Living a history-filled life that seems made up by a novelist like Michael Chabon or Paul Auster, Harvey Kurtzman worked with some of the giants of 20th-century publishing and in the process became a giant himself, albeit often not a very successful one. Denis Kitchen and Paul Buhle, the coauthors of The Art of Harvey Kurtzman, trace Kurtzman’s career from his student days (when he befriended several artists who would also become legends) and his contributions to Army publications during World War II to his work for Stan Lee in the late ’40s on the daringly conceptual “Hey Look!” and his celebrated stints with E.C. and Playboy, and finally to his financially disastrous publishing efforts that nonetheless gave an inspiring start to future leaders of the underground comix movement, such as Robert Crumb.
As you can see, it can be tiring just summarizing Kurtzman’s achievements. However, Kitchen and Buhle do far more than summarize things as the remarkable details of their anecdote-filled research make their book a certified page-turner. Particularly interesting is the firsthand glimpse readers are afforded of maverick publishers such as William Gaines and Hugh Hefner, who, along with Kurtzman, helped determine the relationship between comics and magazine publishing. To its enormous credit, then, this book would be rewarding simply as a biography or as a history of popular media in the post-war U.S.—that is, without even a single page of art between its covers. But of course there is art, and it can summed up in two words uttered George Takei-style: Oh, my…
The challenge for books on huge, decades-spanning talents such as Kurtzman—his peers in this respect might be named Eisner, Tezuka, or Kirby—is how to provide more than just a surface taste of a creative output that’s simply so vast. So perhaps the most impressive thing about The Art of Harvey Kurtzman is how satisfying these tastes prove to be, how the well-chosen and well-presented selections actually do provide a true sense of the scope of Kurtzman’s artistry. One example is the page-after-page documentation of his work on the early issues ofMAD, including both their brilliant covers and interior art, for which Kurtzman would do the breakdowns even when the finished art would bear another artist’s name.
Another example of the book’s generosity is its many complete stories, including the beyond-classic “Corpse on the Imjin!” (from Two-Fisted Tales #25). Although well more than a half-century old, it seems more state-of-the-art in terms of storytelling than most of today’s comics, not to mention its boldness of intent and execution. Part of the story’s daring is its self-reflective commentary on mass media itself and its depiction of warfare: in the middle of a desperate, gritty, un-“heroic” hand-to-hand fight sequence between a North Korean soldier and an American G.I., the narrative reads, “Where are the wisecracks you read in the comic books? Where are the fancy right hooks you see in the movies?” So perfect is this media literate critique of typical 1950s pop culture fare that it doesn’t even come across as a critique or as cerebral in the slightest, but rather adds naturally to the tragic tone of the tale itself—tragic because, as Remarque showed a generation earlier, so many go to war expecting it to mirror art’s glorification of it.
Similarly, the authors show how Kurtzman helped make media products a main target of humor in American culture—that prior to MAD’s deconstruction of TV, the movies, and, most ingeniously, comics themselves, this level of sophisticated, mimetic parody was unknown. The significance of this almost-postmodern aspect of Kurtzman’s work is commented upon in the authors’ typically smart and elegant prose like this: “The artist’s capacity to aid the audience in distancing itself from familiar and clichéd formats was a giant step forward… MAD comics was a bridge further into what can only be described as a narrative unknown: fully realized comics art that was also about the nature of comics art. It was pure genius, even if the recognition of this particular genius would be overwhelmingly lost on those who could not yet cast votes or buy an alcoholic drink.”
Despite such elevated analysis, The Art of Harvey Kurtzman manages to be personal and immediate: you get to know the artist, not just the art. For example, one of the amazing things about the “Imjin” repro is that it’s not the version you’d get in all the E.C. archive editions that have been published over the years. Instead, it’s the original art in all its un-cleaned-up glory, so that you can plainly see erased-over lettering, the faintest of blue lines, scrawls in the margins, and so on. How much does this presentation add to the power of the story itself? Not much, granted. But it does put us more firmly in the presence of the artist hovering over the drafting table, gives us a sense of creative hands at work, and brings us closer to Kurtzman-the-tireless-perfectionist. Likewise, readers are treated to a full page of Kurtzman’s hand corrections to a 1952 page-proof of an utterly forgettable ad for “Artistic Similes of Fine Diamond and Gold Rings.” This, of course, is the other side of the glamorous comics business, and periodicals publishing more generally, then and now.
In fact, it’s just this kind of balance in its portrait of Kurtzman—showing him as innovator, manager, workaday publishing prole, failed entrepreneur, and grown-up kid—that creates the richness in The Art of Harvey Kurtzman, which is well deserving of its 2010 Eisner win. In short, it’s the kind of reference book that makes you want to use a term other than “reference book,” which can sound so dry. It’s not a biography, a history of popular culture, a fine arts book, nor an anthology of timeless stories and images but somehow all of these things in one mighty volume. All in all, it’s hard to imagine a more satisfying work about comics—both aesthetically and intellectually—being published anytime soon.
Reviewed by Peter Gutiérrez on June 1, 2009
The Art of Harvey Kurtzman