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Harvey Kurtzman

The Man Who Created Mad and Revolutionized Humor in America

Bill Schelly

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HK not only created Mad, but also Two Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat while still at DC Comics. Then after leaving Mad, three more humour mags: Trump, Humbug and Help! And as well created Little Annie Fannie, the first painted comic strip, for Playboy magazine.

Comic books now clearly seen as Art: the transition from kidstuff to Art started with HK.

Born in 1924, parents were Jews who'd emigrated from Odessa ghetto in Ukraine. Father died early; had a step-father who treated him well, and whom he happily regarded as his dad. Both parents supported his art and cartooning and his desire to make it a career.

Early influence of Marx Brothers films. (Like the Simpsons, levels of humour that kids got and levels that adults saw.) Sense that they weren't just being funny, they were getting even for the hurts so deep that all they could do was laugh at them. Poked fun at Am history, capitalism, foreign dictators, the immigrant and Jewish experience. And all through it, a spirit of anarchy.

1935 Mayor La Guardia started a special school for talented musicians or artists. HK selected and there met Al Jaffee and Will Elder, who were a couple of years ahead him. (Will was a notorious prankster. He was missing one day when teacher called roll; kids told teacher that Will was depressed and had gone home. At end of lesson, teacher opened the cupboard to collect coats. Elder was hanging from a coat hook, his face ashen bc he'd whitened it with chalk. The teacher fainted, Elder scarpered, and when teacher came to, class all assured him he'd imagined it.)

1952, year Mad was launched, was peak year for comics. That year 3,250 different comic books appeared, 60 different books a week vying for attention on the newsstands.

Mad started not bc anyone thought there was a great potential for a funny/satirical mag, but bc HK needed more money. Bill Gaines paid HK and Feldstein the same page rate, and so Feldstein earned a lot more than HK did. HK thought he deserved more bc he was a perfectionist and put lot more time into researching his war mags (Hard Fisted Tales and Combat!) to keep pics authentic. But from Gaines POV, Feldstein delivered several of his Horror and Crime mags in the time it took HK to deliver one or two. The solution was for HK to come up with a new mag based on the funny drawings he'd shown Gaines when he first auditioned for the job. And bc needed no research, could be produced far quicker.

First issue all parodies. "Blobs!" portrayed a future where humans are totally dependent on robots for everything and there are vending machines with "disposable prefabricated robot women" which gave Wallace Wood excuse to draw the first sexy woman with men drooling over her that became a feature of Mad magazines. HK's SOH had a strong adolescent streak.

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HK pushed for Mad to be reprinted in more prestigious paperback format, more for the kudos than great financial return. They did a deal with Ballantine, which had an unexpected effect - Gaines, visiting the Ballantine office, purloined a pic he noticed of a grinning moronic face with words "What, Me Worry?". The PB magazine Mad Reader racked up huge sales so HK got benefit (25% of royalties, while EC took 50%), and remained in print for two decades.

HK left Mad after dispute with Gaines over giving him a stake in the magazine. He went to work for Hugh Hefner, starting a new satirical mag to go with the new Playboy. Hefner named the magazine Trump bc he was a fan of contract bridge. But Hefner hit a major cash-flow crisis when his bank loans were pulled at short notice and Trump was suspended after second issue. But HK's poor editorial discipline in terms of keeping costs down and getting mag out promptly was also a factor. Hefner said later "I gave him an unlimited budget and he exceeded it!"

Hefner also said later that Trump was maybe a bit ahead of it's time - an adult version of Mad - a space in the market later successfully filled by National Lampoon.

HK formed a publishing co-op with group of fellow writers and cartoonists from Trump - Elder, Davis, Jaffee Roth and Chester - to produce Humbug. Hefner helped - gave them cheap office space - but it was a struggle to get printer and distributor who would give them credit. They had to take Charlton, a publisher owned by two men who'd met in prison - one a disbarred lawyer, the other jailed for copyright infringement - but had plus of both a printing press and distribution system. But Humbug never generated enough sales and it too folded.

HK then developed a mag called Help! notable today as the first job Terry Gilliam got out of school as assistant to HK. (He also boarded in HK's attic for first couple of months in NY). And it during this time that Gilliam met John Cleese, who was in NY performing in off-Broadway plays. Another who got a start from HK was Robert Crumb, with first versions of Fritz the Cat.

Hefner hired HK and Elder to produce Little Annie Fannie for Playboy and it was immediate hit. And a collection of LAF stories reprinted in 1966 paperback netted them substantial royalties.

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