Harvey Kurtzman was born on October 3, 1924 in Brooklyn, New York. As a child he drew Ikey and Mikey, a regular comic strip done in chalk on sidewalks. In 1939, Kurtzman entered a cartoon contest in Tip Top Comics, winning a prize of one dollar. He attended New York’s High School of Music and Art, where he first met future collaborators Will Elder, Harry Chester, Al Jaffee and John Severin.
After graduating from Cooper Union, he freelanced for such second-tier comic book companies as Ace and Timely. It was at Timely (which later became Atlas and then Marvel) that he drew his first humorous “Hey Look!” gag cartoons. Timely used them whenever an issue was one page short. Kurtzman also produced Silver Linings, a comic strip which ran in the New York Herald Tribune from March 7 to June 20, 1948.
In 1952, he became the founding editor of the comic book Mad. Kurtzman was also known for producing (with Will Elder) the long-running Little Annie Fanny color strip in Playboy magazine from 1962 to 1988, satirizing many of the very attitudes that Playboy promoted.
Because Mad had a considerable impact on popular culture, Kurtzman was later described by The New York Times as having been “one of the most important figures in postwar America.” Director and comedian Terry Gilliam said, “In many ways Harvey was one of the godparents of Monty Python.” Underground cartoonist Robert Crumb asserted that one of Kurtzman’s cover images for Humbug “changed my life,” and that another Mad cover image “changed the way I saw the world forever!”
Writing for Time Magazine, Richard Corliss touted Kurtzman’s influence: “MAD was the first comic enterprise that got its effects almost entirely from parodying other kinds of popular entertainment… …to say that this became an influential manner in American comedy is to understate the case. Almost all American satire today follows a formula that Harvey Kurtzman thought up.”
Getting back to the golden age of the start of MAD magazine, Kurtzman had first found his niche at William Gaines‘ EC Comics, editing the war comics Frontline Combat and Two-Fisted Tales. Kurtzman was known for a painstaking attention to detail, typically sketching full layouts and breakdowns for the stories he assigned to artists and insisting they not deviate from his instructions. Despite (or because of) his autocratic approach, Kurtzman’s early 1950s work is still considered among the medium’s finest.
After EC stopped publishing due to comics censorship in the 1950s, the evolution of Mad was marked by Kurtzman’s recognition of his own value and talents. The comic book owed its existence to Kurtzman’s complaint to publisher Gaines that EC’s two editors – himself and Al Feldstein– were being paid substantially different salaries.
Gaines pointed out that Feldstein produced more titles for EC and did so more swiftly. The men then agreed that if Kurtzman could create a humor publication, Gaines would raise his pay substantially. Gaines agreed to expand Mad from a ten-cent comic book to a 25-cent magazine in 1955, a revamp that effectively removed Mad from the Comics Code Authority‘s censorious overview, thereby assuring its survival.
Kurtzman remained at the helm of the magazine only during the early issues of the first year, but that was long enough to establish the Kurtzman style there, including the introduction of the image soon named Alfred E. Neuman, the publication’s famous mascot.
While still with MAD, Kurtzman also became one of the writers for the relaunched Flash Gordon daily comic strip, which had previously been one of Mad’s satire targets, when his 1954 “Flesh Garden!” parody, illustrated by Wallace Wood.
In early 1956, with Mad sales increasing while all of EC’s other titles had been cancelled, Kurtzman requested a 51% share of Gaines’ business. Gaines response to this controlling interest demand was to hire Feldstein to replace Kurtzman as MAD’s editor. The incident has been a source of controversy ever since.
Some felt the magazine critically peaked under Kurtzman and never again regained its lightning in a bottle magic, settling into a predictable formula. Yet others felt that it was this very “assembly line of satire” formula that assured readers what they could rely on enjoying issue after issue.
In 1957, Kurtzman became the editor of Trump, published by Hugh Hefner of Playboy fame. It presented Kurtzman’s Mad sensibilities in a glossy, upscale magazine format. It only lasted for two issues. They reportedly sold well, but were expensive to produce, and publisher Hefner shut down the project during a costcutting crunch. Kurtzman later led an artists’ collective of himself, Will Elder, Jack Davis, Al Jaffee and Arnold Roth in publishing Humbug. Despite their efforts, and those of business manager Harry Chester, Humbug failed to overcome distribution and financial problems – it folded after 11 issues.
After the demise of Humbug, Kurtzman spent a few years as a freelance contributor to various magazines, including Playboy, Esquire, The Saturday Evening Post, and TV Guide.
Kurtzman’s last regular editorial position of note was from 1962 to 1966 at the helm of Help!, printed by Warren Publishing. Leaning heavily on photography, Help! gave the first national exposure to several artists and writers who would dominate underground comix later on, such as Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Jay Lynch and Skip Williamson.
The most notorious article to appear in Help! was “Goodman Beaver Goes Playboy!,” a ribald parody of Archie comics, that actually resulted in a lawsuit from Archie’s publisher. Despite a talented roster of friends and contributors including Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Gloria Steinem and Gahan Wilson, along with the above names, the magazine folded after 26 issues.
The magazine had also provided a brief forum for John Cleese and Terry Gilliam, who first worked together under Kurtzman’s direction, years before Monty Python. As a tribute, in his 1985 film Brazil, Gilliam gave Ian Holm’s character, the boss of protagonist Sam Lowry, the name “Kurtzmann.” A further tie between Kurtzman and the Python group was that Kurtzman’s assistant editor at Help! – Charles Alverson – later collaborated with Gilliam on the screenplay for Jabberwocky (1977).
Meanwhile, Kurtzman’s efforts on Little Annie Fanny, which in 1962 had begun its afore-mentioned 26-year run in Playboy, started out earning mixed reviews. Some admired it, yet felt it was “known more for its lavish production values than its humor.”
He also co-scripted the stop-animation film Mad Monster Party, which was released in 1967. (One could call it a “haunting” ancestor of later computer-generated Pixar products. Even viewed these days, “Party” still holds up rather well.)
Kurtzman produced several animated shorts in 1972 for Sesame Street, and that same year he even appeared in a Scripto TV commercial, drawing Little Annie Fanny on the wall of a prison cell. A series of reprint projects and one-shot efforts appeared in the 1970s and 1980s.
In 1988, when his naughty grownup parody of Little Orphan Annie “petered out” in Playboy, Kurtzman continued to work on anthologies and various other projects, as well as teaching a cartooning class at the School of Visual Arts.
That same year the annual Harvey Awards (named for Kurtzman, of course) were first given to the year’s outstanding comics and creators.
In the years before his passing, Kurtzman returned to Mad for a brief stint, along with long-time collaborator Will Elder. (Their pages were simply signed “WEHK.”) Kurtzman died of liver cancer at age 68 on February 21, 1993.
Kurtzman’s critical reputation has outlasted his career peaks and valleys, and he is routinely celebrated for his visual verve. In addition, he is often cited as a key influence by many leading cartoonists.
Gary Groth, the Journal’s co-publisher, is effusive in describing Kurtzman’s style: “It achieves some sort of Platonic ideal of cartooning. Harvey was a master of composition, tone and visual rhythm, both within the panel and among the panels comprising the page. He was also able to convey fragments of genuine humanity through an impressionistic technique that was fluid and supple.”
In 2009, The Art of Harvey Kurtzman: The Mad Genius of Comics, a comprehensive 256-page survey of Kurtzman’s drawings, paintings, comic strips, graphic stories, comic books, magazines and paperbacks, was published by Abrams. Written by Denis Kitchen and Paul Buhle, the book includes both preparatory work and finished pieces.
Kitchen said, “Too often, especially with the collaborative work, Kurtzman’s contribution is quite literally unseen. Harvey was masterful with compositions and the interaction of figures.
“Since he often worked with brilliant cartoonists like Will Elder, Jack Davis, Wally Wood, Al Jaffee and others, it’s easy for a casual reader to assume they were responsible for the imagery and Harvey ‘just wrote’ or ‘just laid out’ the stories. By showing how complete and vigorous his layouts are, it’s much clearer that he was a true director of the finished work.”
Kurtzman was inducted into the comic book industry’s Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame in 1989. And along with Eisner, Jack Kirby, Robert Crumb, Chris Ware and Gary Panter , Kurtzman was among the artists honored in the exhibition “Masters of American Comics” at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan from September 16, 2006 to January 28, 2007.