Rich Kreiner reviews Humbug by Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, Arnold Roth, Al Jaffee, Jack Davis and others

Posted by on January 11th, 2010 at 9:00 AM

Fantagraphics; two slipcased volumes; 452 pp.,$60; B&W & Color, Hardcover; ISBN: 9781560979333

This is the stuff of legend.

Al Jaffee Book One cover

At long last, a handsome, two-volume, slipcased set brings back into print a pivotal, neglected portion of the oeuvre of Harvey Kurtzman and that of a cadre of gifted pranksters bent on smart satire.

Kurtzman of course is the comedic genius who, among a great deal else, birthed Mad, first as a comic book and then as a magazine, a title that grew familiar and beloved to so many. For the title he drew, wrote, edited and generally wrangled the magazine’s material with the governing sensibilities of a benign, aesthetically enlightened despot and the directed fervor of a roisterous radical. With the first 28 issues he established Mad’s look, loft, cut and attitude with the contributions of such sympathetic luminaries as Will Elder, Jack Davis, Wally Wood and John Severin as assembled under the aegis of EC publisher William Gaines.

An enhanced budget, enhanced production and other assorted enducements offered by young Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner lured Kurtzman and key contributors away from Mad to establish the satirical magazine Trump. That project lasted two issues (and awaits light of day in a promised reprinting from Dark Horse).

Humbug rose from the ashes of Trump and this endeavor was to be different. For one thing, Humbug was conceived as a paginated artists’ collective wherein talented, like-minded jesters invested in common creative, editorial and financial goals.

Several important consequences flowed from such a cooperative, consequences that are neatly traced in the crisply informative introduction by John Benson and Gary Groth that opens this set (they prefer the word “commune” for the group). Chief among the implications for Kurtzman and company was the practical necessity of self-publishing. Given the limited collective resources of its principles, Humbug hit the newsstands printed on the cheapest of newsprints and sold for an odd price in an inauspicious size. Art was in black and white with single, often intricately interwoven spot color. The poor quality of paper insured that delicate lines fattened and bled. Humbug was smaller than the comics of the day by 3/4ths of an inch in both dimensions and contained 32 pages, which was thinner than most magazines with their 48. Sold at 15 cents a copy it was priced like neither comic nor magazine and tended to get lost in the racks among both. As the introduction put it, “There was no other magazine on the stands physically like Humbug” (and that’s apart from whether it was even distributed properly to those stands, and letter columns suggest it wasn’t, for reasons explained in that introduction).

Here’s how Kurtzman summed up the periodical progression:

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 the hardest of all and turned out the very best satire of all, which of course now sells the very worst of all.

That was taken from issue #11, the second release of Humbug in its new magazine size and its final issue. Immediately after the brief history above, Kurtzman reminded readers of a pledge he had tendered in Humbug issue one, page one: “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.” Done and done.

But all this tends to put the financial cart before the humorous horse. This new edition of the collected Humbug shows it to be home to some of the very best funny business associated with Kurtzman and some truly superlative work from his comrades in comedy.

Despite the title’s inauspicious format, Humbug more closely approached Kurtzman’s ideal for a satiric publication in several important ways. First, although he had worked relatively unfettered earlier, now Kurtzman and his partners were really loosened from oversight, thematically, artistically and commercially. From its inception, Humbug’s approach and delivery was closer to the collegiate humor magazines of the day so admired by Kurtzman, magazines that by definition were not written for morons. In as much as Mad had already spawned a raft of imitators — Madhouse, Eh!, Flip, Whack, Wild, Crazy, Riot, Nuts! and EC’s own Panic among others — any attempt at elevated satirical discourse would not only reflect personal preferences but could also serve as a branding trait, a distinguishing attribute among competitors.

During an interview with John Benson in Volume 2 of the Russ Cochran Mad reprints,  Kurtzman owned up to another aspiration: “I know that I always had the wish to compartmentalize Mad, the object being that if we had various departments to fill, we could get systems going that would fill pages a lot more efficiently.” Humbug had compartments: Science, Education, Home and Garden, Medicine, Sports and Travel among others, as well as those perennial goldmines, Movies and Television. Several related virtues came as a byproduct of the resulting efficiency, including nimbleness and timeliness, qualities that enhanced its humorous appeal, particularly as it appeared on the newsstands of its day.

Panel from "Spring Training" by Jack Davis

Others in the co-op saw their own interests addressed. The introduction mentions that Arnold Roth was more interested in political and social commentary than was Kurtzman. Those concerns explicitly found their way into the magazine.

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