Robot reviews: Humbug
by Harvey Kurtzman, Jack Davis, Will Elder, Al Jaffee and Arnold Roth
Fantagraphics Books, 476 pages, $60.
It’s very easy with a book of this nature to engage in wild hyperbole. “The most important publishing project of the year! No, the decade!” one wants to type. “There won’t be a better collection out this year!” “If I had to choose between breathing and reading this book, I’d choose the latter!!” “You’re a fool if you don’t buy this book, you hear me? A fool!”
And yet, how else to talk about a project of this nature, a large collection of work featuring some of the most stellar cartoonists of their day, originally edited by one of the most important and influential humorists (and I really don’t think this is hyperbole here — I’d put him up there with Richard Pryor in terms of significance) of the 20th century? Regardless of the bad economy, it’s got to say something incredibly positive about the current state of the industry that Fantagraphics sees publishing a book this massive and to a certain extent obscure as a viable financial venture.
A bit of history: Humbug was one of Kurtzman’s failed magazine projects of the late ’50s and early ’60s. After the failure of Trump (a Hugh Hefner-sponsored project that barely lasted two issues), Kurtzman decided to pool his resources with his fellow artists and start their own magazine together, using the office space that Hefner graciously allowed them to maintain.
I suppose there have been worse venture capital ideas, though it’s hard to think of very many at the moment. Humbug had a couple of problems going against it besides being operated by a bunch of artists without any business background, however. One of them was the size, which was not the standard magazine shape, which meant it was racked with the comics and not the periodicals. The other was the distributor, an apparently shady operation according to the introduction by compilers Gary Groth and John Benson, and as a result the magazine rarely made it out onto the racks at all. Despite this, Humbug managed to run for a good 11 issues before Kurtzman pulled the plug.
But man, they had fun while it lasted. Humbug is a testament not only to Kurtzman’s genius, but to the astounding skills of his fellow artists as well — people like Jack Davis, Will Elder, of course, but also then-newcomers Al Jafee and Arnold Roth and R.O. Blechman (who someday will get his own Collect This Now column) and writers like Larry Siegel. I don’t know that you’d call any of this work their “best,” but it’s pretty stellar all the same.
Of course, a lot of the references are dated, moreso than perhaps in Kurtzman’s run on Mad or later with Goodman Beaver and The Jungle Book. The first few issues have a slight political bent, not something that Kurtzman was particularly known for. References to crooked union bosses, Confidential magazine and sputniks abound. And then there are the TV and movie parodies. Has Have Gun Will Travel stayed within the public consciousness at all?
But for every joke that needs a footnote (and Benson provides a number in the back of the second volume, though he could have added more to suit my tastes) there are some priceless bits like Roth’s alphabet guide, Jaffee’s judo primer, Kurtzman and Davis’ long-running “And You Know Who Gets Killed” gags and Elder and Kurtzman’s great Frankenstein parody. (And did any comedian ever get more mileage out of Shelly’s classic horror tale than those two?)
Something should be said about the packaging and restoration work, which is nothing short of astounding (there I go again). In addition to all 11 issues and the introduction, the handsome two-volume slipcase set features an extensive roundtable interview with Jaffee and Roth (as well as covers for the individual volumes by them), the afore-mentioned end notes and two lengthy sections on the restoration process. And yeah, the reproduced art here looks pristine, which, if Benson and Groth are to be believed, is a noticable improvement over how the original newsstand copies looked.
So yes, this is an IMPORTANT release of an IMPORTANT artist and editor who has sadly been undervalued by many until recently. And yes, I highly recommend it and think it’s well worth your time and money and that you will find a lot of stuff to chuckle over, sputnik jokes aside. And yes, I think it’s pretty safe to say that this collection will be on my top ten/best books of 2009 list at the end of the year. Really, how could it not? Apparently I like it more than breathing.