Books: The Art of Harvey Kurtzman: The Mad Genius of Comics

In October 1952, the first Mad comic book was published. And the universe moved for 9-year old me and millions of American kids, including future underground comix guru R. Crumb (also 9), who later claimed Mad “changed the way I saw the world forever!”

In each issue, funny cartoons filled with “eye pops” savagely satirized, well, everything. Mad spoofed film genres, TV, comic books, science fiction, celebrities, politicians, revealing hypocrisy and high-level idiocy lurking beneath the era’s Eisenhowerian blandness.

Mad inevitably influenced American comedy, from standups to Saturday Night Live, from Monty Python to The Simpsons to underground comix. Boomers who grew up injected with Mad’s cynical, irreverent viewpoint cast a gimlet eye on American culture, marketing, and politics, including our country’s entanglement in wars recent and past.

Mad was created “out of desperation” by Harvey Kurtzman (1924-1993), a brilliant cartoonist/writer who sought to express something “thoughtful under the rowdy surface” of his cartoons, believing that “the satirist/parodist tries not just to entertain his audience but to remind it of what the real world is like.” This beautiful, lovingly packaged book is his long-overdue biography.

Kurtzman, for most of his career, was a freelance cartoonist whose “desperation” stemmed from the rites of survival (a burgeoning family and even larger mortgage) and a quixotic quest to “do the perfect humor magazine.” A driven one-man band who set Mad’s manic tone, Kurtzman created stories, laid them out, supervised others (the distinctive cartoon stylists Will Elder, Jack Davis, Wallace Woods, among others), and drew several of the comic’s original covers and stories. Within three years he quit in a fit of pique after disagreements with the publisher. (“I wanted control, “Kurtzman later said, “not the profits.”)

His subsequent attempt at Mad-like “perfect humor magazines” (Trump!; Humbug; Help!) contain nuggets of graphic brilliance, but all quickly faded. A 26-year run of “Little Annie Fanny” in Playboy was an uneasy compromise of his satirical gifts, but the stable income and medical benefits saved Kurtzman from “freelance hell.” This book reveals, however, that many of Kurtzman’s greatest works were freelance assignments. His mastery of a diversity of subjects, his appealing, dynamic draftsmanship and imaginative storytelling are breathtaking to behold.

I particularly love the hilarious inventiveness of his early “filler” series “Hey Look!” In contrast, there is the deeply moving, amazingly cinematic “Corpse on the Imjin,” an anti-war strip for a 1952 E.C. Comics series, Two-Fisted Tales; and “Marley’s Ghost,” a moody 1954 pre-graphic novel that never saw print until now. “The Grasshopper and the Ant,” a full-color 1960 Esquire assignment, showcases Kurtzman’s expressive character designs and color, and impeccable staging of action in this perfect and highly personal work of art.

The Art of Harvey Kurtzman reveals much about the up-and-down life of this seminal figure in American comic art. Better yet, through a generous selection of hundreds of rough and finished sketches, we experience the process of creation within the mind of a genius. Buy this book! 

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