The Art Of Harvey Kurtzman – There’s a title that tells you all you need to know.
By Denis Kitchen and Paul Buhle
“MAD was the first comic enterprise that got its effects almost entirely from parodying other kinds of popular entertainment…. To say that this became an influential manner in American comedy is to understate the case. Almost all American satire today follows a formula that Harvey Kurtzman thought up.”
Richard Corliss, Time.
Here’s an easy review if ever there was one. The Art Of Harvey Kurtzman.
Harvey. Bloody. Kurtzman.
How many classic, iconic publications does it take to make a genius?
MAD magazine, Little Annie Fanny, Two Fisted Tales, Panic, Humbug, Hey Look, Trump, Help. That should do it.
Harvey Kurtzman. Genius.
That’s it. What more do you need? Actually the entire review could just be the title and the cover image. Since anyone who’s aware of Harvey Kurtzman will surely be aware that a book entitled The Art of Harvey Kurtzman will be a wonderful work of art in itself.
(I could fill this review with cover shots of Kurtzman’s work to illustrate his genius – but here’s just three: MAD magazine, Frontline Combat and Little Annie Fanny. Wonderful stuff.)
But as I’ve got a few minutes spare I may as well talk about it for a little while.
Anybody who thinks of themselves as a Kurtzman fan (and I do) will absolutely love this. Anyone with an interest in comics, in art, in publishing, in modern culture will be enthralled at the sheer importance of Kurtzman’s work through the years. And anyone with the ability to see should simply skim this and realise it’s something special. Page after page of Kurtzman’s beautiful artwork, his stunning design, his incredible writing – this is just such a great, great book.
(An example of Kurtzman’s Hey Look strip – Gay Comics #36 February 1949 – pure kinetic brilliance at work.)
So it’s a wonderful book just for Kurtzman’s artwork and his stories. But for that you could just go out and buy all of his books. This is The Art Of Harvey Kurtzman so it has to function both as a beautiful selection of Kurtzman’s work and a good overview and analysis of that work and talk about Kurtzman’s greater impact on the world. Which, luckily, The Art Of Harvey Kurtzman does with style. Kitchen and Buhle’s text is entertaining, informative and eminently readable.
And the book itself is a piece of stunning design – 256 pages, hardback, oversized, a perfect mix of text and visuals and most importantly big enough to really show off the wonderful Kurtzman art.
(A few pages from the EC section of The Art Of Harvey Kurtzman that go a little way towards showing off how well designed the book is: Interesting, informative text, unseen preliminary work and a comparison of cover art and colour proof from Frontline Combat #7 July-Aug 1952.)
The book doesn’t try to do anything particularly innovative with it’s text pieces – it just starts at the beginning and follows Kurtzman’s career, with all it’s wonderful ups and downs. The chapters split Kurtzman’s life into it’s major events; starting with his early life including the wonderful Hey Look strips of the 40s. His work revitalising EC Comics is covered with the inclusion of some stunning lost work. The creation of MAD magazinne and it’s hugely significant cultural impact is well documented together with one of Kurtzman’s most famous works – Superduperman – reprinted in full.
(Top row: Cover shots from Kurtzman’s Help – a glorious experiment of a magazine. And a perfect Kurtzman photo – scowling away despite the nude in the background- from an outtale of the photo sessions for Help 17 cover, 1962.
Bottom row: Help staff photo 1961: Publisher James Warren, Kurtzman, Gloria Steinem (yes, that Gloria Steinem) and Harry Chester. And my favourite Kurtzman photo: bubbles circa 1960)
After the highs of MAD the text goes on to detail the troubled years – the years spent innovating with Humbug, Trump, Help and the disappointment that the failures of these projects brought. It also features Kurtzman’s Grasshopper and the Ant, Marley’s Ghost and The Jungle Book – Kurtzman’s graphic novels that were just too far ahead of their time.
And we end the book with a detailed look at Kurtzman’s work with Will Elder on Playboy’s Little Annie Fanny – brilliant work but always something of a compromise and even considered a disappointment to many Kurtzman devotees. One of the most interesting pieces in this section is a series of vellum pages that show the meticulous details that went into every single Annie page – it’s a fascinating look at the stages of the work as each page overlays onto the next. A very nice inclusion and indicitive of how well put together the book is. They could have simply taken the easy route and set them out as art on the page, but instead they opted for the far more interesting, far more satisfying (and no doubt far more expensive) layout that will have you flicking from one layer to another in wonder.
(The Art Of Harvey Kurtzman is incredibly well put together: these are the vellum pages used to document the insanely detailed process involved in putting a Little Annie Fanny page together.)
I really can’t recommend this one enough.
It’s a beautifully put together book that perfectly encapsulates the genius that was Harvey Kurtzman. To get this much reading, this much amazing artwork and this much of an insight into a fascinating life for so little is a stunning deal.
Now go and buy it. Your coffee table will thank you for it.