There’s much to quibble over in Abram’s big, beautiful The Art of Harvey Kurtzman (the “man” in Kurtzman isn’t spelled out but drawn as simplistic balloon-stick figure). Why include the complete “Superduperman” from Mad no. 4 (1953) instead of samples from “Dragged Net!,” the parody of television’s cigarette-selling, L.A Cop promoting Dragnet or “Bat Boy and Rubin” that parodied the legal power of comic book publishers and the homoerotic relationship between the protagonists or show more of the incredible post-horrors-of-war Two-Fisted Tales or, or…
That’s the problem with writer, illustrator, editor and Mad magazine founder Kurtzman. His career was so long, varied and important; so influential to American humor at large, that it would be impossible to do it justice in any single volume. His early strip work for Timely Comics and Stan Lee, his sci-fi and war stories for Will Gaines’ EC, the founding of Mad and its turn from comic to magazine, the follow-up publications Trump, Humbug and Help, the bread-and-butter work of “Little Annie Fanny” for Playboy, his late work for the French alternative market; any overview can only touch work that all deserves long and serious consideration.
This over-sized book, selected and annotated by Denis Kitchen and Paul Buhle, does an impressive job to highlight the obvious as well as illuminate less well-known aspects of the Kurtzman legacy. Including everything from high-school woodcuts to his 1988 cover-design for the graphic novel Kings In Design this big volume would embarrass any coffee table with its crazed and crazy riches.
Not only did Kurtzman direct the course and tenor of social satire, he employed and/or influenced many of its greatest artists and writers. Terry Gilliam came up at Kurtzman’s side where he was first introduced to John Cleese. Both Art Spiegelman and R. Crumb credit their success to Kurtzman. Even Gloria Steinem came up through Kurtzman’s rank ranks. Successful humor enterprises from National Lampoon to The Onion all wear their Harvey Kurtzman influences proudly. Kitchen and Buhle effectively quote a host of big names to find Kurtzman’s esteemed place in culture. On their own, they seem to have some trouble defining his importance. His work, they write, not only gave us “critical insights that shaped our view of vernacular art and its uses, but it also helped shape the world as it came our of the war in the 1940s by giving us a very different future.” A discussion of how Kurtzman shaped the future outside of the world of graphic arts and satire is lacking.
Kurtzman’s biography isn’t full of success. He was constantly looking for ways to make money and remain true to his individual and artistic beliefs. It’s not surprising that anyone who challenges the status quo to the extremes that he did would find tough sailing in America. Kurtzman’s death in 1993 was given short shrift by the mainstream press and might have been entirely lost on the public if not for efforts by Spiegelman and Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker. His reputation was always secure among those he influenced and those who enjoyed bits of his work, even if it was consumed under bed covers by flashlight. This book goes a long way to lift the entire body of his work.–Cabbage Rabbit