(1924-1993) was a cartoonist, writer and editor with enormous
influence on several generations of cartoonists and readers.
He broke into the comic book field working on second and third-rate
superhero comics in the early '40s. After military service, Kurtzman
returned to the field with a distinctive new style, creating
humorous one-shot fillers called "Hey Look!" for Stan
Lee at Timely (Marvel) Comics and Elliot Caplin at
Toby Comics. Kurtzman is probably best known as the comic genius
who created MAD in the early 1950s at Entertaining
Comics (E.C.), first as a wild color comic book, then as a black
& white magazine. MAD, under Kurtzman, vigorously
and fearlessly lampooned American institutions, including other
comic strips and television, a medium then in its infancy. He
rediscovered and developed Alfred E. Neuman, MAD's
moronic gap-toothed mascot, created the distinctive logos, drew
many early covers and wrote most of the material for the historic
first 28 issues, leaving abruptly in a bitter dispute over equity
with E.C. publisher William M. Gaines. While at E.C. Kurtzman
also wrote, edited and contributed to two other ground-breaking
comic book series, Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat,
war comics that refused to glorify war.
In 1957, after departing MAD, Kurtzman
created Trump, a glossy high-budget satire magazine
for Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner, who pulled the
plug after only two glorious issues. Kurtzman then partnered
with Harry Chester and fellow cartoonists Jack Davis,
Will Elder, Arnold Roth and Al Jaffee in 1957, creating
Humbug. The innovative but ill-fated publication
lasted eleven issues. In 1959 Kurtzman on his own created the
first pocketbook of all-new comics, Jungle Book. Its impact
was profound but it too was a commercially unsuccessful venture.
During this period Kurtzman created some of his best solo work,
such as The Grasshopper and The Ant and other features
for magazines like Esquire and Pageant. He tried
in vain to sell newspaper strip concepts to various syndicates.
He then partnered with publisher James
Warren to create his final satire publication, Help!
While at Help! in the early '60s Kurtzman discovered
and gave first national exposure to young cartoonists Robert
Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Jay Lynch and Skip Williamson,
all later integral to the "underground" comix movement.
Another discovery, Gloria Steinem was a Kurtzman assistant
and contributor at Help! before becoming
the founder of Ms. and a feminist icon. Steinem's replacement
was an equally unknown college drop-out Terry Gilliam.
By selecting an obscure British actor named John Cleese
to appear in a fumetti (story using panels of captioned
photos) and introducing him to Gilliam, Kurtzman planted the
seed for what would become Monty Python's Flying Circus.
R. Crumb was on his way to New York to replace Gilliam when Help!
While at Help! Kurtzman created
a hilarious Candide-like feature called "Goodman
Beaver" with collaborator Will Elder. Kurtzman took
the Goodman concept to a then more financially secure Hefner,
who approved a sex change to the character. The resulting "Little
Annie Fanny," premiering in Playboy in 1962,
was the most lavish comic strip ever created. "Annie"
continued as a Playboy mainstay until 1988.
All Text © Denis