That Old Feeling: Hail, Harvey!

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In a Kurtzman war story, everyone was, potentially, collateral damage. Death has finality, but no meaning. His famous parable “Big ‘If’!” (Frontline Combat #5, reprinted in “From Aargh! to Zap!: Harvey Kurtzman's Visual History of the Comics”) is a soldier’s meditation on the implacability of the laws of chance. “‘If’! Not much of a word! A little word! But lots of meaning,” he muses. “If only that shell splinter had gone five more inches to the right... or if Paul Maynard’s heart had only been five more inches to the left... or if Paul Maynard hadn’t even been born! If... if... if...” The soldier sobs himself to sleep. To death — for the seven-page monologue is the split-second flash, an “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” epiphany, in which Paul Maynard understands mortality before he that shell splinter ends his life.

“Kurtzman’s naturalistic conviction [was] brought out by the absurdity of the war milieu,” writes Thomas Durwood in a superb essay in Crimmer’s: The Journal of the Narrative Arts (Spring 1976). “An American and a Korean, isolated from the war in a foxhole, exchange snapshots and then, when the battle reaches them, kill each other.... American soldiers are frightened and ashamed to kill, dialogue is interrupted when the speaker is shot and killed. Kurtzman is tied neither to an ideal of heroism not to a perspective of taking sides.... These people exist, these things happen. The only element Kurtzman adds to shape the events is drama, which serves to tease out the absurdity skulking just below the romantic surface. The face of death itself is faced with no embellishment, no symbolization into monsters or abstractions into spirituality: a random bullet in the face, the knife of an enemy soldier.”

He was a maniac for authenticity; he had to be able to convey how every bullet felt, how every weapon was made, how every blast assaulted a soldier’s ears. He supplemented memories of his war service with field trips of his own, such as the test flight he took in a Grumman seaplane. In Bhob Stewart’s handsome, comprehensive “Against the Grain: MAD Artist Wallace Wood,” Jerry De Fuccio, Kurtzman’s assistant (and later co-editor of MAD), recalled that “I was given a cast iron model of a Mauser to bring to Wally’s house in Forest Hills [actually Rego Park]. I was on a crowded subway platform; it fell out of the paper bag, and I picked it up very casually.” In Frank Jacobs’ EC history, “The MAD World of William M. Gaines,” De Fuccio says, “Harvey knew the research rooms of the New York Public Library inside out.” Kurtzman sent De Fuccio to the Naval Submarine Base in New London, Conn., to get “the scream of the klaxon, the sound of the diving alarm, the chime of the dinner bell.”

This aural research paid off in the “sound effects” that exploded in the war scenes, or snaked across panels, of Kurtzman’s pages: “GNA GNA GNA GNA” (machine-gun fire), “FROOSHT!” and “ZOOOOOOSH!” (a pair of rockets), “MMRROWW” (an air raid siren), “WEEEEEEEEEEEEEE” (the whizzing of an artillery blast) that ends in “BA-DOOM!” (as in doom). In “Rubble” we read — no, we hear — “The North Koreans came to conquer, with pistols [CRAK!], with rifles [POW!], with mortars [WONK!] and with cannons [BLAM!].” As the cinematic choice of perspective in Kurtzman’s storyboards effectively made the stories motion pictures, so the forceful use sound effects made them talkies. Or, at least, noisies.



A FLASH IN THE DAN

“When you’d pick up a story, Harvey would sit down with you and he would read it to you.” This is Jack Davis, 30 years after the fact, in a conversation with Kurtzman and comic-strip dean Will Eisner (reprinted in “Will Eisner’s Shop Talk”). “He acted it out, all the way through — the horses, if there were horses, and everything. When he got through with it, you felt like you’d lived the story.” This acting-out method was standard at EC: Feldstein or Gaines would read their stories aloud to anyone in the office, testing their dramatic potential. But Kurtzman needed more than a first listener. “In doing one of these stories, a lot of research went into it,” he told Eisner, “and I just had to pass that research on. It was some kind of ego thing, I guess. I probably drove everybody crazy with my demands, and I probably still do.”

That was the case throughout his career. Feldstein “scripted” his stories, but let his artists choose the pictorial point of view — the camera angle — for each panel. Kurtzman meticulously storyboarded his work on tissue paper, which he basically wanted the artists to trace over. “When he wrote a story on Army medics,” Jacobs writes, “He procured an official medical kit and told artist Jack Davis to reproduce it faithfully. ‘No, Jack,’ Kurtzman complained when he was brought the artwork, ‘the gauze pad goes to the right of the sulfa!’” (The anecdote is telling, but if Jacobs is referring to “Combat Medic!” in Frontline Combat #4, it’s not true; the piece has no closeup of a medical kit.) Kurtzman’s reputation for minute supervision followed him to the grave. A portion of Elder’s 1993 New Yorker tribute has Kurtzman peering over an artist’s shoulder, saying, “Looks great — do it over!”

But as wearying as working for Harvey must have been, being Harvey was tougher. The job was grinding him down without making him rich. The faster, more facile Feldstein could crank out seven bi-monthly magazines at a time, to Kurtzman’s two, and reap the monetary rewards. Kurtzman was so strapped for cash that, for about a year, beginning in April 1952, he scripted the daily comic strip Flash Gordon, drawn by Dan Barry (with occasional help from Davis and Frank Frazetta). Read the 1951-53 strips today, in a single large volume, and you’ll find a smart, addictive fantasy-adventure with some fine Kurtzman touches.

On the planet Tartarus, Flash and his gang are menaced by The Awful Forest, a grove of illusion that practically crushes Flash with sound effects like “Hooo-Hahaeeiay.” (“Hoo-hah!” was the title of the lead story in the first issue of MAD, which had just been published when this Flash Gordon segment appeared.) The inhabitants of Pasturia, the Utopian land beyond the Forest, have a measuring device called the Badulator — Flash’s sexy companion Marla registers “one thousand ‘erg’s of evil! The top of the scale!” — and a wish-granting machine, the Cornucopiak, which Marla manages to corrupt and nearly destroy. Sometimes Kurtzman’s irony is more direct. He shows Flash and faithful girlfriend Dale Arden embroiled in a lovers’ spat, then makes an aside: “Dear Reader, We will skip the details of an ageless argument...” (next panel) “...that ends in the usual way!” — with Flash succumbing to Dale’s pleas. The hero is henpecked!

While cordial to each other, the writer and the illustrator never agreed on the division of labor. Kurtzman wanted Barry to faithfully render his sketches, as his EC artists had done. Barry figured he was the boss, as indeed he was, and would be for the next 40 years. He retired from the daily strip in 1990; it was canceled three years later.

Kurtzman stopped scripting Flash Gordon in early 1953, but he couldn’t complain about being let go. By then he had another job at EC, writing and editing the company’s first flat-out humor magazine. As the logo had it: “Tales Calculated to Drive You MAD.”



HARVEY’S MAD

MAD made its debut in August 1952, with the Oct.-Nov. issue. It was published bimonthly for nine issues, then monthly from April 1954, by which time it was selling, according to one account, 750,000 copies — more than half-again as many as EC’s top horror titles. MAD’s success had the same effect on originality-deprived competitors as the popularity of the horror-comics line; a couple dozen “humor” titles sprang up within two years of MAD’s debut. One was EC’s in-house ripoff, Panic magazine. The bimonthly Panic ran for 12 issues, from early 1954 to the end of 55; the first six issues were written by Feldstein, the next six by Jack Mendelsohn (who would later work on various TV series and co-write the Beatles’ animated film “Yellow Submarine”).

In a column titled “What, Me Fifty?” I wrote about the MAD comic book, so I’ll fill in just a few blanks here. Each 32-page, four-color issue, like virtually every issue of all other EC publications, ran four illustrated stories, usually of eight, seven, six and seven pages. On Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat, the four stories were typically apportioned among these artists: Davis, Wood, Kurtzman himself and the team of John Severin and Bill Elder (John drew the pictures, Bill inked them). Harvey brought the whole crew over to MAD, while they continued drawing his war comics. The one change Kurtzman made was to split the Severin-Elder tandem so that each man was responsible for one story. This was a promotion for Elder; previously, he had done solo work on only one EC story (for Weird Science in the summer of 1952).

Before MAD, Elder was mad — first subtly, then rampant. Kurtzman’s autobiography notes that the teenage Elder had painted, in his bedroom, a landscape mural that changed foliage with the seasons. At the EC offices he used to set his finger on fire, after dipping it in rubber cement. (For many other anecdotes, and some gorgeous reproductions of this graphic comedian’s best work, buy, do not borrow, Gary Groth and Greg Sadowski’s “Will Elder: The Mad Playboy of Art.”) If Kurtzman and his MAD artists can be compared to another bunch of early-50s comic smarty-pantses, the Sid Caesar writing staff, then Elder was Mel Brooks. Both men were effusive, ideas-a-poppin’ tummlers who pushed their fellow wits to ever dizzier heights. Elder certainly had that effect on Kurtzman, who said Will would “carry my stuff forward and enrich it by a multiple of five.” See especially “Woman Wonder!” in MAD #10, “Starchie” (#12) and the all-time-fabulous “Mickey Rodent!” (#19).

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