That Old Feeling: Hail, Harvey!

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And then he started another magazine, his last. Help!, published by James (Famous Monsters of Filmland) Warren, was the cheapest of all Kurtzman periodicals. It used, because it could afford, much less artwork from the MAD, Trump and Humbug veterans. Instead, it adapted the Italian fumetti — a series of staged photographs telling a story — and ran gag captions to movie or news photos, along with cartoons from college humor magazines and the burgeoning underground comix. Gilliam and Gloria Steinem were on the staff; Woody Allen and John Cleese were among the lesser-knows who appeared in the fumetti; Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Jay Lynch and Gilbert Shelton got their first national exposure (at $5 a pop) in Help!’s pages. The magazine lasted 26 issues, until the economic shoestring wore out.

From the launching of Two-Fisted Tales (Nov.-Dec. 50) to the folding of Help! (after the Sept. 65 issue), with Frontline Combat MAD and Trump and Humbug and “Jungle Book” in between, only 15 years had elapsed. For the cognoscenti, Kurtzman’s Pantheon status had long been secure. But could he make a living? He could, thanks to Hefner, a cartoonist in his youth. “I always enjoyed the comic-strip version of MAD, the cartoon parodies, more than what came later,” he recalled in the Elder book. Hef thought that Goodman Beaver — a trouble-prone, Candidean naif whom Kurtzman had introduced in “Jungle Book” and spun into five Help! tales illustrated by Elder — could be a continuing character in a Playboy comic feature. He just needed a sex change...into Little Annie Fanny.

Hefner always dreamed big, and often turned those dreams into a kind of reality. “Instead of the flat, fake color used in the Sunday funnies,” he wrote, “we decided that ‘Little Annie Fanny’ should be rendered in full color, just as the commercial artist does for a magazine illustration, and then reproduced in the same elaborate, expensive four-color separation and process printing as we use for the photography and art in the rest of the magazine.” It was a rich notion, and Hef paid for it — he reportedly paid the artists $4,000 a page for “Annie.” If that was the indeed the rate from the beginning, Kurtzman and Elder shared $140,000 for their nine stories the first year. Finally, they were getting some money.

The strip, shall we call it, certainly looked great. Hef’s demand that it be painted (tempera and watercolors) suited Elder’s ambitions as a fine artist. And though contributions to the panels by Davis, Heath, Frank Frazetta and other EC veterans sometimes jarred with the Elder overview, they added to the merry melange. (The whole series is available in two posh volumes from Dark Horse Comics.) A few good gags peeked through the artistry, like an episode on “the obscure Samoan island of Nakanuka,” where all the babies look like Marlon Brando (who had gone to live in the South Pacific and supposedly help populate the area with his offspring); and a Doomsday-movie burlesque, in which Annie thinks she hears an H-bomb explosion and her agent Solly (A Phil Silvers type) replies, “Not quite, sweetie-baby — that blast is 19th Century-Fox studio being torn down to make way for a supermarket!”

But as the artwork looked fuzzy — that is, lacked the definition of the MAD and Humbug years — and so did the humor. The stories took so long to produce, the satire was often outdated, almost nostalgic. The Doomsday-movie episode, which parodied “Dr. Strangelove” (released Jan. 64), “Seven Days in May” (Feb. 64) and “Fail-Safe” (Oct. 64), didn’t run till the October 65 issue. Other trend stories were similarly, fatally behind the curve.

And when stories did run, they were often ignorant. In the Dec. 65 episode “Annie Meets the Bleatles,” three of the four Beatles are misidentified, and the satire is concerned only with the funny way they talk. A 1968 story, which was storyboarded but never ran, deals with the Fab Four’s foray into Indian mysticism (where they visit the Maharishi Berrayogi). It begins with a parody of a Beatles number — “Oh we’re singing a song that doesn’t sound like a song ... and if you don’t like this song we don’t care, because we’re very rich” — that shows Kurtzman wasn’t superior to the group, he just didn’t get them. In his early 40s, he was prematurely crotchety. He had retreated into a reductive cynicism, whose one belief, and satirical tactic, argued that behind every purportedly noble trend lurked greed, lust or madness. Which may be true, but hammered into 109 episodes over 25 years, it ain’t that funny — at least not by the standards Kurtzman taught us to expect.



HARVEY THE ICON

So Kurtzman finally had the financial success, though on a smaller scale, that Feldstein would enjoy at MAD. Both occasionally felt straitjacketed by their employers — Kurtzman with the Playboy editors’ demands (“More tits!”), Feldstein with Gaines’ refusal to expand the MAD brand. In an interview with Jenn Dhigos on the Classic-Horror website, Al said he “was constantly pushing for ways to modernize and publicize the magazine...to bring it into the 80's, the 90's and the 21st Century...with detailed proposals for: a MAD TV Show (25 years ago, before ‘Saturday Night Live’), accepting ‘Real {but humorous} Ads’ (that would be created especially for the magazine by the ‘MAD Advertising Agency’), so that we could have Full-Color inside the magazine, a ‘live’ and ‘animated’ VHS version of MAD (today, it would be on CD!) that would be sold on newsstands and in TV Rental Stores, etc., etc., etc.” Feldstein left MAD in 1984, and said that Gaines “started to cut me out of the history of E.C. ... and MAD! Not only was I not consulted...I didn't even get screen credits for all of my stories that they adapted [in the Tales from the Crypt TV series]. Bill saw to that.”

Kurtzman settled into a routine that combined a few “Annie”s a year and teaching at New York’s School of Visual Arts. There he rarely spoke about his own work. His old acolytes did it for him. Spiegelman, on his visit, “decided to surprise Harvey. Instead of bringing slides of my work to his class, I brought slides of his work over the years — sort of a ‘This Is Your Life, Harvey Kurtzman.’ After all, seeing Harvey Kurtzman’s work when I was a kid was what made me wanna be a cartoonist in the first place.... I mean, Harvey Kurtzman has been the single most significant influence on a couple of generations of comics artists.... Basically, I told the students that their teacher was a World-class Genius. And from the back of the room, hoarsely, shyly, Harvey mumbled, ‘Listen to him. He knows whereof he speaks.”

Spiegelman’s tribute is published in “Harvey Kurtzman’s Strange Adventures,” a collaboration with several younger-generation artists, including Crumb, MAD’s Sergio Aragones and Kurtzman’s student, assistant and collaborator Sarah Downs. (No Elder, but that’s a different generation.) It was published three years before Harvey’s death, and was a way for some of the his fans — the people whose sensibilities he shaped, whose lives he changed — to say thanks. This column is another, smaller way, from someone who has spent 50 or his 60 years learning from and laughing with the first MAD man.

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