Harvey Kurtzman and Modern American Satire (Part Two of Two)

Posted by on March 16th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Previously: PART ONE

Even before Mad, Kurtzman had achieved an enviable reputation among comic-book artists and writers for the excellence of his work at EC comics, a firm that had been producing since 1950 what have been considered some of the best-written and drawn stories in comic-book history. He was especially noted for the careful research and meticulous detail of his work, as represented by the editing and writing that went into the Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat titles. Disturbed by the lies and the ultra-patriotism he saw in the other war comic books at the time, just as the Korean conflict was under way, he set out to deglamorize combat by showing it to be the grim, debasing, and dehumanizing thing it was in reality. Without taking sides, he demonstrated in stark tales of conflict that war involves human beings killing each other, people who have families and friends and stories to tell but are muted by the abstract forces of politics and nationalism. Already there was a subliminal message here that would feed into the anti-war sentiments of the 1960s and the peace movements that would be led by the same young readers after entering college.

While EC specialized in producing stories about horror, crime and science fiction, and in an earlier incarnation, Western tales, they had no humor title. To increase his income, which depended on productivity, Kurtzman created a new title to edit which would require no research and allow his distinct sense of humor to have free play. “The format,” Kurtzman decided initially, “would make fun of comic books as they were at that particular period. So I had a ‘horror’ story and a ‘science fiction’ story and so forth” (“Harvey Kurtzman Tribute,” TCJ #157). All EC titles had the same physical format of four stories with some text in the center pages; thus the first issue of Mad contained parodies, respectively, of a terror, science-fiction, crime, and Western tale, each drawn by one of the accomplished veteran artists on the staff: Jack Davis, Wally Wood, Bill Elder and John Severin. Kurtzman himself wrote all the stories, did the initial pencil layouts, edited the finished pages, and drew the cover, probably one of the most frequently reproduced and imitated covers in comic-book history, outside Action #1. Running titles informed the reader that these were “Tales Calculated to Drive You MAD” with “Humor in a Jugular Vein.”

All four of the stories were generic satires parodying the conventions and traditional clichés of most stories of their type, including a haunted house visited by a naive, unsuspecting couple; machines of the future which have taken over man’s intelligence and physical strength; fumbling criminals who fail through ineptitude and save the police the trouble of capturing them; and the strong, silent gun-slinger who comes to town in the Old West bent on revenge to confront a rowdy crowd of outlaws in a saloon. Basically Kurtzman identified the fictional formulas that existed then and would persist far beyond him, as demonstrated in later films of the same genres, such as the Rocky Horror Picture Show, Terminator, Small Time Crooks, and Shane, each in their own way also a parody of their genres.

Already Kurtzman is employing in these stories what would become a staple of later issues of Mad, a comic kind of intertexuality or self-referentiality. For example, on page two of the science-fiction story “Blobs” (this was six years before the release of the science-fiction camp classic film The Blob) a “disposable prefabricated robot woman” is modeled after Marilyn Monroe. In panel four of page three of the Western parody “Varmint,” a wanted poster in the background features “Gay Bill Ness,” an anagram for Bill Gaines, the publisher of the EC line (the word “gay” had different connotations then), and in the last panel of page seven a shipping box is stamped “Stanlee Co. War Surplus and Junk Dealer Inc.” Kurtzman had been working for Stan Lee at Timely (later known as Marvel) Comics prior to joining Gaines’ staff. The faces of actual staff members appear in several panels of “Varmint,” and in at least two stories onomatopoeic words are allowed to escape the confines of the panels and borders and thus break up conventional comic-book structure.

As clever and as telling as these stories are, this kind of satire quickly reached its limits, and Kurtzman had to make his approach more target specific. He soon realized, as he said later:

Satire and parody work best when what you’re talking about is accurately targeted; or, to put it another way, satire and parody work only when you reveal a fundamental flaw or untruth in your subject. Just as there was a treatment of reality in the war books, there was a treatment of reality running through Mad; the satirist/parodist tries not just to entertain his audience but to remind it of what the real world is like. (TCJ #157)

In the following issues, therefore, Kurtzman would broaden the subject matter into film, sports, radio, television, comic strips and literature, with attention to specific popular titles and figures: characters like Superman, the Lone Ranger, the Black Hawks, and Terry and the Pirates; radio and television shows like Dragnet, The Shadow, King of the Royal Mounties, Inner Sanctum and Mr. Keen Tracer of Lost Persons; figures from folklore and film like Robin Hood, King Kong, and vampires; a piece of popular literature, “Casey at the Bat”; and two stories about a character that crosses all these genres, Tarzan, renamed “Melvin,” Kurtzman’s favorite comic name of the moment.

Kurtzman would continue to pursue his “take-no-hostages” satire in this manner through another 17 issues of Mad. With issue #24, Mad became a bimonthly, black-and-white magazine, which Kurtzman would edit through another five issues, until Al Feldstein took over for the next 28 years. It was on the border of the cover of issue #24 that Kurtzman placed a figure that would last the entire history of the magazine and continue his legacy without his presence: Mad’s adopted official mascot Alfred E. Neuman, the “What? Me Worry?” kid.

But to understand the nature of Kurtzman’s influence as a humorist, it will be useful to analyze specifically one story that startled us all as young readers and lovers of comic books in 1953, the lead story in issue #4, “Superduperman.” It was one thing to be poking fun at popular genres of fiction, film, the media, and even comic-book characters and the types of stories in the EC titles, most of which had been done with a sense of comic exaggeration in the originals anyway. No one ever took the Crypt Keeper or the Old Witch who introduced the EC horror titles seriously, nor did we view the Lone Ranger, Tarzan, or King Kong as anything but one-dimensional characters whose main attractions were formulaic. Superman, however, was the reigning comic-book superhero, followed and admired by thousands of comic-book readers, many more fanatic and devoted than even the EC readers, who were probably on average more intellectually inclined than the superhero crowd.

To buy into the superhero genre was to practice a suspension of disbelief, to be willing to accept certain conventions without questioning their reality or common sense. For example, why was it necessary to don a costume and concealed identity to fight crime, especially with a cumbersome cape and tights more suitable to ballet dancers or a Robin Hood film? How could one realistically step into a phone booth, given its limited space, and change one’s clothes entirely, and where do the original clothes go? Given a secret power like x-ray vision — and this would occur only to a male adolescent mind — why not use it to spy into bedrooms and beneath women’s clothing to satisfy the male curiosity about the female form? And how could someone like Clark Kent merely wear a pair of glasses and not be recognized as Superman by Lois Lane, even though young people then tended to believe that glasses made them appear odd and unattractive?

Kurtzman’s stroke of genius was to puncture these conventions by showing them to be the absurd and illogical things they were. Thus “Clark Bent” leaps into a phone booth only to find it occupied by a startled woman, or in another booth he not only changes his clothes but takes the time to brush his teeth and wash his feet, while a line of phone customers waits outside where his old clothes accumulate. Only the inside of Snoopy’s doghouse would offer more space. He uses his x-ray vision to spy on the ladies in the powder room across the hall, and “Lois Pain” not only fails to recognize that Clark Bent and Superduperman are one and the same, she doesn’t care, because they both are “creeps,” and “Once a creep, always a creep,” in the final words of the story.

What was even more surprising was the appearance in the story of the other most popular superhero of the 1940s, Captain Marvel from the then defunct Fawcett comic-book line, here called “Captain Marbles.” Unlike Superman, who tended to take himself a bit seriously and seldom showed any sense of humor, Captain Marvel as drawn by C.C. Beck was a parodic representation of all the flying superheroes of the time. His stories were drawn in a style closer to cartoons and caricatures, and his villains were intelligent worms, powerful Nazis and evil scientists with little semblance to reality. The parody was too close for comfort, however, and the owners of Superman, DC Comics, began a lawsuit to claim that Captain Marvel was a copyright infringement. While the style and character of Captain Marvel was really quite different from Superman, the case was pursued so relentlessly that Fawcett finally gave up comic-book publishing altogether in 1953 and granted ownership of the character to DC.

Those readers who preferred Captain Marvel never really forgave DC for taking away their superhero and secretly longed to see the two characters meet so Captain Marvel could beat the devil out of Superman. Kurtzman granted his readers exactly that wish. Since they were both invincible, neither could actually win. The battle is concluded when Captain accidentally hits himself and Superman announces, “Captain Marbles has been destroyed by the only force as strong as he . . . he!” This reflects the outcome of the real trial, of course, and throughout the battle the Captain spends his time counting his money, a dig at the fact that the Captain Marvel titles outsold the DC titles for a period of time before the lawsuit, and probably was the real reason for it anyway.

Numerous other references to comic-book history and elements of self-reflexivity enrich the story: the artist, Wally Wood, advertises his services on a wall poster in the initial panel, and items of EC gossip and office contention appear as graffiti on walls in the second page: “Al [Feldstein] loves words,” and “Bill [Gaines] loves EC,” but “Harvey [Kurtzman] loves Harvey.” The entire story requires that the reader be informed not only about the EC firm and their comic-book titles but about a large part of recent comic-book history as well. Reading Mad made the reader feel a part of a special group, a select society, if one recognized the targets of the humor and the parodic references. This is one reason why Kurtzman is remembered as such a powerful influence on the perceptions of readers. He opened their eyes to the absurdities and inadequacies of their own childhood culture and did it in such a way that made them feel smarter, if not superior. One needs to know a lot to read Mad informatively, and it confirms one’s sense of intelligence.
Stand-up comedians like Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce or Woody Allen took on the larger oppressive forces of American society — the military-industrial complex, religious and educational institutions, international relations, racism and sexism as social practices, or the effects of technology on the emotional and psychological states of ordinary people. To a 16-year-old, these were adult concerns, and while their comic efforts to cast a critical light on them was no doubt effective, Kurtzman hit closer to home. Comic books were our special province, and while moral guardians and political leaders wanted to take them away from us, Kurtzman gave them back in ways we would not forget. He made them a part of our intellectual development and imparted a satiric sense of justice and reality that would not allow us to accept the truisms of the world without questioning them and their validity for us and for society.

As comic-book writer and novelist Alan Moore would put it:
The … Kurtzman stories … brandished satire like a monkey-wrench: a wrench to throw amongst pop culture’s gears or else employed to wrench all our perceptions just a quarter-twist towards the left, no icon left unturned. King Kong and Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes and Superman were rendered naked and absurd by the device of draping them with realistic failings and then setting them against a gross yet realistic world where Wonder Woman marries her romantic interest and ends up shackled to a stove, hemmed in by hyperactive kids. Where all the slapstick violence Maggie dishes out to Jiggs results in ugly bruises, blood-stained collars, and the bleak depressions of a battered spouse. (TCJ #157)

In other words, we could never read comic books in quite the same way again. But the message came not from some external authority or institution, but from the world of comic books itself and one of the most admired practitioners of comic art. Kurtzman’s Mad constituted a major self-referential statement on the powers and limitations of all comic books, rendered in the form itself, some 40 years before Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. As political cartoonist Ted Rall has recently noted, the willingness of Mad to satirize the comics “with the same gleeful malice that it unleashes on TV, movies and other forms of pop culture fully validates its credentials as a publication that takes no prisoners and worships no sacred cows — the very ethic that has made it essential reading for more than half a century.”

All of the humorists and stand-up comedians of the 1950s were a part of the liberation movement away from conformity and apathy, but Kurtzman said that even the pleasures and playthings of childhood were powerful instruments of indoctrination and needed to be read with a careful eye to their political and ideological agendas. Readers were being prepared for dealing with the rest of the century and all its surprises, horrors, deceptions and successes, and no art can serve a higher purpose than making us better people. What me worry? You bet!

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