Rich Kreiner’s Yearlong Best of #7

Posted by on January 6th, 2010 at 1:00 PM

Previously: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6.

I didn’t see any better-looking nonfiction book on comics in 2009 than The Art of Harvey Kurtzman by Denis Kitchen and Paul Buhle. This collection is exactly the reason why heaped-up treasures got their own word: trove.

The hoard is piled high for initiate and aficionado alike. There are familiar, justly celebrated pieces, many set under new illumination: the Mad covers from Kurtzman’s tenure (#12 was a spoof on The New England Journal of Medicine?), “Corpse on the Imjin” in its entirety (in original art), “Superduperman” in its entirety (in both Kurtzman’s thumbnail sketches and Wally Wood’s full-blown glory), and Will Elder’s blinding vision of Little Annie Fanny’s onrushing headlights (in impossibly overripe peach tones). Oh, everything is augmented and enhanced.

Then there are the more obscure treats, many appearing for the first time in print. Favored eye-openers include Kurtzman’s pitch for a rendition of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in thumbnails and eight sample pages (one of which has an alternative version by Jack Davis for a potential publisher’s consideration); four sheets of overlays for an Annie Fanny page, detailing the laborious process Kurtzman undertook before he even handed the material off to Elder; and, as if to emphatically underscore Kurtzman’s incredible “editorial punctiliousness,” a sample proof of a comic-book ad hawking cheesy rings on which he indicates a score of corrections to be made on random flecks, nicked letters and broken lines, imperfections so small even a cartographer wouldn’t notice.

As visual biography, the book intends to be accessible and materially engaging. There’s layouts and finished art for “Assignment: James Cagney in Ireland” for Esquire; the complete Humbug covers and the first 26 of Help!; the whole of “The Grasshopper and the Ant;” an album full of photographs; a handful of exemplary Hey Look! strips; animated urban tableaux of a night club and Times Square; army drawings; snippets of early professional work; courtship letters and envelopes festooned with drawings; promising high-school art; and, as they say, much more!

It’s a restless, creative life in pictures. The accompanying prose rounds Kurtzman’s days and career into form, often shining a light into corners overshadowed by achievements elsewhere. The text and the extended captions are laced with interesting anecdotes and intriguing particulars. The fact that the words cannot match the visuals is not a singular shame. It’s one thing to hear Kurtzman reminiscing about an early E.C. horror story that won him more work because, as a freelancer, he lavished care on depicting chipping house paint (“I drew each flake in great detail”). But it’s quite another, a few pages later, to actually see the dilapidated boards with crumbling paint patches and the wood grain showing through.

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