DRAWN & QUARTERED
Harvey Kurtzman often pushed the enveloped with his quirky cartooning style, but he was best known for his writing and editing.
‘Comics Journal’ honors Mad star Harvey Kurtzman
What might have been? Opportunities bobbled? Pair of dice lost? What hath Harvey wrought? Plenty to chew on as one flips through the latest edition of "The Comics Journal Library," this time devoted to the career of Harvey Kurtzman.
You may not know the name, although you might recognize the art, but you certainly know his style. Kurtzman is one of the great influences on the gradual pubescence of the cartoon arts -- a writer, artist and editor who pushed the medium into serious, adult fare.
Comics Journal, that rather scholarly and pedantic publication, every once in a while goes nuts and creates a special edition devoted to a single subject or personality, published by Fantagraphic Books in a large, rather deluxe format that's still a bargain at $19.95. This issue brings together several probing interviews with Kurtzman, some dating to the early '60s.
So, who was Harvey Kurtzman and what might have been?
He was a master of the gag cartooning style, someone with incredible energy and charisma in his brush lines. But he's best-known for his writing and editing. After a stint in the army, he joined EC Comics right about the time the Korean War exploded and his work for "Two-Fisted Tales" and "Frontline Combat" -- dark, existential and angry -- were unlike the flag-waving hoo-rah of the time, and still have not been equaled in impact.
As an editor and writer, he penciled the layouts and ordered the artists not to deviate from his directions. Since he was dealing with some of the greatest comics artists of all time -- Wally Wood, Jack Davis, Will Elder, John Severin -- that came across as pretty autocratic. He also wore himself out doing meticulous research, and asked publisher William M. Gaines if he could also do a humor magazine, so he could take it easy.
The magazine was Mad. It was a sensation when it appeared, an anything-goes blast to the complacency of popular culture. When the Comics Code Authority cracked down on EC, they made Mad a magazine and so escaped the fate of the banned comic books.
Then he left, his place taken by editor Al Feldman, a funny craftsman but not in Kurtzman's stratosphere. One of the great ongoing mysteries of the comics culture is Kurtzman's apparent sell-out -- his next, and longest gig, was Playboy's "Little Annie Fanny" feature -- and what it meant in the ongoing, galactic struggle between the forces of art and commerce. It's obvious from these interviews that Kurtzman didn't know it at the time, but Mad's creative zenith was under his leadership, and when he parted ways, his own star began to dim.
Although he had a hand in a variety of other acclaimed magazines, notably Trump and Humbug, they folded quickly, as Kurtzman's financial acumen wasn't as finely tuned as his sense of what's funny, and what isn't.
Kurtzman died in 1993, revered by artists and writers, although they agreed his time had passed, a brilliant '50s hipster who skated by in his later years as just another Playboy contributor. Tragedy. Who wants Little Annie Fanny on his monument?