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

Humbug is crammed with absolutely superlative bits of wit and joshing. Some high points, by way of principle creator roll call: Al Jaffe’s ghastly panorama of neighborhood Christmas decorations gone amuck; Jack Davis’ consummate artistry in the parody of the controversial Baby-Doll movie; Roth’s mordantly clever ABC primer; the mock-up of Consumer Reports, written by Larry Siegel with illustrations by Will Elder and Russ Heath, that rates confetti brands and seismographs; in fact, seemingly always Elder and everywhere Kurtzman.

Sequence from "Doll-Baby" by Jack Davis

(As explained on the table of contents, writing credit is complicated. Roth generally wrote for himself except when he didn’t and sometimes he wrote for others. Jaffe probably wrote for himself exclusively. Davis and Elder didn’t write. All else was written by Kurtzman unless otherwise authoritatively attributed elsewhere. As for artwork, though his roughs and thumbnails were no doubt foundations of many finished pieces, Kurtzman is credited on the table of contents with a lone finished work, the cover of that last issue, a visual statement that so impressed Robert Crumb that he paid tribute to it with the cover of Weirdo # 3.)

Well, your faves may differ. Perhaps the hot-rod-magazine parody produced by multiple hands. Or the slight and deftly drawn strips of R.O. Blechman. Or the introduction to fraternal organizations. But these, however gratifying, remain trees; for a sense of the forest, of Humbug as a whole, a comparison in the vernacular would help, that is, a contrast with familiar and beloved Mad.

Humbug’s forays are shorter. For its waggish scrutiny, Mad was forced to choose targets plump enough, well known enough, and broad enough to sustain seven or eight pages of pillorying. Humbug delivered in compacted bursts. It was like a baseball team using speed up and down its lineup, always at bat, always getting on, always going from first to third and stealing bases rather than waiting for the three-run homer … or to change sports, more Ali to Mad’s George Foreman. A photo spread on fashions? Three pages and done. Jaffe’s take on Miami is dispatched in three, Roth’s on judo in two. With his sole contribution, Wally Wood explains atomic fusion in one. Of course wider comedic veins were expanded accordingly, as in the splendid mockery of gardening magazines to which several contributed; or takes on movies, with their pre-established narrative arcs, or television shows, with their set formats carrying their own internalized pacing.

But, in general, it’s a flurry of quick jabs and on to the next. The advantage here is that when Humbug segments fail to take off, well, there’s something more successful following quickly after. Mad’s longer skewerings offered more opportunity to lumber when invention (or source material) faltered; when those failed to take off there was a sense of the prolonged flailing of a dead horse. (Arguably, one of Humbug’s least successful segments suffered from too much brevity: Roth’s five page version of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” a tale Kurtzman had been otherwise developing through the ’50s and early ’60s for his own 100-page graphic adaptation. See the treasure-laden The Art of Harvey Kurtzman by Denis Kitchen and Paul Buhle for a generous sampling.)

Humbug had a more sophisticated humor, however relative and imprecise that notion may be. Kurtzman pitched this new magazine to a reader who was more socially broad, less the devoted consumer of mass entertainment than a Joe Average. Instead of narrowcasting contents for enthusiasts or kids, Humbug addressed as well the wage earner, commuter, parent, voter, bill payer, gardener, traveler, taxpayer and the impatient, indignant, incredulous inner child. Its tone is slyer, drier. When it approached its prey, did so with disarming smile and stiletto rather than cream pie and blunderbuss.

The lack of full color aids such subtlety. Jokes are not chromatically flagged. They are less visually pronounced, less graphically loud. Irrepressible slapstick has less slap and more stick to it. Astonishingly enough, even Elder benefits. His lines stay sleek, unencumbered by the burdens of corralling colors. There’s a lean, pared-down manic stature to his “chicken fat.” With his material, and to a lesser extent that of Davis, there develops a “Where’s Waldo?” curiosity for readers, who are rewarded for more intent looking.

Mad was more comics. Humbug’s text-driven parodies, generally done by other writers than Kutrtzman, are uneven, distanced today. Advantage, Mad.

These volumes reprint the material at near original size, faithful, although still a little smaller than one might like in a perfect world. At their most frenetic, Elder and Davis invite looking with lens and magnifier.

And that’s because such care has been taken to reproduce the art with clarity and texture of line (a quality that, as a rule, was compromised with full frontal ’50s color). Both reprint volumes end with tutorials on the laborious restoration process employed with the books; the first starts with original paste-up art, the other begins from a scanned printed page. The state of those primary sources, or a glance at the condition of the unrestored covers, makes one appreciate the attention lavished on the project.

The rest of the support material is commensurable with the refurbishing efforts. Volume 1 contains an interview with Roth and Jaffe, an oft-meandering store of reminiscence and reflections that supplements the book’s introduction and enhances the reader’s appreciation of the book’s history and associated careers. A sidebar within the introduction updates those careers in their post-Humbug endeavors. Another sidebar attempts to place Kurtzman’s achievements (Little Annie Fanny ran in Playboy for 25 years?!?) within a comedic milieu that included the likes of Ernie Kovacs, Sid Caesar, Bob and Ray, Jonathan Winters and Lenny Bruce. This ends with a select but formidable bibliography. (So much out of print!)

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