Kurtzman, Harvey 1924-1993

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KURTZMAN, Harvey 1924-1993

PERSONAL: Born October 3, 1924, in Brooklyn, NY; died of liver cancer February 21, 1993, in Mount Vernon, NY; son of David and Edith (Sherman) Kurtzman; married Adele Hasan, 1948; children: Cornelia, Elizabeth, Meredith, Peter. Education: Attended Cooper Union.

CAREER: Freelance cartoonist. Taught at School of Visual Arts, New York, NY. Military service: U.S. Army, 1943-45; produced visual training aids.


The Mad Reader, Ballantine (New York, NY), 1954, fiftieth anniversary edition, iBooks, 2002.

Inside Mad, drawings by Jack Davis, Bill Elder, and Wallace Wood, Ballantine (New York, NY), 1955.

The Humbug Digest, Ballantine (New York, NY), 1957.

Jungle Book, Ballantine (New York, NY), 1959, published as Harvey Kurtzman's Jungle Book, or, Up from the Apes! and Right Back Down: In Which Are Described in Words and Pictures Businessmen, Private Eyes, Cowboys, and Other Hero[e]s, All Exhibiting the Progress of Man from the Darkness of the Cave into the Light of Civilization by Means of Television, Wide Screen Movies, the Stone Axe, and Other Useful Arts, Kitchen Sink Press (Princeton, WI), 1986.

Harvey Kurtzman's Fast-acting Help, Gold Medal Books (Greenwich, CT), 1961.

Who Said That?, Fawcett Publications (New York, NY), 1962.

(With Will Elder) Playboy's Little Annie Fanny, Playboy Press (Chicago, IL), 1966, revised edition, 1972, enlarged edition, two volumes, Playboy Enterprises/Dark Horse, 2000-2001.

(With Will Elder) Goodman Beaver (four stories), Kitchen Sink Press (Princeton, WI), 1984.

(With Byron Preiss), Nuts!, volumes 1 and 2, Ballantine (New York, NY), 1985.

(With Sarah Downs) Betsy's Buddies, Kitchen Sink Press (Princeton, WI), 1988.

(With Dan Barry) Flash Gordon (originally published November 1951-April 1953), Kitchen Sink Press (Princeton, WI), 1988.

(With Howard Zimmerman) My Life as a Cartoonist (autobiography), Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1988.

Harvey Kurtzman's Strange Adventures, Epic Comics (New York, NY), 1990.

(With Michael Barrier) From Aargh! to Zap!: Harvey Kurtzman's Visual History of the Comics, Prentice Hall Press (New York, NY), 1991.

Hey Look: Cartoons by Mad Creator Harvey Kurtzman, Kitchen Sink Press (Princeton, WI), 1992.

The Grasshopper and the Ant, Denis Kitchen Publishing (North Amherst, MA), 2002.

The Bedside Mad, iBooks, 2003.

The Son of Mad, iBooks, 2003.

The Organization Mad, iBooks, 2003.

Creator of comic books, including Two-fisted Tales, 1950-53; Frontline Combat, 1951-54; Mad (comic book), 1952, and (magazine), c. 1953-56; Trump, 1957; Humbug, 1957-58; and Help!, 1960-65.

SIDELIGHTS: Harvey Kurtzman is remembered as the founder of Mad magazine and for his influence on satire in publications like National Lampoon and television shows such as Saturday Night Live. Kurtzman's style has influenced a great many visual and performing artists, including R. Crumb, Monty Python's Terry Gilliam, Lenny Bruce, and Woody Allen.

Kurtzman was born in Brooklyn and raised in the Bronx. His father died when he was young, and his stepfather, an engraver, encouraged his artistic abilities. Kurtzman took classes at the Pratt Institute and the Brooklyn Museum and attended the High School of Music and Art, where he met Will Elder, with whom he would collaborate for the rest of his life. Kurtzman attended Cooper Union on scholarship at night while he worked a number of day jobs before finding his niche with a comic book art shop whose clients included Classic Comics, the publisher of literary classics in comic book form. He quit Cooper Union and concentrated on improving his comic book style. As Kurtzman's work began appearing in a number of titles, he was drafted into the army, where he spent his two years creating visual training aids.

When he was released, Kurtzman freelanced, producing strips for newspapers and his popular "Hey Look!" strip for Timely Comics (later Marvel Comics), where he met his wife-to-be, Adele Hasan. In 1950 Kurtzman began working for E.C. Comics, published by William M. Gaines. E.C. series titles like The Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt stirred up the 1954 congressional fuss over comics that resulted in the Comics Code. Kurtzman's work for E.C. consisted primarily of the realistically drawn and well-researched war comics popular during the Korean War period. His depiction of war was not glamorous. His war stories, which show the waste of human life, were usually drawn by E.C. artists Elder, John Severin, Wallace Wood, Jack Davis, and George Evans. Kurtzman drew some of his own artwork, but he spent most of his time writing, researching, and laying out four stories each month. Unlike most publishers of the time, Gaines allowed his artists to sign their art, which reflected the pride in their work.

In 1952 Gaines agreed to let Kurtzman publish Mad, and the first issue was dated in October, featuring a spoof of Superman as a coward. The comic also turned Archie of Riverdale High into a drug pusher, typical of the way Mad first parodied other comic books. Soon, however, it was focusing on popular culture, including movies, television, and advertising, and it became fully developed as a magazine. Kurtzman stayed with E.C. just a few more years, leaving when he and Gaines had some differences about the direction of Mad. Kurtzman next worked on a number of unsuccessful titles, including Trump for Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner.

Kurtzman produced Help! from 1960 to 1965, and this long-running comic featured a who's who of celebrity writers, including Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury. Dozens of stars lent their images and words to the publication, including Dick Van Dyke, Gloria Steinem, Allen, John Cleese, and others. He paid the sum of five dollars for work he published in his "Public Gallery" section, and many of the cartoon artists who went on to become stars in their own right were first published here. Among these are Crumb, Gilliam, Hank Hinton, Joel Beck, Jay Lynch, Jim Jones, Skip Williamson, Dennis Ellefson, Don Edwing, Stew Schwartzberg, and Gilbert Shelton.

Kurtzman's breakout strip was created for Hefner. Beginning in the October 1962 issue of Playboy, Kurtzman and Elder, sometimes with help from Davis, Russ Heath, and Frank Frazetta, created the hip, sexy strip titled "Little Annie Fanny," which featured a buxom blonde who was often drawn topless and who was nearly as recognizable as Hefner's famous "bunny." The "Annie" strip appeared in the back of Playboy and was famous for its beautiful artistry, although some detractors viewed it as sexist.

The strip ran from 1962 to 1988, and was revived in 1998 with story and art by Ray Lago and Bill Schorr. Dark House Comics released a two-volume collection in cooperation with Playboy that contains all of the "Little Annie Fanny" strips. The first volume covers 1962 to 1970, and takes Fanny through the swinging 1960s with the Beatles, the sexual revolution, psychedelic drugs, civil rights, and the race for space. A Publishers Weekly reviewer noted that these provide "backdrops for Annie's misadventures—and almost all of the gags involve Annie shedding her clothes while the men around her turn into fawning idiots." The book includes characterizations of Barry Goldwater, Frank Sinatra, J. Edgar Hoover, and the entire Green Bay Packers football team. The second volume includes strips that feature Ralph Nader, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Star Wars, and the women's movement. Both volumes include production art published for the first time and tributes to the cartoonists, led by Kurtzman and Elder, who produced this two-and-a-half decade sensation.

Nuts! was published in two volumes in the mid-1980s and was aimed at ten-to sixteen-year-olds. Jeff Greenfield reviewed Nuts! in the New York Times BookReview, noting that his own daughter enjoyed it "a good deal, and that is the key measurement, I suppose. The problem for me was that it seemed to lack the joyously subversive quality of the early Mad. Well, maybe that's inevitable. … My tastes run toward the anarchic Kurtzman. But what do I know? I wear a coat and tie almost every day, have a wife and two children, and I'm over forty. I'm now the guy he [Kurtzman] helped me laugh at thirty years ago."

For several years, Kurtzman worked on a "Flash Gordon" strip, the installments of which are collected in one volume that also includes an interview with Kurtzman and some of his rough sketches. Jungle Book is a collection of stories that were too racy to print in Mad when it first hit the stands. Published in 1959, this was possibly the first comic book for adults, and it was brought back into print twenty-five years later. One of the characters of Jungle Book was revived for Help!, and Goodman Beaver is a collection of those strips.

Roger Sutton said in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books that Kurtzman's My Life as a Cartoonist is "an entertaining look at the comic book world, as well as a thoughtful primer for aspiring cartoonists." Written for children, this volume takes readers through the process of creating a "one page joke" and discusses the skills necessary for drawing cartoon art, skills that include story creation, pacing, and lettering. Kurtzman, who was fourteen when he first had a cartoon published, reveals here how the gap-toothed Alfred E. Neumann came to be the Mad mascot. School Library Journal's Patricia Homer called the guide "an honest picture of life working in the cartoon/comic business." Delia E. Culberson wrote in Voice of Youth Advocates that "this highly readable autobiography offers advice and inspiration to would-be illustrators and gives interesting insights into the character and personalty of this gifted artist with the delightfully quirky sense of humor."

Aargh! to Zap!: Harvey Kurtzman's Visual History of the Comics, for which Kurtzman collaborated with Michael Barrier, begins with cartoons of the 1930s. "That this is Kurtzman's history is significant," wrote Keith R. A. DeCandido in Library Journal, who added that "the entire book is colored by his tastes and perceptions." Washington Post Book World's Paul Di Filippo noted that Kurtzman's text "is lucid and insightful, especially when he applies his hands-on experience to analyzing the technical strengths and weaknesses of his fellow artists."

By the 1980s Kurtzman was suffering from Parkinson's disease, and he died of liver cancer in 1993. Denis Kitchen, founder of Kitchen Sink Press, which published collections of Kurtzman's work, was named executor of Kurtzman's estate. As Denis Kitchen Publishing, he reprinted Kurtzman's graphic novel The Grasshopper and the Ant, a hip version of the Aesop fable that may also be an allegory of Kurtzman's own life. His buddies included Shel Silverstein and Lenny Bruce, but he also was married and the father of four children, one of them an autistic son, and he was constantly working and trying to make a living. The book is formatted like an art book, with one drawing per page and blank facing pages.

Ty Burr wrote in Entertainment Weekly that Kurtzman "believed comics could be for readers with brains." Burr also included in his tribute to Kurtzman the comment of "Zippy" creator Bill Griffith, who said, "You picked up Mad and it was making you reach a little bit. You were a notch more sophisticated after you finished reading it."

Adam Gopnik and Art Spiegelman memorialized Kurtzman on the same page of the New Yorker. In Spiegelman's strip, he noted that the New York Times ran two obituaries for Kurtzman. The first described him as "the cartoonist who helped start Mad magazine." The corrected headline, printed the following day, called him the "creator of Mad."

Gopnik wrote that "in his last years, Kurtzman, in addition to working as a cartoonist, became a teacher, a guru—a man who impressed on his students the worth of the underloved art of cartooning. There has been scarcely a single cartoonist or animator of note in the last forty years … who did not come under his direct influence and encouragement."



Kurtzman, Harvey, and Howard Zimmerman, My Life as a Cartoonist, Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1988.


Booklist, February 15, 1989, Ilene Cooper, review of My Life as a Cartoonist, p. 1008; September 15, 1989, review of Harvey Kurtzman's Jungle Book, or, Up from the Apes! and Right Back Down: In Which Are Described in Words and Pictures Businessmen, Private Eyes, Cowboys, and Other Hero[e]s, All Exhibiting the Progress of Man from the Darkness of the Cave into the Light of Civilization by Means of Television, Wide Screen Movies, the Stone Axe, and Other Useful Arts, p. 154.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, January, 1989, Roger Sutton, review of My Life as a Cartoonist, p. 126.

Library Journal, December, 1991, Keith R. A. DeCandido, review of From Aargh! to Zap!: Harvey Kurtzman's Visual History of the Comics, p. 138.

New York Times Book Review, September 29, 1985, Jeff Greenfield, review of Nuts!, p. 36.

Publishers Weekly, May 7, 2001, review of Playboy's Little Annie Fanny, Volume 1, p. 226.

Reading Teacher, October, 1986, review of Nuts, numbers 1 and 2, p. 54.

School Library Journal, April, 1989, Patricia Homer, review of My Life as a Cartoonist, p. 114.

Voice Literary Supplement, October, 1989, Geoffrey O'Brien, reviews of Flash Gordon, Harvey Kurtzman's Jungle Book, Goodman Beaver, and My Life as a Cartoonist, p. 11.

Voice of Youth Advocates, April, 1989, Delia A. Culberson, review of My Life as a Cartoonist, p. 60.

Washington Post Book World, December 8, 1991, Paul Di Filippo, review of From Aargh! to Zap!: Harvey Kurtzman's Visual History of the Comics, p. 8.



Entertainment Weekly, March 5, 1993, p. 67.

Independent (London, England), February 24, 1993, p. 11.

New Yorker, March 29, 1993, Adam Gopnik and Art Spiegelman, "Kurtzman's Mad World," p. 74.

New York Times, February 23, 1993, p. C19.

Time, March 8, 1993, p. 22.

Washington Post, February 24, 1993, p. C7.*