Harvey Kurtzman is one of my absolute favorite cartoonists of all time. His cartooning on Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat is some of the most breathtaking work ever to appear in the comics medium, and his work on MAD is amazingly brilliant. I treasure my deluxe hardcover reprint of his short-lived Humbug and am anxious to read the long-promised collection of his Trump… and then… and then the backlog of unpublished Kurtzman work kind of runs dry.
The problem is that there’s precious little of Kurtzman’s comics that hasn’t been reprinted over the years. With his exacting focus on detail and perfection, Kurtzman left only a small legacy of stories. Compared with his peers Kirby and Eisner, Kurtman left behind a very small body of work for future generations.
So I was absolutely delighted to hear that one of Kurtzman’s long-lost stories, his version of Aesop’s fable “The Grasshopper and the Ant” from 1960, would be reprinted in a super-deluxe format and be overseen by Kurtzman’s longtime friend and biographer Denis Kitchen. If the list of unreprinted Kurtzman books was short, it only made sense that the latest reprint of his work be as gorgeous as it could be.
And this book is definitely gorgeous. Reprinted from the original art, Kurtzman’s art gets a perfect archival presentation. Every brushstroke in the art is perfectly preserved and presented in this book. It’s hard to imagine any art book presenting such a perfectly archival presentation of an artist’s work.
But the big problem here is that there’s just not all that much story for the book’s $25 cover price. I’ll get to the story here in a few paragraphs, but the fact remains that a reader only gets 36 actual pages of story for their $25. They may be gorgeously presented pages, with a fascinating little story, but the page/cost ratio here is one of the lowest I’ve ever seen for an archival presentation.
I’m sure that Kitchen and the staff of BOOM! made a calculation of the production costs of the book versus expected sales and decided to fall on the side of higher cost versus lower production quality. There’s no doubt that was the right decision to make based on the sumptuous quality of this book, and the work benefits from the presentation. But at this price point, it isn’t going to attract a lot of casual readers.
That’s really the problem here. I have trouble imagine this book selling beyond the cult of happy Kurtzman fans who already own copies of Goodman Beaver and Hey Look! and have studied every line of “Superduperman” and “Corpse on the Imjin.” Few new readers are likely to first encounter Kurtzman due to this book, and that’s a real shame. Heck, it’s hard for me to justify buying this book and I’m a huge fan of Kurtzman’s.
The fact is that, no matter how much Kitchen tries in his thoughtful introduction to talk up this story as “one of Kurtzman’s most poignant tales… the elusive promises of reward, the overriding cynicism and the pervading sense of dread in the story cannot easily be separated from Kurtzman’s own life experiences,” this is a short story, quickly consumed.
“The Grasshopper and the Ant” is a parable about the difference between squandering and saving. In Aesop’s famous fable, the grasshopper is a hedonist who never saves while the ant is a worker who saves diligently but never has fun. Kurtzman turns the parable into both a thinly veiled autobiography and commentary on American life in then-contemporary 1960.
The Grasshopper and the Ant has strong elements of poignancy and dread, and the temptations to read Kurtzman’s life experiences in this book are very high, but I was struck by how slight this story feels. The beatnik grasshopper and diligent ant may represent the real yin and yang of Kurtzman’s complex personality, but there’s just not enough length in this story to do much more than skim the surface of that analysis. I just wanted a little more story, because the story we do have is tantalizing.
Yeah, it seems rude to complain of brevity in a story that should seem wonderfully special, important and precious to any Kurtzman fan, but I just found myself wanting more from this little comic.
Because there really is an awful lot to like in this adaptation. First and foremost, Kurtzman’s art has a dynamism and life to it that makes the story jump off the comics page. At his best, Kurtzman’s work always had a manic intensity and vibrancy that gave his work a real sense of energy, and that vibrancy is very much on display here.
The real beauty of the style is that while it looks casual and dashed-off, the art is actually very well thought-out and designed. Freed from the need to create realistic looking characters, Kurtzman is able to create abstract figures with just a few brushstrokes that server to represent the abstract emotions that they’re feeling. That style is perfect for this story, which is all about the characters’ feelings and reactions.
Grasshopper loves his life of fun, excitement and deep contemplation, but he alternates between short term thinking and life in his own head. I love Grasshopper’s rant on page 11: “But Ant! What does it all mean? Should we not contemplate – question? After all – we have brains! That’s what separates insects from bacteria.” This rant comes a page after a moment of real slapstick humor. Only the great Kurtzman would combine high and low humor with such magnificent insight. And of course we can all see the satire in that scene.
We all like to spend time in our own heads, but nothing much eventually comes of that contemplation. In a surprisingly poignant moment towards the end of the book, Grasshopper tries to visit with his friend and seeming soulmate Cicada, only to find that Cicada is literally an empty husk. The symbolism is haunting. Too much fun and too much navel (thorax?) gazing lead to a strange sort of hollowness as a person that causes the person to dissipate in the cool fall winds.
It would be easy, then, to have the Ant be the character whose viewpoint is victorious, and in the hands of lesser talent, that might have been the case. But Kurtzman is too cynical and too thoughtful to fall into that trap. He delivers a shattering conclusion that works as a vicious satirical attack against all sides.
In the end, there are no easy answers, and simple platitudes about “hard work is its own reward” are too banal for Harvey Kurtzman to deliver with a straight face. The great cartoonist had struggled too hard in his career, suffered too many business setbacks, and simply was too cynical to accept such a simple view of the world.
No, Kurtzman delivered a deeply skeptical view of the world in this book. While he may have identified with both the beatnik Grasshopper and hardworking Ant, neither character represents the real Kurtzman. Harvey Kurtzman’s emotional life was too complex to fit the narrow borders of a simple parable. It’s a shame that this story is so short; with just a few more pages, Kurtzman might have delivered a work that delivered on all the vast potential of The Grasshopper and the Ant.