Comics College | Harvey Kurtzman
Comics College is a monthly feature where we provide an introductory guide to some of the comics medium’s most important auteurs and offer our best educated suggestions on how to become familiar with their body of work.
Today it’s time (long pat time actually) to take a look at one of the most influential and undisputed masters of the comics medium, Harvey Kurtzman.
Why he’s important
Quick. Off the top of your head, how many cartoonists do you know actively influenced popular culture. I’m not talking about starting a catchphrase or being popular enough to end up as a question in Trivial Pursuit. I’m talking about actually shaping and changing the way we regard our relationship with the entertainment we consume. The only one that comes to my mind is Kurtzman. As with Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce and the other satirists of the 1950s and early 60s, Kurtzman made it OK to question what we saw on television, the music we heard on the radio and what we read in the newspaper. He made it acceptable — even fun — to poke fun at cherished symbols. The main differences between Kurtzman and the other comics from that period is a) Kurtzman never got his just share of the credit; b) because he worked in the relatively “underground” market of comic books, his influence was more widespread and, arguably, longer lasting.
Where to start
Kurtzman’s run on Mad seems the logical and obvious place to begin. Those early issues — at least the first 23, when Mad was published in comic book fashion (when is someone going to collect Kurtzman’s initial run on those first couple of magazine issues?) — have been printed and reprinted in various formats, but the easiest and most accessible (relatively speaking) is probably The Mad Archives series, of which DC has published two volumes of so far. Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be any plans for a third volume on the horizon, which means you may have to scrounge around to find any issues past #12. (Thankfully, DC published magazine-sized reprints of the complete series, which you might be able to find in better comic book shops across the country).
From there you should read
Equally regarded in stature to Mad are the two war books Kurtzman edited for EC: Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat. The two series, though not without their faults, are in the end justly acclaimed for their humanism and adept storytelling and offer a telling glimpse in Kurtzman’s ability to work outside of his usual humor “vein.” Gemstone published some nice, fancy-shmancy hardcover versions of these two series (though some may balk at the computerized coloring). Sadly, as with Mad, Gemstone never got to finish Two-Fisted, but these remain the best and most accessible versions of these stories today. If you’re an anal completist, you can try to located Gemstone’s initial, oversize, black and white volumes that were released in the 1980s, but expect to pay several hundred bucks for them.
Kurtzman left Mad and EC for the greener pastures of Hugh Hefner, only to have his attempt at a slick humor magazine, Trump, fall flat on its face after two issues due to a variety of unlucky financial reasons. Kurtzman tried again with Humbug, a self-published endeavor that he attempted by pooling resources with fellow former EC artists Will Elder and Jack Davis (sorta), as well as relative newcomers like Al Jaffee and Arnold Roth. The result was a little better than Trump, it lasted a full 11 issues before running aground, which Fantagraphics packaged together in a lovely two-volume slipcase that handsomely shows off the individual contributors talents as well as Kurtzman’s skills as an editor.
It was while working on his third magazine, Help! that Kurtzman and his longtime collaborator came up with Goodman Beaver, a Candide-ish goodfella that kept getting his noble values, intentions and efforts rubbed into his face, resulting in some of the pair’s best and sharpest satire. The late Kitchen Sink Press collected most of the Goodman tales in one softcover book, which is still pretty easy to find (just click on that last link) but sadly, the book is missing the excellent “Goodman versus Playboy,” due to a litigious (at the time) Archie Comics. You can download a .pdf version of that story right here though.
Kurtzman had a lot of aborted projects after the failure of Humbug. One that actually made it through to the publication stage was Jungle Book, a paperback collection of four Mad-ish satirical tales he did in his loose, sketchy style. The book didn’t catch on, but it remains a rather funny skewering of movie and TV cliches nevertheless, and, like Goodman Beaver, can be found in hardbound volume (again, courtesy of Kitchen Sink) pretty easily.
Before he went to EC, Kurtzman did a series of very funny one-page gag strips under the title Hey Look. Their raucous slapstick and constant fourth-wall breaking remain delightful (and a good place for kids to be introduced to the cartoonist). Kitchen Sink collected the lot back in the early 1990s, but the book seems to be a bit hard to find now, as the used prices are rather high.
After handling one failed project after another, Kurtzman, with Elder in tow, finally ended up back at Hefner and Playboy, where he did the ever so slightly saucy strip Little Annie Fanny from 1962 to 1988. It’s decidedly weak sauce compared to the above books, but worth checking out if Dark Horse collected the comics in two paperback volumes, which you can grab in fancy hardcover form if you so desire.
The Art of Harvey Kurtzman by Denis Kitchen and Paul Buhle and Comics Journal Library Vol. 7: Harvey Kurtzman both offer nice backgrounds of the beleaguered cartoonist. The former is a coffee-table type book that provides a well-thought out (if somewhat problematic) biography of the artist along with lots of never-before seen art. The latter is a collection of interviews with Kurtzman as well as essays taken from the Journal, along with lots of rarely-before seen art.
While the notion of pairing Kurtzman up with famous comics artists like William Stout, Sergio Aragones and Robert Crumb seems ingenious, Harvey Kurtzman’s Strange Adventures fails to make the grade. Done long after Kurtzman’s prime, the book feels like a rehash of the kind of satire he used to do a lot better decades earlier.
Similar problems plague From Aargh to Zap, Kurtzman’s attempt to chronicle the history of the comic book in America, the biggest of which is it’s too thin and covers well-trod upon ground without offering much in the way of Kurtzman’s own unique perspective.