Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Pan Review of Books: Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created Mad and Revolutionized Humor in America

Robert Boyd

Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created Mad and Revolutionized Humor in America by Bill Schelly (Fantagraphics Books, 2015).

I was a little worried about this book when I first heard of it because I saw Bill Schelly as a "fan" writer. The fan community in comics has long been important because they were its first historians. They are the ones who write catalogues raisonnés for comics artists. (Glen Bray wrote such a catalogue raisonné for Kurtzman in 1975, which was undoubtedly invaluable to Schelly.) They aren't notable for being good writers, though. But Schelly does a very good job here--his writing is up to the task, the book is structured well, and it seems quite complete. The only thing that could be added would perhaps be more insight into Kurtzman's mind, but psychological biographies bring their own dangers. Only truly gifted biographers can do that kind of thing well. In any case, we readers can deduce a lot about Kurtzman's state of mind from his actions and from his own recorded comments that are included in this biography.

Harvey Kurtzman (1924-1993) was a cartoonist and humorist. He was part of a generation of young, mostly Jewish artists in New York City who came out of the Depression hungry for whatever work they could get, including what was then the bottom of the barrel for artists, the comic book industry. After attending New York's High School of Music and Art (which educated many of his future colleagues and collaborators), he was first published in comics in 1939 (as a contest winner) and sold his first professional comics work in 1942. Kurtzman was drafted and returned to comics after the war, mostly doing piece-work for Timely (the forerunner of Marvel) and other publishers, while trying to break into comic strips and slick magazine work, which paid much better and were much more prestigious than comic books. He set up a studio with his friends Will Elder and John Severin; many other cartoonists passed time in this studio, including René Goscinny, a young French cartoonist who would later create Asterix. But at the time time, they were all fairly unsuccessful young cartoonists sharpening their nascent skills and trying to make a buck. Kurtzman and Goscinny collaborated on some work-for-hire children's books in the late 40s, and perhaps we're lucky they weren't successful.

Kurtzman's main work during this period was a series of one-page filler gags for Timely called Hey Look! This where Kurtzman mastered comics language, taking it apart and putting it back together. Hey Look! is his first masterwork, but at the time hardly anyone realized it existed. It was published here in there in various Timely comics as filler--it never had its own publication (the Hey Look! strips would finally be gathered into one volume in 1991). Within the comics community, however, people noticed this work. In 1949, he met William Gaines and Al Feldstein. Gaines had inherited his father's comics publishing house, Educational Comics. He changed it to Entertaining Comics and started publishing work in then popular genres (crime, romance, westerns, etc.). Feldstein was EC's editor. They liked Kurtzman's humor work when he showed it to them, but they weren't publishing any humor comics. But they got him a job writing and drawing an anti-VD (!) educational comic that showed that he could do "serious" comics work. Impressed, they started using his work in their new horror comics.

Kurtzman drew and wrote a number of horror and science fiction for EC (unusual--Gaines and Feldstein typically did all the writing), but he didn't particularly like the genres. He suggested something more grounded in reality. He was given the job of editing and producing a new comic, Two-Fisted Tales. Initially consisting of he-man adventure stories, it became more focused on war stories as the Korean War heated up. It was an astonishing war comic right from the start. Previously, war comics had been jingoistic propaganda exercises, depicting our side as noble warriors and the other side and inhuman monsters. They tended to be quite racist (nearsighted buck-tooth Japanese caricatures were common). Two-Fisted Tales gave humanity to all participants, soldiers and civilians alike, and depicted U.S. soldiers as frightened, imperfect young men in situations outside their control.

For that alone, Two-Fisted Tales would have been notable. But Kurtzman and his artists applied an unusual level of craft and care to the comic. Kurtzman spent an inordinate amount of time researching uniforms, weapons, etc. But beyond this, he did far more than write a script--he carefully storyboarded each script. The artists had to carefully follow his layouts. These artists, some of the best in the industry (Jack Davis, Wallace Wood, Alex Toth, Severin, etc.) often chafed at this. Severin and Kurtzman eventually fell out over this practice. But there was no denying the quality of the work.

Mad #1, cover by Harvey Kurtzman, 1952

Kurtzman was ambitious--editing, writing and designing one comic and contributing to several others wasn't enough for him. He proposed a humor comic to William Gaines. This was Mad, which started publication in 1952. Kurtzman worked with many of the same artists he had for Two-Fisted Tales (particularly Davis, Wood and Will Elder). Initially he used Mad as a way to satirize other comics. Hey Look! had deconstructed the underlying structure of comics; with Mad, he satirized the contents as well. The new title was instantly successful. He quickly moved beyond making fun of other comics to satirizing American popular culture and ultimately American culture in general. Mad was almost supernaturally good, so far above what other comics that it didn't really seem to belong in the same category. Readers loved it and became lifelong Kurtzman fans--it was the beginning of his modest celebrity. Perhaps more important than the fans were those who were inspired to follow in his footsteps. Much of the humor produced in the 60s and 70s was by people who had encountered Kurtzman's Mad as children.

While this was happening, a backlash against comics--particularly crime and horror comics--was brewing. At a certain point, EC could no longer get many of its titles distributed because they refused to submit to the newly instituted industry censorship regime, the Comics Code. Kurtzman who (like many toilers in the comics field) wished to work in the magazine world had been bugging Gaines to turn Mad into a regular magazine. Gaines realized this would be a way to do an end-run around the censors. In 1955 Mad became a magazine.

There are many times in this biography where the reader wants to reach back into time and shake Kurtzman, saying, "Don't do this thing you are about to do!" Kurtzman's relations with Gaines were deteriorating. There is blame on both sides, but it is undoubtedly true that Kurtzman was difficult to work with. His perfectionism caused last-minute changes and late issues. Mad had become EC's cash cow, not only for its own strong sales but also through incredibly successful paperback reprints. So Gaines was eager to keep Kurtzman and keep him happy. But Kurtzman was entertaining other offers, and one, to do a full-color slick humor magazine for Hugh Hefner, then riding high with his new magazine, Playboy, was irresistible. So Kurtzman made Gaines an offer that he knew Gaines couldn't accept--Kurtzman demanded a 51% stake of EC. What Kurtzman didn't seem to realize is that Gaines would have given him almost anything he asked for, including substantial equity in EC. Instead, Gaines said no and Kurtzman started work on a new magazine for Hefner called Trump.

Kurtzman had provided Gaines and Feldstein, who replaced Kurtzman as editor of Mad,  a very good model of how to produce a successful humor magazine, which they copied successfully for the next 25 years, when Feldstein retired. And Mad is still published today. Trump, on the other hand, lasted only two issues for a variety of reasons (there were reasons that Hefner told people and reasons that have been ferreted out later--Schelly presents them all as plausible but suggests that the problem was that Hefner simply didn't like the work as much as he hoped he would).

Humbug #2, art by Will Elder and Jack Davis, 1957

Following this were two more magazines that never quite succeeded in the market: Humbug, a modest but brilliant magazine co-owned by Kurtzman and a group of his collaborating cartoonists, and Help!, a low-budget photo-humor magazine published by Jim Warren. While none of these post-Mad publications was notably successful, each contained substantial work of real brilliance by Kurtzman. And they also showed his knack for spotting talent. For example, he hired four assistant editors during the run of Help! Three of them became justifiably famous in their respective fields--Gloria Steinem, Terry Gilliam and Robert Crumb (Crumb never even got to work there; the day he showed up for work, workmen were carting away office furniture--Warren had shut down the unprofitable magazine).

Playboy once again supplied a lifeline--Hefner offered to publish a comic strip by Kurtzman and Elder in the magazine. This was Little Annie Fanny, a lushly produced but lame satire strip starring a Candide-like character, Annie, who was built like Marilyn Monroe. Her adventures each month invariably ended up with her naked. With her gigantic breasts and brick-house figure, Schelly identifies her as a particularly adolescent kind of sex fantasy. Kurtzman was pandering to the Playboy reader which made the satire in the strip feel hypocritical at best. Furthermore, the arch-perfectionist was now subject to the whims of another perfectionist, Hefner, who tortured the Kurtzman and Elder with his intense barrage of nitpicky changes for every episode. It paid very well, though, so Kurtzman voluntarily wore this straightjacket for most of the rest of his career.

Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder, "Goodman Goes Playboy", published in Help! #13, February 1962

In other words, when Help! was cancelled in 1965, that was the end of Kurtzman's career as a vital creative innovator. He did a few charming pieces here and there after 1965, either alone or with collaborators, but nothing important. His last great work was a series of comics done for Help! with Elder called Goodman Beaver.

For the rest of his career, he concentrated on Little Annie Fanny, consulted for Esquire, did the occasional freelance job, and taught cartooning at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Among many of his students and colleagues, he was a beloved figure. It almost seems like his career after 1980 consisted mainly of people inviting him around the world so they could pay homage to him. Because of his early studio experience with Goscinny and other French comics artists who would go on to become giants in their own right, the French knew very well who Kurtzman was and lionized him. The underground comics generation had been fans since Mad and worshiped him--and many became close friends with the master. SVA churned out a generation of great cartoonists (Drew Friedman, Mark Newgarden, Peter Bagge, Bob Fingerrman and others) who loved the man, even though they first encountered him in his declining years.

And his decline was long--Kurtzman was diagnosed with Parkinsons in 1983, which got progressively worse until he died in 1993 of liver cancer. When the New York Times ran an obituary that said Kurtzman "helped found Mad magazine." Art Spiegelman, another disciple of Kurtzman who had just won the Pulitzer Prize for Maus, was outraged and called the Times, saying it was like "saying Michelangelo helped paint the Sistine Chapel just because some pope owned the ceiling." But this was the typical situation for cartoonists of Kurtzman's generation--businessmen got rich off of their creative genius while they struggled.

For people like Spiegelman, Crumb and Gilliam, Kurtzman's career was a lesson of what not to do--never cede control, never become an employee, even if those decisions required artists to take on great risks and hardships. But while Kurtzman's artistic career was tragic, his life wasn't--he had a loving family that he raised and took care of; he had a comfortable life; and had many friends who loved him. His decisions, especially the decision to produce Little Annie Fanny for 26 years were done in service of making certain his family was fed, clothed, sheltered and educated, including his son, Peter who was autistic and required special care. For those of us primarily interested in Kurtzman's art and career, Schelly does a valuable service by constantly reminding us that Kurtzman was a family man with serious responsibilities. After failing with three humor magazines, by 1965 he wasn't going to take that kind of risk again.

In my opinion, Kurtzman is the most important artist to emerge out of the mainstream or commercial comic book world. In addition to the greatness of much of his work, his influence has been profound, both within the world of comics and beyond. Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created Mad and Revolutionized Humor in America is an engaging book about this artistic giant.

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