Legacy: Harvey Kurtzman
Hip as they are, the X-Men still represent the childish fetish that American comic books have for muscle guys in tights. Harvey Kurtzman, the Mad creator who died on Feb. 21 at age 68 of liver cancer, had a different passion: He believed comics could be for readers with brains and maturity.
Not many people remember that the original Mad — as created, written, edited, and drafted by Kurtzman from 1952 to 1956 — was a rude blast of fresh air. Far more than the magazine’s publisher William Gaines, who died last year, Kurtzman was responsible for the anarchic tone of Mad, mercilessly razzing Ike-era icons such as Superman (”Superduperman!”) and Mickey Mouse (”Mickey Rodent!”). With such artists as Will Elder and Wally Wood bringing Kurtzman’s sketches to demented life, Mad de-pantsed postwar pop culture — and showed us how silly it looked in its underwear.
In so doing, Kurtzman connected with a generation. Mad not only became the hot read in the homerooms and frat houses of its day, but it changed how America laughed: You can draw a straight line from ”Melvin of the Apes” (Mad,#6) to such disparate phenomena as the Yippies, Saturday Night Live, Airplane!, and Woody Allen.
Throughout his life, the artist was a beloved inspiration to several generations of ”alternative” artists, including Bill Griffith (Zippy), R. Crumb (Zap Comix), and Art Spiegelman (Maus). The lesson they all learned, in Griffith’s view, was a simple one: Don’t talk down to your audience. ”I would pick up a regular comic book or an imitation Mad like Cracked,” remembers Griffith, ”and it was dumber than I was. It might be funny, but it was stupid-funny. You picked up Mad and it was making you reach a little bit. You were a notch more sophisticated after you finished reading it.”
Unfortunately, his decision to walk out at the height of Mad’s fame in 1956 and move on never worked out as planned. At first, Hugh Hefner backed Kurtzman in a short-lived humor magazine called Trump (and later kept the artist’s career going by running his Little Annie Fanny strip in Playboy). But by the 1980s, with a vastly different Mad taunting him from the stands, Kurtzman — by now suffering from Parkinson’s disease — was vocal in his bitterness. Peter Bagge, creator of the Harveyesque alternative comic Hate, recalls Kurtzman raging about younger cartoonists. ”He was saying, ‘When you have a really good title, and you’re in on the ground floor, you don’t let it go.’ I couldn’t help but think he was talking about himself.”