As I'm sure you've heard by now, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner died. Back in 2013, I wrote a long essay about satirist Harvey Kurtzman (best known for creating Mad, first as a comic book, and then as a magazine), in whose life Hefner played no small part. It's pretty lengthy, but only part of a larger piece that is almost TWICE as long. So, if you do decide to read it, rest assured you're getting off easy.
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.
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.
Not too flattering a portrait of Hefner, is it? Keep in mind, however, that this was basically written from Harvey Kurtzman's (or perhaps Will Elder's and Robert Crumb's) point of view. Hefner, of course, can't now defend himself, and may have gone to his grave completely unaware that he earned such enmity from some of the people who worked under him. At least Hefner's hands-on approach proves that he wasn't quite the pipe-sucking, silk pajama-wearing slacker so often portrayed in the media (including the slice of the media that he himself owned.)
Of course, Hugh Hefner's legacy doesn't begin and end with Little Annie Fanny. What about the rest of it?
Sorry it took so long, but at least I gave you folks some stuff to look at while I tried to sort out Hef's legacy.
The long-running joke about Hefner's magazine is that if an upstanding member of the community was caught with it in his possession, he could sheepishly defend himself by claiming he read it for the articles. Ha, ha, ha--but how much of a joke was it? Could it be read for the articles? While I doubt anyone ever EXCLUSIVELY perused Playboy for that reason, I'm sure the articles got read. In its own way, Playboy was a general interest magazine, with a sometimes intellectual air about it, and could be appreciated on that level. Kind of like The New Yorker on Viagra. As for the "Playboy philosophy", that you should be able to live any kind of lifestyle as long as you had enough money as Hefner did and could totally escape the economic constraints imposed on the rest of us by the societal concerns of Church, State, and a capitalistic system that occasionally needs to keep its workers in line, was about as accessible to the average prole as a President's Day at an Aston-Martin dealership. Nevertheless, the Sexual Revolution Hefner helped spark and for many embodied in the long run benefited us all, not just A-list celebrities drunkenly trying not to trip over the non-plastic pink flamingos roaming the grounds of the LA Mansion It may be a stretch to say sex education in school and the birth control pill had anything to do with the Playmate of the Month, but all those phenomenons did come to fruition at about the same time. Finally, in 1955, when Playboy published Charles Beaumont groundbreaking science fiction story "The Crooked Man", it proved that Hefner could look beyond his airbrushed human bunnies and champion, or at least tolerate, desires not his own.