Sigh . . . if only all coffee table biographies of great comics artists could look like The Art of Harvey Kurtzman. This tome is a sumptuous and gorgeous tribute to one of the finest cartoonists of the 20th century as it traces Kurtzman’s entire career in comics. Even though I was familiar with Kurtzman’s career, I still found the book extremely exciting.
The book prints work from all eras of the noted comic artist’s career–including pieces that even the most devoted Kurtzman fan will not have seen before. The work on display ranges from Kurtzman’s entry in an art contest at the age of 13 all the way to his layouts for the ill-fated New Two Fisted Tales in 1988.
So much of the art printed here is a tremendous revelation. For instance, the book reprints a set of Kurtzman’s inspired “Hey Look” strips from the 1940s. The stories are amazingly creative and fun–filled with a manic, intense, and crazy sort of energy that readers seldom see. I was shocked by how amazing those stories are. I had no idea that early Kurtzman felt so vital.
From the same era, the book prints rarely seen work–such as art done for such unlikely venues as the Upholsterer’s International Union Social Security Program as well as illustrations for children’s books. There is also a nice selection of Kurtzman’s work at EC–including detailed breakdowns of his masterpiece “Lost Battalion” from Two-Fisted Tales #32, “Corpse of the Imjin” from Two-Fisted #32, and the classic “Superduperman” and “3-Dimensions” from MAD.
Throughout the book, the layouts are exciting, the art is printed in glorious quality, and the editors are tremendously generous with their art reproduction. The Art of Harvey Kurtzman is especially exciting in the sections in which Kurtzman’s later projects are presented and discussed–such as Trump, Humbug and Help!. Writers Denis Kitchen and Paul Buhle present example after example of the kind of genius-level work that Kurtzman produced for those magazines that are legendary for their creativeness–as well as for their obscurity.
Speaking of genius, this book also presents eight pages of Kurtzman’s abortive adaptation of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. In every possible way, this adaptation is gorgeous and tantalizing. Kurtzman’s command of every element of his artwork is fully on display–from brilliant storytelling to a gorgeous color palette to spectacular illustrations. It’s tantalizing work that has to make any reader wonder how different comics history might have been if this amazing graphic novel had been completed and published.
Unfortunately, that feeling of “what if” is emblematic of much of Kurtzman’s career. He was a man of grand ideas who was never able to make any money from his ideas. Though he created MAD–one of the most influential and successful comics of all time–Kurtzman was never able to really duplicate his great success. Whether with his abortive humor magazines, his interesting side-projects, or his graphically sumptuous (but entirely compromised) work on “Little Annie Fanny,” Kurtzman was never quite able to gain the professional success that he strove for during so much of his life.
However, this book brings Harvey Kurtzman’s entire career together in one place, and it makes a tremendously compelling case for the man’s genius. This is a book that any devoted Kurtzman, MAD or EC fan will find indispensable.