Obituary: Harvey Kurtzman

Denis Gifford
Saturday 22 October 2011 21:54

Harvey Kurtzman, cartoonist, born New York City 3 October 1924, died Mount Vernon New York 21 February 1993.

WITH THE death of Harvey Kurtzman, American comics have lost the one man who truly deserved the accolade of genius. As a deviser, editor, scriptwriter and above all cartoonist, Kurtzman's career covered the rise of the comic book from its beginning as a collection of reprinted strips, through the Golden Age of the Superhero, past its downfall as a peddler of crime and horror, and into a new beginning as a parody of itself that turned into Mad, one of the world's most successful magazines. Finally he took the strip cartoon itself out of cheap four-colour letterpress and into full-colour paintings that ended on display as art in their own right.

Harvey Kurtzman was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1924. The middle one of three boys, he lost his father at an early age, but was encouraged in his natural artistic talent by his stepfather, an engraver of brass for jam labels. Harvey was an avid reader of his father's Sunday Telegram comic supplement, and spent his Mondays scouring the neighbours' dustbins for other comic sections discarded from different newspapers. The comics were his first art tuition, and soon he was sketching a four-picture strip on his school playground, the adventures of 'Ikey and Mikey'. He learnt continuity when after every rainfall his playmates egged him on to draw another adventure.

Kurtzman's first professionally published cartoon appeared in Tip Top Comics No 36, dated April 1939. He was 14 years old and the winner of the magazine's 'Buffalo Bob' cartoon competition. 'Of all the thousands of cartoons I've done, this was the most exciting one I have ever drawn,' recalled Kurtzman in his brief autobiography, My Life as a Cartoonist (1988). 'My work was in print and I got paid for it. That was the first dollar I ever earned]' He gave it to his mother to buy groceries. The success more than made up for his failure to pass the test for an animator's job at the Walt Disney Studio; not surprisingly - he was only 12 at the time. The family moved to the Bronx, and Harvey passed the examination for a place at the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan. Here his cartoons appeared regularly in the school newspaper. Impatient to earn money, he left during 1939 and took a sign-painting job at Schneider Press learning lettering, while studying as a scholarship winner by night at the Cooper Union Art School.

In 1940 Kurtzman finally made it into comics: he got a job at a strip-cartoon studio run by a former fine artist, Louis Ferstadt. Here as an assistant he cleaned up other cartoonists' strips, whiting out mistakes, rubbing out pencil lines, working his way up the ladder to penciller, then inker of other men's artwork. Ferstadt supplied complete comic books for several publishers including the Gilberton Company, the people who had created Classic Comics, pictorial adaptations of classic (and therefore non-copyright) novels. These 64-page condensations were often too much work for a single artist, and Kurtzman was called on to ink in a number of panels for Moby Dick.

With the United States entering the war, Private Kurtzman, H, was made a draughtsman by the US Army, the nearest trade they could find to cartoonist. He had a mobile war, being shipped everywhere except overseas, and was eventually demobbed with a service career that showed little more than a couple of cartoons published in Yank, the Army weekly.

The end of the war was a boom time for comic books, covering every possible classification of content from comedy to cowboys, and sexy starlets to superheroes. Kurtzman found he could freelance his strips almost everywhere, and tried his hand at all varieties of characters, from 'Black Venus' to 'Black Bull'. Taking his portfolio into Timely Comics Inc, he showed his samples to Stan Lee, who had shot from scripter to supervising editor in his uncle's outfit. Lee liked Kurtzman's cartoony stuff, which had developed rapidly during the war. Lee said he could not use Kurtzman for six-page series, but what he really needed was a stock of single-page strips he could use as handy fillers whenever advertising fell short.

This happened frequently in Timely's line of some 50 monthly titles. Kurtzman, thrilled, created a strip called 'Hey Look]' which featured a couple of comic characters created in the classic mould of popular double-acts: Laurel and Hardy crossed with Little and Large. Hilarious as his gags invariably were, the eye was even more delighted by his unique style of drawing. Kurtzman's treatment of his panels, sometime solid black with no backgrounds, sometimes blank, coupled with an astounding play with lettering, which ran the gamut from little to large along with his figures, suggested to the appreciative eye that an artist had arrived in the commercial world of comic books.

Quite soon Kurtzman was contributing superior comic series to other publishers, stories that ran five pages and more, such as 'Pot-Shot Pete the Sheriff of Yucca-Pucca Gulch', who created a hilarious highspot in the bang-bang pages of Billy the Kid. These sets came about as a result of Kurtzman setting up a co-operative comic-strip studio in partnership with Will Elder and Charles Stern, in 1947. Elder, at the time a 'straight' strip artist, became a lifelong friend and collaborator in Kurtzman's greatest comic creation. But before then came EC.

EC comics, initials which had originally stood for Educational Comics when Max Gaines created the company, now stood for Entertaining Comics under the drastically revised programme initiated by the late Gaines's son, William. Titles like Picture Stories from the Bible had been replaced by Vault of Horror and Crypt of Terror. Kurtzman called in at the office to show Gaines his samples. Gaines laughed a lot, but had no room for humour. What he did have was a commission to produce an instructional comic for the government warning young men of the dangers of venereal disease.

Kurtzman, needing the work, took on the assignment, completed the entire book in a style to which he was quite unaccustomed, and from it won further dramatic work from EC. A haunted-house strip for one of the horror comics led to scriptwork, which Kurtzman produced as scribbled story-boards that the regular artists found a pleasure to work from.

November 1950 saw the publication of Kurtzman's first one-man comic book, Two Fisted Tales. He had planned it as an adventure comic, but with the outbreak of the Korean war Gaines had asked him to turn it into an all-war book. 'I wrote it, I drew it, and I edited it. I even did the colouring for the covers,' he recalled, and within weeks the huge success of the comic doubled his output. Gaines persuaded him to produce a companion comic called Front Line Combat. One of his artists, Gil Kane, said that Kurtzman had a feeling for humane things, a feeling for profundity: 'There was a reek of death, a sense of futility about war that just never occurred in anything else I've ever read in comics.' The hard work which Kurtzman put into the two comics sent him into hospital. 'But I kept right on working in there,' he recalled proudly.

Eventually war-wearied, Kurtzman cast his mind about to conceive something new that would be totally different from the grim themes he had been illustrating. He returned to his happier days of 'Hey Look]' and came up with a comic book that would parody other comic books. His one-word title was Mad, and from No 1 (November 1952) it registered with comic-book cognoscenti that here was the most original comic ever published. It took as its stuff of burlesque characters such as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and all the valhalla of super-people sacred to the school of stripology. It parodied Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and the funny animals of fond recall. And when it ran out of them, in came radio shows, television, movies, even advertising, that most sacred of Stateside sacred cows. Mad's success is signified by the extraordinary number of 'cover versions' put out by less talented rivals: Eh], Whack], Yak-Yak], and even one by Kurtzman's own publisher, Panic]

With the Senate hearings on horror comics leading to a closedown of all his publications, Gaines was left with Mad. Severing himself completely from the comic-book format, he told Kurtzman to convert Mad into a magazine. Excited and inspired, Kurtzman complied, and after 24 full-colour comic books, Mad became a glossy, large-format, monochrome magazine. It reached an audience comic books could never reach, striking the funnybone of the young, intelligent adult, widening its targets to include anything the Americans supposedly held dear, and all the while never forsaking Kurtzman's comedic fountainhead, the strip cartoon. And on the cover, where he would remain virtually for ever, grinning his gap-toothed grin, beamed the original 'What Me Worry?' kid, 'Alfred E. Neuman', mascot and moron.

Kurtzman edited only the first four issues of Mad the magazine, but from the day he left (October 1955) to the present monthly issue, and ever onwards it would seem, Mad has remained stylistically and editorially unchanged from Kurtzman's concept.

In 1957, on top of the world, Kurtzman went to work for Hugh Hefner, the publisher and philosopher of Playboy. The result was Trump, big, glossy, multi-coloured, expensive, a Mad for the upper echelon. It lasted two issues. Kurtzman and his pals went to the other end of the market and produced Humbug, a 15-cent black-and- white comic book in the Mad mould. Poorly printed on thin paper, it cost too much for children and failed to reach the intended adults. It lasted 11 issues. In 1960 Kurtzman tried yet another tack, although the humour remained the satirical same. Help] appeared, this time relying heavily on the European technique of fumetti, or photo-strips. Specially posed photographs told the stories visually, while speech balloons were lettered and stuck on. Dick Van Dyke and Woody Allen, both beginners, appeared in the strips, and a pre-Monty Python Terry Gilliam helped out as a tyro cartoonist. It lasted for five years.

In 1962 Kurtzman as designer and scripter, with Will Elder as cartoonist, evolved 'Little Annie Fanny'. This Rolls-Royce of a comic strip, mixing sex with satire, appealed to Hefner, and it was launched in the October Playboy. The first comic strip to be rendered in as a painting (the cartoonist Elder, noted for elaborate detail, found it hard work to complete four pages in a month), the strip saw Kurtzman's satire reach new heights of maturity (and eroticism), and ultimately ended as an exhibit on the walls of the Brooklyn Art Museum in 1974.

In recent years Kurtzman also edited a number of paperback collections of his Mad work, plus material from Humbug and 'Goodman Beaver' from Help]. He taught cartooning at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and helped the careers of many of the younger cartoonists, publishing their work in a comic book called Nuts] He also enjoyed making rather shy personal appearances at comic conventions in the States, and once in London. A slight, almost frail figure with a smile wider than the 'What Me Worry Kid', Harvey Kurtzman certainly deserved the accolade awarded by a New York Times reviewer: 'To historians of pop culture, he is one of the most important figures in postwar America.'

(Photograph omitted)

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