Thursday 15 April 2010

Supermen, Syphilitic Cowboys And A Surfeit of Batteries - The Early Years of Harvey Kurtzman

Harvey Kurtzman's curse was the curse of the true artist the curse of always, always thinking outside the box. His keen sense of the absurdities of life had been with him from the early days, when as a kid growing up in Brooklyn he had created his first comic "Ikey and Mikey" which he scrawled on a daily basis on the sidewalks of his neighbourhood.

He'd embarked on his comic book career upon returning from the war in 1945 working on a string of second banana superheros, but superheros were not Kurtzman's natural metier - too formulaic, too predictable for an ideas man like Harvey. But he needed work and in a fortuitous way it was Stan Lee at Timley/Atlas comics whose need to fill unexpected page gaps when advertising wasn't forthcoming that provided Kurtzman with a platform for his talents to shine. The brief was a gift to a man of Kurtzman's capabilities all he needed to do was create one page strips, which under the title "Hey Look" provided free rein for his take on a myriad of zany themes.

By the time that Lee tired of the idea of one page fillers, Kurtzman had created an impressive backlog of samples with which to trudge the streets of New York as he sought some degree of financial security for himself and his newly wedded wife Adele who he'd met at Timely.

One of his ports of call was 225 Lafayette Street, home of ; E.C. as in Entertaining Comics because the recently deceased Max Gaines' son Bill was now running the show. Trouble was that Kurtzman was trudging up the stairs with his folio of samples in the misapprehension that his destination was still E.C. comics as in Educational, the sort of publisher that would actually even want to publish such dire tracts as "Picture Stories From The Bible" or "Picture Stories From World History". So when Kurtzman was ushered into Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein's office he was a little taken aback to find complete regime change and comics with titles such as "Crime Patrol", "Saddle Justice" and "A Moon, A Girl, Romance" littering the desk.

Gaines and Feldstein looked at the contents of Kurtzman's folio, loved what they saw, laughed uproariously at the "Hey Looks" but just didn't quite know where to place Kurtzman, but being the helpful guy that he was and wanting to keep Kurtzman in the loop Gaines introduced him to his cousin David, who was a little bit more on message as regards the Max Gaines legacy and was producing a comic warning of the dangers of STDs out of the E.C. offices under the title "Lucky Fights it Through".

Kurtzman knuckled down and produced the sixteen page comic complete with "Lucky" song sheet. The story of the naive young cowboy and his battles with the dastardly foreman Handsome Hank and the ravages of a careless night with a saloon girl became Kurtzman's first comic production for the Gaines family. When Gaines and Feldstein moved their comics in the now familiar direction of horror suspense and science fiction, Kurtzman was invited on board with his first E.C. story "House of Horror" which appeared in The Haunt of Fear No. 15, other stories for The Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt swiftly followed.

Kurtzman was never all that happy with his horror work but E.C.'s science fiction comics were another matter entirely and the following story that appeared in Weird Science No. 8 under the title "Man and Superman" shows both Kurtzman's desire to educate coupled with his delightful sense of irreverence, as we witness Charelmagne Farbish's self sacrifice at the altar of physical culture.

One can sense in these pages the first stirrings of Kurtzman's tour de force comic Mad destined to debut some two years later.

The definitive take on this artist's life and work is the recently published; "The Art of Harvey Kurtzman: The Mad Genius of Comics" by Denis Kitchen and Paul Buhle. 


  1. Considering the phenomenal success enjoyed by his brainchild MAD after his own departure it's tempting to look on Kurtzman as yet another of those creative victims of the US Comics industry's 'work for hire' mentality - joining a long line which included Siegel, Shuster, Ditko, Kirby and so many others. However, it could be argued that his entire career was an adventure that simply gained depth from the many reverses he encountered along the way.

    Had he progressed no further beyond 'Lucky Fights it Through' in my opinion he would still deserve to be remembered as one of the most stylish comic book artists of his day with a genuine talent for sequential storytelling. In the event, of course, this was just the beginning and no more than a minor footnote to an impressive CV which took in the roles of editor, writer, designer and satirist - all of which he excelled at in a way that few others have ever done.

    Bearing in mind his early success in originating some of the seminal comic strip depictions of warfare in the pages of EC's Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat it's quite remarkable that he's now best known for a totally different genre - the satirical revolution that began with MAD and arguably reached its apogee with Monty Python (both John Cleese and Terry Gilliam being former Kurtzman protégés).

    Collected editions of his EC work are must-have items for any serious student of comic art, but less-known and equally unmissable imho is the wonderfully annotated edition of the complete run of Humbug recently produced by Fantagraphics. Having just purchased a copy of this via Amazon I'm amazed to see just how far ahead of its time this collective/communal publication was, to the extent that it anticipates much more recent ventures such as the DFC.

    I don't know if anybody else out there in 'Cloud 109 Land' has been following AMC's brilliant 'Mad Men' on BBC4 but watching last night's season finale as Don, Roger, Bert, Peggy and Lane secretly gather in the plush headquarters of their former employer to start their own rival agency I couldn't help but think of Harvey, Will Elder, Al Jaffee, Arnold Roth and Jack Davis making their own audacious (if doomed) plans in the offices of Playboy's defunct Trump...

    (, sorry Peter - I think I got a bit carried away there. Great blog entry nonetheless - as usual!)

  2. AAarrrgghhhhh!!!

    Don't mention Season 3 of Madmen as I've got to wait until the end of the month for the DVD (don't do TV)in fact I'm still only halfway through Season 2 but yes it's really compulsive viewing Phil - Love it!!!

  3. Ooops! - Sorry Peter!

    For what it's worth though, I always find that the actual plots in Mad Men are relatively unimportant compared to the superlative direction, script, characterization, acting and design. In fact this week's Radio Times seems to take the same view as it also gives away the ending; and it didn't spoil my enjoyment of the episode at all. It just seems to get better and better...

  4. Mad Men is obviously another show that I need to start catching up on. At least I can get it from Lovefilm instead of subjecting my credit card to another battering!

  5. Aha, I was tinkering with signing on for Lovefilm this morning and nearly completed the whole process until I froze over the credit card details bit but what the hell Dave - if you can handle it I'll give it a go too.

    I signed on to Audible Books over a year ago for those bits of work where I don't need 1000% lazer beam concentration and I haven't regretted it one jot.

  6. Lovefilm is worth it imo. I reckon Roz and I get through about 120 movies and TV shows a year, so it's barely more than a pound each. Whereas when we had a TV licence, that was about £150 for maybe 10 hours' viewing a year!

  7. As a member of that slowly dwindling section of the population who can recall 'exactly what we were doing when we heard President Kennedy had been shot, etc.' (...sprawled on the living room carpet in front of our gigantic radiogram while besieging a domino fortress with an army of Airfix soldiers, as it happens!) I still remember the 1960s as a time of limitless glamour and excitement (in spite of the undoubted prejudice and sexism that went with it). The trouble is that whenever I see films and TV shows produced during the period it feels as though subsequent advances in cinematography that we now take for granted have conspired to make the world they portray seem disappointingly small and tacky by comparison.

    The thing I like about Mad Men above everything else is the way in which it uses modern techniques to recapture that wonderfully expansive sense of gleaming modernism - just the way it was before Viet Nam, Drugs and Nixon started to turn it all sour.

    Incidentally Dave, if you haven't already got the Humbug collection I mentioned above I really can't thing of anything more worthy of maxing out your credit card on - including clothing, food and shelter...! :)

  8. Oh no, Phil, now you're teamed up with Peter I'm never going to get my credit card bill paid off :-)

  9. You're Dooooooooooomed Dave!

    There is no escape, but you will love both Humbug and MadMen as will Roz. Well perhaps Roz will love MadMen more than Humbug.

    Now I've signed up for LoveFilm I'm in a mega dither - brain completely seized up with the too much choice syndrome.

    So far I've listed Gus Van Sant's "Drugstore Cowboy" and Seasons 1 and 2 of "True Blood" as well as "Carnivale" oh and "Generation Kill".

    But these are somewhat conservative choices methinks when there's the whole of World Cinema out there.

  10. You have to take it a bit at a time, Peter. I find I'll suddenly add a dozen films to the list when I remember a director I like. Now, for example, I'm off to add a few Van Sant...

  11. I've just bunged on Polanski's "The Tenant" read the reviews on Amazon and thought yes!!!

    It's got "Wrong" undertones, if you know what I mean Dave.

  12. I find it amusing, though a little sad, that the nice piece on Harvey Kurtzman is following (excepting the first response) by a digression into the TV series Madmen and movies. I guess nobody's interested in Kurtzman, huh?

  13. Aw, Denis - I think we're all in agreement here that Harvey Kurtzman contributed more to popular culture than almost anybody else connected with the comic strip medium. What's more, your own post reminds me that I'd completely forgotten to include his vital importance to the early underground scene along with all those other achievements I listed. Anybody who's not interested in Kurtzman must be tired of comics (if not life itself) altogether imho!

  14. Hey Denis - steady on old chap! I mean I agree with what you're implying that the responses here have lamentably veered into the territory of self indulgence and that perhaps instead of the author of this blog going native and joining in and even fomenting debate on ILoveFilm and MadMen I really ought to keep the comments more on message but I'm really mortified that you could think that nobody here is interested in Harvey Kurtzman.

    I could go into a lengthy litany of how Harvey Kurtzman has not only had a profound influence on my approach to my artwork but also so many of the other writers, artists and animators it has been my privilege to work with over the past thirty years.

    The man is a God and I think (hope) that I've made my devotion and fascination with all things Kurtzman, absolutely apparent on this blog. At this point the defendant would like to submit the following previous postings for consideration in this regard:

    War Is Hell Dept. Take 2 Harvey Kurtzman and The Big, Big If - posted 2nd March 2010

    and counsel for the defence would also like to submit:

    Dr Feelgood - Plastic Sam - Russ Heath - Harvey Kurtzman - Plastic Man - Jack Cole, Etc, Etc, Ad Infinitum Part 1 - posted on January 7th 2010.

    But you're right Denis I've kinda lost the plot a bit need to be a bit more of a chairman, smash that old gavel down on the table and keep the discussion a bit more on topic, but hell I'm just so flattered that anybody actually spares time to share their thoughts here that I go a bit soft and mushy as regards sticking to the agenda.

    Hopeless really but your comment (and I am assuming that you are THE Denis Kitchen) does allow me to say a big thank you from what I feel sure will be many of the visitors here for all the superlative work you have done over the years in terms of both your publishing and also
    bringing to prominence the work of Will Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman and if that isn't enough, your founding of The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

    Many thanks Denis!

  15. P.S. Not to mention the brilliant job that you and Paul Buhle did on your recent definitive biography on Kurtzman.

  16. I feel shamed - certainly didn't mean to disrespect Harvey Kurtzman! If it's any consolation, comments on the Fabled Lands blog routinely irgnore the post and digress off into chit-chat, but I feel that's part of the fun. It becomes like a living letters page. As long as folks actually read and appreciate the posts, that is - and believe me, Denis, everybody here treasures their daily Cloud 109 post!

  17. Never having seen or read Kurtzman's work before (until this post, ta muchly Peter!), all I have to say is that I really liked the first 'Lightbulb Nose' strip most of all - the characters and inking looked so slick and lively, and the idea of chewing batteries to make your nose light up is inspired.

    It reminds me of the surreal and genuinely funny stories in Sparky - my access to good ol' Sparky goodness consist of two annuals I own that are nearly a decade older than myself D: - and it wouldn't look out of place in there. Yeah, that's my first ever critique of Kurtzman's style, so 'scuse my n00bishness.

    *cough* Still, I wish I could see more gags like this in kid's comics nowadays!*cough*

  18. You're all just a bunch of MAD MEN,ARGHHH!(LOL)

  19. Off Topic!!!

    You are banned to the outer realms of the known universe, bound in chains, slowly orbiting around in inky blackness.

    Getting a bit fierce now...

  20. I recently read a comic on the Karswell post,"The Horror Of It All",that had a similar plot as the Kurtzman story.It was a Timely/Atlas story most likely written by Stan Lee and drawn by Russ Heath during the pre code period.A guy can't get enough muscles to fill his already buffed up bod.So he does what it takes to get more stronger,even if it means to use something like a potion made by a weird unknown stranger.He has a very bad side effect that occurs while he simply just wants to sit on a chair and finds he isn't just built up more but is way past having normal human strength. This kind of story seems to be repeated time and time again by many comic writers and artists.The very example are the old Charles Atlas ads,the typical puny guy works out and kicks the sand back in the bully's face.From the looks of the mild mannered scientist in the Kurtzman story bears a resemblance to Dr.Bruce Banner of the Incredible Hulk fame with his big round eyeglasses and bony frame.He even uses radiation to make the weight lifter more powerful.In this case,Cosmic instead of Gamma.As usual the fable with its moral tells of the fateful event that happens when the musclehead uses to much rays.