Jason Sacks interviews author Bill Schelly, author of Harvey Kurtzman, The Man Who Created MAD and Revolutionized Humor in America. (Hardcover, 640 pages, $39.99, Fantagraphics Books) – Publication date: May 2015
Bill Schelly: First and foremost, Harvey Kurtzman was an innovator. There had never been a comic book like Mad when he invented it in 1952, or a magazine like Mad when he changed its format in 1955. There had never been a serious-minded, artfully produced war comic book like Two-Fisted Tales when he invented it in 1950. And later, there had never been a fully-painted comic strip like Little Annie Fanny when he created it, with Will Elder, for Playboy in 1962. In the book, I quote philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer who said, “Talent hits a target that no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see.” Kurtzman was a genius. Of course, in Mad, he satirized popular culture in a way that changed humor in America. And he wrote and designed every story in the first 23 issues of Mad.
Sacks: The issue of how Kurtzman changed satirical humor can be hard for those below a certain age to appreciate. Can you explore what made Kurtzman’s approach unique and different?
Schelly: During World War II, people believed the war was just and dissenting views weren’t countenanced after Pearl Harbor. People invested a great deal of trust in government because President Roosevelt was the commander in chief of the military, and this tended to extend to other government institutions. After the war, there was even a greater push for conformity, which ended up causing books like Catcher in the Rye to be banned. The average kid didn’t have access to entertainment outside of the mainstream, until Mad came along. Comic books slipped under the radar of society’s so-called guardians, and reached virtually everywhere, including small backwater towns. Mad began by satirizing popular culture icons like Superman, then the consumerist lifestyle, and then even Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunts which were at their peak in 1953. Mad satirized attempts of do-gooders like Dr. Fredric Wertham who wanted to sanitize, if not destroy, comic books. Satire involves criticism, which is why it can be so controversial, yet Kurtzman had the ability to do it and be very, very funny.
If you want to see evidence of the influence of Mad, check out Saturday Night Live. Its satires of consumer products, pop culture figures and government officials were exactly the kind of thing Mad pioneered in the early 1950s. To paraphrase Harry Shearer, a member of the Not Yet Ready for Prime Time Players, without Harvey Kurtzman, there would have been no Saturday Night Live, and there would have been no Simpsons. Nowadays, we think this kind of satire has been around forever. No, in large part, it began with Mad.
Sacks: What did you learn in writing this book that surprised you?
Schelly: There were so many surprises…. In the course of my research, I uncovered a lot of things that hadn’t been known before about Kurtzman’s life, his creative processes, the things that drove him, how his particular satirical point of view developed. His father went to prison when Harvey was sixteen. He was investigated by the FBI for allegedly publishing anti-American comic books. After he left Mad, when Kurtzman was struggling, a great benefactor who could have helped him throughout the rest of his career was suddenly killed in a freak plane crash. All kinds of things.
Sacks: What do you imagine might have happened if his possible benefactor hadn’t died?
Schelly: Just that the man, Harris Shevelson, who edited the magazines Pageant and Madison Avenue was a huge fan of Kurtzman’s work. He was a brilliant editor and would probably have been in a position to continue giving Kurtzman assignments over the years. Having another third major market in addition to Playboy and Esquire would have benefitted Kurtzman significantly, both financially and creatively.
Sacks: What brought Kurtzman to Playboy? I know he had some failures between his time at Mad and his time at Playboy.
Schelly: After creating Mad, and converting it to a magazine in 1955, Kurtzman left after just five magazine issues to edit a full-color satire magazine called Trump for Hugh Hefner. Hefner’s Playboy had become a huge hit, and Hefner was a Kurtzman fan. But when Hefner became financially overextended in early 1957, he had to pull the plug on Trump, leaving Kurtzman out in the cold. There weren’t that many places that he could take his satirical talent. He tried self-publishing with Humbug, but that didn’t work out.
Meanwhile, he kept pitching ideas to Hefner for Playboy. Eventually, Hefner liked Kurtzman’s idea for Little Annie Fanny, a sort of cartoon version of Voltaire’s Candide. It began appearing in late 1962. This ongoing feature allowed Kurtzman to get his financial situation stabilized. He stuck with Annie for the next 25 years. Not, maybe, his greatest work, though Willy Elder’s artwork over Kurtzman’s layouts was pretty wonderful. But by then, Kurtzman was just happy working for a slick, even classy, magazine like Playboy, and being able to support his wife and kids.
Sacks: How did you research this book? Did you speak to his family?
Schelly: Yes. I had no desire to do a book that just lashed together material that was already known about Kurtzman, quote from existing interviews, and so on. I resolved to do original research, which began with interviews with Kurtzman’s family, and all of his colleagues and friends who were still alive. I interviewed his wife Adele, who is now ninety years old and sharp as a tack, and his daughters Meredith, Liz and Nellie, as well as his nephew Adam Kurtzman. They were very forthcoming, incredibly helpful and patient with me.
I also interviewed several of his publishers, such as Hugh Hefner, publisher of Playboy and Trump, James Warren, publisher of Help! magazine, Denis Kitchen, and even Stan Lee, who wasn’t a publisher per se, but who hired him to work for Timely Comics after World War II. I interviewed Jack Davis who worked with Kurtzman at EC, and Al Jaffee and Arnold Roth, who were co-owners with Kurtzman of Humbug magazine in the late 1950s. I interviewed many of the underground comix guys, who Kurtzman published in Help! in the 1960s, such as R. Crumb, Skip Williamson, Gilbert Shelton and Jay Lynch. And a lot of other people. Also, I was able to use material from unpublished Kurtzman interviews, so in a very real sense, there are new, fresh insights in the book provided by Harvey Kurtzman himself.
Sacks: Can you share one or two great stories about Kurtzman that came from your interviews, without taking away too much from the book?
Schelly: Hmm. There are some great anecdotes, but it’s a bit of a problem because this is a family site, and nearly all of them have something to do with sex. One comes to mind. In June 1969, Kurtzman was a special guest at Goddard College in Vermont, to appear on a panel called “Comics and Mass Consciousness.” This was at the height of the hippie era, when Playboy was under attack by Feminists. Kurtzman is on the dais with Gilbert Shelton, who did the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, and was discussing Little Annie Fanny. Some rather militant Feminists attacked the strip, and there was a discussion. It was a fairly civil exchange when Kurtzman was talking, but then factions in the audience began arguing between each other, and things got pretty contentious. Suddenly, a group of people in the audience took off their clothes, and stood there, saying something like, “You guys don’t know anything about love and sex! That’s where it’s at! Love is all there is” and so on. Then several of them broke into couples and lay down right on the library floor, and began having sex right in front of the dais. The resulting chaos ended the panel discussion. One witness said Kurtzman just sat there, watching, looking bemused.
Sacks: What do you see as Harvey Kurtzman’s greatest legacy?
Schelly: Two things: the style of humor in Mad, and the idea that sequential art can be “art with a capital a.” We tend to forget that comic books before 1950, when Kurtzman came along, were produced just to entertain, and seldom had stories with serious themes, and with sophisticated story-telling methods. No one thought of them as any more than throwaway entertainment, which isn’t a bad thing. But comics had the potential to be so much more than just that. Kurtzman was, to my mind, the first to see the potential of the medium – that comics could be read and enjoyed by adults, and were a form that was as legitimate as any other art form. This is something that’s widely understood today, and it started with Kurtzman’s work at EC.
Sacks: How would you compare Kurtzman’s approach to comics as Art to Will Eisner’s take on comics in that way?
Schelly: Will Eisner was able to lavish a great deal of time into The Spirit because, as a newspaper writer-cartoonist, he was making much more money than he would had he turned out the same number of pages for comic books. The economic model was different, and also newspaper comics were read by both adults and kids, and even had a certain intellectual cache. In that situation, Eisner was able to explore the potential of sequential art in the post-war years, but always catering to his readers. In Kurtzman’s case, he was working in what was considered a junk medium, yet he was producing stories for Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat that used incredibly sophisticated storytelling methods, and often reached for truths that would have been just as valid in a great short story in The New Yorker.
War comics were great for this because they pitted man against man, so you could write stories dealing with life and death, the “big issues,” and he did it with amazing artistry, using poetic language and construction, and so on. One of his best known sequences is in “Corpse on the Imjin!” It shows an American soldier in Korea fighting with a North Korean soldier, and eventually drowning him in a river. The way the action is shown in multiple panels to slow down time is just brilliant. And yet, the narrator of the story has great sympathy for the enemy soldier who lost his life. To me, this sort of work by Kurtzman goes beyond what Eisner did, and Kurtzman did it without paying attention to the commercial viability of the work. But again, newspapers and comic books are two very different mediums and different economic models.
Sacks: Are you happy with the way the book turned out?
Schelly: Yes, although I never expected it would be almost 650 pages long. And that’s after I cut about 30,000 words! It’s the same length as the Charles Schulz biography that came out a few years ago. I wrote it so it reads like a good story, carrying you along with what writers call “narrative thrust.” So I want potential readers to be assured that it’s definitely not padded, and there are something like 250 illustrations and photos in there, so you can see examples of the work while it’s being talked about in the text. The good people at Fantagraphics Books did a tremendous job editing it and putting it all together. I had a blast working on it, so naturally it’s my fondest wish that people like it. It’s certainly the first time Harvey Kurtzman’s complete story has been told, and it’s an honor to be the one to tell it.