Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created Mad and Revolutionized Humor in America, by Bill Schelly ***-****

HarveykurtzmanKurtzman was a comic genius who was ahead of his time. He created MAD magazine and also left his mark in comic book history and in men’s magazines such as Playboy. My great thanks go to Edelweiss, Above the Treeline and the publishers for the DRC.

Schelly, another MAD alum, has fastidiously documented every aspect of this biography. It begins with Kurtzman’s birth to parents active in the Communist Party USA and the International Workers of the World. Kurtzman himself was not a Communist, but opposed racism and was a progressive thinker. He was educated at a public art school in New York City that was funded by the Works Progress Administration, which is where he learned lettering skills that would stand him in good stead in the comics industry.

MAD was a creature of its time, and Schelly suggests that even comics, which were frowned upon by the older generation, were a tool that young people used to break free of the repressive society of the 1950s. Kurtzman created war comics and horror comics for EC, and maintained a furious work ethic. His humor entries began as “Look Here!”, a single page of filler, and then grew when comics began to wane under the government’s newly devised Comic Code, which was itself a blow to the First Amendment and drove a number of comics out of business. In fact, MAD began as a comic also, but went to magazine format in order to break free of code restrictions. It never applied for code approval, and was a breath of fresh air and gut-splitting humor to those of us that grew up reading it. Unfortunately, he and Bill Gaines, the publisher, came to a parting of the way after the magazine’s first year had ended, so although his signature still graces the cover of every subsequent issue because of the continued use of his cover art, those seeking a biography of MAD Magazine (and I confess I was) are not going to get much of it.

Multiple examples of Kurtzman’s work (signed “Kurtz” with a stick-figure man following) are given full page space in this volume. My advice to you is that if you read it, you don’t buy it digitally. There is so much detail that as the text suggests, one needs a microscope to get it all at full size. Of course, mine was free, and reading it digitally was still a privilege in such a case. If you’re going to pony up the money, try to get it on paper. I think you’ll enjoy it more.

I confess I was personally never interested in comics, and Playboy magazine is a hot-button subject, and so I skimmed that portion of the biography.

Kurtzman was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in his late 50’s and then cancer as well. He died at 68 and was cremated.

Reading Schelly’s biography made me crave a coffee-table volume of MAD Magazine art. I kept a copy of this subversive little periodical tucked inside my biology text book in middle school. I ask you to imagine MAD Magazine and Watergate. I wish I had saved every issue, but I passed them on to friends, which is also a great thing to do.

MAD as we knew it is moribund. It was taken over–if I remember correctly, by the TIME people, but certainly by a big-business press–and it has been shrunk, commercialized and sanitized to where it’s no longer interesting. The work of Kurtzman, Schelly, Jaffee, and the other MAD geniuses was what made it so brilliant.

For those with a strong interest in comic art history, highly recommended. For those interested in MAD history, recommended if you can find it at a discount or in a library.

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