Nov 26, 2010

Top Ten Most Influential Comics Writers #1: Harvey Kurtzman

Welcome to another installment of our countdown of the top 10 most influential writers of all time! Click here for the archive!

Today's influential writer is Harvey Kurtzman!

Why Is He #1?

Everyone else on this list changed comics. Osamu Tezuka affected his entire nation with both comics and animation.

Can anyone else on this list actually say, with all certainty, that they had a significant hand in changing history?  I didn't think so. Not Stan Lee. Not Carl Barks. Not even Alan Moore and Art Spiegelman, despite their political and social commentary in their works.

But Harvey Kurtzman? He changed comic books. And perhaps without meaning to, he changed history. It's very doubtful that the world would be what it is today without him. And for that, he's number 1.

Harvey Kurtzman first got known for doing a humorous strip called "Hey Look!" for Timely Comics (now known as Marvel) in the war years.

But it was later on at Entertaining Comics (EC) when he really put his made his mark and cemented his legacy. Working under Bill Gaines, Kurtzman heavily edited - so much so that he was writing - the company's war comics, TWO-FISTED TALES and FRONTLINE COMBAT. Kurtzman's direction was so tight that it was really his vision, regardless of who was drawing it (and he worked with some truly great artists!), that shone through the page. The war comics Kurtzman helmed weren't really war comics so much as antiwar comics, going so far as to expose the sordid truth about General Custer at the Alamo. Under Kurtzman's vision, EC showed war not as the glorious "rite of passage" that previous cultures had held it as, but displayed it as something truly gruesome, inhumane, and unjust.

After that, because editing these two titles wasn't enough to make a regular income, Kurtzman started TALES CALCULATED TO DRIVE YOU MAD, which would later on become MAD MAGAZINE.

MAD was and still is a humor publication where the features were laid out - very tightly - by Harvey Kurtzman and "finished" (drawn, inked, colored) by various artists such as - and check out this all-star list of names - Wally Wood, Bill Elder, Jack Davis, and John Severin. MAD satired mainly other comics, such as the SHADOW and the LONE RANGER, and sometimes also satirized literature, such as Edgar Allan Poe's THE RAVEN and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's SHERLOCK HOLMES. The formula at work here, however, pretty much is deconstruction - defined as the analytical examination of something in order to expose its idiosyncrasies. So, in other words, it's taking these concepts and showing you what they'd be like in the real world. For example, what would Archie, billed as "America's Typical Teenager," be like in a real 1950s public school? Why, he'd probably be like Starchie, running rackets and cutting classes. And his girls? They'd have acne problems. Check out how Starchie explains why he carries a torch for one and not the other:

How would Superman manage to change in a real phone booth back then? As Superduperman shows, it can be a bit of a bother.

Are we really comfortable with the actual idea of an anthropomorphic gigantic mouse? Darnold Duck sure isn't.

The power of MAD was in exposing the fakery behind the beloved icons, to take what was being fed to the public as the standard at the time and to twist it on its ear. And readers ate it up. Remember, this was the 1950s - the Comics Code Authority and McCarthyism were in full swing; censorship was winning out; and it would have been so easy to be labeled a Communist if you so much as spoke out against the government, and here MAD was, lampooning every single thing that it could set its sights on. By issue 24, Kurtzman had transformed it into a magazine, casting its net over a much wider audience.

Another technique used by Kurtzman is utilizing the fact that the comic is a static medium, in which you can take your time to read everything done in a single panel. So he decided to fill it up. All the time. A running joke was that he would have 100 gags per panel.

By the time Kurtzman had left the book, he had already left his mark. The formula he used to satirize culture, pop or otherwise, was now the formula used everywhere. His brand of humor had taken over, and there were MAD clones everywhere. In fact, started out as CRACKED, just another MAD imitator.

Whether or not Kurtzman would have burned out if he'd kept going on MAD is irrelevant. After MAD, he's best known for his work on LITTLE ANNIE FANNY, a comic strip in Playboy magazine that satirized Playboy and the culture of the people who read it. Who else could have gotten away with this?

I think Art Spiegelman sums up the power of Harvey Kurtzman the best: ""The message MAD had in general is, 'The media is lying to you, and we are part of the media.' It was basically, 'Think for yourselves, kids.'"

For MAD, for exposing the fakery behind what's given to us to digest by the media, for his brutal honesty, for reaching an enormous audience, and for reasons I will continue to go through in the sections below, Harvey Kurtzman, the Mad Genius of Comics, is number 1. Comics' prestigious Harvey Awards are named after him.

Where Can I See His Influence?

In the mainstream, David Mazzucchelli points out in his appendix to the latest edition of BATMAN: YEAR ONE that Stan Lee was not the first guy to come up with the idea of looking at superheroes through the lens of the real world. Kurtzman beat him by a few years. Who's to say Stan didn't have Superduperman in mind?

Alan Moore has gone on record saying that WATCHMEN's main inspiration was MAD, all the way from satirizing and exposing the fakery of the genre to packing a ton of detail into a single panel. The big difference is that MAD was done for laughs, whereas WATCHMEN did it for serious effect. Other than that, the techniques used were the same. So think about that, folks. Anyone influenced by WATCHMEN is influenced by MAD.

And for the independent cartoonists, there's people like Art Spiegelman and Robert Crumb, who are influential themselves. There's Kurtzman's net, right there. When you've influenced the influential, you know just how influential you are.

Kurtzman's influence isn't just limited to comics. The observational humor found in MAD can be seen in TV shows such as Seinfeld:

And The Simpsons:

In fact, in The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History, the show's producer, Bill Oakley, is quoted as saying, "Basically everyone who was young between 1955 and 1975 read MAD, and that’s where your sense of humor came from." So imagine that - anything produced by anyone from the generation that grew up on MAD, again, such as Seinfeld and The Simpsons, was influenced by MAD and Kurtzman. And subsequently, anything influenced by those things is - comics, TV, movies, or otherwise - in a way, influenced by MAD and Kurtzman.

You can also see Kurtzman's influence on, oh, these guys.

Unless you think it's a coincidence that the generation that first grew up on MAD and being told that the media is lying to us is also the same generation that is best renowned for questioning the government and for being satisfied that America actually lost a war.

Now, you may be thinking, "Wait a minute, Duy, The Simpsons? Seinfeld? Hippies? That's not fair. Those aren't comics. You should be sticking to the people who influenced comics directly." I am. Kurtzman influenced those things, which, themselves are influential to comics today. Culture in general - and therefore, the culture of comics - is different because of Harvey Kurtzman. No one else can say that. Did he affect the way comics work? Yes, of course he did, because he affected everything.

What Works of His Should I Read?

Have I not said MAD enough? Really? There are many ways to get this, but I can personally vouch for this one. MAD ABOUT THE FIFTIES is like a "Best of" book, and the first half is all Kurtzman. I think the second half also has a good portion of him in it (though I'm not sure).

And of course, there's EC's TWO-FISTED TALES:


That's the list! Agree? Disagree? Let me know!


The Professor said...

Nice list, Duy.

In the end I do think not having Lee Falk on your list is the biggest omission. Like I said before, I'd have included Kanigher. If we are talking about influence, he's got a very strong case. He wrote some of the key stories of the Silver Age; his work on the WWII DC books is monumental; and he brought us a bunch of important characters. Still, he is someone that I could understand not making everyone's Top 10 list.

Lee Falk on the other hand has such a strong case it seems really odd to me that he's not on your list. He's not as well known as Alex Raymond, certainly, but Raymond's contribution was more on the graphic side than the storytelling side. Lee Falk scripted the classic Phantom and Mandrake stories, so it's clear that he had a huge influence on the development of the superhero side of the comics industry. And that's a pretty big side!

Duy Tano said...

I think my biggest omissions are Falk and Herge, actually. For the latter, I couldn't decide if his influence was graphic or narrative. One is so dependent on the other to really work - I've never heard anyone say they wanted to draw like Herge or write like Herge; just that they wanted to make comics like Herge, and for a list like this, that actually worked against him.

As for Falk, to be honest, I was considering Siegel, just for creating Superman. But, like I said, I don't think anyone really said "I wish I could write like Siegel." And I think in those terms, Falk has really gotten less and less influential over the years - enough for me to bump him off.

The truth is, the top 9 were set. It was just the 10th one I had a problem with.

J. L. Bell said...

I once heard your #4, Spiegelman, make an interesting comment about the legacy of your #10, Kurtzman, in the context of his Little Lit books for kids. In the 1950s and '60s, Spiegelman said, kids needed MAD Magazine to counteract the stultifying, dominant culture. By the 1990s, MAD's ironic take on everything had become the stultifying, dominant culture, and kids needed some straightforward stories.

Duy Tano said...

I can DEFINITELY see where Spiegelman is coming from. It's a lot like cartoons, I think... You had these silly, straightforward cartoons early on, then in the 90s, you had these sarcastic ones undercutting the old ones, and now the sarcastic ones are so dominant that you actually have no idea if the kids know what these new cartoons are even making fun of, or if they even know it's making fun of something.

Having said that, I've seen the LITTLE LIT books, and I'm not exactly sure what their target audience actually is.

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