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Harvey Kurtzman: The Comics World's 'Mad Genius'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross.

As a cartoonist and writer, Harvey Kurtzman was a key influence on modern adult comic books and, some would say, on satiric humor in general. He created the comic book Mad, which later would become Mad Magazine. Music critic Milo Miles says that the span of Kurtzman's work has been brought into focus with a richly illustrated new biography called "The Art of Harvey Kurtzman: The Mad Genius of Comics."

MILO MILES: Since I grew up as comics fanatic, Harvey Kurtzman should've been a natural hero to me. He invented Mad Magazine. His satiric stories and pictures inspired superb underground comic artists like Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, and Gilbert Shelton. But when I was a teenager in the late '60s it was hard for me to find Kurtzman's best work.

The early issues of Mad that he oversaw were long gone, to say nothing of the groundbreaking realistic war stories he'd done earlier for EC Comics. Kurtzman's current work at that time was done with his favorite artist, collaborator Will Elder, namely "Little Annie Fanny" in Playboy magazine, a strip he did for 26 years. It was the most gorgeous looking few pages of comics imaginable. But it wasn't exactly slashing, burning satire.

I couldn't know that Kurtzman had a much more cynical sardonic view of sexuality than big boss Hugh Hefner, but that one was not allowed to dissent from the Playboy philosophy within the magazine itself. Kurtzman passed away in 1993, just five years after the end of "Little Annie Fanny" and it was easy for an uninformed person of my age to think, maybe the guy's overrated.

Authors Dennis Kitchen and Paul Buhle have done invaluable service to the man's legacy with "The Art of Harvey Kurtzman: The Mad Genius of Comics." Anyone should come away convinced by their argument that Kurtzman is as important as anyone who ever worked in the field. Kitchen is an outstanding cartoonist himself and I credit him with selecting the definitive showcase of Kurtzman's art from all phases of his career. This means not only masterpieces from the war comic Two-Fisted Tales and Mad, but vibrant devil may care obscurities like a satire of Archie Comics from 1949 that looks like a page from Mad, years before Mad existed.

"The Art of Harvey Kurtzman" even includes one of the finest "Little Annie Fanny" strips, "The Origin Story" which has never been published before. Kitchen and Buhle also do an exemplary job laying out Kurtzman's jagged years after he left Mad in 1956 and before he started "Little Annie Fanny" in 1962.

Kurtzman's three publications during this period were Trump, a lavish comic sponsored by Playboy that folded after two issues, Humbug, a comic magazine put out by an artist collective that soon crashed and burned, and "Help," a satire magazine that was not primarily comics.

All these magazines are made more talked about than seen for decades. Fantagraphics Books has remedied that situation in part by publishing a glorious collection of Humbug. This two-volume slip cased edition corrects the major problem with the original publication. Namely, that it was badly printed on incredibly trashy paper. This new Humbug offers teasing hints of what Mad might've become if Kurtzman had stayed on, more political, more adult, more outright brainy. Humbug probably went right over many folks heads but it seems half the folks who loved it as kids became influential cartoonists.

Humbug's failure to thrive is typical. There's a persistent pang of sadness that runs through Kitchen and Buhle's narrative. Harvey Kurtzman was a hopeless businessman who tried to run businesses. He was a perfectionist who scorned deadlines trapped in an industry that demanded work banged out on time. Ultimately, he was a man who needed a manager but would never accept anyone capable of doing the job.

Kurtzman's fundamental conviction was that cartoons should use satire to cut through fantasies rather than promote them. During his apex years in the '50s and '60s he was a powerhouse who used both his words and pictures to show a world in which the search for goodness and truth was met by nothing but liars, hustlers, bullies and fools. All of them caught up in a wickedly funny dance of delusions. No one was safe, no storytelling conventions were sacred.

Kurtzman put it best in his classic Mad satire, "Super Duper Man," where love object, Lois Pain lays it on the lines of the arrogant hero, hands off. So you're Super Duper Man instead of Clark Bent, big deal. You're still a creep. Every puffed up hot shot in the world forever needs a dose of Harvey Kurtzman.

BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR music critic Milo Miles lives in Boston. He reviewed "The Art of Harvey Kurtzman: The Mad Genius of Comics" by Denis Kitchen and Paul Buhle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Milo Miles is Fresh Air's world-music and American-roots music critic. He is a former music editor of The Boston Phoenix.