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Kurtzman Lives!

Paul Buhle
July 19, 2015

MAD Magazine’s Maestro of Cultural Insurgency

by Paul Buhle

From the Summer 2015 issue of Jewish Currents

starchie_thumbDiscussed in this essay: Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created MAD and Revolutionized Humor in America, by Bill Schelly. Fantagraphics, 2015, 644 pages.

PERHAPS ONLY TRUE DEVOTEES of MAD magazine are likely to accept Bill Schelly’s claim that Harvey Kurtzman, its founding editor, writer, and cartoonist, “revolutionized humor in America,” as this voluminous biography says in its subtitle. Then again, there are tens of thousands of such devotees, tens of thousands of baby boomers for whom MAD was a key catalyst to our rejection of conformity and Ozzie-and-Harriet culture. When you additionally realize that it was a Kurtzman protégé who created, with his mates, Monty Python’s Flying Circus — from which, critics insist, Saturday Night Live carried on — from which The Simpsons carried onward, etc. — the argument becomes credible.

In any event, MAD proved to be the most successful satirical magazine in modern history. That success rested upon the genius of the man who disembarked from the ship only four years after it left port in 1952 — and was, forever after, a bit stranded.

KURTZMAN’S STORY has always seemed to start in the early middle, perhaps because his background, which was quite decisive in shaping his career, is little appreciated. Born in 1924, he grew up in the Bronx with a decidedly leftwing mother and stepfather, both of whom read the Daily Worker and sent him to Camp Kinderland. Being a ‘native’ leftist had its complications, however, as I discovered when I wrote him a fan note in 1970 (after I had published my own first comic), in which I revealed my boyhood devotion to MAD and remarked that he had given me a terrible letdown by working on “Little Annie Fanny” for Playboy. Kurtzman wrote back to say that the magazines he’d created subsequent to leaving MAD had been financial flops, and that he had to make a living. A decade later, Kurtzman went further in an interview with me, saying that he had been uncomfortable at Kinderland: It had seemed both “too Russian” and too completely Jewish. He had wanted not to be part of some radical Jewish subculture, but to join the mainstream and be a big success, he said — which had at first seemed possible with MAD and then eluded him ever after.

The magnificent satirist, Harvey could be terribly candid.

SCHELLY ADDS important details about Kurtzman as a young, phenomenal talent at the High School of Music and Art, where he met a handful of other young Jewish guys who would play big roles in comic art. Schelly does not quite know what to make of Kurtzman’s experience in the army during World War II, however. Kurtzman trained in the infantry but was never sent overseas. He was stationed instead in Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas, and spent his days creating army publications. His direct experience of racism, American style, may have been decisive in shaping his world view, as it was decisive in reinforcing the political sentiments, somewhere to the left of the New Deal, of large part of the American Jewish community in the 1940s, before assimilation and upward mobility.

Following the war, Kurtzman began his urgent career climb from little job to little job in one comic publisher after another. This was in the days when a normal comic book print run was more than half a million, new companies sprang up and disappeared overnight, and television had not really arrived.

Schelly offers a full and interesting interpretation of the evolution of Kurtzman’s artistic skills and ambitions. (Although carefully explicated, these developments are inevitably less revealed in this biography than in the fully illustrated The Art of Harvey Kurtzman, also an “authorized biography,” albeit of a different sort, on which I collaborated with Denis Kitchen). Schelly also gives an inspired analysis of William M. Gaines, the overweight and insecure college student who took over a failing comics empire when his father died suddenly, and willy-nilly “discovered” in Kurtzman the artist and editor able to put EC Comics on the map. How Kurtzman developed and worked on his war comics, which were uniquely anti-war in their realism, and how he gathered artists around him who were willing to bend to his complete control, is also described with fond and painstaking detail.

Kurtzman desperately wanted to be a success, a prosperous artist, with a big house in the suburbs. He knew that publications printed on pulp rather than slick paper had limited potential along these lines — and the very social themes of Kurtzman’s life and work, and his dogged commitment to historical accuracy (he did poorly at history in high school, but manically researched historical facts about wars and followed up on the suggestions of Korean War vets), kept him from portraying hawkish military macho-men or superhero types — that is, from doing what his more commercially successful counterparts in the comics trade were doing. Instead, his war stories were heartrending, especially regarding civilian suffering, and not only at the hands of “the enemy.”

HIS TRUTH-TELLING in humor could be described as Immanent Critique, because he sought to unveil the fundamental untruths of mainstream comics, television shows, films, tabloid newspapers, and advertising in all of their detail. There, in the details, America’s cultural reality showed through, in hilarious satires hatched mostly by Kurtzman, drafted by him in pencil, and then drawn in gorgeous details by his trusted artists. A suburban afternoon with “Potgold” (aka Rheingold) beer became a drunken stupor; “Superduperman” was revealed as a hopeless shlemil; assorted military adventure comics ended with ridicule of the heroes; and so on.

Most startling were MAD’s satirical attacks on the Army-McCarthy hearings, portrayed as a TV show, “What’s My Shine” (a 1954 spoof, drawn by Jack Davis, of “What’s My Line?”), and on Archie Comics (“Starchie,” drawn by Will Elder in 1954), published in the repressive 1950s atmosphere in which Jews often seemed to be blamed, implicitly if not explicitly, for both Communism and “degraded” popular culture, including comic books themselves. The MAD assault on Archie’s version of teen life was actually directed at the censorious Comic Book Code, which had been written, in effect, by Archie Comics executives.

Americans survived McCarthyism with many scars, not all of them yet healed. Comics, in the richness and diversity they displayed in the late 1940s and early 1950s, did not. The thrillingly grotesque horror and crime comics disappeared, as did the most inventive art and narration. Two major companies, however, EC and Classics Illustrated, refused to be censored, but only Classics, with its built- in respectability, survived. Kurtzman himself persuaded William Gaines to publish MAD as a magazine, to secure protection, by virtue of that status, from comics-industry censorship. Seeking creative control of the new enterprise and turned down, Kurtzman soon ducked out — and never really recovered.

Schelly meticulously covers the assorted projects undertaken by this comics genius in the thirty years that followed, including a couple of amazing and unsuccessful magazines, Humbug and Help! (the latter with a young Gloria Steinem), and Kurtzman’s long run with the lascivious Playboy feature, Little Annie Fanny. He does not quite articulate the real difficulty Kurtzman faced from the middle 1960s onward, with American society changing so fast that the old satirical standards were falling away. Satires on the Black Panthers were neither as easy nor as funny as satires on the advertising industry, and the casual sexism of comic-book depictions of women in the 1950s went down hard in the new era.

Kurtzman himself realized, early on, that in large part — almost as large as her breasts were drawn — what he called the “jerk-off” element of Little Annie Fanny was fundamental to the strip’s success. Annie Fanny existed, beautifully drawn and colored, mainly because Hugh Hefner considered it a good sell to readers. (A former would-be cartoonist, Hefner was also sentimental about Kurtzman, and paid a lot of his medical bills as Parkinson’s Disease and cancer arrived in later years.)

Nevertheless, Kurtzman’s work had a monumental effect upon rebellious comic art. Several of the early Under- ground comics artists actually lived with Kurtzman’s family for spans of time, while others grew up reading MAD (more accurately, the 35¢ paperback reprints of MAD Comics contents, appearing from the middle 1950s onward), and treated his satire as the model for their own work. Later on, his reprinted works and his personal appearances at assorted events, as well as many, interviews, deepened his imprint upon the baby-boom generation and beyond.

Schelly lovingly details all of Kurtzman’s later artistic adventures — his singlehanded creation of the first paperback book of original art, his individual pieces for Esquire in the 1960s and ’70s, his stunning little book about life’s frustrations seen through the fate of insects, his teaching a generation of future artists at the School for Visual Arts in New York (Art Spiegelman, among his closest devotees, took over that class), and more. It is safe to say that apart from teaching, practically nothing Kurtzman did was successful in worldly terms — apart from the time-consuming and energy-sapping Little Annie.

Every reader who grew up learning about life and politics from MAD magazine will find something here to savor. Schelly has given us an archaeology of comics history, at least EC comics history, and a rich sense of Kurtzman’s life-long collaboration with assorted colleagues, including his best friend, fellow Bronxite and genius artist Will Elder. I am not at all sure that those who have abandoned their reading of MAD without a look backward, or who never appreciated MAD to begin with, will be persuaded. But that’s fine: Harvey Kurtzman was an acquired taste and always will be.

Paul Buhle passed from idolizing Harvey Kurtzman and Willie Mays to idolizing Lenny Bruce, Diane DiPrima and Martin Luther King, Jr. — all before 1962! He has just published his fiftieth book.

Paul Buhle, retired Senior Lecturer at Brown University, has turned to the creation of graphic novels since 2005. His latest graphic novel is about Johnny Appleseed, with books on Eugene Debs and Herbert Marcuse slated for spring 2019.