The founder of MAD magazine, Harvey Kurtzman gave American comics a satirical streak that has lasted beyond his own career as well as beyond his magazine. MAD set a tone for American humor beyond the world of comics; Kurtzman's influence resonated in the silly but socially and politically critical parodies (spoofs) that filled late-night television talk shows and in the stage routines of comedy troupes. After leaving MAD, Kurtzman displayed an eye for younger talent; he nurtured the careers of artists who went on to create what became known as underground comics, and later in life he taught cartooning formally. Kurtzman's influence has continued to be recognized when the comic industry's highest awards are passed out each year.
Hones his drawing skills
Born in 1924 in Brooklyn, New York, Harvey Kurtzman grew up in the New York City borough of the Bronx. He loved comic books as a child, and his stepfather, an artist, encouraged him to try his hand at drawing. It was not long before Kurtzman was entertaining neighborhood kids with a comic called Ikey and Mikey, drawn in chalk on the sidewalk. Taking art classes at the Brooklyn Museum and the Pratt Institute on the side, he graduated from the High School of Music and Art, an elite arts-oriented school that drew students from across the city. Cartoonist Will Elder (1921–), a fellow student, would later become one of Kurtzman's favorite collaborators.
"Kurtzman's MAD held a mirror up to American society, exposing the hypocrisies and distortions of mass media with jazzy grace and elegance."
NOVELIST AND AUTHOR
Kurtzman's first sale as a creator of comics art occurred in 1939, when he was paid one dollar for a drawing that won a contest and appeared in Tip Top Comics. He enrolled at Cooper Union, a top art college in New York. But he was already making money as an artist, working for a production shop that did routine artwork for comics publishers. The eighteen-year-old Kurtzman worked on a comics version of the classic novel Moby Dick, and his studies at Cooper Union fizzled out. Opportunities to publish work of his own arose, and the cover of the January 1943 issue of Super-Mystery Comics was a signed Kurtzman original. He created and drew stories for magazines of the day such as Lash Lightning and Bill the Magnificent.
The MAD Reader (1954; reprinted 2002).
Inside MAD (1955).
The Bedside MAD (1959; reprinted 2003).
The Son of MAD (1959; reprinted 2003).
The Organization MAD (1960; reprinted 2003).
Jungle Book (1959); reprinted as Harvey Kurtzman's Jungle Book 1986.
Harvey Kurtzman's Fast-Acting Help (1961).
The Illustrated Harvey Kurtzman Index (1976).
Nuts! 2 vols. (1985).
Betsy's Buddies (1988).
(With Howard Zimmerman) My Life as a Cartoonist (1988).
Harvey Kurtzman's Strange Adventures (1990).
From Aargh! to Zap!: Harvey Kurtzman's Visual History of the Comics (1991).
Hey Look: Cartoons by MAD Creator Harvey Kurtzman (1992).
The MAD Archives, Vol. 1 (2002).
World War II (1939–45; war in which Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, the United States, and their allied forces defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan) diverted but did not sideline Kurtzman's growing career; he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943 and was able to keep honing his drawing skills by illustrating Army training manuals. He was also able to draw and publish comics on the side occasionally. Discharged in 1946, Kurtzman quickly found work in the growing American comics industry. Between 1946 and 1949, he wrote and drew a single-page comic called Hey Look! for comics legend Stan Lee (1922–), then an editor at Timely Comics (which later became Marvel). At the top of the comic he wrote his name as "Kurtz," followed by a stick figure of a man (which varied slightly over the years). The little-known Hey Look! comics were collected in a 1992 book of the same title, published by Kitchen Sink Press. At Timely Comics, Kurtzman met his future wife, Adele Hasan.
Joins EC Comics
In 1950, Kurtzman moved to EC Comics after visiting publisher William M. Gaines (1922–1992) to propose a freelance project and found that Gaines appreciated his humorous work. Kurtzman was put to work not on EC's popular gory and controversial horror comics, but on a pair of war comics called Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat. Between 1950 and 1954 Kurtzman broke new ground in the field of serious graphic storytelling by doing thorough research about his subjects and attempting to present plausible stories. Although he did not draw these works himself, he gave detailed layout instructions to artists such as John Severin (1921–). Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat depicted the horrors of war unsentimentally and sometimes critically, even as the United States was at war on the Korean Peninsula for much of the period when they were being published. (The Korean War was a war fought between North Korea, aided by Communist China, and South Korea, aided by United Nations forces consisting mainly of U.S. troops, lasting from 1950 to 1953.)
Meanwhile, Kurtzman continued to work for Gaines on teen-oriented comics, sometimes slipping bits of rebellious humor into otherwise innocent storylines. Gaines noticed this trend, and when Kurtzman asked him for a raise in 1952 he took the opportunity to tap his restless hire's creativity by agreeing—on the condition that Kurtzman would create and edit a new graphic humor magazine. The development of what was originally called Tales Calculated to Drive You MAD had another motivation as well: as a magazine rather than a comic book, it would evade the restrictions of the new Comics Code that was on the way to congressional approval (the Comics Code placed restrictions on violence and sexuality in comics and was first implemented in 1954) and would thus help EC maintain its cutting-edge position in the industry.
Tales Calculated to Drive You MAD made its debut in the fall of 1952 and caught on within a year. Kurtzman's satirical thrusts, originally directed against other comics he found dull, were perfectly complemented by the detailed, involved artwork of Severin, Will Elder, Wally Wood, and other artists. MAD was visually and thematically distinctive, and its drawings crossed the boundaries of comic panels as often as Kurtzman's ideas transgressed against conventional tastes. An early parody, "Superduperman," was followed by issues that skewered other icons of American comics; clean-cut high-schooler Archie became Starchie, a drug-dealing juvenile delinquent.
Focuses satirical fire on television programs
As MAD grew in popularity, Kurtzman expanded its subject matter beyond comics and animation. MAD's durable series of television parodies began in the mid-1950s with "Dragged Net," and the movie melodrama "From Here to Eternity" became "From Eternity Back to Here." Another long-running MAD feature had its origins under Kurtzman's editorship: he printed classic poems by the likes of Edgar Allan Poe unaltered, but he turned his stable of artists loose to poke visual fun at people depicted in the poems.
MAD was still going strong more than fifty years after its founding, and through much of the 1960s and 1970s it retained many of the features and much of the personality Kurtzman had given it. The magazine's durability was partly due to the distinctive artists and artwork Kurtzman brought to the magazine. He gave encouragement to cartoon artist Don Martin (1931–2000), whose flexible-jointed and wild-haired characters appeared in the magazine for years. Kurtzman was also responsible for making the image of Alfred E. Neumann—a big-eared, gap-toothed figure who often appeared on the cover—a symbol for the magazine and its attitude. Neumann was adapted by Kurtzman from a host of earlier pop-culture sources including an earlier comic character, the Yellow Kid. Kurtzman himself, however, departed the magazines in 1956 after a monetary dispute with the publisher; he insisted on being given a controlling stake in the magazine, which by that time was EC's chief moneymaker, but the publisher rejected his demands (which had no legal basis).
Life after MAD
After the split, Kurtzman tried to extend the satirical storytelling of MAD in a variety of new projects and publications. Playboy magazine publisher briefly bankrolled a magazine called Trump, a slicker, more upscale version of MAD, but it lasted only two issues. Kurtzman and many of the MAD artists banded together to create the comic book Humbug in 1957; it failed within a year. Perhaps these publications were unsuccessful because the bulk of Kurtzman's creative energy was directed elsewhere; Ballantine Books published a small paperback volume of Kurtzman's own comics called Jungle Book in 1959.
Jungle Book, later reprinted by Wisconsin's Kitchen Sink Press as Harvey Kurtzman's Jungle Book, gained little renown at the time but became one of Kurtzman's most eagerly sought-after volumes among comics collectors. The book comprised four long stories, each a satire based on a popular television series or another hot cultural item of the moment. All were drawn as well as written by Kurtzman himself. "Thelonius Violence" was a take-off on the jazz-themed detective TV show Peter Gunn. "Compulsion on the Range" was a spoof of the western show Gunsmoke, while "Decadence Degenerated" skewered the plays of Tennessee Williams (1911–1983), including Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. "The Organization Man in the Grey Flannel Executive Suite" referred to a common idea in popular sociology of the late 1950s: the Organization Man, whose life was shaped by loyalty to a corporate hierarchy.
Uses Fumetti technique
"The Organization Man in the Grey Flannel Executive Suite" introduced the character of Goodman Beaver, a likable, yellow-haired young man struggling to overcome the corruption and chaos of American life. Goodman Beaver became the subject of a full-length comic written by Kurtzman and drawn by Will Elder, and he frequently appeared in Kurtzman's next magazine venture, Help!, which appeared between 1960 and 1966. Help! often featured a format called fumetti, the technique of using still photographs with comic-style captions or dialogue balloons. Help! attracted famous comedians and writers as contributors, including Jerry Lewis, Jackie Gleason, Dick Van Dyke, Woody Allen, Orson Bean, and even feminist icon Gloria Steinem. Equally important were the unknown artists and writers who went on to create the next generation of comics and graphic narrative art: Gahan Wilson, R. Crumb, Hank Hinton, Terry Gilliam, Gilbert Shelton, and many other key figures were published in Help! before they became famous. Help!, cutting-edge though it was, never became a strong moneymaker.
Contributes to underground comix
In the 1970s, Kurtzman contributed occasionally to the underground comics (these adult-oriented comics, sometimes called comix, explored themes of sexuality and drug use in visual styles associated with the Hippie movement) he had helped to inspire, and he published one of his own, Kurtzman Comix, in 1976. He continued to guide the careers of younger artists as a cartooning instructor at New York's School of Visual Arts. Collections of Kurtzman's work began to appear; The Illustrated Harvey Kurtzman Index was followed in the 1980s and 1990s by reissues of individual Kurtzman books and series. He suffered from Parkinson's Disease (a disease of the nervous system that becomes more severe over time) in the 1980s but continued to work, publishing some wordless comics (with artist Sarah Downs) in a French magazine, founding a new magazine, Nuts!, and working on his own history of the graphic medium, From Aargh! to Zap!: Harvey Kurtzman's Visual History of the Comics, which was published by Prentice-Hall in 1991.
Harvey Kurtzman's Strange Adventures, published in 1990, featured an all-star roster of artists illustrating little pencil scenarios by Kurtzman, which were reproduced at the back of the book. After Kurtzman died of liver cancer in 1993, testimonies to the influence of his work, MAD especially, flowed freely. Maus creator Art Spiegelman (1948–; see entry) wrote about Kurtzman in the New Yorker magazine, and Zippy creator Bill Griffith (1944–) told Entertainment Weekly's Ty Burr that "I would pick up a regular comic book or an imitation MAD, like Cracked, and it was dumber than I was. It might be funny, but it was stupid-funny. You picked up MAD and it was making you reach a little bit. You were a notch more sophisticated after you finished reading it." Jeff Greenfield of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote simply that "Harvey Kurtzman changed the way America laughed."
For More Information
Kurtzman, Harvey, with Howard Zimmerman. My Life as a Cartoonist. New York: Pocket Books, 1988.
Burr, Ty. "Harvey Kurtzman: 'Mad' genius." Entertainment Weekly (March 5, 1993): p. 67.
Greenfield, Jeff. "What? Us Recall Harvey Kurtzman?" Chicago Sun-Times (February 25, 1993): p. 33.
"Harvey Kurtzman Is Dead at 68." New York Times (February 23, 1993): p. B7.
Smith, Peter. "Humor with Sharp Edges." St. Petersburg Times (January 10, 1988): p. D6.
"Profiles: Harvey Kurtzman." Read Yourself RAW. http://www.readyourselfraw.com/profiles/kurtzman/profile_kurtzman.htm (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Vadeboncoeur, Jim. "Harvey Kurtzman Biography." Bud Plant Illustrated Books. http://www.bpib.com/illustra2/kurtzman.htm (accessed on May 3, 2006).