Dennis Kitchen, Kitchen Sink Press, KSP

 Harvey Kurtzman Bio

HARVEY KURTZMAN (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! folded.

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 Kitchen

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