North Adams Transcript
"The Art of Harvey Kurtzman: The Mad Genius of Comics"
by Denis Kitchen and Paul Buhle (Abrams), The Complete Humbug and Comics Journal Library: Harvey Kurtzman (Fantagraphics)
Harvey Kurtzman stands apart from so many fine artists and just as many commercial ones for the simple fact that his ability within his form actually matches the broad influence it has had.
Kurtzman was not only a skilled cartoonist, writer and editor but also a terribly intellectual one with a natural sense of stylized imagery that made him stand out. This set him up as a centerpiece in influencing a generation of kids into a social form that would shape the country in the 1960s. Kurtzman’s work routinely trotted out the notion of critical thought and informed analysis, as well as the idea of standing up to the authoritative mainstream and disarming its weaponry through humor.
In the form of his early work on EC Comics -- both serious stories and Mad Magazine -- Kurtzman was a major influence on an upcoming world that was a bizarro version of everything that had gone on before, one ruled by irreverence.
Kurtzman, like so many cartoonists of his era, was the son of an immigrant who could do nothing else but express himself through pen, and he brought that outsider’s stance to his work. Comic books at the time were dominated by first-generation urban American Jews, and it is possible to read
In the new overview of Kurtzman’s art and career, "The Art of Harvey Kurtzman: The Mad Genius of Comics," the title is misleading. The book spends many pages focusing on the artwork but devotes even more documenting Kurtzman as a stellar writer and editor, as well as a top-notch idea man. Also, the book is not content to focus on his comic book years, instead presenting a large amount of his work on magazines such as Trump, Humbug and Help.
With all three of these titles, Kurtzman took the swagger and irreverence of college humor and added a gruff intellectualism that defines a certain portion of liberal American culture to this day. By acknowledging this, the book pushes the very correct notion of Harvey Kurtzman as lifestyle creator for misfits.
There is that artwork, though, and while Kurtzman’s most famous work is well-represented, Kitchen and Buhle take great pains to put forth the overlooked and rare, as well as the rough. Along with cover collections for all Kurtzman’s humor magazines -- including some of his layout sketches -- one of the great highlights of the books is the presentation of his unfinished "Marley’s Ghost" project, an early unrealized graphic novel of astounding color beauty.
The authors even manage to eke out the artful quality of Little Annie Fanny, which some might claim to be Kurtzman’s 26-year nadir. With his regular comic strip for Playboy, he often faced creative compromise due to the magazine’s insistence on more sex in a strip that Kurtzman saw as a political satire.
Earlier this year, Fantagraphics gave readers the opportunity to encounter Kurtzman’s creative energy in complete form by reissuing a boxed collection of Humbug, his short-lived but monumental periodical that began publication in summer of 1957.
It’s Humbug that functions as the spiritual father for magazines such as National Lampoon, Spy and The Onion, among many others, but there’s something invigorating about it because of its vantage point in the supposedly stodgy and bland 1950s. Coming out of that decade, Humbug really did break new ground.
What’s most striking about Humbug is the lack of respect toward the accepted mainstream that comes on like a barrage. All the things we are now nostalgic about, Humbug was energetically pointing out as part of the cultural falsehoods that people blindly embraced.
Utilizing an unspoken mantra that would later be embraced by Spy Magazine -- "No sacred cows" -- Humbug tears down film, television, sports, education, politics, society, science and plenty more, even as it gives no quarter to the respectable portions of 1950s American society. Although portions of the magazine are a little dated, there’s still plenty of bite to most gags -- and further eye-opening proof that the 1950s, contrary to the 1960s hype machine, was an excitingly subversive and rebellious decade, and Kurtzman was one of the leading figures.
The most succinct moment in the collection is a one-page gag that sums up the entire venture and, to a certain degree, Kurtzman’s satirical focus. Titled "Are You A Conformist?" it certainly does tackle the overriding and overbearing push to sameness in Eisenhower’s America. The Humbug staff takes it in a different direction though, by presenting the counter culture to be just as dictatorial about its difference. In one gag, Humbug paints "alternative" culture as a reaction to the mainstream, rather than a pursuit of real individualists alienated from the typical landscape.
This was a world in which rock and roll, so briefly dangerous, was scooped up by squeaky-clean white suburbanites -- an orchestrated rebellion. Soon the 1960s would usher in a more radical, posturing and self-destructive version of the same. Kurtzman and company rejected both, alongside the mainstream. It’s representative of a viewpoint that was ahead of its time, a simple mantra that said: "Question everything -- even the people who question everything."
Fantagraphics also released a Comics Journals Library volume that features lengthy interviews with Kurtzman from varying sources, as well as loads of work that places it as a wonderful companion piece to the Abrams release. It’s filled with more great examples of his work, as well as scores of actual words from the man that can function as a manifesto of sorts -- or at least the centerpiece to a college class on his work.
Kurtzman’s own words aside, one included delight is a two-page strip by Robert Crumb recounting his professional relationship with Kurtzman and its origins as an over-excited reader of his various output through the years. Presented through Crumb panels, Kurtzman’s entire sensibility is depicted as earth-shattering to a young creative guy who is drifting away from the same old entertainment and really desperate for something that looks at the world clearly -- and makes sense to kids.
That really highlights what was special about Kurtzman -- there were plenty of stellar satirists in the 1950s, but he was the one who really spoke to kids on their own level, even in his later work that was more inclusive of adults. Kurtzman got rebellion where it started and ignited it like a piece of dynamite that was going to be thrown back at the world by all these little kids who embrace his output. And through people like Robert Crumb and thousands of others -- practically an entire generation and the generations to follow -- that is exactly what happened.
The mainstream hasn’t changed much in the last 50 years, but satire has become more prevalent. Young people are now routinely nurtured with the idea that nothing should be taken at face value and that humor is our best weapon against the manipulative forces of the grown-up world -- and Harvey Kurtzman had a major role in that evolution.
John Mitchell is the Transcript’s arts and entertainment editor. Look for the Entertainment Page every Friday.