The Jewish Comic-book Revolutionary Behind Mad Magazine

A new biography of Harvey Kurtzman pays tribute to the Jewish artist’s genius but struggles to escape the long shadow of his days at Mad magazine in the 1950s, much like Kurtzman himself.

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From 'Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created MAD and Revolutionized Humor in America.'
From 'Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created MAD and Revolutionized Humor in America.'Credit: Fantagraphics
Akin Ajayi
Akin Ajayi

“Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created MAD and Revolutionized Humor in America,” by Bill Schelly, Fantagraphics Books, 644 pages, $34.99

Sometime in 1988, Harvey Kurtzman invited Art Spiegelman to guest-lecture at his cartooning class at New York’s School of Visual Arts. Spiegelman was already a leading light of the alternative comics movement (he’d win a Pulitzer Prize, in 1992, for “Maus”), and it was expected that he would talk about his career. But instead, Spiegelman turned the spotlight around, talking about the inspiration for his comic-book career – Kurtzman himself.

Spiegelman ran through Kurtzman’s early successes, but talked most about Kurtzman’s greatest contribution to comic books, as the creator of Mad magazine (he would later document the afternoon, comic strip-style, in a New Yorker tribute shortly after Kurtzman’s death in 1993). “Mad was an urban junk collage that said ‘Pay attention! The mass media are lying to you including this comic book!’” Spiegelman told the class. “I think Harvey’s Mad was more important than pot and LSD in shaping the generation that protested the Vietnam War.”

Kurtzman’s voice eventually broke the awed silence. “Gee Artie, that was terrific,” he said. “Couldja come back next week and give us the same lecture again?”

“Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created MAD and Revolutionized Humor in America,” by comic-book artist and cultural historian Bill Schelly, is a hard-working, exhaustively researched attempt to capture the creative essence of Kurtzman, regarded by many of his peers as the 20th century’s most influential proponent of the comic-book form. Mad, which Kurtzman cofounded, scripted and edited between its inauguration in 1952 and his acrimonious departure in 1956, changed the nature of satire in the United States, permanently.

Schelly’s biography places the Mad years at the pinnacle of a 50-year career, one that was distinguished by Kurtzman’s influence on a generation of cartoonists, inspired by his peerless work ethic and inventiveness.

Kurtzman was born in 1924 in Brooklyn, New York, the second son of Jewish migrants from Odessa. His father, a jeweller, died suddenly when Kurtzman was four, leaving the family destitute until his mother Edith remarried. Schelly’s research suggests that Kurtzman’s experiences at that time – the brothers were briefly placed in an orphanage because their mother couldn’t care for them – stayed with him throughout his life. “I appreciated a buck,” Kurtzman would later say. “I was aware of the fact that making a living was hard work.”

Schelly states that Kurtzman was strongly influenced by his domestic circumstances. His stepfather, a brass engraver working in printing, was a Communist and trade union activist; Edith closely read the Communist newspapers, comparing their perspective on contemporary events against the mainstream version. “Harvey picked up his mother’s propensity for ‘looking between the lines,’” Schelly notes. “This capacity became an essential element in his later success as a satirist.”

Kurtzman’s artistic abilities manifested themselves early. Comic books, being easier to read than plain text, were a popular diversion for immigrants – children and adults alike. Schelly writes that even from an early age, Kurtzman dreamt of becoming a cartoonist. His family was supportive: his mother paid for extra art lessons, and Kurtzman’s horizons were broadened by regular museum visits. When he was 12, he stumbled across a stash of college humor magazines “on a trash heap, or in someone’s cellar,” along the lines of The Harvard Lampoon. The discovery nudged him along in a particular direction. “It was a major consciousness-raising moment when suddenly I became aware of a certain approach to humor,” Kurtzman later recalled. “It was that quality of parody and satire that was so unique.”

In 1937, Kurtzman won a scholarship to the selective High School of Music & Art (M&A). He was a year younger than his classmates, and was rather diffident by nature – according to his older brother, Kurtzman was “stiff as a board. He couldn’t put two words together.” But his artistic talent won him admirers.

Cutthroat business of comics

The book is at its most engaging during this “early” period, from high school to the founding of Mad magazine in 1952. This is because Schelly approaches Kurtzman’s work, life and the surrounding sociopolitical context as an all-encompassing tableau. Kurtzman’s career choices, we learn, were narrowed by the limited options open to people of his lower middle class immigrant milieu. After army service during World War II (Kurtzman enlisted as an infantryman, but never saw active duty), he freelanced as a cartoonist before being taken up by Timely Comics (later to evolve into the mighty Marvel Comics) and Stan Lee to produce an occasional humor strip, Hey Look. This provided regular, albeit not lucrative, work for a number of years.

The 1940s and early ’50s are commonly described as the golden age of comic-book creation. Schelly observes, though, that the medium’s popularity disguised an exploitative and cutthroat business. Titles were often churned out with little regard for quality or originality. The manifest steps Kurtzman made in his professional development were neutralized, in his mind, by the fact that he worked too hard for too little. With two associates, Will Elder and Charles Stern, Kurtzman tried to run a commercial studio, but it never fully got off the ground. It did, however, become a creative hub that facilitated lifelong friendships – with Wally Wood (best known for Daredevil) and René Goscinny, writer of the “Asterix” comic books, among others.

Money problems and professional dissatisfaction forced Kurtzman to continue shopping his wares about. In 1949, a speculative approach to the fledgling EC Comics, run by Bill Gaines, was his turning point. Gaines had become a comic-book proprietor entirely by chance, after inheriting the business from his father; it appears that his distance from industry conventions – specifically, treating artists and writers as disposable and replaceable – freed him to engage meaningfully with Kurtzman.

EC presented Kurtzman with relative editorial freedom for the first time. After first working on in-house science fiction and horror titles, Kurtzman developed a war title, “Two-Fisted Tales.” Unlike competing titles in the genre, Kurtzman distinguished his work with exacting research and a nuanced, evenhanded approach to the unpleasantness of warfare. “I don’t regard myself as a man who pushes specific opinions or strong points of view,” Schelly quotes Kurtzman. Nonetheless, the title and its marked lack of gung-ho American superiority – particularly important at the height of the Korean War – caught the attention of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. The FBI briefly – privately – considered prosecuting Kurtzman for sedition. Schelly reports the incident dutifully, but says little more besides.

From 'Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created MAD and Revolutionized Humor in America.'  (Fantagraphics)

MAD goes mainstream – sort of

Kurtzman’s painstaking approach to his work had downsides in addition to the low pay. Because EC’s artistes were paid by output, Kurtzman was in effect penalized for his perfectionism. Gaines suggested that Kurtzman return to his comic humor roots as a solution. A magazine based on social observation, played primarily for laughs, would take less time and effort to produce, he suggested. Kurtzman agreed, and Mad was born. The magazine wasn’t an instant success – the first issue, debuting in August 1952, selling less than half of its print run. But issue #4, a parody of the Superman franchise, found an appreciative audience and sold out quickly. The Mad phenomenon was born.

What contributed to the magazine’s runaway success? Kurtzman’s cartooning style lent itself particularly well to satire, Schelly points out. Never a simple gag man, Kurtzman preferred to build a story toward an over-the-top punch line – taking a scenario to its natural conclusion, then nudging it just that bit beyond to highlight the underlying absurdity. He latched onto the popular culture lodestones of the time: Disney, Superman, the McCarthy hearings (which he turned into a game show), the all-American Archie comics. The Red Threat had forced large swaths of the entertainment industry into implicit or overt censorship. But comic books were lightly regulated, giving Mad’s satire an unfettered path to the mainstream.

Kurtzman had a way with his audience, too. Mad worked because it created a de-facto community, readers who “got” that the joke was on them, but were able to laugh at themselves nonetheless. Consciously or not, Mad’s house style reinforced this conceit, frequently breaching the comic-book equivalent of the fourth wall to address the reader directly, and employing Yiddishisms and obscure words (using the Yiddish ganefs, thieves, in place of “goons” in a story about a pair of bumbling crooks in Mad #1, for instance) as a semi-secret language accessible to those in the know. Alfred E. Neuman, jug-eared and gap-toothed, was introduced by Kurtzman as the magazine’s mascot in late 1954; Neuman’s clueless optimism and catchphrase – “What, me worry?” – captured the good-humored, accessible thrust of Mad’s satire.

Schelly also points out that many of the writers and artists working at Mad had similar second-generation Jewish migrant roots, and thus common formative experiences that often extended to a particular way of looking at the world. Despite this, Mad appealed to a broad audience; by the end of 1953, it had a print run of 750 thousand, twice as much as any other EC title.

But all good things come to an end. Ironically, Kurtzman was working harder than ever and still felt shortchanged. Gaines and Kurtzman, the money man and the chief talent of EC Comics, had different priorities for the magazine. Gaines’ appointment of an abrasive business manager widened the distance between the two; the ultimate break, in 1956, was inevitable.

Alfred E. Neuman, the mascot of Mad magazine (Wikimedia Commons)

The last big gig

Kurtzman leapt at a proposition, from Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner, to recreate Mad, no expenses spared. Unfortunately, Kurtzman took Hefner at his word: The new venture, Trump, only lasted for two issues before being canned. Kurtzman had allowed costs to spiral out of control. As Hefner memorably put it, “I gave Harvey Kurtzman an unlimited budget, and he exceeded it.”

Another venture, an artists’ cooperative called Humbug, floundered in part due to the lack of business experience on the part of its principals (mainly the artists whom Kurtzman had recruited for the ill-fated Trump). Kurtzman made do with various freelance gigs and a final stab at editorial autonomy, Help!, which, on the whole, was distinguished more by its collaborations – Terry Gilliam and Robert Crumb both contributed; Gloria Steinem was its editorial backbone – than its commercial impact.

Despite his reservations about Kurtzman’s financial acumen, Hefner remained a fan, and in 1962 offered him what gradually became Kurtzman’s last big gig: a satirical, albeit risqué, comic strip for Playboy called Little Annie Fanny. Annie, a buxom ingenue, was an innocent wandering through a world tainted by venality; she also had the curious habit of losing most of her clothing at some point in every strip. Kurtzman, as was his habit, thoroughly researched each episode (subjects ran from the Women’s Lib movement to the Ayatollah Khomeini). In Schelly’s telling, Kurtzman and collaborator Will Elder worked hard to negotiate the line between satire and salaciousness. Still, one takes from Schelly’s text the slightest of suggestions that as time moved on – the strip ran until 1988 – the changing social mores left Little Annie Fanny, and Kurtzman, behind. He was suffering from Parkinson’s disease at this point; this, and the cancer that led to his death in 1993, meant that his last few years were increasing dominated by ill-health.

As a chronological survey of Kurtzman’s career, Schelly’s book is a comprehensive, informed endeavor, and will certainly fill many of the gaps in Kurtzman’s professional history. But post-Mad, it doesn’t quite manage to place his work within the social context that spawned it. The second half of this biography struggles – in some ways like Kurtzman – to escape the long shadow cast by the first. “Harvey Kurtzman” is very much, like its subject, dominated by the unlikely success of a magazine called Mad.

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