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: Showa 1944 1953 a History of Japan

Manga Review: Showa 1944 1953 a History of Japan by Shigeru Mizuki

Shigeru Mizuki was one of the oldest (born 1922, died 2015) still-working and most respected manga creators in Japan.  Though he is best known for children’s horror comics such as GeGeGe no Kitaro, Mizuki also has written extensively for adults.  This is the third volume of his personal history of Japan.

Showa 1944 1953 a History of Japan

The first half of the volume covers the last bit of World War Two from the Japanese perspective, and Mizuki’s personal experiences as an infantry grunt in Papua New Guinea.  After the failure of Japan’s invasion of India, and the successes of the Allies in the Pacific War, it is clear that the war had gone sour for the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, but Japan’s military leadership still believed they could pull a victory out of these difficult conditions.

On the ground, the military tried to keep up troop morale by emphasizing the idea of a “noble death”, taking as many Allies with you as possible rather than surrender or retreat.  Mizuki survived by mere chance when his unit was ordered into a suicidal charge.  He and the other survivors were considered an embarrassment to the brass, and their ill treatment became fictionalized as Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, which I previously reviewed.  Unlike his fictional counterpart, Mizuki survived even the worst, developing malaria and losing an arm.

Despite his condition, Mizuki was not repatriated to Japan until 1947, now under American occupation.  General Douglas MacArthur and GHQ wanted to reform Japan and get it back on its feet, which among other things meant giving it a new constitution that prevented it from ever again going to war.  New freedoms were the order of the day, until the occupiers realized what people wanted to do with those freedoms and began restricting them again.

Over a decade of war and its privations had ruined Japan’s economy, and all the returning soldiers didn’t help.  As a disabled veteran, Mizuki was worse off than many others.  Personal tragedy struck when his brother was imprisoned; the same deeds that had made him a war hero to the Japanese made him a war criminal to the Americans.

The Red Menace and the Korean War finally were the cause of Japan’s economy beginning to grow again as the Allied forces used it as their staging ground and pumped millions in aid into the area.  Meanwhile, Mizuki had gone back to art school and become a kamishibai artist.  (These were one-man shows where an entertainer would show pictures and tell stories to an audience, selling candy and snacks.)   The advent of regular television was swiftly killing off the old ways, however….

The history is narrated by Nezumi-Otoko (Rat-man), one of Mizuki’s famous creations (joined by cameos of his fellow yokai monsters.)  It’s mostly a visual convention as he does not act in his usual character.  The art varies from cartoony to photo-realistic, sometimes on the same page, depending on the desired effect.

This is powerful stuff, depicting the horrors of war and occupation, and a few brief moments of peace and joy wrested from their  midst.  There’s some nudity, and mentions of rape and prostitution (nothing about Mizuki’s own sex life–it’s possible he simply didn’t have any to speak of in this period.)  I would suggest it to no younger than senior high students, and even then advise caution.

There’s an introduction by manga scholar Frederik L. Shodt, and end notes explaining who many of the historical figures are, and other useful details.

Despite its disturbing nature, this will be a valuable volume for history buffs and those who want more information on the decade or so covered in this book. Highly recommended.

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Weird War Tales Volume 1

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Weird War Tales Volume 1 edited by Joe Kubert & Joe Orlando

As I’ve mentioned in other reviews, the relaxation of the Comics Code in the early 1970s created a horror anthology boom at DC Comics.  At the same time, the once best-selling war comics were going into a slump, at least partially due to the real-life Vietnam War becoming increasingly unpopular.  So a hybrid title was created that combined the two genres.

Showcase Presents: Weird War Tales

Like many anthology comics, there was initially a framing device of a narrator telling the stories to a soldier and the reader.  This switched around a few times, until the series settled on Death as the host of the book.  For who knows the stories of war better?  The majority of the stories are set in World War Two, both because the writers and artists had served in that conflict or were close to those that were, and because the sides were so clearly drawn.  None of the stories in the first twenty-one issues are set in the Vietnam conflict; the most recent war covered is the Korean War in one story, and even then not presented by name.

The art in this volume is stellar.  Joe Kubert (who also got to be an editor on this title), Russ Heath, Irv Novick and others are well-served by the black and white reprint.  The stories range from good to trite.  The two most often used plots are “Corporal Bob saved your life?  But he died last week!” and “Arrogant Nazis disregard local superstitions, die horribly.”  A couple of standouts are Issue #11’s “October 30”, which is a series of interconnected stories taking place on that date in different years as Von Krauss seeks glory and promotion in more than one war; and “The Warrior and the Witch Doctors!” which has a Roman legionary time traveling, but a unique twist ending changes everything.

The Comics Code, while loosened, was still in effect, so while rape and suicide are implied, they are never directly shown.  The gore is also turned way down, unlike many current horror comics.  (On the other hand, there’s enough violence to make the “Make War No More” buttons that sometimes end the stories seem out of place.)  There are some period ethnic slurs in a couple of the stories.  Only one female soldier is seen, and very briefly at that in a post-atomic war story.

The subject matter means that this volume won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but the art makes it well worth it for fans of war comics who can take a little weirdness in with it.

Magazine Review: Conjunctions: 51 The Death Issue

Magazine Review:  Conjunctions: 51 The Death Issue edited by David Shields and Bradford Morrow

Conjunctions is a literary journal published twice a year by Bard College.  Each issue contains essays, short fiction, poetry and less classifiable writing on a given subject, with this issue being about death.  Literary journals tend to have a connotation of pretentiousness, and death is one of the primal subjects, so I approached this 2008 issue with a bit of trepidation.

Conjunctions 51

The issue starts strong with an essay entitled “The Sutra of Maggots and Blowflies” by Sallie Tisdale.  It’s a stomach-churning but very informative look at flies, Buddhism, and the Buddha nature of flies.  The ending piece is “Andalucia” by H.G. Carrillo, the story of a writer mourning his artist lover, who has died of AIDS.

In between, the most memorable pieces are Joyce Carol Oates’ “Dear Husband”, a chilling suicide note; and “St. Francis Preaches to the Birds” by David Ives, a not-quite-working comedic play about the saint’s encounter with vultures.  Several of the pieces caused me to shed a tear.  Sadly, as I cannot make head or tail of the appeal of modern poetry, I feel unable to comment on whether any of the poetry was good.   Two pieces are illustrated with photographs, the only visual art in the issue.

With forty pieces altogether, this is a thick volume that takes some grit to get through.  I understand that the Oates story is in one of her own anthologies, so if noir fiction is your thing, you might want to check that out.   The rest is a mixed bag; see if your library system has a copy of this or other issues so you can see if Conjunctions is something you want to subscribe to.

“I am merely departing”–Lucius Seneca.

TV Review: Mannix

TV Review: Mannix

Hey, a show I actually remember watching first-run!  Private eye show Mannix ran from 1967-75.  It had a memorable opening sequence with a jazzy tune in waltz time and split-screen credits reminiscent of a monitor bank.

Mannix

Joe Mannix (Mike Connors) was an Armenian-American Korean War veteran, a little rough around the edges.  In the first season, he worked for Intertect, a high-technology detective firm with dozens of operatives and the latest in computers.  Mannix often clashed with his long-suffering boss Lew Wickersham (Joseph Campanella), since his casual look and hands-on methods often conflicted with the agency’s buttoned-down image.

The ratings weren’t so good, so the show was remodeled for the second season.  The computers, which the writers had never used well in the first place, and Intertect were gone, Joe Mannix was his own man, and he hired a black secretary (remember, in 1968, a black woman having a job as prestigious as secretary or glorified telephone operator was progressive.)  The decent run of the show indicates that this might have been a wise move.

The Mill Creek DVD had two first-season episodes.

“Nothing Ever Works Twice”  An ex-girlfriend of Mannix hires him to work on her divorce case.  While this is a huge part of real private detective work, Mannix is the top agent, so normally doesn’t have to do it, but the ex sweet talks him into it.  One ambush later, Mannix finds himself framed for the husband’s murder.

It turns out that the husband was fronting for a gambling ring, so there’s plenty of suspects, including the conniving wife.  Mannix gets beat up some (a recurring theme in the series) and while the computers are no help, the high tech car phones Mannix and Lew have are instrumental in helping solve the case.

The first thing I noticed going from Fifties shows to this one was the much shorter skirts.  (The opening credits have a young woman twirl so we can see her underwear.)  Mannix smokes, he almost does this in the computer room at the office.  The transfer on this episode was sub-par; Mill Creek may have worked with an inferior master.

“The Cost of a Vacation”  Another ex-girlfriend, this one a model, hires Mannix to find her missing boyfriend.  This is made somewhat difficult by the fact that he’s been living under a different name, and neither of these may be his real one.   Eventually, Mannix ties this to an assassination plot.

We learn that between the Korean War and becoming a private detective, Mannix spent some time as a mercenary in Costa Verde.  He gets beat up and shot at some more.  The model (after he has saved her from a sniper) points out that Mannix gets shot at a lot and opines that it’s probably one of his friends.  (This becomes funnier over time as over half Mannix’s old war buddies that show up try to kill him.)

Mannix’s old war buddy in this episode doesn’t try to kill him, but is involved in smuggling illegal aliens into America using a charity as a cover.    The model spends most of the episode in a bikini, and there’s a bit of creepiness with Lew doing the voyeur thing with the office cameras.  (But not long; he’s shut off the cameras by the time she decides to leave.)

The ending is kind of a downer.  Mannix fails to stop the assassination or learn who hired the assassin, plus his war buddy and a random private eye get killed.  He does manage to save the model, but this is despite her lovelorn stupidity being what puts her in danger in the first place.

Mike Connors is great as Mannix, and the other actors are good too.  The show could really have done with a writer who would really explore the uses of computers in detective work.  Worth looking up.

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