"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.
Major article, Kirk, very enjoyable and a good history of my favorite satirists of the 1950s.ReplyDelete
Glad you enjoyed it, Pappy.ReplyDelete
After such a major article, I may have to spend some time in the minors.
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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.ReplyDelete
Glad you liked it, Todd. And thanks for pointing out the typos. I always miss something.Delete
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