(4 of 5)
Re-enter Feldstein. “I was let go by Bill after his Distributor's bankruptcy,” the old Crypt-maker e-mailed me, “and was on the street for about 3 weeks, doing free-lance scripts and peddling an idea for an Adult Humor Magazine that would be a 'showcase' for Iconoclastic Humorists such as Lenny Bruce, Shelly Berman, Bob and Ray, etc. I was also in negotiations to form an "experimental title" department for a comic book publisher... and was returning from a meeting with them when I was met at the Merrick station of the LIRR by Bill Gaines, who informed me that he had just fired Harvey Kurtzman and then asked me if I'd like to come back to work for him. I agreed (happily, because I hated Free-Lance work!)... and then he cagily asked me what we would do together (knowing damned well that Lyle Stuart had recommended that he re-hire me to do MAD!)...and I answered with the words he wanted to hear: ‘We’ll continue doing MAD! It has great potential!’”
Together, Gaines and Feldstein set about trying to make a regular buck. “[W]hen Kurtzman left here and Al came back and took his place,” Gaines told EC teen historian Fred von Bernewitz in 1957, “one of the first things we decided was that our policy in the past had been very poor, when we were putting quality first and good business practice so completely second that we ended up practically out of business. And one of the things we definitely decided to do was: let’s sell MAD, first. And let’s try to make it a good worthy magazine second. ... The first thing to do is to make profits, cause if you don’t have profits, you’re out of business, just like Trump.”
Trump, Humbug, Help! Those are the titles of the three magazines Kurtzman created after MAD, and two of them are muttered exclamations. (Three, if you got fired off “The Apprentice.”) They may have expressed the increasing frustration Kurtzman felt as he tried to sustain and extend his approach to humor without benefit of the MAD brand. Indeed, the cover of Trump proclaimed it “a new magazine which would like to say....mainly HELP!” And, in the Prospectus on page one: “This, then, shall be the purpose of Trump. Making money. You have the money, You give it to us.”
Hefner gave Kurtzman the money for Trump. Elder, Davis, Wood (briefly) and Al Jaffee gave Harvey their loyalty; they left the sure thing of MAD for the iffy proposition of Trump. Chester came along as managing editor, leaving the MAD house virtually untenanted. (More about that later.) So did a flock of Kurtzman fans, including three kids from Philadelphia: Benson, later the EC scholar; Robert Crumb, later the weird cartoonist; and me. There were others who, in perhaps the first act of political idealism in their lives, renounced MAD in protest over its editor’s departure. “When Kurtzman left MAD, it was just a terrible moment,” Terry Gilliam, then a Los Angeles high school student, recalled in an interview for the Elder book. “And I just hated Bill Gaines. Gaines was like a monster, and Feldstein a traitor! I thought this was disgusting and just stopped reading MAD after Harvey left.”
This, of course, was decades before the Internet grapevine instantly told fans of their idols’ activities. Yet somehow kids knew that the old MAD men had a new magazine. Trump sold for 50 cents, five times the cost of MAD two years before. It was lavish, offering in the first issue a panoramic watercolor foldout, painted by Elder and Russ Heath, of a Life-type Epic of Man, updated to the 20th century, and, in the second, a nine-page parody of Sports Illustrated whose cover image, “First head-on photo of a bullet taken without mirrors,” shows the photographer, as reflected in the speeding bullet, screaming and dropping his camera.
And it was good. Some pieces lodged in my funny-brain when I read in 1957 and have stayed there, for reference and refreshment. Elder’s Beck (Breck) shampoo ad for three kinds of hair: Dry, Oily and No. The Ed Fisher cartoon showing a cowboy at an Indian reservation opening a rifle-shaped box marked farming tools and exclaiming, “Great scott! Farming Tools!” Davis’ anti-hunting hunting story. Foremost, the Arnold Roth piece called “Russians Inventions We Invented First”: vodka, borscht, Russian roulette and veto “a word commonly identified with Russian U.N. delegation, was the accidental creation of Harry Thimk, sign-painter from Bushes, Florida” who tried to paint a VOTE sign but misspelled it. (Note the creepy presentiment in the town and state: In the 2000 Presidential election, the Bushes insured that Florida votes were vetoed.)
The failure of Gaines’ magazine distributor had forced a crisis at EC. In 1957, the same thing happened to Hefner’s distributor. Faced with mounting debt, he cut costs at Playboy and, though a fan of Trump, killed Kurtzman’s baby after just two issues. Within a few months, Harvey was ready to start once more, this time bringing Elder, David, Roth and Chester into a consortium for an artist-owned magazine called Humbug. The cover of its premiere issue (August 1957) was in the dire Kurtzman mode: “The end of the world is coming.” And, inside, this declaration of editorial principle: “We won’t write for morons. We won’t do anything just to get laughs. We won’t be dirty. We won’t be grotesque. We won’t be in bad taste. We won’t sell magazines.”
The faithful were buying. It wasn’t always easy to find Humbug (which, in its meager 6-1/2x9-1/2-inch size, often got lost on the magazine rack), let alone to read it (poor-quality stock, and large type for the dialogue balloons that dwarfed the illustrations); but I found, read and enjoyed. Kurtzman and Elder teamed on more excellent movie parodies: “Doll-Baby,” in which repo men remove our heroine’s furniture, boyfriend and comic-strip panel; “Around the Days in 80 Worlds,” featuring 80 (count em) expert celebrity caricatures; and “Jailbreak Rock,” an Elvis send-up that contained the immortal line, “I’m going to give you a ‘Hollywood beating,’ the sound effects of which you will never forget.”
New recruit Larry Siegel (later a MAD stalwart and an Emmy-winning writer for Carol Burnett) did fine lampoons of popular novels “Something of Mau Mau,” “Marjorie Morningsun,” “Pagan Place.” And Roth did some terrific work, including a two-pager of Baseball Predictions and Travel Posters for world hot spots. He also fed the magazine’s obsession with Teamster boss Dave Beck; Roth gave Beck the Playboy centerspread treatment as Pinup of the Month.
Humbug had an official Neuman-like mascot: Seymour Mednick. The idea was to establish a funny name, like Kurtzman’s old favorite Melvin Cowsnofski, except that Mednick was an actual person a photographer of artful album covers. That’s where I came in. In a letter in Humbug #9, I declared I was starting a Seymour Mednick Fan Club. Some people responded and, on the mimeograph machine in my father’s office, I cranked out a few issues of the SMFC Bulletin, quite possibly the lamest fanzine ever published. All copies are lost, I’m pleased to report, but the fiasco had a lovely side benefit: I met and befriended Arnold Roth, a fellow Philadelphian who, with what must have been masochistic graciousness, allowed me to phone or visit him, his lovely wife Caroline and their infant son. Arnold also helped warp my fragile little mind by lending me LPs of a new comedian, Lenny Bruce. (I’ll repay that gift in a column next month.)
In a Benson memoir of his youth as a Kurtzmaniac, he wrote about Roth’s kindness to him. (Wait a minute! I was Arnold’s groupie! I felt like the rich man’s mistress who finds out he had another one he loved better.) He was just one of several Kurtzman fans who devoted parts of their careers to EC scholarship. Von Bernewitz, who published the mimeographed Complete EC Checklist in 1955, revised it in later editions, which was eventually expanded into “Tales of Terror!”, the indispensible guide to EC in the 50s. Bhob Stewart, whom von Bernewitz cites as the kid who turned him on to EC, had an acting and writing career (the 1985 cartoon series “Kissyfur”) and edited the gorgeous book on Wally Wood’s art “Against the Grain.” Benson interviewed Gaines and Kurtzman for Russ Cochran’s 1987 publication of the complete MAD comic-book run in a four-volume hardback format; edited the superb, rigorously researched Squa Tront fanzine; and contributed research and insights to “Tales of Terror!”
But a few fans, however rabid and informed, could not sustain a magazine with no fat-cat backers, only the staff cooperative that published it. On the first page of Humbug issue #11, the headline read: Man We’re Beat! “Satire has got us beat,” Kurtzman wrote. “1953 We started MAD magazine for a comic-book publisher and we did some pretty good satire and it sold very well. 1956 We started Trump magazine...and we worked much harder and we did much better satire and we sold much worse. 1957 We started Humbug magazine and we worked hardest of all and turned out the very best satire of all, which of course now sells the very worst of all.” He cited the magazine’s original declaration (“We won’t sell any magazines”) and added, “Humbug has not let its readers down!” He concluded: “And now ... as they throw rocks at Vice President Nixon ... as space gets cluttered with missiles ... and as our names are carefully removed from our work in MAD pocketbooks a feeling of beatness creeps through our satirical veins and capillaries and we think how George S. Kaufman once said, ‘Satire is something that closes Saturday night’....”
FROM HELP! TO HEF
Humbug died with that issue, but the editor kept busy: writing and illustrating the four stories in “Harvey Kurtzman’s Jungle Book,” the first original cartoon paperback; composing “The Grasshopper and the Ant,” a 1960 four-pager for Esquire (now available in beautiful book form from Kitchen Sink Press); and working with Elder on stories for Pageant, some of which are reprinted in “The Mad Playboy of Art.” (Could our H.K. have also been the pseudonymous Herman Klopfinger III who in 1960 wrote the text for the Elder-illustrated “Hateful Thoughts for Happy Occasions”? I hope so. It would increase the value of the copy I bought then and still have.)