Never mind the Presidential candidate Clown Car’s current commandeer—that particular Trump may be convenient for cheap laughs (and internet clickbait; see above headline). But Harvey Kurtzman’s Trump, a clever, witty, and graphically attractive blast from magazines’ past (1956-57), deserves our serious respect. You can laugh with this Trump (rather than at it): cartoon social satire with the spirited irreverence of Stan Freberg, Sid Caesar, Ernie Kovacs, and other accomplished humorists of midcentury America.
In my AIGA profile of comics writer-artist-editor Kurtzman I noted that he “had an effect on everything and everybody, from Saturday Night Live to The Daily Show, from the Zucker brothers to the Wayans brothers, from National Lampoon to The Onion, and from John Kricfalusi to Matt Groening.” He also helped kickstart many notable careers, from Art Spiegelman and Robert Crumb to Gloria Steinem and Terry Gilliam. Early in his own career, during the Korean War-era, he’d already achieved greatness with his classic Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat for EC Comics, which gave a human face to bloody battle stories. In his later years he’d stripped down to “Little Annie Fanny” for Playboy, but his longest lasting legacy is Mad. He conceived it in 1952 as a 10¢ comic book that – as with his war comics – he wrote, edited, and occasionally drew. He also developed the magazine format it still retains. But after an altercation with Mad’s publisher in 1956 he left and began Trump to trump his own, now rival, creation. The first issue’s cover declared, “Never Mind Other Magazines: Buy Us.”
As these were the days of mascots like Playboy’s rabbit and Esquire’s Esky (more about him here), Trump’s cover also included a John Tenniel-style knave with aces up his sleeve. Kurtzman’s own aces were his Mad art team Will Elder (who I also profiled for AIGA), Wally Wood (see here), and Jack Davis. Such was this amazing art director’s charisma that they were willing to take pay cuts and work with no contracts to join his new venture. Al Jaffe, Arnold Roth, Russ Heath, R.O. Blechman, Phil Interlandi and others also contributed. And Mel Brooks, Roger “Mad Libs” Price, author Max Shulman, and Doodles Weaver of Spike Jones City Slickers fame wrote text pieces.
But Trump‘s main attraction is its graphic humor, with spot-on spoofs of Al Capp’s Li’l Abner (Elder), of Giant with Liz Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean (Davis), and of Disney cartoon fantasies (Wood). Outstanding ad parodies ranged from Breck shampoo to the Container Corporation of America. Even its own house ad mercilessly mocked a then-famous vodka tagline with “Trump: It leaves you breathless. Like Smirnoff. And Death.” Targets spanned from TV shows and Elvis Presley to plays and novels to prescription meds and planned obsolescence. Kurtzman’s Alfred E. Neuman character even makes a couple of cameos.
Not every piece is a visual stunner: Elder’s paintings that imitate Life magazine’s “Epic of Man” series are drab and lifeless, especially when compared with the spirited flair he later gave to his work for Kurtzman’s Annie Fanny. But on the whole, Trump was essential to setting the stage for Humbug and Help!, his subsequent creative – and short lived – triumphs.
Mad for Mad Magazine? J.J. Sedelmaier shares his extensive collection of Mad covers here.
With around 60 pages per issue on quality paper, Trump accepted no outside ad revenue and sold for 50¢, twice Mad’s cover price. And it lasted only two issues, a casualty of budget cutbacks from its publisher, Playboy Enterprises. Specific details of its demise vary, although Hugh Hefner famously remarked, “I gave Harvey Kurtzman an unlimited budget, and he exceeded it.”
Some years back the “short-fingered vulgarian” – as Spy magazine, one of the many heirs of Kurtzman and Trump, branded The Donald back in the 1980s – published a wealth-porn quarterly that, of course, used the same name. But the original’s contribution to the art of satire is much too important to be forgotten. Fantagraphics, Dark Horse, and Playboy have all considered reprint books, but none have yet materialized. However, Fantagraphics’ first-rate Humbug boxed set, with annotations that provide valuable contexts for its topical material, has shown how such treasures can be given a glorious second life, and with deluxe production values.
Much of Trump‘s history is richly detailed in Bill Schelly’s brand new, nearly 650-page epic biography, Harvey Kurtzman: The Man who Created Mad and Revolutionized Humor in America. Schelly, who I met at San Diego’s Comic-Con this month, views it as one of the high points of Kurtzman’s career: “Trump came right after Mad, when his creative powers, and those of his collaborators, were at their peak. Once again he had the interior color that he’d had when Mad began as a comic book, which helped his satirical features approximate the look of the originals. It’s only the rarity of the magazine’s two issues and the lack of a good reprint collection that prevents Trump from being rediscovered for what it is: Harvey Kurtzman’s exploration of the slick magazine format to produce some of his funniest and most sophisticated work.”
Above: Bill Schelly at his Kurtzman panel with Fantagraphics president Gary Groth. Photo by M. Dooley.
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