Rob Hardy: The art of Harvey Kurtzman

September 23, 2009 7:16:00 AM

Rob Hardy - [email protected]


If you have never heard of Harvey Kurtzman, you have seen his work; for instance, his cover logo for MAD Magazine is one of the most easily recognized of trademarks. Kurtzman was with MAD from the beginning, and it is perhaps what he is most famous for, but he did plenty else, and it isn''t exaggeration to say that if Kurtzman hadn''t put out such prodigious and respected (and funny) work, we might not have had R. Crumb or Art Spiegelman, or Monty Python or the Simpsons.  


So he is worth knowing about, and even more, his cartoons are worth looking at, and so it is wonderful to have a big new book of biography accompanied by his drawings, "The Art of Harvey Kurtzman: The Mad Genius of Comics" (Abrams Comicarts) by Denis Kitchen and Paul Buhle.  


MAD may not even be Kurtzman''s best work, or even his most-seen, so it is a delight to see what came before and after. Kurtzman was a serious comic satirist, and the authors have done much to show him in that light. "In MAD and all his subsequent ventures," they write, "Kurtzman drew a bead on the phony aspects and idiosyncrasies of modern commercial culture -- from advertising to film to comic book clich├ęs." He skewered Joe McCarthy and those who would censor comics, among many others, so his issues were serious, but his weapon was laughter.  


Kurtzman''s father was an immigrant from Russia who died a few years after Kurtzman was born in 1924. His stepfather was an engraver, and young Harvey was invited to help out with designs or drawings. He grew up in the Bronx, and he was a bright kid at school, with obvious artistic capability. His brother at the end of his life remembered most vividly of all Kurtzman''s art the chalk drawings he would do on Brooklyn sidewalks. He went to the High School of Music and Art, and he did all the drawing and painting in the curriculum, but he fell in love with Terry and the Pirates, Dick Tracy, Flash Gordon and Li''l Abner. When high school was over, he just wanted to draw comics, and at the time there were of course no colleges that offered instruction in that particular form of art. He took such jobs as lettering grocery banners, and when he did become apprenticed to a comic artist, he had menial tasks to do, and he remembered he was pretty bad at it, referring to it as "very crude, very ugly stuff." He was drafted for World War II, and he was able to do some illustration for Army manuals. He later made drawings and strips for the weekly Army magazine Yank.  


He would go on to do his first fine work with war stories, like "Frontline Combat" and "Two Fisted Tales." Reproduced here is his six-page story "Corpse on the Imjin!" in which a solitary G.I. watches a corpse float downriver, and then proceeds to make another, in panels that are vivid and disturbing. Kurtzman did not think that gore was suitable for kids who read the comics, but he was not going to romanticize the horror of war, although there were plenty of gung-ho comics that patriotically never displayed any moral ambiguity.  


Kurtzman was obsessed with accuracy, spending a great deal of time researching history and the actual appearance of combat hardware. There was a factory system for producing the art for comics at the time, but he insisted on craftsmanship. This meant he was often late on deadlines, and it also meant that since he was paid by the page and not by the hour, other comics artists who had no impulse for research made lots more money than he did. He did some horror and sci-fi strips for E. C. Comics founded by M. C. Gaines as "Educational Comics" and taken over by his more famous son Bill as "Entertaining Comics".  


It was under Bill Gaines that Kurtzman began to concentrate on humor, and in 1952 the comic book MAD begun. Reproduced here are Kurtzman''s classic, playful, ironic covers which were sometimes funny, one-frame cartoons, but also parodied other publications, like a composition book, a racing tout sheet, or even The New England Journal of Medicine. Included also is a full comic of "Superduperman" from 1953, in which our hero battles "Captain Marbles", mirroring the copyright battle between National Comics'' Superman and Fawcett Comics'' Captain Marvel. Not only does the godlike Superduperman beat the money-grubbing Marbles, but he also shows himself a complete dope in attempts to attract girl reporter Lois Pain.  


Kurtzman wanted to be in charge of a slick magazine, rather than the mere comic book that MAD was for its first 23 issues, and in 1955 MAD indeed became a magazine. That first issue had to be reprinted immediately, because it was surprisingly successful. The authors give a brief history of the ridiculous attempts to censor comics, but because MAD was no longer a comic, it could do just what it wanted.  


Kurtzman, however, wasn''t with MAD long, a mere three years; he was there for only five of the magazine issues. He wanted more control over the magazine he had created, and off he went. Fans of the magazine still debate whether or not it remained as good after Kurtzman''s departure, but he did set the tone for all its future issues. He never had much business sense, and he was walking away from a good thing. He tried founding other magazines, of which Humbug (which had only 11 issues) was most like MAD and used the talents of artists who used to work there, but was meant to have humor appealing more to adults. Another project, Help! lasted for 26 issues, and brought together some big names. Gloria Steinem served as editorial assistant, and Woody Allen, Sid Caesar and Dick Van Dyke took part. R. Crumb worked there, and an unknown Englishman named John Cleese was the actor in a story made by series of photos like comic panels. He there met Kurtzman''s assistant, Terry Gilliam, and the rest is history.  


Immediately after Kurtzman left MAD, Hugh Hefner helped him get a humor magazine called Trump started, but Playboy was having its own financial problems, and Trump lasted two issues. Hefner remained interested in Kurtzman''s work, and for over a quarter of a century, Kurtzman''s "Little Annie Fanny" (beautifully drawn and colored by his pal Will Elder) was a staple of Playboy''s back pages. It was a mixed blessing; it certainly got him a huge audience, and the strip was handsomely printed on slick paper, and it did make him plenty of money. Annie, however, is a real product of her time, and of her Playboy environment, and Kurtzman often had to do what Hefner directed, like have Annie naked by the end of every issue. The satire was not so sharp, though often the jokes were very good. Included in this volume are vellum sheets that show how insanely labor intensive it was to make just one page of an Annie adventure. 


The regard for Kurtzman held by comic authors and fans is reflected in the annual Harvey Awards given for the past 20 years for excellence in comics . Kurtzman is beloved by the artists in part because he was generous in nurturing talent, giving the first national exposure to Crumb (who says Kurtzman was as good a cartoonist as any in history) as well as other comic stars. When he died in 1993, there had already been tributes, and they keep coming, with Kurtzman originals on display in many museums. "The Art of Harvey Kurtzman" is a worthy part of the ongoing waves of appreciation. 


Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is [email protected]