Apr/May 2009

A Mad, Mad World

Ben Schwartz


In his introduction to The Art of Harvey Kurtzman, Harry Shearer leads off, naturally enough, with a joke: “Without Harvey Kurtzman, there would have been no Saturday Night Live. What a horrible thing to say about him, but it’s true. . . . OK, this might be better. Without Harvey Kurtzman, there would have been no Simpsons.”

Shearer, who voices many Simpsons characters, isn’t the only one who’s acknowledged a major debt to Kurtzman’s work. When Kurtzman, the creator of Mad magazine, died in 1993, the baby boom lost a treasured icon—and baby boomers, in trademark fashion, dilated richly on its loss. The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik wrote, “Almost all American satire today follows a formula Harvey Kurtzman thought up.” Terry Gilliam: “Mad became the Bible for me and my whole generation.” Patti Smith: “After Mad, drugs were nothing.” Art Spiegelman: “I thought he was a more significant factor than pot or LSD on the shape of the ’60s.” Richard Corliss, whose 1958 fan letter graces a Kurtzman comic, eulogized his boyhood hero at length in Time as simply a genius.

Creator of All That Is Fun—that’s quite a legacy. Postboomer comics readers are excused for questioning the fuss, since much of Kurtzman’s work has long been out of print. If you only know today’s Mad, credit for inventing it may not summon the word genius. Fortunately, a chunk of Kurtzman’s career is before us again, much of it unpublished for fifty years, and some of it seeing the light of day for the first time. Denis Kitchen and Paul Buhle’s The Art of Harvey Kurtzman lushly surveys Kurtzman’s creative life from World War II through Mad and, finally, Playboy. That, alongside a complete reprint of Kurtzman’s eleven-issue Mad follow-up, Humbug, reveals Kurtzman as a satirist who still demands our attention.

Kurtzman was born in Brooklyn in 1924. He first publicly showed his work outside his house, drawing comics in chalk on the sidewalk. Neighbors stopped by daily to see how his stories would work out. He attended New York’s High School of Music and Art, where he came in contact with a number of artists who became key collaborators, most notably Wolf William “Will” Elder, his lifelong friend and creative partner until 1988. After stateside military service, Kurtzman returned to civilian life and a booming comic-book industry. The young Stan Lee gave Kurtzman one page a month, a gag strip called “Hey Look!,” in which Kurtzman took the popular “diagrammatic” style (all straight lines and ruled angles) and extended its rigid logic to absurdity. Characters bounce off panel borders and through them, talk directly to their author, and reverse the style’s formulaic thin-black-line, big-white-space look into crazy black negative spaces with white lines.

His talent soon attracted the attention of William Gaines of EC Comics, proud publisher of ultraviolent hokum like Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror. Seeing opportunity in both Kurtzman and the new war in Korea, Gaines hired him to write, edit, and lay out the new title Two-Fisted Tales. Kurtzman also drew his own stories, and Two-Fisted Tales debuted in late 1950 as China’s intervention in Korea turned a predicted US rout into a three-year conflict. With the war proving a durable franchise, Gaines and Kurtzman soon added Frontline Combat to the EC lineup.

Despite the gung-ho titles he worked on, Kurtzman took an ambivalent view of war. Kitchen and Buhle see it as risky political dissent, a reaction to the “militarization of society since 1945” (a too-early dating of the cold-war arms race). But by April 1951, Truman had fired MacArthur, and Eisenhower based his 1952 presidential campaign in part on criticizing the war effort. If anything, Kurtzman is remarkably restrained on Korea. Stories like “Corpse on the Imjin!,” reprinted here, put him more in sync with the weary post-WWII mood of John Ford, Norman Mailer, James Jones, and The Caine Mutiny.

In 1952, Gaines and Kurtzman debuted Mad as a full-color comic book (the current black-and-white format came later). Reprinted here, 1953’s “Superduperman” is a prime example of the magazine’s appeal. The story, a collaboration with artist Wally Wood, features a battle between Superduperman and Captain Marbles—aka Captain Marvel, Superman’s true rival on newsstands. Earlier in ’53, National Comics (now DC) had settled a copyright-infringement lawsuit against Fawcett Comics’ Captain Marvel that had dragged on for more than a decade. It ended Fawcett’s more popular line of irony-laden, beautifully drawn comics—and left the market to DC’s plodding Superman. Thus, when DC saw its flagship hero on the same page as his annulled rival, a new round of cease-and-desist letters from the company’s bullying editors ensued.

Is “Superduperman” silly? Oh, yes, and rising above it is futile. Yet in eight pages, Mad poses all the questions that continue to fascinate fans (and to furnish material for self-aware comics franchises like Watchmen and The Dark Knight): the overt sexuality of protagonists in tights, the destruction “heroes” wreak in “saving” us, and the absurdity of godlike creatures who care at all about fighting muggers and giant robots.

While Mad excelled at parody, it also delivered comic portraits of daily life. Kurtzman and Elder’s 1954 “Restaurant!” remains a masterpiece of social observation. In simply depicting a family’s night out to dinner, “Restaurant!” bolsters critic J. Hoberman’s argument for Elder as our “most acute chronicler of mid-20th-century American pop culture.”

The magazine also tried its hand at topical humor. Kurtzman and Jack Davis’s “What’s My Shine!” of November 1954 turns game-show parody into an attack on Joe McCarthy. (“Shine” is a reference to G. David Schine, a McCarthy aide and rumored lover of the senator’s chief investigator, Roy Cohn.) Kitchen and Buhle make a little too much of Kurtzman as Heroic Satirist, comparing his success with deconstructed comics under McCarthyism to Brecht’s work during Hitler’s rise. “At the time, no better satire of McCarthyism was being produced,” they conclude, “in an America too frightened to fight back or see any humor in its government or its politics.”

True, “no better satire,” but Mad’s send-up followed Edward Murrow’s March ’54 denunciation of CBS, Bob Hope’s ongoing derision of McCarthy, and the nationally televised dismantling of the senator by attorney Joseph Welch at the Army-McCarthy Hearings of April–June 1954. By the time Kurtzman went after him, McCarthy was a disgraced punch line.

In 1956, Kurtzman split with Gaines over Mad’s ownership. It remains one of the great wrong turns in cartooning. In the divorce, Gaines got the kids—Mad’s ever-renewable adolescent audience—and the magazine took on a knee-jerk antiauthoritarian stance, warranted or not. That is, perpetual high school rebellion, where talking back is valued over actually having something to say. Kurtzman got EC’s talent and created three more humor magazines: Trump (two issues), Humbug (eleven), and Help! (twenty-six). Guess who became the millionaire?

After half a century, Humbug is now available in a two-volume set from Fantagraphics. (Full disclosure: I am editing an anthology and writing a history of American humor for the same house.) Here, the Mad crew peaks, along with new Kurtzman cartooning finds Arnold Roth, Al Jaffee, and R. O. Blechman. Humbug’s low budget left out one vital EC talent, colorist Marie Severin, and in this area, Humbug literally pales next to Mad.

Humbug was an ambitious project—sometimes too much so for its own good. If Mad went after Howdy Doody, Humbug’s imagining of a Paddy Chayefsky rewrite of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was a mite highbrow for ’50s tweens. “Jailbreak Rock,” Kurtzman and Elder’s parody of Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock, has a dense array of cultural reference that still astounds, ranging from Sid Caesar’s rock parody the Three Haircuts to Mob-run clubs in New York to Elder’s bravura depiction of Elvis’s dancing à la Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase—all within the first panel.

Did Kurtzman define modern satire? America is a nation abundant in natural resources, but reverence isn’t one of them. Kurtzman and his peers Caesar (born in 1922) and Lenny Bruce (born in 1925) were from the first generation of Americans raised on mass-media culture—movies, syndicated newspapers, magazines, radio, comic books—which all three returned to us simultaneously, in one pop-modernist shpritz. Such humor runs deep in our culture. In the ’30s, radio’s Jack Benny parodied movies and ridiculed his sponsors. Before that, there were Weber and Fields’s turn-of-the-century “travesties,” Twain’s parodies of Shakespeare and Tocqueville, and Ben Franklin’s almanacs lampooning his rivals, which he borrowed from Swift, who translated Juvenal.

Kurtzman has a seat at the table with the best of them. If he didn’t invent the table, that’s OK.

Ben Schwartz is a screenwriter and journalist based in Los Angeles.

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