Anyhow, it was that way with me. By my mid-teens, I’d assembled a gallery of greats that I still think is impressive: in literature, Nabokov and Orwell and Oscar Wilde; in music Pete Seeger, Jerry Lee Lewis, Leiber and Stoller, Comden and Green, Little Richard; in movies Ingmar Bergman, Billy Wilder and Audrey Hepburn; in TV Sid Caesar and Ernie Kovacs; in poetry Allen Ginsberg; in standup comedy Lenny Bruce; in comics Harvey Kurtzman.
Kurtzman the founding editor of MAD, and later of the humor magazines Trump, Humbug and HELP! was first in my heart.
Oh, MAD? Yeah: kid stuff. No. Kurtzman’s MAD was, to quote comics historian John Benson in a 1992 essay, “the original early-1950s four-color ten-cent comic book written for adults, not the black-and-white magazine for children edited by others for the last 30-plus years.” Kurtzman had written (virtually alone) and supervised the first 28 issues, 23 as a comic book, five of the magazine version. He then founded and edited three other humor mags Trump, Humbug and Help! every issue of which I bought and consumed with relish. (I had a strange diet as a child.)
One man’s saint is another’s man cipher; and across the vastness of the internet, I hear you shrug, “Harvey Who?” In 1993, when Kurtzman died at 68 (on February 21st), the media shrugged with you. Press people probably knew that MAD had welded a permanent smirk on the face of American youth. But Kurtzman had left MAD in 1956, when it was still a precocious kid, barely four years old; then Al Feldstein took over, nursing the magazine to its eminence as the font of comfortable satire. And in his after-MAD, what did Kurtzman create? “A series of failed humor magazines,” as several obit writers put it. News of Kurtzman’s death was tucked away, like a furtive visual gag in the corner of a one of MAD’s Brueghelesque cartoon panels.
Here is his death notice, reprinted in full, as it ran in the March 2, 1993 TIME: “DIED. Harvey Kurtzman, 68, cartoonist and editor; of complications from liver cancer; in Mount Vernon, New York. Kurtzman was the founding editor and artistic soul of Mad magazine, the satirical comic book that debuted in 1952 and became a pop-culture icon by mocking pop culture.” Forty-three words! This happens to be exactly the verbiage TIME lavished on Barbara Stanwyck when she died two years earlier. Which is to say, we deemed America’s most influential satirist every bit as important as America’s smartest actress.
Some magazines thought the event had a greater cultural relevance. The New Yorker commissioned a commemorative cartoon by Kurtzman’s forty-year co-conspirator Will Elder and ran a perceptive elegy by Adam Gopnik, which said in part: “Kurtzman’s MAD was the first comic enterprise that got its effects almost entirely from parodying other kinds of popular entertainment.... To say that this became an influential manner in American comedy is to understate the case. Almost all American satire today follows a formula that Harvey Kurtzman thought up.”
Nine months before Kurtzman’s demise, MAD’s publisher, William M. (Bill) Gaines, died; and TIME lavishly celebrated his contribution to undermining pop culture. In the June 15, 1992 issue, Kurt Andersen wrote a lovely tribute to “Gaines’ splendidly zany magazine.” (At 860 words, it was exactly 20 times as long as the Kurtzman notice that would follow it.) Of course, Kurt should’ve been writing about Kurtzman. Although Gaines published MAD, and greatly profited from it, he was no more its creator than Time Warner boss Dick Parsons created the “Matrix” movies, or “The Sopranos,” or this article. Kurtzman was MAD’s creative force, and Feldstein, the editor from 1956 to 1984, its sustaining force.
As we noted in our last column, Gaines, the boss of EC comics, had a lot to do with the creation, writing and promotion of his company’s horror and science fiction titles. But was not MAD’s author, only its abettor. He did a crucial thing in 1952: he allowed MAD to happen.
“Harvey looks like a beagle who is too polite to mention that someone is standing on his tail,” wrote his friend, the humorist Roger Price (“Droodles,” “Mad Libs”). “This beagleishness has certain compensations he is never ordered off the grass in Central Park and pretty girls stop on the street to scratch him behind the ears.” In later years, when he lost weight, his face took on a genial, Mandarin aspect, with skin drawn like vellum over high cheekbones. He could have been the more cheerful sibling of Austrian character actor Reggie Nalder, the assassin in Hitchcock’s 1956 “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”
From childhood, Harvey knew what he wanted. Born October 3, 1924, in a section of Brooklyn still rural enough to allow the occasional goat to wander through it, the lad drew his first daily comic strip in chalk on the neighborhood streets: “Ikey and Mikey,” a four-panel cartoon that would be washed away by rain or sanitation-truck spray each morning. He showed enough promise that he was sent to the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan, the launching strip for many future EC-dizzyasts, including Feldstein, artists Jack Kamen and John Severin, business manager Harry Chester and Harvey’s enduring friend and collaborator Wolf Eisenberg later Bill (later Will) Elder. Elder’s cartoon elegy in The New Yorker shows the young Kurtzman being kicked out of Music and Art and given the shouted advice, “Take up music!”
But Harvey was bound to make cartooning into art. At 14 he won a drawing contest in Tip Top Comics. He found ways to compress humor into a single panel. In his charming autobiography, “My Life as a Cartoonist,” written with Howard Zimmerman and intended for kids, he describes one of these tableaux: “a picture of a guy on the ledge of a tall building. He’s getting ready to commit suicide by jumping off. A cop is running across the rooftop toward the guy, waving his gun and yelling, ‘Stop, or I’ll shoot!’ ... It didn’t get a laugh from anyone but me.” Well, it makes me laugh. And in the 50s, a smart substratum of American youth would get infected with Kurtzmania.
Drafted in World War II, he was assigned to the U.S. Army Department of Information and Education, where he drew cartoons that appeared in the Army weekly Yank, and learned enough about weapons and the men who fire them to write a book or, to be exact, two great comic books. (Stay tuned.) After the war he worked for the predecessor to Marvel, Timely comics, where he met his one and only wife Adele, and where the young Stan Lee commissioned him to draw a one-page occasional feature called “Hey Look.”
Kurtzman’s playful disregard of the dimensions of the traditional comic-strip format is already evident in “Hey Look” (some of which were reprinted in MAD #7 and #8, and which in 1991 were collected in book form). Example: a guy finds a crayon pencil and leans into the next panel to draw another guy ... who finds a piece of chalk who draws a third guy ... who finds a brush filled with paint and draws a fourth guy, who says, “There’s a finger-paint set right outside the page, and I don’t think we’ll be able to reach it.” Also in the late 40s, Kurtzman did another strip, a Western spoof called “Pot-shot Pete” (which also moseyed into MAD, issues #15 and #18).
He got to EC in 1949, when the company had yet to find its direction. His first job was illustrating a pamphlet on the dangers of syphilis; it has a Western motif and was called “Lucky Fights It Through: The Story of That Ignorant, Ignorant Cowboy.” But Gaines was about to go New Trend, and Kurtzman was persuaded to help: he illustrated a story in the very first issues of four of the new titles. Gaines, obviously a man who made smart decisions quickly, must have sensed the new guy’s imagination, for from then on, 15 times over the next year, Kurtzman scripted the stories he drew.
KURTZMAN AT WAR
Late in 1950, Gaines gave Kurtzman his own comic book, Two-Fisted Tales (now available in invaluable reprints from Russ Cochran, at 1-800-322-7978, or from Bud Plant). When he got the assignment Kurtzman was just 25 (in 1951 virtually everyone at EC, including Gaines, was under 30) and ready to show he could do it do it all. From the second through the 14th issues, Kurtzman wrote and storyboarded every tale, and drew all but one of the covers. Eight months later, when TFT had proved modestly successful, Kurtzman got the OK to create another war comic, Frontline Combat. For the first 12 issues, he wrote and designed every story, and did the covers. He continued with both magazines through late 1953, when he concentrated on turning MAD into a monthly.
TFT began as an action-adventure mag (subtitled “He-Man Adventure”), but as Korean War anxieties swelled in the American body politic, it became a war comic (“War and Fighting Men”). We could say an anti-war comic, for it often focused on the average grunt. In TFT, war was hell, if Hell can be defined as a place where random violence exploded in your face, where a man’s luck never lasted for long. There’s a difference, though. In Hell, no one can die. GIs often died in Kurtzman’s war tales, and civilians too: a Korean man meticulously constructing a home for his family in “Rubble!” (TFT #24), nearly all the members of a Japanese soldier’s Nagasaki family in “Atom Bomb!” (TFT #33).