Friday, August 30, 2013

Humility in a Jugular Vein




The above picture of William M. Gaines and Harvey Kurtzman was taken sometime in the early 1950s (odd to see a photo from that era in color, huh?) This post concerns itself chiefly with Kurtzman, but Gaines makes an appearance from time to time, so try not to forget about him.


Harvey Kurtzman was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1924 to a couple of Jewish immigrants from, possibly, Russia and the Ukraine, so little is known about them. He father died when he was very young, and his mother remarried another Russian Jew. The father, mother, and stepfather all appear to have been nonreligious, and radical in their politics. What effect any of this had on young Harvey is unknown. He was reluctant to talk about or confirm these facts once he rose to prominence in the early '50s, most likely because red scaremongers Joe McCarthy, Roy Cohn and their ilk were also rising to prominence at the very same time. The stepfather, who was employed as a brass engraver, did encourage Harvey's artistic ambitions, taking him to work from time to time and teaching him about design. But like a lot of artistic kids who grow up in the working class, Kurtzman was drawn--no pun intended--to comic strips and comic books. One early favorite of his was The Spirit by Will Eisner, a comic book/Sunday newspaper supplement that, though ostensibly about a masked crimefighter, had a fair amount of humor and even satire in it. Kurtzman drew his own comics strips as a child, the teachers picked up on his talent, and when he reached his teens was enrolled in New York City's alternative High School of Music and Art, a pet project of liberal Republican (you could be one back then) mayor Fiorello La Guardia. His classmates, or at least kids he might have passed in the hallway included future comic book stalwarts, and future co-workers and/or employees, John Severin, Al Feldstein, Al Jaffee, and Will Elder. Upon graduation, he went to a well-known private college in Manhattan called Cooper Union on a scholarship. He left after a year and tried to break into the comic book business, but World War II broke out, and the draft board broke up  many a young man's plans, including Kurtzman's. He served stateside, drawing army manuals and recruiting posters. He also contributed cartoons to Yank, the Army Weekly, where he began honing his signature style.

After the war was over, Kurtzman returned to New York. Walking down the street one day, he ran into a classmate of his from the Music and Art days, Charles Stern, who was with another alumni, Will Elder. Kurtzman remembered Elder, though he did not really know him. Rather, he knew of him. Elder had been the class clown, whose antics, such as setting the cafeteria phone booth on fire, Kurtzman had witnessed, and chuckled at, from a distance. Now close up, the two men became fast friends, and, along with Stern, decided to form their own commercial art studio. It did little business, and bills were paid subletting space to other artists. 


Kurtzman was soon back looking for other people to work for rather than himself. Stan Lee at Timely Comics (later to be called Marvel) offered him a one page strip that ran between the adventures of Captain America, Human Torch, and other costumed do-gooders. "Hey, Look" (named by Lee himself) was abstract-goofy even by comic book standards, and the rubbery art sometimes got in the way of the punchline. Overall it was funny, and Kurtzman used samples of the strip to get work at other companies, including William M. Gaines EC comics.

William was the son of Max Gaines, who essentially created the comic book industry when he came up with the idea of packaging old Sunday color comics in a single magazine. Famous Funnies, published by Eastern Color Printing, first debuted as possibly a free giveaway in Woolworth's stores in 1933, then on newsstands for 10 cents a pop less than a year later. 64 pages of  Mutt and Jeff, Toonerville Folks, Reg'lar Fellers and other then-popular strips for only a dime proved to be popular with readers during the Great Depression looking for a cheap way to stay amused in an era that was anything but amusing. Other publishers tried to cash in by doing the same thing, but as there were only so many comic strips to go around, and, besides, you had pay to reprint them, these little magazines quickly turned to original material. Max decided he wanted to go original, too, and, with some startup money from a company that eventually became DC, he started All-American Publications, which introduced such characters as Wonder Woman and the Green Lantern. DC eventually bought Max Gaines out, and with those proceeds he started Educational Comics, EC for short. As the name suggests, the publications were meant to enlighten rather than merely entertain, with such titles as Picture Stories of American History and Picture Stories from the Bible. In 1947, Max Gaines died in a freak boating accident, and his son, 25-year old William, dropped out of college and took over the company. More interested in mischief than enlightenment, the young iconoclast changed the E in EC to Entertaining and began publishing science fiction and horror comics, including the explicitly violent (even by today's standards) Tales From the Crypt.


William Gaines liked the "Hey, Look" samples Harvey Kurtzman showed him, and though he had no immediate need for such a feature, he began assigning the writer-artist to a few things here and there. Eventually, Kurtzman was able to convince Gaines to let him create and edit a couple of new titles: Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat. War comics were nothing new in 1950 and '51, but Kurtzman's approach to the genre was. Where comics put out by other companies were more in the glamorous, gung-ho mode, with muscular American GIs rat-a-tat-tatting the hell out of monocle-wearing Nazis and chimpmunk-faced Asians, Kurtzman wanted to show the reality, of people on both sides as victims of brutal circumstance. Rather than the total mowing down of peoples that typically occurs during a war, however, he instead focused on cruel twists of fate. For instance, one story, "Zero Hour" takes place during World War I and has an infantryman caught in barbed wire. His fellow soldiers are unable to free him without attracting enemy fire and are forced to listen to his dying cries as the night wears on. Eventually, he's killed not by the enemy, who want him alive and moaning so as to better erode morale, but by one of his own as an act of mercy. "The Big If" has a soldier brooding over the fate of someone named Maynard, and how this fellow could have escaped the whizzing bullet had he only been standing a few inches to the right or the left. The soldier then falls, and we realize that he's Maynard, and he'd been brooding about himself in the third person. While none of these stories were strictly speaking pacifist, they sure the hell weren't something you were going to put on a recruiting poster. It's hard to say exactly what was driving Kurtzman's war on war. As I said earlier, he served stateside during WWII, and his single-panel cartoons from that period were about the inanities of barracks life. Of course, one doesn't actually have to have seen action first hand to come to the conclusion that war is hell. I've come to that conclusion (you may, too; just google "graphic footage" followed by the 20th or 21st century clash of your choice.) Kurtzman may have been upset that after a mere five years of peace we were now sending troops to Korea (though in his own depictions of the then-ongoing conflict he made loyalty-oath certain that the Americans were the good guys.) It may just have been his general outlook on things--cruel twists of fate are hardly unknown during peacetime--one which he felt would, ironically, go down better in a battlefield setting. Whatever it was, Kurtzman worked hard on these stories. While most took place during World War II, some went as far back as Ancient Rome, requiring quite a bit of research, requiring quite a bit of time, making him much less prolific than other writer-editors at EC, and bringing him much less income than other EC writer-editors. Now with a family to support, Kurtzman asked for a raise. William Gaines didn't want to pay him for doing less than others, but didn't want to lose him, either. Remembering the gag cartoons that got Kurtzman in the door in the first place, Gaines proposed a humor comic.

There were basically three types of humor comic books in 1952: funny animals (Donald Duck), funny children (Little Lulu) and funny teenagers (Archie). While adults might enjoy these books (I enjoy them now), they were really aimed at children, and the comedy was pretty innocuous. Harvey Kurtzman wanted something a little edgier, even a little more sophisticated. His idea wasn't slapstick (at least not entirely) but parody, satire. What, though, would be satirized?


In retrospect, EC's horror line would seem to compliment its humor line, as both offered a middle-finger to 1950s complacency. William Gaines certainly saw it that way. Strangely, Kurtzman didn't. Instead, he (and only he) saw the horror line as a product of 1950s complacency. It wasn't the explicit nature of the comics that Kurtzman objected to, since he could be pretty explicit himself. Rather, it was the overall frivolity that he protested. Blood and gore as escapism, whereas his own war comics (which, though they did OK, never sold as well as Tales From the Crypt or Haunt of Fear) asked the reader to confront the effects of violence. Now, Kurtzman himself would confront EC and lampoon its most profitable line. Today, Mad may seen like an obvious name for a humor comic, but it could easily have been horror, especially when preceded by Tales Calculated to Drive You...The covers of the first eight issues all had sinister themes to them. And if you still didn't catch on, yes, it was humor, but "in a jugular vein". Kurtzman also utilized the talents of two of the mainstays of EC's horror and science-fiction lines: Wally Wood and Jack Davis. It fascinating to see these two men go from drawing grotesque monsters to drawing...grotesque human beings. Wood's characters were sunken-chest, pot bellied morons with cockeyed stares and drooling overbites. Davis' figures were much more rickets-prone, with double-jointed, nay, triple-jointed, feet, hands, and shoulders, along with foldable legs. Human lawn chairs, basically. This was enough to send any monster or alien screaming in the opposite direction. Harvey Kurtzman was clearly biting the hand that fed him, something he did often in his career until his teeth finally gave out, but Gaines, for one, didn't mind. As long as it sold.

It didn't much at first. The first issue, with art by Davis, Wood, Will Elder, and John Severin, contained a horror spoof ("Hoohah!") a science-fiction spoof ("Blobs") a crime spoof ("Ganefs") and a western spoof ("Varmint") Comic book readers either didn't get the joke, or, didn't find it all that funny. So Kurtzman tried a different tack. Instead of mere genres, he would satirize established characters. Tarzan, Joe Friday and The Lone Ranger were spoofed in the next two issues, but he really hit his stride, or rather readers finally took notice, with "Superduperman" in issue 4.


"Superduperman" relates the story of bespectacled Clark Bent, lowly assistant to the copy boy at a major newspaper who's always trying to woo reporter Lois Pain, to no avail. When he hears monster is loose in the city, Clark heads to a phone booth and is transformed into Superduperman.The monster, however, turns out to be rival hero Captain Marbles. The two fight, over what exactly is hard to say, though it does mirror the real life copyright battle between comic book publishers DC and Fawcett. The former claimed the latter's Captain Marvel was a rip-off of their Superman. In Kurtzman's satire, Superduperman wins (by tricking Marbles into knocking himself out), just as in real life DC would soon prevail. At the end of the story, Clark Bent reveals his true identity to Lois, who shoots him down anyway: "Once a creep, always a creep." Like the hero it parodied, issues flew off the stands. Mad soon became EC's best-selling title. Some of those early readers: Jay Lynch, Gilbert Shelton, and Robert Crumb. Remember those names.



"Superduperman" was drawn in Wally Wood's humorous style, but Harvey Kurtzman must have decided that if he was going to keep on spoofing comic strips, he'd want them as close to the original as possible. So he turned to his close friend and business partner Will Elder. Unlike Wood or Davis, Elder's characters weren't all that grotesque looking. The eyes were often comically wide, and he favored Mutt and Jeff-like tall-and-short pairings, but otherwise, his figures looked normal enough. Yet he was often much funnier than Wood or Davis. Sometimes even funnier than the guy who did the writing, Kurtzman. When you were a child did you ever do one of those find-what's-wrong-with-this-picture puzzles? That pretty much describes every panel in an Elder-drawn story. He left the main characters alone and saved all the grotesqueries for a background that was literally littered with gags, non sequiturs, and crazy placards. What Kurtzman affectionately referred to as "chicken fat".  Upon closer inspection a mountain was a giant turkey, a water cooler home to fish, and a diner's wide open mouth the object of an RCA dog's rapt attention. A Lost and Found sign reads: FOUND--LOADED DICE IN LOCKER ROOM. LOST--ONE LOCKER. Elder was a farcical Fellini, requiring many viewings, and maybe an extra set of eyes.

So it's rather amazing to me that such an original (and, arguably, Mad's most influential) artist could so totally adapt to another cartoonist's style. But Elder did. When he set his mind to it he could draw like Frank King (Gasoline Alley), V.T. Hamlin (Alley Oop), Carl Barks (Donald Duck), Bob Montana (Archie), Bud Sagendorf (Popeye), George McManus (Bringing Up Father), Al Capp (Li'l Abner), Chester Gould (Dick Tracy), and Ken Ernst (Mary Worth). Yet he didn't entirely sacrifice his own style in the process. If you were reading the Mad parody of Popeye ("Poopeye") you might confuse it with the real thing until you saw Wimpy in the background with two buns hungrily chasing a "burgermeister".



My favorite Kurtzman/Elder Mad collaboration is "Mickey Rodent" a take-off of Walt Disney (here called "Walt Dizzy"), not the animation so much as the comic strip and comic book spinoffs. Those presented a universe where animals talked, dressed, and acted like humans. What I like in this parody is that Kurtzman attacks the conceit on its own terms. So, for instance, if Darnold (Donald) Duck is anthropomorphic, where's his pants? And Pluted (Pluto) is obviously a mute. Will Elder adds to the fun by showing Brer Fox with a naked man on a leash in one panel, and in another a fully clothed fish reeling in skinny dippers at a lake. Harvey Kurtzman also takes aim at the odd star system at Disney. Mickey is the company icon, but Donald is funnier, more prolific (the mouse never had a whole line of comic books), and, really, more popular. So Kurtzman imagines a tension between the two that probably would exist were they something other than ink on paper and celluloid. Mickey leads Darnold/Donald into a realistically-drawn forest where's he's then locked into a cage. The cultural, not to mention parallel universal, difference of an ending has two realistically-drawn zoologists darkly speculating about the mutant-freak that they find among some realistically-drawn ducks. Brilliant parody, brilliant satire. 

 Notice I've been using the words parody and satire interchangeably. In fact, they're not the same thing. A satire is described by Merriam-Webster as "trenchant wit, irony, or sarcasm used to expose and discredit vice or folly" whereas parody is a "work in which the style of an author or work is closely imitated for comic effect." Thus, Joseph Heller's 1961 novel Catch-22  is considered a satire because it exposes vice and folly in the national security state, but it doesn't closely imitate the style of other World War II books like The Naked and the Dead or From Here to Eternity. Weird Al Yankovic's 1984 parody of Michael Jackson's "Beat It", called "Eat It", mimics the original for comic effect, but there's really no discrediting of vice or folly (both of which Mr. Jackson would achieve infamy for in the years to come, but at the time he was still considered a rather innocuous figure.) Now, none of this means satire and parody has to be mutually exclusive. Kurtzman did both. He, Elder, and his other artists exposed the vices and follies associated with pop culture through imitation.  A discerning audience who got the joke would then feel...superior. Essentially, Harvey Kurtzman invented what's come to be known as snark. I suspect his artistic goal was much higher than that, but, hey, it was, and possibly remains, a start.


Whether you call it satire, parody, spoof, lampoon, or send-up, Harvey Kurtzman began to find the whole comic book format limiting. Many later stories,  such as "Restaurant" "Sound Effects" and "Movie Ads" weren't stories at all but conceptual pieces, articles. As such, Kurtzman felt they belonged not in a comic book but a magazine. He began lobbying Bill Gaines to change Mad's format. Gaines at first resisted, until a killjoy John Hopkins University psychiatrist forced his hand.





Born in Germany in the final decade of the 19th century, Dr Fredric Wertham emigrated to America in 1922, and practiced psychiatry first in Baltimore and then in New York.  In 1954, he published Seduction of the Innocent, a non-fiction best-seller that cited violent comic books at a cause of juvenile delinquency. Today Wertham is seen as a kind of forerunner of the cultural conservatives that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, but he may in have been something of a liberal. In 1946, he had opened a low-cost psychiatric clinic for troubled teenagers in Harlem financed by voluntary contributions. Perhaps it was there that he first noticed his patients unusual reading material. In his book, Wertham criticized both horror and superhero comics. He also criticized the ads for knives and air rifles that ran in-between the stories. This was not unlike modern-day children's advocates complaining about commercials for sugary cereals that run during Saturday morning cartoons. However well-meaning Wertham may have been, his data was flawed as he is said to have only interviewed troubled teenagers to reach his conclusions (as well as relying on the wishful thinking of a couple of gay males to support his contention that Batman and Robin were lovers) That middle-class kids in the suburbs were also buying these comics in droves while staying on the straight and narrow seems to have escaped him. The statesmen of the day decided this was something they could by statesmanlike about. The liberal Wertham was called before Estes Kefauver's Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile delinquency to testify. As panels from his comics were liberally sprinkled throughout the book, the liberal Bill Gaines also appeared, and pleaded the First Amendment. Bad move. Kefauver was no more intent on censoring comic books than Joe McCarthey, chairing another senate subcommittee at the same time, was interested in outlawing the American Communist Party. What these canny politicians knew is that all an elected official had to do was raise the issue, then let the private sector do the rest. What that meant for publishers was the self-regulating Comic Code Authority. Gaines refused to submit to and put the seal of approval on any of his books. The distributors, in turn, refused to put any of Gaines books on the comic racks. So Gaines just stopped publishing everything but Mad, which was now a magazine. Different distributors, different racks. 


Mad as a magazine wasn't really all that different from Mad as a comic book. The insides were black-and-white instead of full color. There was twice as many pages. You still had movie, TV, and comic book parodies, though, with the exception of the latter, characters now talked to each other in square balloons with printed dialogue. Some articles looked like articles you might find in a magazine, in that they were mostly prose rather than pictures. Some pieces were written by once well-known 1950s celebrities such as Ernie Kovacs and Roger Price. Al Jaffee debuted as both a writer and artist. Phil Interlandi did one-page "Scenes We'd Like to See." Mostly, though, it was Harvey Kurtzman with art provided by Elder, Wood, and Davis. The oddball faux-Yiddish terms (portzebie, fershlugginer) introduced in the comic book were also carried over for a short time. A goofy-looking boy with a missing tooth was seen throughout the magazine, as well as the name "Alfred E. Neuman" though the two were not yet linked. What really gave this new version its sense of purpose was the ad parodies. These had started in the comic book but there was more of an edge to them simply because they were in a magazine. Especially when illustrated by Will Elder they looked, on the very first, fast glance, like an ad you might see in a magazine. By parodying an ad you automatically satirize it, not the product so much as the pitch, by showing how something such as beer could be packaged in 1950s wholesomeness. The medium is the message, Marshall McLuhan would say a short time later. Kurtzman demonstrated it. 


This new version of Mad sold out and had to be reprinted. There was a question now of just how long Bill Gaines could hold onto Kurtzman. In particular, one up-and-coming 1950s celebrity whom is still fairly well-known today was eyeing the Mad auteur. Hugh Hefner was born in Chicago to a couple of church-going school teachers with firm, Midwestern, middle-American values. OK, I going to take a second to let all of you get off the floor. Can we proceed now? As a child, Hefner wanted to be a cartoonist, and submitted strips to both high school and college newspapers. After graduating from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a B. A. in Psychology, he put all that education to good use by trying but failing to sell cartoons to various Chicago-area publications, and so took a job as a copywriter for Esquire. This should have been a dream job for Hefner since, according to an interview he once gave, he dated a girl in high school just so he could go over to her house and sneak a peak at her father's back issues (so those were his intentions!). Alberto Vargas' illustrated pin-ups certainly would have made an impression on him. Hefner quit, though, when he found out Esquire was moving to New York and wouldn't give him a $5.00 raise that would allow him a smoother relocation. Afterwards, there was an aborted attempt at a trade magazine for cartoonists. Hefner finally lived up to his 152 IQ (according to his foundation's web site) when he had this brainstorm: a nudie magazine with general interest articles. Or a general interest magazine with nude women. Take your pick. Whatever Playboy was, retailers weren't going to sell it in a brown paper bag when it might have a story by Ray Bradbury or an interview with Bertrand Russell. Like Gaines and Kurtzman, Hefner was giving 1950s complacency his own middle-finger (even though increasingly it was from the back window of a limousine.) Yet for all his success, cartooning remained his first love, and, if he couldn't draw them himself, would at least publish others who did. Phil Interlandi was one. Another was Plastic Man creator Jack Cole, who went from drawing shapeshifting superheroes for comic books to shapely women for Playboy, thus gaining an adult audience he'd never have before.  Now Hefner coveted Kurtzman, though not yet for his flagship magazine. 

Kurtzman, for his part, never saw Hefner as a kindred spirit, and at first rebuffed an offer to work for him. Knowing first-hand the appeal of fuck-you money, Hefner simply added more zeroes to his offer. The overtures were now impossible to ignore. Kurtzman decided to confront Gaines. Even before Hefner's entreaties, there had been tensions between them.


Though he insisted for decades that he wasn't involved with Mad editorially, that his only function was to sign the checks, Bill Gaines, in fact, had his own ideas of how a humor magazine should be presented. He was growing increasingly uneasy with real ads appearing along side the fake ones. As he would say in a 60 Minutes interview decades later, "We can't make fun of Pepsi while we're taking money from Coke." He proposed dropping the real ads. Why should Harvey Kurtzman care about that? Here's where we get to the real difference between the two men. A loss of ad revenue would mean that Mad would always look, as it was famously proclaimed on the cover, cheap. And Gaines was fine with that.  According to a biography of Wally Wood I read a while back, Gaines wanted Mad to have an underground feel to it. Underground publications aren't generally known for their high production values. Gaines even once paid extra for seemingly low-quality paper when it was in short supply. He wanted the mostly teenage readership to think they were onto something subversive (Gaine's subversiveness would some day extend to his own physical appearance; by the 1970s, he looked like a middle-aged hippie.) Kurtzman, though, didn't feel Mad needed to look subversive; it was subversive. Gaines was going after the misfits who had already turned their back on mainstream society (at least until graduation.) That was mere preaching to the choir. It's the bourgeois heathens Kurtzman wanted. Let some nice suburban dad pick up a nice, slick magazine with nice, slick coated paper, read a full-page ad for Pund's Cold Cream or Kennnt Cigarettes or Canadian Clubbed and gradually realize that it was all a PUT-ON!!!! 

Kurtzman asked Gaines for a 51% stake in Mad. Gaines offered 10%. No deal. The two subversives parted ways.

This post is about Harvey Kurtzman, not Mad, but I think it's important to note what happened to that magazine after he left. Gaines tapped Al Feldstein to take over. Like Kurtzman, Feldstein had started out as an artist at EC, and was quickly promoted to editor-writer, of the notorious horror line in his case. Once you got past the severed limbs, gouged eyes, moss-covered skeletons, and blood-soaked meat cleavers, these were really just tounge-in-cheek stories with gag endings (sometimes literally so.) Feldstein, then, wasn't a bad choice to head a humor magazine, and in fact had already done the EC in-house knockoff Panic. I recently came across an interview in which Feldstein expressed bitterness about his inability to get out out from Kurtzman's shadow, that his long stewardship of Mad (1956-1985) wasn't sufficiently appreciated. Feldstein's Mad just happens to be the one I grew up with. His lengthy tenure saw the emergence of such talented artists as Don Martin, Sergio Arogines, Antonio Prohias ("Spy vs Spy"), Mort Drucker, Dave Berg, Paul Coker, George Woodbridge, Norman Mingo, Jack Rickard, and Bob Clarke. On the writing side there was Larry Siegel, Dick De Bartolo, Stan Hart, Tom Koch, Arnie Kogen, Lou Silverstone, and, perhaps the most celebrated, song parodist Frank Jacobs, all accomplished humorists. Finally (at the suggestion of associate editor Nick Meglin) Alfred E. Neuman was promoted to the front cover, and immediately (and ironically, given the thrust of the magazine's satire) became a pop culture icon. All this on Al Feldstein's watch. So, yeah, I'd say he has some reason to be bitter. Unfortunately, he lets this bitterness get the best of him in that interview. Indeed, it almost reads as a parody of bitterness. Apparently Feldstein feels that not only should he get credit for Mad's great success after Kurtzman's departure, but also for what happened while he was still there. In fact, he's responsible for Kurtzman's ascension in the first place. Feldstein claims to have gotten him the job at EC, the war comics, Mad, and, finally, to have made the suggestion that he satirizes established comic book characters rather than mere genres. Sorry, Al, but I just don't buy it. People did keep on buying Mad, however, proving it could survive without Kurtzman at the helm. That fact, I suspect, would affect his future career prospects. But those prospects still looked pretty good when Kurtzman went to work for Hefner in the April of 1956.


As I said earlier, it wasn't for Playboy that the subversive media mogul Hefner first sought Harvey Kurtzman's services. It was a new magazine called Trump, which debuted sometime in 1957. Kurtzman was given an unlimited budget, and, as Hefner later quipped, he exceeded it. From what I've seen of it, the money looks like it was well-spent. Namely, because its first two issues looks a lot like Mad, except its pages were now coated and much of it was in color. Will Elder, Jack Davis, and Al Jaffee followed Kurtzman to the new venture. Only Wally Wood stayed behind when told he couldn't also work for Mad. In his place, Kurtzman hired up-and-coming cartoonist Arnold Roth, who drew the playing-card-trumpeter on the cover. There was even a centerfold, though not of a naked girl, but a future archaeological excavation of mid-20th century pop culture (Alfred E. Neuman is even featured) There were more prose articles in Trump than in Mad, but panels with word balloons were still present. Writers who contributed articles and whatnot include Mel Brooks, Max Schulman (who wrote the novel that the Dobie Gillis sitcom was based on), and, once again, Roger Price. As is the case with anything Kurtzman was involved with, much of what was then up-to-date comedy is now simply dated. But there are smiles to be had in even the most obscure parodies. For instance, in the small print at the bottom of a lampoon of a once-common Camel cigarette advertisement featuring Phil Silvers as Sgt Bilko, it reads: "Say...do you always read the small print at the bottom of advertisements?" I did then.


Alas, Harvey Kurtzman's dream of an upscale humor magazine was not to be, at least not into 1958. The bank called in a loan to Hefner, and he had to contract. He knew he himself wasn't to blame as he had saved money by working from home. Trump, though it is said to have sold well, hadn't yet made back whatever large sum (accounts of amounts vary) Kurtzman had spent on it. Hefner apparently had no other choice.  Trump was dumped. Hefner personally delivered the news to Kurtzman as he awaited news of another delivery--his third child.


Left to right in the above photo are Al Jaffee, Harvey Kurtzman, Harry Chester, and Arnold Roth. The head poking out at the bottom belongs to Will Elder. The white-haired gentleman in back is Jack Davis. This picture was taken sometime during the 1980s. I'm going to return to the 1950s in the very next paragraph; I just thought it was nice that they all remained friends (actually, I'm not too sure about Davis.)


Harvey Kurtzman decided he should be his own boss--or at least one boss out of five. Jointly owned by Kurtzman ($1,000), Al Jaffee ($1,000), Will Elder ($1,000), an optimistic Arnold Roth ($2,500), and frugal production manager Harry Chester ($500), Humbug debuted a short time after Trump folded, and represented a regression of sorts, idealistic a venture as it may have been. The size of a comic book, in black-and-white plus an ever-changing third color and costing 15 cents, it was decidedly downscale, though from what I've seen, still quite worthwhile. Among the non-shareholder artists were, once again, Jack Davis and Wally Wood. I earlier mentioned Larry Siegel as a writer for Mad, but he appeared in Humbug first. Much of the satire in the new magazine was topical--the Cold War was a continuing theme--but Kurtzman himself stuck to pop culture, compounding subject matter when necessary. A Frankenstein parody turns into The Ox-Bow Incident with Gunsmoke's Matt Dillon thrown in for good measure. Even Mary Shelley would have laughed, and then contacted her lawyer. 

Hugh Hefner, perhaps feeling a bit guilty about Trump, promoted the new venture in the one publication he had kept going. Unfortunately, Playboy readers weren't likely to scour the comic book racks where most distributors had placed Humbug. Even when it was among the magazines it was a hard find as its size meant it was easily overlooked. The size, as well as newsstand price, was increased with the 10th issue, but it was too late. The debt-ridden enterprise coughed up its last laugh at number 11.




In a farewell letter to readers in Humbug's final issue, Kurtzman had mentioned that he and his artists names were being "carefully removed" from the Mad pocketbooks. Ballantine Books had been the publisher of those paperback collections and had made a good deal of money. For whatever reason, there was a switch in publishers, and Ballantine needed something to replace it with. Harvey Kurtzman proposed himself as a replacement. Ballantine was skeptical, but gave the go-ahead. As so, in 1959, Harvey Kurtzman's The Jungle Book was published, the first mass-produced paperback in the U.S. with original comics, all written and--for those who may have forgotten exactly how he got his start--illustrated by Harvey Kurtzman. Four black-and-white pop culture parodies done in pen-and-wash that detailed humankind's inability to live up to its dreams, hopes and aspirations. Harking back to the first issue of Mad, these were spoofs of genres rather than individual TV shows or movies, which I imagined gave Kurtzman a bit more leeway. There was a hard-boiled detective story, a psychological Western story, a Man in the Grey-Flannel Suit-type story (which succeeds at making the same point as the genre it's satirizing, only better), and a Tennessee Williams/William Faulkner/Erskine Caldwell Southern Gothic-type story. Over the past fifty years the book has amassed a cult following, and an iconic (among fans of his work) self-portrait on the back cover now appears on a comics award named in Kurtzman's honor. Unfortunately, like many a thing that's amasses a cult following, it was an initial failure. I can't say  why. Given the title, perhaps readers were expecting Baloo the Bear.

The continual commercial success of Mad, and the continued commercial failure of Harvey Kurtzman upon leaving Mad, showed that his name on a project was no longer a selling point. Indeed, it may never have been. If the kids buying Mad in 1960 associated that magazine with anybody, it would have been Alfred E. Neuman. If they needed a flesh-and-blood representative, well, though they were published by a different company, William M. Gaines name was now prominently displayed on the paperback collections (but not Al Feldstein's--possibly another source of contention; he said bad things about his former boss in that interview, too.) Notice, however, that I said commercial failure. For those few who had read Trump and Humbug, Kurtzman still had a lot to offer. Help came in the form of an up-and-coming publisher by the names of James Warren. Only in business for a few years, Warren had found pay dirt at a grave digging when he and literary agent/horror movie memorabilia collector Forrest J. Ackerman put out Famous Monsters of Filmland. Now wanting to add another magazine to his operation, he enlisted the aid of Harvey Kurtzman. This time around Kurtzman would make great use of a technique he had up to now mostly eschewed: photography. 


 



The staff of Help! On the left behind what was even in 1961 an old-fashioned cash register is publisher James Warren. That's Harvey Kurtzman in the middle holding up either a camera or a tailpipe. On the right behind the drafting board is production manager Harry Chester. As for the attractive women holding the life preserver, you may not immediately recognize her even if you remember the "woman's lib" era of late '60s and early '70s, so I'll tell you what to do. Imagine her with long, straight hair and oversized glasses. Yep, it's none other than future feminist icon Gloria Steinem, then an assistant editor. In a recent interview with Charlie Rose, Steinem bemoaned repeated media descriptions of her as "humorless" when in fact she had started out writing comedy. If you have any doubt Gloria Steinem could be funny, I refer you to a hilarious 1978 piece (revised in the 1980s) that first appeared in her own Ms. magazine called "If Men Could Menstruate". If the title puts you off, perhaps it's YOU that's humorless.




Getting back to Help!, Harvey Kurtzman was now more of an editor in the traditional sense, writing perhaps 75% of the magazine instead of the usual 90. As I said earlier, photography played a big part. Some of this was just old movie stills or odd-looking pictures with word balloons added. What Help! was most notable for, though, is fumetti, a sequenced story told entirely in photos instead of drawings. Invented in Europe, it first gained attention in the U.S. thanks in part to Kurtzman, and eventually led to the popular photonovels of the 1970s, in which, say, a whole Star Trek episode might be sequenced. The difference, though, is Kurtzman actually had to go out and hire (or have his staff double as) models and have their pictures taken, rather than rely on stills from a TV show. The most well-known fumetti story to appear in Help! (if only in hindsight) was put together by the magazine's art director and future filmmaker (Brazil, The Fisher King, 12 Monkeys) Terry Gilliam. Taking in a British comedy revue that was touring the U.S., Gilliam took notice of an actor by the name of John Cleese, whom he later persuaded to appear in a story about a man who falls in love with a Barbie doll. Gilliam would later move to Britain and become an animator. By happenstance, he and Cleese ended up on the same TV show, Monty Python's Flying Circus. And the rest, as they say on PBS, is history.


Though the focus was on photography (heh, heh), traditional hand-drawn comics weren't entirely forsaken. A reprint of The Spirit from the 1940s appears in one issue; thus Harvey Kurtzman was one of several people (Jules Feiffer was another) who helped rekindle interest in Will Eisner's work. Other cartoonists whose work got new, widespread attention were Jay Lynch, Gilbert Shelton, and Robert Crumb. The last of those first came across Kurtzman in Humbug and then sought out old editions of Mad. Robert Crumb may have been the only adolescent in the 1950s to discover Mad that way. Whatever works. He and his older brother and mentor Charles were so inspired by Mad that they created and printed a knockoff titled Foo!. Failing to get anyone in their Maryland high school to buy a copy, they did manage to get listed in a "fanzine" where a kid in Ohio by the name of Marty Pahls saw it and secured a copy. A correspondence between Pahls and the Crumb brothers followed, and, when he was old enough, he visited them in Maryland. Charles eventually succumbed to mental illness, but Robert, at Pahls urging, moved to Cleveland where he got a job at American Greetings as a color separator. When a superior caught site of Robert's doodles, he was promoted to the Hi-Brow department, where he designed humorous cards that sold well. So valued an employee was the young Crumb, he was given a tremendous amount of leeway, and soon didn't even have to show up for work! As long he kept sending the cards through the mail. With his new freedom, Crumb set out to New York to meet his hero Harvey Kurtzman. The two men, despite their age difference, formed a fast friendship. Fritz the Cat, perhaps Crumb's most well-known character, first appeared in Help!


Yet as talented as Robert Crumb was, the best cartoons to come out of Help! were written by Kurtzman himself. One of the stories in The Jungle Book was titled "The Organization Man in the Gray Flannel Executive Suit". It told the story of Beaver Goodman, an idealistic, naive (funny, or maybe just sad, how those two words seems to go so well together) young man who gets a job at Schlock Publishing. Shocked by the corruption around him, Goodman vows to hold onto his values. However, the pressures to conform, to make ends meet, to keep his back stab-free prove overwhelming. Ultimately, he loses not just his values but his entire personality, as he ends up lying, cheating, stealing, and sexually harassing the secretaries, just like the account executives around him whom had originally met his disapproval. Nevertheless, Goodman does achieve a kind of redemption from his Creator--Kurtzman--though not in the pages of The Jungle Book itself. Kurtzman dusted off the character, and, with the help of artist Will Elder, made him even more naive, more idealistic, and more incorruptible. Goodman Beaver would need those traits as he would now have to survive in world of pop culture.


Given how much Harvey Kurtzman made fun of pop culture, it would be reasonable to conclude that he didn't like it very much. But I'm not so sure. Kurtzman never presented himself in his work as some highbrow snob criticizing the masses for spending too much time on TV, movies, and comics, and not enough on the opera, ballet, or works of Shakespeare. He even occasionally made fun of people like that, such as in the Mad article, "How to Be Smart". The extent to which he deconstructed a TV, movie, or comic strip, shows just how much he was paying attention. In the Goodman Beaver stories, Kurtzman for the first time shows the appeal of pop culture. It wasn't bad at all. In fact, it was good. Too good. Too good to be true. As many others have pointed out, Goodman bore a resemblance to Candide. The title character in Voltaire's 18th century novel believes he lives in "the best of all possible worlds" despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. In Kurtzman's 20th century update those perfect worlds are to be found in a Tarzan movie, an Archie comic, the TV show Sea Hunt, a Superman comic, and a Marlon Brando movie. But things aren't what they seem. African natives practice reverse racism (as Tarzan and Goodman are now members of a minority group.) Lloyd Bridges turns the ocean into a police state. Superman chucks crimefighting and goes fishing. And, in a story that's especially timely some 50 years later, Goodman learns the hard way that a gun has much more sex appeal than eyes-half-shut nonchalance.


In "Goodman Goes Playboy" our hero returns after a five year absence to his home town of Riverdale where he meets up with old friends Archer, Veromica, Joghead, and Bette. Goodman expects to pick up exactly where he left off, by going to church bazaars and finding out how the high school football team's doing. But the gang's no longer interested in those things, as they're now into hipness and awareness, like the kind that can be found between the pages of a certain magazine with a rabbit for a logo. Here again we come to the difference between parody and satire. This Goodman adventure is a parody of Archie comics but a satire of Kurtzman's former boss (for the time being) Hugh Hefner. While the story does touch upon the feminist complaint about the objectification of women ("...as for girls, I've got closets-full, trunks-full...They're expendable girls!"), Kurtzman really zeroes in on an often overlooked but equally problematic aspect of the so-called Playboy philosophy: conspicuous consumption. In addition to naked women, you can also masturbate over the latest hi-fi stereo equipment and bar accessories. Archer lives in a penthouse apartment, has a Porsche Super and Bentley Continental in addition to a Lancia G.T. 2500. Where did Archer get the money? He made a pact with the Devil, and his time is now up! When we last see Archer in human form, he dressed like Nero and playing the fiddle as his affluent lifestyle goes up in flames around him. No 30-day grace period allowed.


The thing about the difference between parody and satire is you never know which one is going to piss people off. Hefner laughed off "Goodman Goes Playboy", but the Archie folks were not so amused; they threatened to sue. Had Harvey Kurtzman still been with Bill Gaines, this wouldn't have been a problem. DC Comics had made a similar threat with "Superduperman" in 1952. Gaines simply let them know he had lawyered up, and they backed off. Had DC not, he would have let it go all the way to the Supreme Court. In fact, around the same time the Goodman Beaver stories appeared in Help!, a group of music publishers sued Gaines over some Frank Jacobs song parodies. The U.S. Court of Appeals eventually ruled in Mad's favor, a decision the nine old men (different era, folks) let stand. Unfortunately, Kurtzman was now with James Warren, who was no Bill Gaines. Maybe his pockets just weren't deep enough, despite the success of Famous Monster of Filmland. Kurtzman owned 50% of Help!, but as someone whom at the time was reportedly teetering on the edge of poverty, he couldn't afford traffic court much less the Supreme. In an out-of-court settlement, the rights to "Goodman Goes Playboy" were turned over to Archie. It remained unseen for 40 years (unless you happened to buy an old copy of Help! at a garage sale) until the copyright finally ran out early in this century.


Though an expensive lawsuit had just been averted, Help! was foundering. True, it sold better than Humbug, but that wasn't saying a helluva lot. The competition this time around wasn't Mad so much as newer, much more daring satirical publications such as Paul Krassner's The Realist. Wanting the older, more sophisticated (i.e. college kids) audience that former Mad freelancer Krassner now had, Harvey Kurtzman was more than willing to push the envelope, but James Warren wasn't. Warren had gotten his false start in the business with a Playboy knockoff called After Hours that had put out only four issues when it was busted for obscenity in Philadelphia. The judge decided the topless Bette Page centerfold wasn't smut after all and threw the case out, but the magazine folded anyway, either because of  the negative publicity, or, just as likely, competition from all the other Playboy knockoffs. The experience seems to have made Warren somewhat leery about pushing the bounderies of the First Admendment, creating some tension between him and Kurtzman. Also, Warren was looking to expand his business with two upcoming  horror comics-as-magazine titles, Creepy and Eerie. This meant less in a way of money for Help! The magazine increasingly made up for its loss budget with public domain photos with word balloons. These could be funny, but not page after page of them. It looked like Help! might become Kurtzman's fourth failure since leaving Mad.

These failures didn't happened in a vacuum. I haven't gone much into Harvey Kurtzman's personal life so far, but he had one. Arguably a bigger one than most American males of his era as he often worked from home. He had a wife Adele, whom he married in 1948; a daughter Meredith, born 1949; son Peter, born 1954; and another daughter Elizabeth, 1957. Peter was autistic. In the 1950s and '60s, autism was much less understood than it is today. It was also, for reasons that are not at all understood now, much less common than today. All that rarity and misunderstanding must have cost money. Things were not looking good for Harvey Kurtzman in 1962.


Hugh Hefner to the rescue! He wasn't going to give Kurtzman his own magazine to play with this time around. Instead, he would get a comic strip that would appear within the pages of Playboy itself. After years of failure, Harvey Kurtzman would once again taste success. I mean, the strip ran for 26 years. It had to have been a success, right? Originally, this new strip was meant to be just a sideline as Kurtzman continued with Help! But before long it was Help! itself that was relegated to the sidelines, until it disappeared entirely in September of 1965. The comic strip would become Kurtzman's mainline, his calling, his vocation, his occupation, his livelihood, his situation, his nine-to-five (with plenty of overtime), his bread-and-butter, his grind.




That Harvey Kurtzman on the left in the above photo. Will Elder, the class clown as always, is the man in the center. Jack Davis is on the right. Though she once famously donned bunny ears and cotton tail as part of an undercover assignment for Esquire, the woman in the middle is NOT Gloria Steinem (though it would have been one helluva picture if it was), just some anonymous Playboy Club employee pressed into service. Everyone seems to be having a good time, but, remember, it's a publicity shot. This may simply be their way of saying, "Cheese!"


Little Annie Fanny was ostensibly a parody of Harold Gray's once-popular comic strip Little Orphan Annie, but the similarity ends with the title logo. It wasn't even drawn in Gray's style. In fact, it wasn't drawn at all but gorgeously painted by the ever-versatile Will Elder. Originally, Kurtzman wanted to transfer Goodman Beaver over to Playboy, but Hefner nixed the idea. So Goodman instead got a kind of sex change operation. Fanny told the story of a leggy, buxom, blond naif who was continuously preyed upon by the mavens of Politics, Industry, and Culture, thus she represented the Modern Everyperson trying desperately to resist molestation by impersonal forces beyond her control or understanding.

Well...no. Little Annie Fanny was never as pointed as all that, but it could have been. I haven't read every Annie strip that's appeared in Playboy, but the ones I have seen weren't nearly as funny as Kurtzman's best stuff from Mad, Trump, Humbug, or Help! Others have said the same thing. In preparation for an interview with Will Elder in 2003, The Comics Journal publisher Gary Groth did read every single strip, and found the satire "intermittent at best." For all his reputation as envelope-pusher, sexual humor doesn't seem to have been Harvey Kurtzman's forte. At least not during his 26 years at Playboy.



Lets back up a bit. Sexy, buxom dames, whether drawn by him or one of his artists, had been tropes in all of Kurtzman's comics in the 1950s and early '60s. No surprise as he was simply parodying and satirizing the times he lived in, the Marilyn Monroe/Jayne Mansfield/Brigitte Bardot era. But the difference between parody and satire depends on how well one sees through a culture, an era. Though the term "sexual harassment" wouldn't be coined until sometimes in the 1970s, Harvey Kurtzman seems to have pointed out its existence in the 1950s. Or was he simply trying to be funny? In a Mad parody of Archie called "Starchie" (not to be confused with Beaver Goodman story in Help!) the principal chases two high school girls around his desk. As Will Elder observed nearly 50 years later, "Well, it happens. Some teachers prey on their students." In "Superduperman" the Clark Kent character uses his X-ray vision to look through the door of the women's bathroom. Gloria Steinem wouldn't disagree that a man with such an ability might do just that. If Kurtzman meant these joke as criticisms, he would have been way ahead of his time. But since they are jokes, he very well could have been doing no more than playing for laughs. Ba-dum-ching!



Annie Fanny, however, never seemed to realize she was being sexually harassed until her last shred of clothing had come off. That she was never out-and-out raped was due less to any vigilance on her part and more to the fact that her would-be molesters were even dumber than her. The blind seducing the blind. A typical strip would end with Annie walking, or running, away, stark naked as her pursuer lay writhing on the ground in a state of coitus interruptus. That could be funny at times. Except as this was "entertainment for men" the average male reader might actually identify and feel sorry for the luckless leches, rather than feel any relief that Annie had escaped unscathed. The predators were the Everymen, and she was the impersonal force beyond their control or understanding (they just couldn't understand why she didn't want to get laid.) I doubt Kurtzman really meant for it it to be perceived that way, and he did make sporadic attempts to satirize the Playboy ethos. But it's hard to bite the hand that feeds you if the other one has you by the balls.

Little Annie Fanny originally appeared once a month and ran seven or eight pages. Within a year it was down to an average of about four pages every other month. By the 1970s, it was down four or five stories a year, then once or twice a year in the 1980s. This was wasn't due to any slide in popularity. As far as Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder were concerned, it might as well have been 100 pages seven days a week. The delays had to with the fact that despite his carefully self-cultivated image as a laid-back hedonist who never got out of his pajamas, Hugh Hefner was actually a nitpicking control freak.


In that 2003 interview, Will Elder tells of Kurtzman informing him after he had turned in his art that Hefner wants this or Hefner says get rid of that. "Jeez," Elder thought. "He actually looks at and reads every detail." Many of those details would have been the background gags Elder was known for but that Hefner considered high school stuff. Painting the strip was time-consuming enough, without having to do it all over again. Elder soon needed help with the art. Kurtzman called in comic book artist Russ Heath to help. Even that wasn't enough, as Hefner kept asking for redoes, proving his dissatisfaction extended to gags in the foreground as well. Other artists helping out were Frank Frazetta, Al Jaffee and Jack Davis (whose style wasn't really all that compatible with Elder's; still his trademark flailing limbs seemed appropriate on the sex fiends who regularly pursued Annie) Throughout the 1960s, until Elder finally came up with a faster technique, it was not uncommon to see the art attributed to three different people. All these artists lived in New York City's tri-state area, but getting the strip out in time meant extended stays at the Playboy Mansion, then located in Chicago. There they would work on Little Annie Fanny, take what they prayed would be the final version to Hefner's bedroom (truth is stranger than parody) making sure they removed their shoes before walking on his white carpet (...as well as satire.) Hef would either approve, or, more likely, disapprove, and they'd be back at the drawing, or rather, painting, board again.



To be fair to Hefner, these were all commercial artists. They were used to taking orders. It wasn't art for art's sake with them. At least not all the time. Harvey Kurtzman himself could be an exacting task master. Beginning with the war comics, Kurtzman would prepare a penciled layout on what's called a Bristol board, then trace over that with some kind of tissue overlay, and transfer that to another board, maybe even a board after that if he was dissatisfied, until it ended up on a final illustration board. Keep in mind he was doing all this for other artists, who might have felt their creativity infringed upon a bit. Elder had no problem with this technique, as Kurtzman allowed him (until Hefner intervened) free reign with the background gags. Other artists grumbled but inevitably went with the flow. Except for John Severin. A friend of Kurtzman's since high school, he broke with him back in the 1950s over the layouts.  That's one artist who never got to see the inside of the Playboy Mansion.


If Hefner's complaints about the art extended beyond Elder's gags, then they were really directed toward Kurtzman, seeing as he did the layouts. And it wasn't just the art. He increasingly didn't like Kurtzman's scripts either, giving 20 page critiques--nearly five times as long as the average Little Annie Fannie story. More changes, more time wasted. So Kurtzman, who had written the first 23 issues of Mad by himself, now needed someone to help him write the bi-monthly four-page Annie stories. He got that help from Larry Siegel, who had written for Humbug before moving on to Mad. Siegel could be a truly hilarious writer, and he's had an interesting career, one that's included three writing Emmys for The Carol Burnett Show. Unfortunately, the Annie stories I've seen with his name on it aren't any funnier than those with Kurtzman's alone. He seems to have had the same basic problem: how to top Annie's own toplessness.


Chalk it all up to the curiously narrow vision of a man who has spent sixty years insisting he's anything but. For all his reputation as an envelope-pusher, sexual humor doesn't seem to have been Hugh Hefner's forte. Look at the other cartoons (many beautifully done in color) that appear in Playboy. What do you usually see? A naked woman in the foreground, and a man, more often than not fully clothed, in the back. A forgettable caption underneath. A naked woman can be many, many things, but hysterically funny isn't usually one of them. Quite a few of the cartoonists who have appeared in Playboy over the years have also had their work published in The New Yorker, and they're almost always funnier in the latter. Such is freedom from formula. If you overlook the potential for abuse, Little Annie Fanny at least got some comic mileage out of the  horny males (and in one 1978 strip, females) clownish pursuit of the title character. But that made for a one-joke strip, even as the topic, usually a very topical topic, changed from appearance to appearance. Then again, who picks up Playboy for the laughs? You read it for the articles.


According to Elder: "Hefner didn't want anything to resemble Mad magazine. If you understand that, you understand the whole process of Annie Fanny." OK, fine, but then why the hell hire two guys from Mad? I think Kurtzman and Elder weren't trying to relive past glories so much as simply being themselves. Now they were expected to be like Hugh Hefner, the failed cartoonist.

Most of what I've told you so far about Harvey Kurtzman's long tenure at Playboy was taken from that Will Elder interview. If that's all I had to go by, I'd just chalk it up as sour grapes from someone who didn't like always having to repaint his work, especially if that meant erasing all his little background jokes that never advanced the narrative anyway. However, there was another witness, and here's where our story takes a particularly sad turn.


As the 1960s drew to a close, a new trend had emerged within--no, no, that's not right. This new trend emerged way, way, way, way outside of the publishing industry, as well as neighborhood drugstore magazine racks. I'm talking "underground comix", written and drawn by people so obviously radical they refused to use proper spelling. Among them were Kim Deitch, Spain Rodriguez, S. Clay Wilson, Jay Lynch, Bill Griffith, Rick Griffin, Vaughn Bode, Denis Kitchen, Victor Moscoso, Skip Williamson, Rory Hayes, Trina Robbins, Art Speigelman, Aline Komiskey, Rand Holmes, Jay Lynch, and Gilbert Shelton. Most of these new cartoonists were inspired by Kurtzman's Mad when young, and some were even published in Help! Their choice of subject matter, however, went far beyond the most tasteless Mad parodies or dirtiest Annie Fannys, as their comix were full of explicit sex, explicit violence, explicit drug use, and even explicit politics. Sold mostly in head shops (neighborhood drugstores of a kind, except the clientele was typically under 30) they did not carry the Comic Code Authority seal, and no one cared. Well, a few judges did, as the stores that carried them were now and then busted for obscenity. Many of these comics came off the mimeograph machine, and were on such low-quality materials they made the faux-cheap paper Bill Gaines favored for Mad look like it was spun from fine silk. Kurtzman, as I said earlier, never wanted Mad or any magazine he worked on to look cheap. By 1969, though, he may have been having second thoughts. He reportedly flirted with becoming an underground cartoonist himself. Now, this movement was part of the larger counterculture, which Kurtzman had made fun of quite a bit in Little Annie Fanny, treating it not so much as a threat to the Republic, as others at the time did, but merely as a passing fad (which in many ways it was.) Hippiedom nevertheless intrigued him. On a trip to California, the epicenter for all things groovy, he actually visited a commune. He also went to a party thrown by some underground cartoonist friends. However, the loud music and hard drugs proved a little too much for the middle-aged Kurtzman, and he made a hasty retreat back to the mainstream that had so fueled his satire. Also, it paid better.

Still, if he couldn't be an underground cartoonist himself, maybe Kurtzman could at least introduce some who were to the mainstream media (which by now included Playboy.) He set his sights on the most well-known of these cartoonists, his friend and disciple Robert Crumb.


When we last saw Robert Crumb, his first Fritz the Cat comics were just getting published in Help! Though Fritz would arguably become his first great success, it wasn't until the hipster feline appeared in Cavalier, a Playboy knockoff, that he found a larger audience. Harvey Kurtzman did at least anticipate that larger audience for Crumb someday, and hoped for a slice of it himself, if he could just keep Help! afloat. As part of an agreement to write and draw about it when he came back, Kurtzman sent Crumb and his newlywed wife Dana on an all-expense paid honeymoon to Bulgaria. Not exactly Niagara Falls, but Crumb reportedly enjoyed himself.  He returned to the U.S. with some moody, evocative pictures of the then-Soviet satellite. Crumb was all set to replace the departing Terry Gilliam as art director when Help! folded. And so he went back to Cleveland and American Greetings. Bored with a job at which he excelled, he turned to not alcohol but a form of escapism that was then gaining in popularity: LSD. Still perfectly legal at that point, Crumb found he enjoyed having his consciousness expanded, until he took one bad batch that left him in a fugue state for about a year. Amazingly, this had little effect on his job at American Greetings (and just think, the first acid-inspired art in the United States appeared not in head shops but the more traditional drug stores under such headings as "Birthday", "Commencement' and "Get Well Soon.") In his spare fugue time, certain characters began appearing to Crumb, characters whom would someday soon have names like Mr. Natural, Angelfood McSpade, Eggs Ackley, and Flakey Foont. When Crumb finally emerged from the fugue, he was more restless than ever. On a chance encounter in a bar with a few friends on their way to San Francisco, he decided then and there to join them. He would phone his wife about it when he got there. Though he wasn't really a hippie himself--he dressed like some cub reporter out of a 1930s Warner Brothers movie--he settled somewhere near the intersection of Haight-Ashbury, the Jerusalem of the Counterculture. Hooking up with some mimeograph owner who called himself a publisher, Crumb put out Zap, which he sold himself on street corners. More comics followed, and soon the whole world, at least the portion of the world that had turned on, tuned in, and dropped out, got to know Mr. Natural and friends. Actually, one comic story, if you could call it a story, did make its way to the mainstream, where it enjoyed surprising popularity. Though his fan base may have swooned to the  music of Steppenwolf, Jefferson Airplane, and Jimi Hendrix, Crumb's own tastes ran toward 1920s and '30s country and blues. He turned an old song by an obscure musician named Blind Boy Fuller into a one page strip. Characters with big feet and an amazing sense of balance did a kind of reclining strut under the words KEEP ON TRUCKIN'. Endlessly reproduced on posters,T-shirts, bumper stickers, and patches, it soon became one of the most famous images of the late '60s and early '70s. And now Robert Crumb himself was famous (Blind Boy Fuller, though, remained an obscure figure.)



Kurtzman decided it was time for Robert Crumb to meet Hugh Hefner. A job could be in the offering. The idea that Crumb should appear in Playboy seems ridiculous now. Though feminists were none too fond of either one, Crumb's vision of female sexuality varied wildly from Hefner's (steroids vs. silicone). It probably made sense in 1971, though. Crumb was famous and Hefner was famous; why shouldn't the two of them get together? So it was arraigned that Crumb and a few of his underground cartoonist pals should visit the Playboy Mansion in Chicago. According to a 1972 interview, Crumb thought it was cool at first. They hung around the game room and played pinball. Talked to a few bunnies (the help) that were around to serve them. And just explored the place. There was a pool, several TV sets, and on every end table and coffee table was a copy of Playboy. Crumb thought the paneling on the walls looked kind of cheap. As time went on, and it did go on, the whole place began to seem to him like the world's largest Holiday Inn. Eventually, the whole group settled in the dining room, where they ate and waited. And waited. For hours. Where was Hefner? Turns out he was playing backgammon. They asked Kurtzman when could they meet him. "Kurtzman was like sweating," Crumb recalled. "He didn't want anyone to disturb Mr. Hefner. He was worried that someone, me or Jay Lych or Skip Williamson, would upset Mr. Hefner." They left without meeting Mr. Hefner. As far as I know, Crumb hasn't met him yet.


Hefner assistant and Playboy's soon-to-be cartoon editor Michelle Urry did contact Crumb a short time later. She offered him $500 a page and complete freedom, except he couldn't draw anything explicit. If you've ever seen a Crumb comic done between 1967 and 1972, you'll know that removing anything explicit would be like taking the whale out of Moby Dick. Thus, the conversation did not go well. Crumb was also upset that Kurtzman seemed so intimidated by Hefner, and let Urry know that. He turned her down flat. She got mad herself and told him that someday soon the underground cartoon fad would fade, and he'd come crawling back to Playboy begging for a job. She was half right. The fad did fade, and Crumb went through some tough times, but he never worked for Playboy. Except once, when his art, in reduced form, appeared within Little Annie Fanny itself (strip regular Ralphie is shown reading an underground comic.)


Harvey Kurtzman and Robert Crumb remained friends, each writing forwards or introductions to the other's collections. Sometime during the 1970s, Crumb visited Kurtzman at his home in Mount Vernon, New York. It was a big house--Hefner paid well--that was put to good use as he now had four children, daughter Nellie having arrived in 1969. Kurtzman, who had been drinking, showed Crumb an Annie strip that had just come back from Hefner with all sorts of blue pencil markings indicating changes that he wanted made. After acknowledging to Crumb that Hefner had saved him from poverty, Kurtzman began to cry...

You may have cringed upon reading of Kurtzman's breakdown, as I did when I first came across it in a book Crumb had written. You may also have wished that he he'd stuck to his guns, that he'd been more like he was at the outset of his career, a bold, brash young man who through the simple art of lampooning could puncture the assumptions and certainties of a complacent people. But there's a problem. That very boldness and brashness caused him to walk out on the best publisher he would ever have, William M. Gaines, so certain was he that he could produce a higher (and slicker) form of lampoon somewhere else. He stuck to his guns through Trump, Humbug, The Jungle Book, and Help! even as his ammunition was running alarmingly low. When it was near depletion, he over-compensated (as well as was over-compensated) by becoming Hugh Hefner's lackey. It was Kurtzman who repeatedly warned us not to confuse reality with market-driven illusion. As someone who spent his life in such market-driven industries as comic books and magazines, he could not help but get caught up in the confusion himself.

Perhaps we should see the breakdown that Crumb witnessed as a kind of good thing. Remember me telling you before about "The Organization Man in the Gray Flannel Executive Suit" from The Jungle Book? That earlier, darker version of Goodman Beaver who represses and conforms his entire personality out of existence? Kurtzman's tears at least proves that he hadn't. Or, to paraphrase Charles Bukowski, Kurtzman still had a soul left to lose.

Annie Fanny took off her clothes for the last time in June of 1987. For a change, something of Kurtzman's ended because he wanted it to end...No, wait, Playboy, which owned the copyright, did attempt to bring the strip back ten years later with a different writer and artist. It lasted all of two issues.


Finally free of Hefner, Harvey Kurtzman returned to Bill Gaines and Mad, but not as an editor or even a writer this time. Instead, he went back to his roots as an artist, once again working in tandem with Will Elder. Kurtzman did the layouts and rough drafts; Elder finished it off with his signature background gags.

William M. Gaines died in 1992 at 70. Harvey Kurtzman died nine months later at 68. Will Elder lived until 2008. He was 86 when he died.





Mad is not as popular as it once was, and may someday dissapear entirely. But Harvey Kurtzman's influence is everywhere.When he turned a comic book into a magazine, he expanded the creative possibilities of both. The underground comix he inspired has given way to the alternative comics movement. Some of the leading lights (if not always household names) from that movement: Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, Johnny Ryan, Jessica Abel, Peter Bagge, Eddie Cambell, Scott McCloud, Evan Dork, Bob Fingerman, Roberta Gregory, David Heatley, David Lasky, Megan Kelso, Matt Madden, Mark Newgarden, Gary Panter, Seth, Harvey Pekar, Alison Bechdel, Sophie Crumb, Sam Henderson, Howard Cruse, Ellen Forney, James Kolchaka, Joe Matt, John Porcellino, Ron Rege Jr., Tim Fish, Joe Sacco, Diane DeMassa, Craig Thompson, Chester Brown, Gilbert and Jamie Hernandez, Jennifer Camper, Peter Kuper, Ariel Schrag, Eric Reynolds, Robert Sikoryak, Charles Burns, Robert Kirby, Paul Hornschemeier, Matt Groening (alternative as far as ink-and-paper goes), Michael Kupperman, Dylan Horrocks, Kevin Huizenga, Ted Rall, Julie Doucet, Paige Braddock, Derf, and Ivan Brunetti. All of these cartoonists either owe a debt of gratitude to Harvey Kurtzman, or to someone like Robert Crumb or Art Speigelman, who themselves in turn owe a debt of gratitude to Harvey Kurtzman, or to---Well, we're talking 60 years of comics, folks.

As for Kurtzman's style of comedy, poking fun at the culture is now part of the culture. We've come to expect the iconic figures of our age to be hoisted upon their own petards, even if they're just a few seconds into their 15 minutes of fame. Harvey Kurtzman's presence can be felt in such mainstream comic strips as Pearls Before Swine, Get Fuzzy, and Dilbert. In the movies of John Waters, Tim Burton, Quentin Tarantino, the Coen brothers, Charlie Kaufman, and, more obviously, the Wayans brothers. In such TV shows as Saturday Night Life, Talk Soup, The Simpsons, South Park, Family GuyThe Daily Show with John Stewart, The Colbert Report, and The Late Show with David Letterman. Hell, you can even see it in advertising (watch a Super Bowl commercial lately?)

That Harvey Kurtzman achieved this feat while his own petard was gradually being hoisted makes it all the more remarkable.









 

 


 


 

 

 

 

 

 


   








  












































7 comments:

  1. Major article, Kirk, very enjoyable and a good history of my favorite satirists of the 1950s.

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  2. Glad you enjoyed it, Pappy.

    After such a major article, I may have to spend some time in the minors.

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  5. Excellent work. A few typos, if you're looking to dot some i's: Vaughn Bode's name, and Steppenwolf the band, after the novel...a very impressive survey.

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    1. Glad you liked it, Todd. And thanks for pointing out the typos. I always miss something.

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