bronze Age DC Comics; some bad things happen, but the general tone is optimistic, never overdosing on grimdark or angst.

As mentioned, there’s some bullying in the early chapters, and superheroic violence.  There’s also fanservice in the form of female superheroes wearing skin-tight costumes (but not every female character chooses to do so.)  Nothing a junior high or up reader can’t handle.

Highly recommended to fans of teen superheroes and those who like their comics light-hearted.

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