Monday, August 29, 2016

Mad Man

When I was a kid, I loved MAD magazine--as did everyone else I knew.  I sought out the paperback reprints of older issues and that's where I discovered the original MAD, as created by Harvey Kurtzman.  It was wilder, more anarchistic than what I'd seen before. Its parodies of Superman, Archie Comics, Gasoline Alley, Mickey Mouse, Howdy Doody and so many other parts of popular culture evinced a skewed vision of the world, where nothing was what it appeared to be and anything could be mocked.  Kurtzman's work affected me as few other comics did.

Which is why I checked out Bill Schelly's biography Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created MAD And Revolutionized Humor In America.  Quite a claim in that subtitle, but the book substantiates it in its 600+ pages.

Kurtzman was born in Brooklyn in 1924, a child of Russian Jews.  His father died when he was young, and the boy was sent for a period to an orphanage--which may have led to a sense of uncertainty which Harvey never fully shook.  Growing up during the Depression, Kurtzman loved comic strips, and had a talent for drawing.  As a teen he won a scholarship to the High School Of Music And Art, and developed his gift.  There he met others who would be a central to cartooning, such as Will Elder and Al Jaffee.

In the early 40s Kurtzman got a foothold in the comics industry, doing lowly work for little pay. This was interrupted when he was drafted into WWII.  He stayed in America during the war and kept cartooning--for camp newspapers, instruction manuals and the like.  After the war, he started freelancing, taking whatever he could get. He created a one-pager called Hey Look!--used as filler in comic books--which showed a wild imagination and absurdist view of the world.

He married in 1946, and while he had big plans, and talent to match, for years was barely earning a living.  Then, in the late 40s, he met Bill Gaines, publisher at EC (which once stood for Educational Comics but changed to Entertaining Comics).  Gaines saw talent in the quirky artist and used him wherever he could.  Kurtzman started illustrating EC horror titles, but didn't really like the genre.  He moved on to science fiction, and then found his métier in war stories.  Kurtzman started editing two separate war comics, writing most of the material and using the best artists EC had to flesh out his conceptions.

Kurtzman was painstaking, doing lots of research, and creating his own sketches which the artists were required to follow.  He also wrote stories that were much more realistic than other war comics.  Because he worked slower than others, he always needed more money.  MAD was created, if nothing else, as a way to give him a new source of revenue.

It was Harvey's baby all the way--even with the amazing work of artists such as Wallace Wood, Jack Davis and Will Elder to bring his ideas to fruition.  MAD seemed to unleash something in Kurtzman.  It was like nothing else out there (though it would soon be copied by everyone--EC even came up with its own knockoff Panic).  Word of mouth spread, and after a few issues it took off, becoming EC's best seller.  Meanwhile, there was a crusade against violent comics, which just about destroyed every other title Gaines published.  MAD became EC's main source of income.  In addition, it was turned into a magazine and Harvey widened its subject matter, and started accepting contributions from other (often name) writers. 

Harvey asked for more money, and a voting control of stock--a demand it's hard to believe he thought Gaines would accept.  Indeed, Gaines let him go, but Harvey had an ace in the hole.  Hugh Hefner, who'd created the tremendously successful Playboy, told Harvey he'd back him if he left EC.

It looked like Gaines was in trouble.  Harvey was the magazine, and he also poached all the MAD artists. But EC brought in a new editor and MAD continued being a success for decades to come.  Meanwhile, Harvey had problems.  Hefner gave him unlimited time and money--unsurprisingly, Harvey took too long and spent too much.  His new humor magazine, Trump, was wide-ranging, sort of a precursor to National Lampoon.  But as the second issue was going to press, Hefner was having trouble with his line of credit, and canceled the entire project.  Suddenly Harvey was scrambling.

He and other artists from Trump funded a new magazine, Humbug.  Launched in 1957, it was certainly cheaper than Trump, but still had solid content.  However, its format, cost, and somewhat sleazy distributor helped ensure the magazine never quite took off.  It disappeared in 1958.

Harvey, now with a family to feed, did whatever freelance work he could get, landing many pieces in respectable slicks. He also published Harvey Kurtzman's Jungle Book--long comic stories reminiscent of his work for MAD.

In 1960 he got the backing of a publisher to put out another magazine, Help!.  This one was considerably cheaper than Trump.  For instance, it used a lot of public domain photos with humorous captions.  But Kurtzman added a lot to it, and started doing, for instance, fumetti--series of photographs shot specially for the magazine that told a story.  Help! attracted a lot of names who became big later--Terry Gilliam, Gloria Steinem, Robert Crumb, etc.  It lasted five years, but never was a big moneymaker.

During this time Kurtzman--with friend and collaborator Will Elder--started doing a comic strip in Playboy, "Little Annie Fanny." It ran from 1962 to 1988, and became Harvey's main source of income (say what you want about Hef, he paid well).  But it's far from Kurtzman's best work. For one thing, Hefner micromanaged it.  Worse, while the strip had a satirical slant, putting title character Annie in the middle of cultural movements of the time, its main purpose was sexual titillation.

Kurtzman continued to work on various freelance projects, and more and more was recognized as a master in his field.  A whole generation or two of cartoonists who grew up reading his stuff sought him out.  He worked with many younger collaborators in his later years.  In the 1970s, he also started teaching in New York's School Of Visual Arts, instructing many up-and-comers.

In the late 1970s, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, but kept at it until the end. He died in 1993, but did live to see a revival of interest in his work, with his old material--MAD and otherwise--reprinted to acclaim.  He was generally humble about what he did, but it's good to know he knew that his work would live on.

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