Comics Brut-al

I wrote a piece in The Comics Journal #307 (Winter-Spring 2021) about the as-then unpublished works of James Kugler that began:

“It’s 1945 in a small town in Nebraska, and a light is on in the kitchen well past sunset. Sitting at the table in his grandmother’s house, a young boy is working hard, but not on his homework. School for James 'Jimmy' Kugler is a joke, and he is known as a class clown. With his pencil and stack of paper, Jimmy is hard at work… making comics...

“Kugler drew more than 100 pages of comics that his family saved. They ultimately landed in the hands of his son, Michael Kugler, History Professor at Northwestern College in Iowa, who recalls:

I remember my dad had them, inside an old candy box (or something like that), with the phrase “Jimmy’s Comics” written on the outside in my mom’s handwriting. Us kids knew about them, and, after my dad’s death, [we] would occasionally ask my mom, “Can we look at Dad’s comics?” They weren’t well cared for; drawn in pencil, sitting one sheet on top of another, smudged. But I’m amazed they survived at all…

“Not only do they survive, but they provide a unique glimpse at an American boy’s reflections of the real world filtered through his darkly obsessive comics.”1

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Now over 60 pages of these unique treasures have been published by the University Press of Mississippi along with a companion text written by Professor Kugler, under the title Into the Jungle! A Boy's Comic Strip History of World War II.

Professor Kugler reprints the entire saga of “The Famous War of the Frogs and Toads” as it sprung from the All-American mind of 12-year old Jimmy Kugler, a youngster who clearly had read plenty of comics judging by his display of cartooning fundamentals. Generations of kids sat at home drawing homages to comics that they loved in pencil on newsprint just like Jimmy - but, as far as I know, his is the only full-length multipage WWII era story written and drawn by a child to have survived.2

Others drew. Plenty of us. Jules Feiffer’s seminal 1965 The Great Comic Book Heroes may have introduced '60s fans of Spider-Man and his ilk to their 1940s ancestors, from comics which had barely been reprinted at that time, but the book also revealed Feiffer's childhood obsession with comics and his own extremely youthful efforts.

Seeing the earliest comic book comics (particularly Jack Cole’s “Plastic Man” and Will Eisner’s “The Spirit” for the first time) in The Great Comic Book Heroes changed my life when I read it first, at the age of 10 - but the page that moved me more than any other was a reproduction of the cover of a comic book drawn by the hand of a prepubescent Feiffer. To afford his comics-buying habit, little Jules Feiffer drew and sold homemade comics to the local kids at nine cents a pop, underselling the professional competition in hopes of attracting neighborhood bargain hunters. By the time I read this, I had grasped the idea that human beings made comics, but the image of Feiffer’s do-it-yourself comic was a revelation: the adults who made the comics that I worshipped had begun by making comics as kids. That was when I began drawing in earnest. Jimmy Kugler did not continue to produce comics as he aged, but he fits neatly into history of kids who were compelled to make their own comics.

Early art by Jules Feiffer, from The Great Comic Book Heroes.

In The Great Comic Book Heroes, Feiffer also gets at the transgressive nature of the early comics, the comics that he and Jimmy Kugler grew up on. After acknowledging that comic books are junk, he sums up their attraction to kids, whose lives are ruled by the arbitrary order established by adult whims and timetables. As Feiffer explains, comics were a refuge, a delicious refuge:

It should come as no surprise then, that within this shifting hodgepodge of external pressures, a child, simply to save his sanity, must go underground. Have a place to hide where he cannot be got at by grownups. A place that implies, if only obliquely, that they’re not so much; that they don’t know everything; that they can’t fly the way some people can, or let bullets bounce harmlessly off their chests, or beat up whomever picks on them, or—oh joy of joys!—even become invisible! A no-man’s land. A relief zone. And the basic sustenance for this relief was, in my day, comic books.

With them we were able to roam free, disguised in costume, committing the greatest of feats—and the worst of sins. And, in every instance, getting away with them. For a little while, at least, it was our show. For a little while, at least, we were the bosses. Psychically renewed, we could then return above ground and put up with another couple of days of victimization. Comic books were our booze.

Professor Kugler echoes Feiffer when, in hypothesizing why his father’s comics are so violent, he writes, “Jimmy’s comics seem a direct affront to the goals of educational reformers of that era, working hard to regulate the minds and bodies of their students.”

Jimmy Kugler’s was a broken home. His dad drank too much, his parents split up, his mom had to work. This left Jimmy with time on his hands in an often-empty house - to make comics. If reading comics is a refuge, then making comics is creating that refuge with a big hand-painted sign out front: NO GROWN UPS! No adult told Jimmy to sit down and draw 100 pages of violent comics; he just grabbed a pencil and went at it.

Professor Kugler provides an Introduction to the entire volume, as well as to each of the chapters of his father’s comics saga. His essays give context, describing life in small-town Lexington, Nebraska, where his dad grew up: the movies that were showing at the local Majestic movie house (Gone with the Wind, Flight Command, et al.); the strips that ran in the Lexington Clipper where Jimmy's dad worked as a typesetter (Li’l Abner, Tarzan, Big Chief Wahoo, et al.), and the continuous flow of wartime propaganda leading up to and through the U.S. participation in the war.

Professor Kugler makes it easy to see how a kid could want to create his own version of the exciting, explosive, and terrifying war that was being hyped in the media and in the ubiquitous products of the propaganda machine.

Jimmy’s version of the war, however, has no patriotic soapboxing. There is little to distinguish the valor or patriotism between the Frogs and the Toads. The only discernable differences between the amphibian enemies is that the toads have razor-sharp ratcheted teeth and wear WWI-vintage helmets. Jimmy was not interested in why the war was being fought or who the good guys were. The chapters, made without any distinct story arc, can be read in almost any order. Jimmy cuts out anything resembling dramaturgy in favor of non-stop conflict, some of which is brutally graphic and much more violent than what he might have read in a real comic book. The drawings are rudimentary and monotonous in their staging and design (Frogs and Toads are shown almost exclusively in profile).

Yet, with all those strikes against them, they feel oddly compelling.

As Professor Kugler sums up, “Jimmy surely cared deeply about his comic retelling of the war. The comics tell us that he believed his imagined war was real, at least emotionally, to him.”

It is that imbedded emotional power baked into these comics that makes them memorable, readable, and significant artifacts. What was he working through? Any young boy surrounded by images of war could see himself as a candidate for combat someday. Jimmy was only a few years younger than the 18-year old GIs fighting for their lives across the ocean, but: Plot? Drama? Ideals? Patriotism? Feh! Jimmy Kugler did combat with combat itself, distilling propaganda, news reports, comics, and movies about a war whose end was not necessarily in sight - all into his own personal battle brew. He was a kid with a pencil and a stack of newsprint who didn't care much about what was being protected or the reasons for war, but who was very interested in the machinations of life and death during wartime.

To the exclusion of story and character development, Jimmy’s comics concentrate on:


Arial dogfights:

Trench combat:

Hand-to-hand combat:

Jungle combat:

The results are now released from their cardboard box that migrated over the years from home to home and from cupboard to closet; a private world made public. Into the Jungle! A Boy's Comic Strip History of World War II is virtually plotless - yet it's violent, disturbing, and pulsing with energy and emotion.

Professor Kugler astutely notes, “What did the war do for Jimmy’s art? Among the obvious, the war unlocked a set of desires for what he wanted to look at, to witness, in the act of creating. He wanted to see the war, but on his own terms.”

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  1. Professor Kugler first reached out and shared with me his father’s comics because of my research and interest in neglected Golden Age cartoonist Fletcher Hanks.
  2. The bulk of Kugler’s other comics, “The Mystery of the Winged Frogs”, a twisted gang heist tale, was published in its entirety in The Comics Journal #307 along with my essay.