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.

Book Review: The Sky Devil

Book Review: The Sky Devil by L. Ron Hubbard

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  Also, because of severe shipping delays, Galaxy Press also sent the audio version.

The Sky Devil

This is another in the series of L. Ron Hubbard pulp stories reprints from Galaxy Press, a novella and two short stores.  As always, the physical quality of the book is top-notch.

The title story, “The Sky Devil”, starts with aviator Vic Kennedy fleeing retribution for his part in the failed 1935 Greek revolution.  He’s been denied asylum by both the British and French, and finds himself flying over the Sahara desert with a nearly-empty gas tank.  Suddenly, he sees a city, and upon landing finds himself embroiled in local politics.

It’s an exciting story, and features some creative use of those last few gallons of gasoline.  Hubbard loved his airplane stories, and it really shows.  There’s a love interest, but it’s kind of a lopsided victory.   I mean, you have your choice of a handsome, strapping warrior with the power of flight, or a malformed degenerate whose only claim on you is extortion of your father.  Who you going to pick?

The author is quick to point out that the locals are “white” Muslims, and it just so happens that Vic knows Arabic from…somewhere never fully discussed.

“”Buckley Plays a hunch” is set in the Southwest Pacific.  Buckley is a sailor who’s been looking for a lost scientific expedition, and has now found them.  It’s clear that they have all gone mad on this isolated island, but Buckley gets the feeling there’s more going on than meets the eye.  It isn’t quite as creepy a story as it really should be; Buckley’s just a little too calm and collected to sell it.

“Medals for Mahoney” is likewise set in the Southwest Pacific.  Mahoney is the latest clerk for a trading company.  Kamling Island has a problem with short-lived clerks and natives raiding the storehouse.  Mahoney is trying to defend the warehouse from the latest raid, but he may just possibly have the situation backwards.  A good twist in this one, and a nice bit of comedy at the end.

There’s a helpful glossary, a preview of another volume “Black Towers to Danger”, and the standard introduction and Hubbard Bio that’s in all the Galaxy Press editions.  As I have noted before, the shortness of the book and the mandatory repeated material lower the value for money if you have more than one of these volumes.  I would recommend this from the library or used bookstore, though.

The audio edition is quite splendid; it’s fully voice-acted, with sound effects.  The touted actor is Yasmine Hanani as Dunya, the love interest in “The Sky Devil”, and she has a strong cast backing her.  The actor playing Vic Kennedy came off a little bland, but that may be because everyone else was having fun with the Arabic accents.  The potted biography is in the included leaflet, which is heavily illustrated.  This has better value for money ratio, but a book is easier to pick up and read.

For other books in the series, see the “Related Posts” below this post.

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