From Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created Mad and Revolutionized Humor in America

© copyright 2015 by Bill Schelly 

Author’s Preface

Harvey Kurtzman’s creation of Mad, in 1952, overshadows all of the other stellar accomplishments in his remarkable fifty-year career in the popular arts. His work as the editor, artist, designer and writer behind Mad, first as a comic book and then as a magazine, set the pattern for one of the greatest publishing success stories of the century.

Time magazine’s Richard Corliss wrote, “Dreaming up and writing Mad, [Harvey] Kurtzman virtually invented what would become the era’s dominant tone of irreverent self-reference: one form of pop culture mocking all other forms, and itself.” In the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik stated, “Almost all American satire today follows a formula that Harvey Kurtzman thought up.”

In the early 1950s, Holden Caulfield railed against the “phonies” of the world in The Catcher in the Rye. Mad exposed them. It questioned the status quo at a time of social conformity, creating a mindset that grew into what came to be called the “counterculture.” Cartoonist and historian R. C. Harvey wrote, “Through all the years of Mad, Kurtzman’s influence on the American public was incalculable. Who can say whether the Vietnam War protest among American youth was not in some way inspired by the satire in Mad . . .?”

Mad is a household name, yet the name of the man who invented it is known by relatively few, mainly those who study cartoons and comic books. That’s because Harvey Kurtzman seldom blew his own horn, and after he left the magazine, the publishers of Mad omitted his name from reprints in those best-selling paperback books. In 1988, most of the students in Kurtzman’s “Satirical Cartooning” class at New York’s School of the Visual Arts didn’t know that their soft-spoken instructor was a giant of American humor. At least, not until Art Spiegelman guest-lectured the class one day.

The creator of the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus decided to enlighten them. Instead of bringing slides of his own projects to the class, he brought slides of Kurtzman’s work over the years. Spiegelman later explained, “Seeing Harvey Kurtzman’s work when I was a kid was what made me want to be a cartoonist in the first place. Harvey Kurtzman has been the single most significant influence on a couple of generations of comics artists.”

By the end of Spiegelman’s presentation, the students saw their teacher in a whole new light. They learned that not only had Kurtzman created Mad, he’d also created Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat, two innovative, brilliant war comic books for the same publisher, EC Comics. They also found out that he edited three more humor magazines after leaving Mad: Trump, Humbug and Help!, and created Little Annie Fanny, the first fully painted comic strip, for Playboy.

Harvey Kurtzman—with the help of a handful of key colleagues—showed that comic book stories could be Art with a capital a. Newspaper comic strips had always garnered a modicum of respect, but comic books were disdained until this New York native showed otherwise. He elevated the medium, beginning a process of legitimization that’s now, sixty-five years later, virtually complete. In an era when graphic novels win Pulitzer Prizes and reading comics is not only accepted but actually hip, we shouldn’t forget the person who had the vision to get the ball rolling. Arthur Schopenhauer wrote, “Talent hits a target that no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see.”

Unquestionably, an artist of the brilliance and cultural consequence of Harvey Kurtzman deserves a full-bodied biography. Major figures in American popular culture such as D. W. Griffith, Walt Disney and Charles Schulz have all had more than one book written about their lives and careers. Why not Kurtzman? Science fiction (SF) and fantasy scribe Lin Carter once said (I’m paraphrasing) that he wrote the kind of books he most liked to read. As a longtime Kurtzman fan, I wanted an in-depth biography of the man and his work. That’s why I wrote this book.

A fair amount has been written about Harvey Kurtzman, including the tragic dimensions of his later life, but it’s scattered through hundreds of magazines and books, often in support of reprints of his work. What was needed was a single book that did Kurtzman justice by telling his story factually and completely. When I embarked on this endeavor four years ago, I knew one thing for certain: it had to do more than stitch together known facts and interview material. What was called for was a “back to square one” approach, requiring fresh interviews with Kurtzman’s remaining colleagues, family and friends, and consulting archival documents and other resources that hadn’t yet been plumbed. The subsequent journey of discovery far surpassed my expectations.

In this book’s Acknowledgments, I thank the scores of people who helped make it possible. At the top of the list is the Kurtzman family—Adele, Meredith, Liz, Nellie and Adam—who generously gave their time and patiently answered all my questions. Kurtzman’s colleagues Hugh Hefner, James Warren, Russ Heath, Al Feldstein, Jack Davis, Arnold Roth, Al Jaffee and Robert Crumb gave frank, revealing interviews—often conveying previously unknown facts and perspectives. Equally vital was the help of Denis Kitchen and John Benson, who opened up Kurtzman’s archival papers, which included his correspondence to and from William M. Gaines, Hugh Hefner, Ian Ballantine, Harold Hayes, Stan Freberg and many others. (Kurtzman kept carbon copies of many of his outgoing letters.) Perhaps most important of all, I was allowed to quote freely from several previously unpublished interviews with the man himself. Therefore, it can accurately be said that Harvey Kurtzman speaks anew in these pages.

Was I really able to discover the complete truth about the origin of Mad and why Kurtzman left it so soon after its conversion from comic book to magazine? I believe I have, not only in terms of bringing every bit of known information to bear, but by introducing newfound facts, including heretofore unpublished statements by Kurtzman from his private correspondence, and taking into account a major revelation from Hugh Hefner from my recent interview. I don’t mean to suggest these discoveries are earthshattering or terribly provocative. Some of them are, however, quite surprising.

I also discovered that Harvey Kurtzman is not an easy person to understand, in part because he was a man of many contradictions. He was a sublime humorist in print who wasn’t a comedian in person. He was an iconoclast who sought the Establishment symbols of success. He was an intensely private man who gave many interviews. He was a man of great sensitivity who could be callous to others. He was a writer-artist with both a towering confidence and a deep insecurity about his work. Kurtzman never reconciled his contradictions. Indeed, they are one of the reasons why his life story is so fascinating.

—Bill Schelly
Seattle, 2014