Kurtzman and the Comics

Crumb, Terry Gilliam, Art Spiegelman, Gilbert Shelton, Denis Kitchen. These and many other artists hail Harvey Kurtzman as a seminal influence on their cartooning careers. The Art of Harvey Kurtzman: The Mad Genius of Comics (Abrams ComicArts, 2009) by Denis Kitchen and Paul Buhle demonstrates how Kurtzman transformed the comics landscape forever through his notable work on Frontline Combat, Two-Fisted Tales, Mad and Help!, among other publications.

The Art of Harvey Kurtzman is visually stunning. It provides generous samplings of Kurtzman’s roughs, original line work, and colour reproductions, including:

  • The fully penciled layouts for “Corpse on the Imjun!” story from Two-Fisted Tales no. 25 (January-February, 1952)
  • Colour reproductions of the first 29 Mad covers
  • Colour reproductions of the full “Superduperman!” feature from Mad no. 4 (April-May 1953)
  • Colour reproductions of all nine Humbug covers
  • Eight pencilled sample pages from Kurtzman’s extended graphic narrative, “Marley’s Ghost”
  • Kurtzman’s solo story, “The Grasshopper and the Ant” from Esquire (May 1960)
  • All 26 Help! covers in colour
  • A detailed close-up of Little Annie Fanny’s breasts (!), and the never-before published Little Annie Fanny “origin story”
  • Reproductions of the four vellum roughs and final copy of a “Little Annie Fanny” splash page, demonstrating the level of painstaking detail that led to Hugh Hefner’s agreeing to a $3 000 page rate

The Art of Harvey Kurtzman is divided into five chapters, each of which coincides with Kurtzman’s involvement in various projects: his early army cartoons and “Hey Look!” strips of the 1940s; his E.C. work, in particular Frontline Combat and Two-Fisted Tales; Mad; the relatively short-lived Trump, Humbug, and Help! magazines; and Playboy’s “Little Annie Fanny.”

Hey Look!

Back in the day, Kurtzman created his “Hey Look!” strips as comics filler pages for Stan Lee, who was then editing the Timely Comics line, which would evolve into Marvel. Eventually, these pages were well received by William Gaines, who would hire Kurtzman to work with E.C. Comics. During Kurtzman’s employment with Timely Comics, proofreader Adele Hasan was charged with tallying survey responses sent in by readers, indicating their most and least favourite features in the Timely line. Adele was attracted to Kurtzman, and rigged the results in Kurtzman’s favour by filling the ballot box to the brim with favourable results for her future husband. As a direct consequence, Stan Lee was adamant about finding Kurtzman more work. Adele and Harvey ended up marrying.

It’s all in the details

Kurtzman’s perfectionism is a thread running from his E.C. work all the way through to “Little Annie Fanny.” Many artists resented the amount of control that he exercised over his layouts, for which he sketched out thumbnails and roughs that were then fleshed out by other artists. The library research that Kurtzman conducted to ensure historical accuracy in his war comics ensured that their calibre elevated the comics medium to new heights for the time. Kurtzman was careful not to glamorize war. His stories stood out from the pack due to the fastidious attention to detail that he brought to his pages, and the anti-war message implicit in his work. Unfortunately, Kurtzman’s productivity suffered compared with that of other artists, since he invested so much time in amassing background information.

One especially telling example of Kurtzman’s attention to detail is shown in a 1952 advertisement for fake diamond and gold rings. The ad is a press proof in which Kurtzman has circled a huge number of tiny spots and miniscule broken lines, considered unacceptable for public consumption.

The New Satire

In the introduction to The Art of Harvey Kurtzman, celebrity Harry Shearer suggests that without Harvey Kurtzman, there would be no Saturday Night Live or Simpsons. Kurtzman paved the way for a new type of humour, one which lovingly and scathingly poked fun at its own culture simultaneously.

The overt satire that Mad enjoyed had never been seen before. In that magazine’s pages, Kurtzman and crew took on the comics, but also overtly lampooned the U.S. Senate Subcommittee Hearings on Juvenile Delinquency and McCarthy-era paranoia.

Lena the Hyena, initially made famous through Basil Wolverton’s winning the “world’s ugliest woman” competition in Al Capp’s L’il Abner strip in 1946, graced the cover of Mad #11. It was an overt jab at Life’s ubiquitous cover format.

Other covers playfully imitated typesetting and design features found in The New England Journal of Medicine, school composition books, novelty-ad pages (think: Chris Ware and the Acme Novelty Co. ads), connect-the-dots illustrations, and racetrack forms.

The May 1958 issue of Humbug featured a cover drawn by R.O. Blechman, whose cartoons also graced the inside pages of the magazine.

Make way for the underground

In many ways, Help! set the stage for the underground comix movement. Kurtzman has been called the “father-in-law” of underground comix, with some even identifying Help! as the first underground comic. Gilbert Shelton’s “Wonder Warthog” strip first appeared in Help! in May 1963. Crumb’s “Fritz the Cat” appeared in Help! January 1965. Underground cartoonists Joel Beck, Jay Lynch, and Skip Williamson, along with Crumb and Shelton, were all featured in the September 1965 issue of Help! (Crumb was in a fumetti feature).

Kurtzman sent Robert and Dana Crumb to Bulgaria for their honeymoon, on assignment. Crumb would eventually assume Terry Gilliam’s former role as editorial assistant. John Cleese, who was featured in a 1964 Help! fumetti, would eventually team up with Gilliam to found Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

In addition to introducing new cartoonists in the pages of Help!, the February 1962 issue exposed Will Eisner’s The Spirit to an audience of younger readers, largely unfamiliar with the comic, which was originally printed in the 1940s and 1950s.

Ahead of his time

Kurtzman began working on a “graphic novel” treatment of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol in 1954. He expected this work to run one hundred pages in length, with as much of the original text as possible included in the book. Simon & Shuster turned Kurtzman down. Comics were still receiving a bad rap, and any respectable publisher wanted nowhere near the comics controversy. He tried with the Saturday Evening Post in 1962, also with no success. Kurtzman’s vision was ahead of its time.

Kurtzman and company

No discussion of Harvey Kurtzman is complete without also acknowledging the work of his compatriots, namely Will Elder, Wally Wood, and Jack Davis. There is an especially direct and dynamic impact in Kurtzman’s illustration. Seth and Spiegelman (2008) have commented on the “visual concision” that allowed Kurtzman to predicate and build upon the language of comics, still very much under construction at the time. Kurtzman reduced visual narrative to a sort of shorthand: a form of “codified…storytelling.”

This is especially true when examining Kurtzman’s storyboards, which he often passed onto other artists to complete. As Kurtzman began to assume more editorial control and became more consumed with comics writing, he let others finalize his projects.

Kurtzman’s most regular creative partner throughout the years was Will Elder. Elder, Kurtzman and Charles Stern formed an art studio in 1947, with Elder joining E.C. in 1951. He contributed to Frontline Combat and Two-Fisted Tales, inking the work of John Severin. His artwork began to flourish with the inception of Mad! in November 1952. Elder is known for the signature visual puns and gags that he added to Kurtzman’s layouts. When Kurtzman left Mad! in 1956, Elder followed. When “Little Annie Fanny” debuted in 1962, Elder was appointed Kurtzman’s finishing artist.  Since this strip was printed in full-process colour, the trademark busyness found in Elder’s earlier work was toned down. This ensured that the richness of these painstakingly illustrated pages was honoured in the final colour reproductions.

Wally Wood began his comics career as a letterer, eventually working in Will Eisner’s studio, inking pages of The Spirit alongside Jules Feiffer. Eventually Wood joined the E.C. line, where he contributed to Kurtzman’s war comics, as well as Mad! Later, Wood worked on many acclaimed strips, including Terry and the Pirates, Flash Gordon, Prince Valiant, and Skymasters with Jack Kirby (Garriock, 1978).

Jack Davis was equally inspired under Kurtzman’s tutelage. Davis’ first gig as a comics writer was with E.C., where he worked crime and science fiction titles, as well as Al Feldstein’s horror line, and Kurtzman’s war and western titles. He worked on Mad! also contributing to the hectic, cluttered spreads replete with sight gags. Davis also followed Kurtzman when he left Mad!, and was involved with Trump, Help! and “Little Annie Fanny” before returning to work for Mad! under Al Feldstein, who assumed the helm when Kurtzman left.

The Kurtzman Legacy

Maybe The Art of Harvey Kurtzman was written for people like me. Mad. Cracked, and National Lampoon were all part of growing up, but without any cognizance of Kurtzman’s contribution to the evolution of comics and humour magazines. For the Old Guard of comics critics, reviewers, curators and historians, this book will most certainly also be appreciated. But its legacy is most important for educating present and future generations of comics and comix aficionados about Harvey Kurtzman’s enduring influence.

What I found most interesting about this book was the in-depth context that it provided on the evolution of E.C. Comics under Kurtzman’s stewardship. For anyone interested in the history of comics during this period, The Art of Harvey Kurtzman is an important addition.

LINKS:

Inkstuds interview: Denis Kitchen on Harvey Kurtzman

REFERENCES:

“Elder, William W.” The World Encyclopedia of Comics (Ed., Maurice Horn). New York: Avon Books, 1977.

Garriock, P.R. Masters of Comic Book Art. London: Aurum Press Limited, 1978.

“Kurtzman, Harvey.” The World Encyclopedia of Comics (Ed., Maurice Horn). New York: Avon Books, 1977.

Seth and Spiegelman, Art. “Harvey Kurtzman.” Grenville, Bruce et al. (Eds.) Krazy! The Delirious World of Anime + Comics + Video Games + Art. Vancouver/Toronto: Vancouver Art Gallery and Douglas & McIntyre, 2008.

“Wood, Wallace.” The World Encyclopedia of Comics (Ed., Maurice Horn). New York: Avon Books, 1977.

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