Harvey Kurtzman: Mad Genius of Comics

As founding editor of "MAD" and the author of a number of truly realistic war comics, Harvey Kurtzman influenced a generation of underground comics creators as well as satirists in several media. This month, Abrams ComicArts released an art book biography titled "The Art of Harvey Kurtzman: Mad Genius of Comics," co-authored by comics historians Denis Kitchen and Paul Buhle. The hardcover volume features rare sketches and unpublished comic strips, as well as covers, interior pages, and photographs from Kurtzman's assorted projects. CBR News spoke with Buhle and Kitchen about Kurtzman's innovations and highlights of their comprehensive book.

A longtime fan and student of "MAD" and Kurtzman's work, Paul Buhle first interviewed Kurtzman at New York University in 1980, and previous to that had written an essay on the cartoonist for an English class (he received a B - the teacher didn't think comics was a serious subject matter). As such, when Denis Kitchen suggested a biography by way of an art book, Buhle was only too happy to be involved. Kitchen interviewed Kurtzman's wife, Adele, and searched through Harvey's files and artwork. The two co-wrote the main text, with Kitchen selecting the artwork and writing captions.

Though best known for his work with "MAD Magazine," Kurtzman's war comics were extensively researched for "Mad Genius of Comics," and are considered a major innovation. "Not only were other comics, to my knowledge, indifferent to the details of history -- down to the color of uniforms, practically -- all of that stuff in the World War II era comics and after always seemed to be terribly misleading," Buhle told CBR. "Not only for political reasons, but the writers and artists didn't really care about the real history. Looking back on World War II comics, the treatment of Japanese as little yellow monkeys is pretty offensive, and the treatment of non-white Americans is pretty offensive, too.

"But even leaving those things aside, Harvey -- who claimed never to be a good student of history in high school -- what he did most remarkably was to demand the highest level of historical accuracy and details. You might say -- he didn't say so-- but you might say that his attention to detail in history comics led him towards his attention to detail in 'MAD.'"

Reproduced in its entirety in "Mad Genius of Comics" is Kurtzman's war comic "Corpse on the Imjin," a strip in which a G.I. ponders an anonymous body floating down the titular river only to find himself engaged in a struggle that will thrust another corpse into the Imjin. The strip is representative of Kurtzman's war comics, which were unusually sympathetic to "the other," or foreign enemy soldiers. Of the comic's significance to both Kurtzman and comics history, Denis Kitchen told CBR, "You have to remember that Harvey was a soldier in World War II; he did not see action, but he was certainly very aware, as anybody whose life was on the line, he could easily have been shipped to the Pacific or to Europe.

"I think if you look at your mortality in that way, you can't help but view war differently than if you were on the sidelines or just reading the headlines or seeing the news reels, and are never a participant in it. I think when he started doing these war comics, which was 5-6 years after he was in World War II, he had a chance to think about it."

Kitchen also selected an early piece of art that Kurtzman had produced for a military camp magazine, which shows "a soldier literally bayoneting a Japanese soldier with what I'd call a lot of extra-patriotic flourish, which provides an interesting contrast to the artist's work following the war."

Harvey Kurtzman also possessed the ability to bring the war home to readers on a very visceral and authentic level. Explained Kitchen, "If you looked at all the competing war comics of the time, they were two-dimensional in the sense that the North Koreans and the Chinese were depicted literally as 'Gooks,' their skin was very yellow, they had big bucked teeth, they were racist caricatures. And of course they were also depicted as cruel and as Communist robots, and the Americans always won and always were good in a way that just wasn't reflective of the real world. And Harvey was not unpatriotic, but what Harvey wanted to show, in the most literal sense, was that war is hell. It's a cliche, but he brought it home by bringing it closer to individual experiences and the experiences of non-combatants. It wasn't the predictable 'here's a battle and the Yankees win.'

"It might seem like today, people would say 'well, what's the big deal?' Well, whenever you're first doing something and you're innovative, later it looks more normal. In any medium, the ones who were there first get special credit because they were breaking the rules, applying a different perspective, especially who were doing so in a medium that was considered at the time to be a puerile, juvenile medium."

Kurtzman founded "MAD" as a comic book before transforming it into a magazine. "It's said in the book, but it can't be said too often, if 'Saturday Night Live' and 'The Simpsons' owe everything to Kurtzman's inspiration, it's because Harvey Kurtzman was developing an idea of a critique or commentary on American life or modern life at large based on a close examination of the details," Paul Buhle said, reiterating a point from the book's introduction by Harry Shearer, who has written and performed extensively for both television series mentioned.

Buhle's favorite example of Kurtman's attention to pop culture detail was the artist's recognition that all Disney characters wear white gloves, which Kurtzman then used in a strip to suggest Walt Disney himself would ship his creations to prison if they were found without their gloves. "Nobody else would have thought of looking at the gloves, other than making some kind of general commentary. The idea that you can critique society by making comments on the popular culture that it has produced, not just the political culture, but actually on the details on the popular culture, I think that's the enormous innovation that Harvey added, and not just to comics."

Following his split with "MAD" publisher E.C. Comics, Kurtzman founded several humor magazines in succession, beginning with the Hugh Hefner-supported "Trump" in 1957. But after the series of magazines and book projects that failed to match the success of "MAD" --or, indeed, much success at all-- Kurtzman rounded his career with a 26-year run on "Little Annie Fanny," a strip he created with Will Elder for "Playboy." Though he was able to work in a degree of satire, according to Buhle and Kitchen's book, Kurtzman was frustrated by the need to reduce every punchline to getting Annie undressed, as well as other factors.

"It took up an enormous amount of time and Hefner was red-pencilling everything," Buhle said. "So it was a process of doing the same thing over and over again, and facing enormous frustration as he was doing them."

As to why Kurtzman did not quit or pursue other projects in addition to his "Playboy" work, Buhle said the drain on his time represented by "Little Annie Fanny" was only one factor. "Denis observed that when you look at the correspondence that he exchanged with various TV and magazine people in the early 1960s, among the reasons that he didn't get the jobs was that he seemed too hungry. He was eager to pay his mortgage. He never found another job that was sustaining, that he could really make enough money for the family. 'Little Annie Fanny' just tended to be what brought the money in, and what attracted his attention, but you'll see in the book, there were these other things, these little paperback books and other projects, done mostly in the '80s. And all of them were flops.

"As far as I have been able to tell, the offers never happened. We can think of million things he could have done brilliantly; he should have been put on the payroll for the first years of 'Saturday Night Live!' And he wasn't asked."

Even though magazines such as "Trump," "Humbug," and "Help!" ultimately proved unsuccessful, they did bring Harvey Kurtzman into contact with several future luminaries. While it may not surprise readers to discover that Kurtzman directly influenced the careers of Robert Crumb, or even film director and "Monty Python" animator Terry Gilliam, the unlikely fact that feminist leader and activist Gloria Steinem worked for Kurtzman as an editorial assistant on "Help!" magazine might raise some eyebrows. While Crumb and Gilliam sought out Kurtzman in hopes of learning from a master, Gloria Steinem is a whole different story. "Not long before she went for a blind interview in his office, she was at this youth conference in Finland with her way paid by the CIA. I'm not given to conspiracy theories, I wouldn't think of one in this instance anyway, but I think it was just some unbelievable accident. According to Harvey, she was the one who would call the actors and get them to appear in these fumetti, but it wasn't like he gave her the connections. She somehow or other managed to charm her way into getting [actor] Tom Poston and other notable people to appear in the magazine. How did she do it and what role does it play in her future career? Boy, that's one of the most puzzling things in all of Kurtzmania."

What is and is not known about Harvey Kurtzman's life outside of his art necessarily influences the shape of Buhle and Kitchen's book. The text mentions several times that Kurtzman was reluctant to discuss personal matters, but even so, "The Art of Harvey Kurtzman: Mad Genius of Comics" includes many interesting anecdotes, such as the story of future wife Adele stuffing the ballots to favor his "Hey Look!" strip in a Marvel reader survey. Despite a wealth of information in the book, Buhle expresses some regret that details of Kurtzman's European grandparents and his father, who died when Kurtzman was very young, appear lost to posterity. "We know as much as we're likely to find out," the author said. Due to his own scholarly interest in Jewish history, Buhle would also have liked to know more about Kurtzman's mother and stepfather's apparent secularism. "It wasn't unusual for Jews to not be Bar Mitzvahed, but it was somewhat unusual. And it means that his family, his stepfather and mother, had zero interest in religion. That's interesting. Those were people who were liberal, radical - socialistic, that is to say -- and regarded themselves properly more as intellectual, more likely to go and take their kid to a museum, and so forth. But there's a lot more that we wish we could flesh out, and we just couldn't find it."

What we do know of Kurtzman's parents, though, is that they shared certain traits with another notable comic book creators. "What did Harvey Pekar's mother and Harvey Kurtzman's mother have in common? They read the 'Daily Worker' every single day," Buhle said, referring to the Communist newspaper. "Incidentally, coming into the house would have been 'Barnaby,' which was the outstanding 'Daily Worker' strip. Harvey was reluctant to talk about this left-wing stuff, because as anybody who went through the '50s, he'd always been worried about some danger or cost to him for letting this stuff be known."

Buhle speculates that Kurtzman remained tied to leftism and "deeply resented the way that the US moved to the right after World War II, and viewed it as a sort of betrayal."

The production of "Mad Genius of Comics" is also notably complex. Denis Kitchen represents the Kurtzman Estate and was thus able to secure access to an unprecedented amount of archival material, including unpublished sketches, photographs, comics, and magazines. Though Kurtzman held on to a significant volume of his work, Kitcen said, "Unfortunately, they were not stored in an ideal circumstance." Kurtzman kept his original art, thumbnail sketches, and other materials in his non-insulated attic at home, where they were subjected to significant temperature and humidity fluctuations. "The most fragile were the figure drawings that he did in the 1940s that are [published in this book] for the first time. If you look at the browning at the edges of the paper and the chips that are missing, you can get a hint of the fragility. They were virtually crumbling in my hands when I found them. They had probably been stored for roughly six decades without proper precautions. So we were at least able to photograph those and reproduce maybe four or five of them out of a dozen or fifteen that survived. Most of the other things were at least stored a little tighter, maybe in tight boxes, so that there was less exposure to the elements."

Other materials were stored in Kurtzman's office, under slightly better conditions. "Harvey was not what I'd call a natural archivist," Kitchen continued, "and what's a shame is the many, many things that he did not save, that did not survive, or that he had done for clients that did not return them. There's a lot of art out there that was supposed to have been returned to him that was not, and at this point, one can only speculate where those have ended up."

Like "Underground Classics," another recent book of Kitchen's published by Abrams, the art and other materials reproduced in "The Art of Harvey Kurtzman" are photographed as objects, rather than being represented in the more polished intended-for-publication form. In other words, frayed pages, pencil marks, and pasted logos will be visible if such exist on the surviving art. Though he had originally felt that comics art should be presented in its finished stage, Denis Kitchen was swayed to the art-as-object perspective by Todd Hignite's "Comic Art Magazine." "When he came out with that a few years ago, he really stressed the authenticity of the way the art object looks," Kitchen said. "When you're talking the art as art, you should see it as-is, without any cosmetic transformation. I think it just becomes truly real in different way than the actual publication, which of course has to be clean. You don't want to see fingerprints or smudges or marginal notes in a published magazine. But this is an art book, and in an art book I feel art should be art. I think if you look, more and more monographs about cartoonists will be done in this approach."

Though most of Kurtzman's comics receive only an illustrative excerpt, Kitchen selected several strips to include in their entirety, including "Superduperman," "Grasshopper and the Ant," and "Corpse on the Imjin." The author said that, while excerpts would sufficiently complement the text to satisfy the interests of Kurtzman enthusiasts, the full comics are necessary to demonstrate Kurtzman's storytelling techniques to new initiates just now discovering the artist's work. "'Superduperman' was picked because it's one of the all-time classic spoofs from 'MAD' with arguably the most iconic superhero battling his nemesis Captain Marbles, and the subtext of that being the actual litigation between DC Comics and Fawcett, which is part of the parody," Kitchen explained. "And 'Grasshopper and the Ant' was picked because it was something that Kurtzman did entirely on his own without a collaborator, using his watercolor and brush technique, which is relatively rare. A lot of comics historians and fans, including me, think that much of Kurtzman's very best work was his solo work, which was the least appreciated in the commercial sense."

Another full-length strip is a never-before-published origin story for "Little Annie Fanny," in which Annie visits her psychiatrist and recounts her childhood, and each stage of her life is illustrated in a different popular cartoonist's style, from Al Capp to Charles Schultz to Chester Gould and more. "For me, it's a wonderful bled of what Annie Fanny was and what 'MAD' was," Kitchen said of the comic. "'Little Annie Fanny,' of course, was probably the most lush or beautiful painted panels of any comic strip ever done, and of course it was ultimately a sex strip with satire coming in second, whereas 'MAD' was satire and sometimes sexy. I think the reason it was not published originally in the 1970s is that 'Playboy' got cold feet about possible litigation. It sat on the shelf for 40 years and it was great to have it finally see the light of day."

Summing up their accomplishment with "The Art of Harvey Kurtzman," Paul Buhle praised his co-author's efforts and the team at Abrams ComicArts for their work. "I believe, and not expressing any personal ego in this, this book gives us a deeper documentation of a comics genius than any book that I've ever seen. I think that's an unbelievable contribution. Even those two vellum pages, I can't believe Denis was able to do this. So I want to give credit for the most distinct qualities of this book to Denis and the people at Abrams. But I want to say on my own behalf, that I had four idols from the time I was six to the time I left for college: the four were Harvey Kurtzman, Willie Mays, Martin Luther King, and Lenny Bruce. Those were my big four. So it has to be a source of satisfaction to a scholar and a writer like me to be able to bring a book out about his childhood idol."

"The Art of Harvey Kurtzman: The Mad Genius of Comics" is available now from Abrams ComicArts.

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