Few writers would be better qualified to chronicle the life of Harvey Kurtzman than Bill Schelly. A longtime comic historian and author of several books, including two about artist Joe Kubert, his American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1950s, was nominated for a Harvey, the prestigious award named after Kurtzman. Now Schully has produced Harvey Kurtzman: The Man who Created MAD and Revolutionized Humor in America. Despite the clunky title, it’s a smoothly written, exhaustive tribute to an iconic figure.
Kurtzman is important because he created the seminal humor and satire magazine of the 20th century. Granted, if Kurtzman hadn’t done it, a magazine similar to MAD would’ve appeared at some point. The vibe was out there, the societal balloons were ready to be busted, and the writers and illustrators were out there, champing at the bit. But without Kurtzman leading the way, the product might not have been as good as MAD. Consider the number of MAD knockoffs that came up over the years, including Panic, Cracked, Crazy, and others. (I even remember one called Plop.) They paled in comparison. In fact, not even Kurtzman could duplicate MAD, and he certainly tried. After years of arguing with EC publisher Bill Gains, Kurtzman left MAD after 28 issues and tried to recreate lightning in a bottle, first with Trump, then Humbug, and then Help! He never found the groove again, which is part of what gives Schelly’s book an unexpected feeling of melancholy.
There’s a sense of good old American pluck about Kurtzman’s early years. He was the shy middle son of a hugely dysfunctional family, pounding the pavements in post war New York, trying to sell himself as an illustrator. He hoped to work for the slicks, but after several fits and starts, he ended up drawing horror comics for Bill Gains at EC. Kurtzman worked his way up to being the editor and creator of such gripping EC war titles as Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat, which showed him to be a visionary. Rather than follow the trend of other comics that sold patriotism and inhuman portraits of the enemy, he wrote ironic tales where soldiers were human. But the war comics took a toll; Kurtzman grew tired of meticulous research and yearned for something in a lighter, or jugular, vein. Hence, MAD was born in the autumn of 1952.
MAD was great from the first hop. The earliest issues are already bursting with the satire and silliness that would be the magazine’s trademark. Superman, Batman, Tarzan, Frankenstein, Dracula, TV commercials, King Kong, game shows, were all ripe for Kurtzman and his gang to skewer. Hell, even if you didn’t know how to read, you could enjoy those early issues for the brilliant illustrations. The magazine had the pulse of a crazy person who couldn’t stop talking. As he’d done for his war comics, Kurtzman outlined everything, and expected his artists to follow his sketches. The results were beautiful, hysterical, and dangerously alive. And of course, it was too good to last.
Gains comes off as the sort of lucky buffoon who has always been rampant in publishing, building an empire on the sweat of others. He’d been the son of a bullying dad, and seemed to take pleasure in bullying Kurtzman. (Many people in the book are the sons of distant or cruel fathers, finding solace in the world of cartoons) When Hugh Heffner, a major admirer of MAD, offered to help Kurtzman create his own humor mag, Kurtzman split from Gains’ shabby enterprise and joined the Playboy mogul’s burgeoning empire. Bad move.
Heffner’s ego was such that he had to oversee every move Kurtzman made, which choked Kurtzman’s creativity. The result was Trump, a glossy but uninspired half-brother of MAD that Heffner canceled after two issues. The Heffner - Kurtzman alliance wasn’t dead, though. Kurtzman would helm Playboy’s Little Annie Fanny strip for two decades. Heffner loved Annie, but the strip did little for Kurtzman besides supply a steady paycheck.
The book’s underlying theme seems to be, Be careful what you wish for. Kurtzman had never liked comic books, and yearned to work for a slick magazine like Playboy. He was, as Schelly writes, “an iconoclast who sought the Establishment symbols of success.” But working at Playboy was an albatross around his neck. He earned money, but never enough. In the 1970s, Kurtzman began a 17-year stint at the School of Visual Art in Manhattan just to make ends meet. In one of the book’s most dramatic scenes, he actually leaves in the middle of a class to cry in the hallway. One can only imagine the breaking point he’d reached, as MAD raked in money without him, while he tried to teach a bunch of long-haired kids how to appreciate satire.
But this frustrating time coincides with what is arguably the best part of Schelly’s book, the era when Kurtzman became a sort of national treasure. Comic cons were a growing phenomenon, and Kurtzman was often invited to events where he’d be feted and praised like visiting royalty. The attention was good for him, and by now he was being heralded by many former employees who’d gone on to other things, including Terry Gilliam of Monty Python fame, and underground comic king Robert Crumb. Kurtzman was by now considered the patron saint of all things silly, the guru of guffaws. This period of appreciation allowed Kurtzman to mount a comeback of sorts, but most of his late period output was a disappointment. He was, after all, competing with himself. How does one top MAD? How does one even match it?
Schelly gives plenty of coverage to the lineup of great side characters in Kurtzman’s life, such as the other artists of the day (ie. Wallace Wood, Jack Davis, Bill Elder, etc) and Charlton Publications co-owner John Santangelo, a Sicilian immigrant who wasn’t shy about his mob connections, and was “notorious for paying the lowest rates, and having the worst printing in the business.”
At times, Schelly gives us too many plot summaries, but Schelly’s fascination with Kurtzman rubs off on the reader. Yet, Schelly never presents Kurtzman as a man without foibles. We get a sense of the perfectionism and occasional callousness that drove some good artists away, and at times Kurtzman seems to be quietly self-destructive. He’d strive to reach a goal, but inevitably he’d complain about it. There are moments when you want to reach into the book and grab Kurtzman by the collar and say, You have a good thing here. Don’t screw it up.
Schelly gives just the right amount of attention to Kurtzman’s family life, including the challenges of having an autistic son. Kurtzman’s later years, where he struggled with major illnesses, are incredibly poignant, especially when it becomes clear that Kurtzman will never have the big comeback.
In a way, Schelly’s book is the big Kurtzman comeback. Thanks to Schelly, Kurtzman gets his due, and seems larger than life.
- Don Stradley