That Old Feeling: Hail, Harvey!

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I loved the three main MAD artists. (Severin, whose cubic-jawed heroes were more suitable for action comics, dropped out after issue #10. His sister Marie, who colored many of the EC stories, remained.) Davis’ willowy babes and western varmints, their stench rises from the magazine’s pages, their size 18 shoes giving them a clownish cast, glamorized any number of TV parodies. His work was the cartooniest of the three main artists, the most ostensibly distinctive, and it gave him a long, fruitful career doing covers for TIME (26) and TV Guide. David was always grateful for Kurtzman’s early guidance. “What Harvey did, with MAD and Two-Fisted Tales, was a lot of fun,” he told Eisner. “It was great and I enjoyed it. The horror bit, you know — with all of my stuff — one night we had a big bonfire and I burned all of those comic books. [chuckles]” Now there’s a horror story with an awful ending. Of course, this was before eBay.

Wood, whose lusciously shaded style was influenced by Milton Caniff, and who in 1949 had drawn Eisner’s “The Spirit” strip for three weeks (even famous cartoonists had to take their families on vacation), did many of Kurtzman’s adventure-strip parodies: “Flesh Garden!”, “Bat Boy and Rubin!”, “Prince Violent!” and, crucially, “Superduperman,” the story (in MAD #4) that joyously outed the magazine’s impulse to parody pop culture. Clark Bent, assistant to the copy boy, believes that if only ace reporter (and prime Wood dish) Lois Pain knew he was Superduperman she’d be his love slave instead of his tormentor (“Geddouda here, ya creep!”). Finally he reveals his true identity and she still walks out. Kurtzman’s moral: Once a creep, always a creep.

He and Wood combined on two of MAD’s wittiest stories. “3-Dimensions!” is a spoof of the then-current fad for 3-D comic books; the two outlines, red and blue, of a walking man gradually separate until one of the outlines falls in a manhole while the other keeps strolling. “Sound Effects!”, which tells a complex murder mystery using nothing but grunts, creaks, oofs and the indispensible “Aargh!”, is a comic twist on all the GNAs, WONKs and BA-DOOM!s of his war comics.

Elder, 82, and Davis, 79, are still alive to bathe in the memorial glow of their EC work. Wood, who produced nearly a thousand pages for EC in 1950-55, lost vision in one eye and contracted a kidney disease. Facing the prospect of life on a dialysis machine, Woody said no thanks and put a fatal bullet in his temple in 1981. He was 54.



MAD GOES MAG

The horror-comic witch haunt, described in last week’s column, dented the sales of EC’s top sellers. Gaines, once publisher of 10 titles, now had one: MAD. (He even released Feldstein, who had written and designed seven of those magazines.) Kurtzman, as creator and operator of the company’s only asset, was being romanced by Harris Shevelson, the editor of Pageant magazine, a biweekly Reader’s Digest imitation. Pageant had run a flattering piece on MAD, actually identifying Kurtzman (not Gaines) as the brains behind it, and Shevelson wanted Harvey to be his chief deputy at Pageant. Desperate to keep his only editorial asset, Gaines revived a notion Kurtzman had floated months before: to turn MAD comic into MAD Magazine. Kurtzman agreed — just as well, since Pageant would be kaput in less than a decade. On the inside back cover of issue #23 the great announcement was made. “For the past two years now, MAD has been dulling the senses of the country’s youth. Now we get to work on the adults.”

The full-size, black-and-white, 48-page, 25-cent MAD made its debut with #24, the July 1955 issue. Its cover featured an illustrated frame (by Kurtzman) indicating the subjects to be surveyed inside, including Literature (a crossword puzzle), Drama (the Janus faces, one with 3D glasses), Music (a juke box), Politics (the three “no evil” monkeys), Sport (a pinball machine), Radio (a cobwebbed set with a rat nearby), Television (a man’s foot manacled to a set showing a wrestling match), Business (an executive with a sexy secretary on his lap). In a cameo in the top center was a soon-to-be-familiar face with the legend, “What — me worry?”

Kurtzman first put this laughing-kid face on the cover of Ballantine Books’ “The MAD Reader,” a collection of stories from the comic book. He then appeared as a tiny icon on the cover of MAD #21. Through Kurtzman’s MAD magazine reign the face and the name — Alfred L. or Alfred E. Neuman (art director John Putnam says he changed the initial for euphony — showed up frequently, though not always together. Sometimes he was ID’d as Melvin Cowsnofski. Elder’s “Ed Suvillan” parody (#27) features an apple-cheeked, bespectacled Alfred L. Neuman as a bit player and, on the tag page, a Judge Alfred E. Neuman. Alfred E. appears as a thin man with big teeth in Wood’s “Talk”; as a portly fellow, dead in a tutu, in Elder’s “Radiodetectiveland”; and as a blind pitcher in Davis’ “Baseball: Science or Skill.” By the end of Kurtzman’s year making MAD a magazine, the name, the face and the “What, me worry?” phrase had come together to form the magazine’s corporate logo, which Feldstein would codify as MAD’s cover boy from issue #30 on.

“Bill gave me carte blanche,” Kurtzman recalled in Maris Reidelbach’s “Completely MAD,” an illustrated history of the magazine. “And with my carte blanche, I went out into the world of newsstands and bought a bunch of magazines, because I needed a totally original format. ... [T]here were no guidelines. Make up the guidelines: now there was a great creative moment for me.” Once again, he was looking for models to twist, upend and make funny. With the first issue of MAD comic, Kurtzman had basically parodied the tone and stories of other EC comics. With the first issue of MAD magazine, he filched mainly from Life: stories broken into categories, or “departments,” with panels of drawings above perhaps a half-page of text. The same artists were employed, but with Elder, Wood and Davis parodying magazine photographs instead of enlarging on the visual vocabulary of comic books.

In MAD comic, Kurtzman had occasionally flirted with — no, dated on a semi-regular basis — the magazine format. Social-trend parodies like “Restaurant!” and “Newspapers!” (both MAD #16), “Supermarkets!” (#19), “Cowboy!” (#20), “Slow Motion!” ($21) and “Scenes We’d Like to See!” (#23) gave hints of the magazine approach he envisioned — and which future MAD writer Dave Berg would use in his “Lighter Side of...” series. But these early pieces stories still had characters drawn as vivid caricatures; the narration still ran atop the panel and ended with the usual exclamation marks (to cue the reader’s laugh). All was subtler in the magazine version. Kurtzman was working on the adults, or the kids with a quarter to spend.

Among the funny stuff: Doodles Weaver’s strict copyediting of the Gettysburg Address, advising Lincoln to change “Four score and seven” to eighty-seven (“Be specific”), noting that there are six “dedicates” (“Study your Roget”), wondering “proposition” isn’t misspelled and, finally exasperated, urging the writer to omit “Of the people, by the people, and for the people” as “superfluous.” The parodies were often super-sharp: the movie “whose title brings to mind the man who sat down on a tattoo needle and... HE ROSE TATTOOED”: the comic-strip “Starchie,” in which Bottleneck (Jughead) wears a swastika on his sweater. Best of all were the many fake ads, usually drawn by Elder with a verisimilitude that exposed, on closer look, the fly in the bottle of Chanel No. 5, or the golf ball (instead of an egg) stuck to the Band-Aid, or the whiskey ad with a slogan I later had my pre-school nieces memorize as comic wisdom — “Drink enough Canadian Clubbed and you’ll drink Canada dry.”



SNAILS CALCULATED TO DRIVE GAINES MAD

The new MAD was an instant hit. But EC was still strapped for cash. With the failure of its New Direction and Picto-Fiction lines, and the bankruptcy of his distributor Leader News, Gaines was $110,000 in debt. He was ready to cease publication, but Kurtzman convinced him that would be foolish, with MAD magazine generating big mo (money and momentum). So Gaines and his mother each put up $50,000 to cover the shortfall. Kurtzman, to get more money for his artists, took a pay cut. MAD saved the company.

But where was MAD? Or, rather, when? Fifty-two pages (48 plus the cover and gag ads) of an 8-1/2x11-inch magazine took more time for one man to produce than 30 pages of the 7x10-inch comic book. A lot more time, when the man was Kurtzman. The magazine was aiming for a bimonthly schedule, but the issue dates — June 55, September 55, November 55, Spring 56, Summer 56 (which was promoted as the “Spring Issue”) — show that Kurtzman wasn’t close to meeting his deadlines. He turned out five MAD magazines in a period when eight bimonthly issues should have appeared. That leaves three phantom issues, with phantom income for Gaines.

Another thing: Under the Life format an issue of MAD now contained 15 or more stories instead of the comic-book four. So Kurtzman had to brainstorm four times as many subjects as before. That wouldn’t be a catastrophe for a delegator, but with the exception of short pieces by Ernie Kovacs, Roger Price and a few other comedians, Harvey was still writing and tissue-drawing every piece. Gaines had to sit and simmer while Harvey’s proceeded at the snail’s pace of a perfectionist.

Also, while ostensibly giving Kurtzman’s parodic impulses more breadth — he could lampoon just about anything — the Life-style parodies didn’t provide Kurtzman with the narrative engine the comic-book format did. Each story was a report, essentially a series of gags, rather than a story with its own comic jet propulsion. It allowed him to get inside trends but not, so much, inside characters. Even the movie parodies were typically only two to four pages, and often they were “covered” as Life would — in mock-photo and mock-caption form — rather than by recapitulating and twisting the plot. The wit on display was cooler, drier... I’ll say grayer, befitting the monochrome inside pages that had replaced colorist Marie Severin’s lusciously lurid coating of the artists’ black-and-white originals in the EC comics.

Now, though, MAD was EC. And Kurtzman figured he should be rewarded for years of underpaid brilliance. He had made Gaines a bundle. Moreover, Hugh Hefner, whose Playboy was the other big magazine success story of the 50s, had offered him the chance to start his own full-color magazine. Through his business manager Harry Chester, Kurtzman told Gaines he wanted 51% of the company. Gaines threw him out. Harvey had completed 23 issues of MAD comic, five of MAD magazine. His reign lasted four years. And though he would create some wonderful magazines over the next decade, and would be a mentor and beacon to artists for the rest of his life — Saint Harvey — the Great Moment was over.

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