Posts Tagged ‘Harvey Kurtzman’

Ranking the Masters


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Friday, February 18, 2011


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Gary Groth twitted: “The greatest artists who worked n commercial comics? My vote (in order); Carl Barks, Jack Kirby & Harvey Kurtzman (tie), John Stanley.” The list seems on target but the ranking can be argued with. These are all superb cartoonists and as such, their writing/art needs to be seen as an integrated whole. Still, some of them are stronger on the writing front, others as visual artists. And of course Stanley, Kirby and Kurtzman all did a lot of collaborative work, including some of their best work.

So if I were ranking them as visual artists I’d say Kirby, Kurtzman, Barks, Stanley. If I were ranking them as writers I’d say Stanley, Kurtzman, Barks, Kirby. But what if writing and art can’t be separated? What if I had to rank them simply as cartoonists? A really tough choice. Purely a personal matters but I’d say Stanley, Kirby, Kurtzman, Barks. But that’s a ranking that could easily change at the drop of a hat. Fun factoid: three of these cartoonists (Stanley, Barks, Kurtzman) were doing their best work at the exact same time, circa 1950-1955. That was the real Golden Age of commercial comics.

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Wilson’s Comedy of Horror


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Monday, January 25, 2010


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Review of Gahan Wilson: Fifty Years of Playboy Cartoons (Fantagraphics Books)

Gahan Wilson was born dead but he quickly got better. That sounds like the morbid joke, exactly the sort of queasy punchline that graces many a Wilson cartoon, but it happens to be completely factual: when Wilson entered our world in 1930 the doctor pronounced the baby a still birth, but after being soaked in ice-water the infant proved to be loudly and healthily alive. What better beginning could there be for a cartoonist who would do hundreds of comics about vampires, zombies, flesh-eating plants and many other monsters who carry death within themselves?

Both his parents had artistic aspirations but settled for a more conventional existence: Miriam Wilson as a housewife, her husband Allen as a steel-industry executive. Perhaps due to their thwarted artistic career, augmented by the stress of being a young couple during the Great Depression, both parents were also alcoholics. As Gary Groth notes in a shrewd essay near the end of this exemplary republishing of Wilson’s Playboy cartoons, the lumpy people that populate Gahan’s cartoons, with their ghastly half-melting faces, could easily be a child’s view of sodden, Depression-haunted adults.

As a cartoonist, Gahan Wilson had two fathers: Charles Addams and James Thurber. Wilson’s use of gothic motifs as comedy obviously owes much to Addams (Hugh Hefner admits that he hired Wilson to be Playboy’s Addams). But the lumpiness of Wilson’s characters, the heavy gravitational pull that seems to drag their bodies and faces earthward, is the patrimony of Thurber.

Someday somebody will have to write a history of gothic humour, the re-purposing of ghouls and monsters for laughs. Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey is clearly an ancestor but the genre seems to have taken off in the early 20th century, with Addams as the premier example but with many other examples ranging from Abbott and Costello to John Stanley.

Generationally, Wilson belong to a small cohort of cartoonists that includes Jules Feiffer (born 1929), Edward Sorel (1929), and R.O. Blechman (1930). All these men were metropolitan cartoonists, at home in the cosmopolitan and worldly pages of the Shawn’s New Yorker and Hefner’s Playboy. As such they were the heirs to the first generation of New Yorker cartoonists, but their work had a critical edge that the more mainstream New Yorker crowd lacked. Politically, these four cartoonists managed the difficult task of remaining radicals in the most conservative era in modern American history, the 1950s. While they lacked the iconoclastic urge and plebeian griminess of the subsequent underground generation, their work reflected the “Silent Generations” disgruntlement at existing norms.

There has been a renewed interest in “black humour” in comics (thanks I would guess to Ivan Brunetti’s superb work in the genre), as witness the current show in Detroit. Feiffer and Wilson didn’t practise “black humor” but rather its immediate ancestor, “sick humor.” To put it another way, sick humor is the middle generation in the family tree that runs from Addams to Wilson to Brunetti.

One of the many nice features of the new Fantagraphics book is that it is chronological and dated, so we can see Wilson responding to the changing social and political landscapes. It’s very evident in this book that the year 1968, when Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were killed and Nixon took the White House, hit Wilson very hard. The cartoons for the next few years are much grimmer than before, with the formerly gleeful ghastliness now transformed into genuine dread. One 1969 cartoon shows a gun-and-knife totting madman, his eyes bugged-out with joy as he surveys a post-apocalyptic landscape where everyone else has been killed, issuing a victory cry: “I think I won!”

As a physical object Gahan Wilson: Fifty Years of Playboy Cartoons cannot be praised highly enough. Designer Jacob Covey pulled out all stops: three handsome hard-cover volumes, complete with a die cut cover in the form of a bottle of poison, printed on plush Playboy paper, all encased in a slipcase embossed on one side with a plexiglass window on the other side that allows you peek into the front cover (an appropriately macabre photo of the cartoonist pressing his fact against a glass). All of this supplemented by smart introductory material by Hefner and Neil Gaiman, a substantial essay by Gary Groth, who also conducts a long interview with Wilson, topped off by a topical index.

At this point, some readers might ask whether Wilson deserves this royal treatment. Normally this sort of over-the-top lavishness is reserved only for an Everest-level master. I myself initially had doubts, since I wasn’t too familiar with Wilson’s work and gag cartooning in not a genre I’m naturally inclined to love. Yet looking at Wilson’s work at length, eating it up with my eyes, I came to love his work. He is, in fact, a master. He clearly belongs to the rank of Feiffer, Blechman and Sorel, not only in terms of chronology but also in his stature as an artist.

The new books also made me reconsider Hugh Hefner, a figure that I have mixed feelings about. Perhaps ungenerously, I’ve been inclined to think of Heffner as the man who ruined Harvey Kurtzman’s life and career. It’s hard to forgive the middlebrow doltishness of the decision to make our greatest cartoonist spend decades working on Little Annie Fanny. But there was another side to Hefner. Free of snobbery, he knew that there were many great artists working for publications that were widely considered to be trashy, whether it was comic books (Jack Cole and Harvey Kurtzman), or pulp magazines (Theodore Sturgeon and Gahan Wilson) or third rung gag magazines (many of the cartoonists who were recruited for Playboy). These were artists and writers of real talent who were despised by the official culture of the 1950s. Hefner gave them a handsome venue for their work and paid them well. As in the realm of sex, he wanted to show that pleasures that were considered dirty and bad were actually good clean fun, and should be enjoyed as such. Hefner was as much revolutionary in the field of popular culture as he was in his more famous sex advocacy. Whatever one might want to say about the Kurtzman-Hefner relationship, the Playboy publisher deserves our eternal thanks for nurturing Wilson’s poisoned plants, giving them a hothouse where they could flourish for five decades.

Wilson’s long term marriage to Playboy might seem odd (Gary Groth for one has questions about it). After all, isn’t Playboy all about sex while Wilson’s work is all about death? A more synoptic view would be that sex and death are two sides of the same coin: that the reality of death makes life’s pleasures, chief among them sex, all the more important. Or to put it another way, for all their morbidity and ghoulishness, Wilson’s cartoons affirm the value of cherishing life. As inhuman as his characters often are, Wilson is a deeply humane cartoonist.

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the punk connection


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Saturday, November 28, 2009


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Just a quick post about the new issue of Cometbus. The awesome cover by Nate Powell alone is worth the price of admission. But there’s other “comics gold” in this issue too. It’s the story of how Will Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman came to teach at SVA.

Everyone knows about Punk magazine, right? No? Well, check this out and click around and then come back. Basically, this magazine recorded the early days of punk at CBGB’s. One of the magazine’s founders, John Holmstrom, went to the School of Visual Arts in 1972 before he helped start Punk magazine.

In the new Cometbus, there’s an interview with Holmstrom. And he tells the most fascinating story which I had never heard before. Apparently, Holmstrom wanted to take a cartooning class but SVA didn’t offer any. So he and some other angry students went to the president of the school and complained. The president told them to put a list together of the cartoonists they’d want to teach at SVA. So they put together a dream list which had Eisner and Kurtzman at the top. And the administration hired them!

Think about that. It’s like the secret history of punk rock (and of SVA itself). Holmstrom then wound up working for Kurtzman as his assistant. This relationship honed Holmstrom’s skills and determination to make a magazine that reflected his world. And that world just happened to be one of the most fertile and influential music scenes ever. Talk about passing the baton to the younger generation. Sheesh.

There’s more to the story, but the editor of Cometbus will kill me for spoiling it. So, just go pick the issue up and read it for yourself. Over and out.

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La-Z-Blog


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Monday, March 16, 2009


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1. I reviewed Amanda Vähämäki’s The Bun Field for the April/May issue of Bookforum, which is impressively packed with comics-related material in general, including Ben Schwartz on Harvey Kurtzman, CC contributor Joe McCulloch on Yoshihiro Tatsumi, and Nicole Rudick on Beasts!

2. Gary Panter animated, kinda.

3. Pretty awesome Milt Gross-created book reviews in comics form. I’ve never seen or heard of these before.

4. Not comics: The only review of Watchmen (the movie) you need. (The author of that also said some other stuff worth reading.)

5. Oh, and various prominent comics bloggers have weighed in on the new Cold Heat: here, here, here, and here.

UPDATE: I forgot one.

6. An interview with Ted May, partly re Injury 3. I’m pretty excited to see that issue, not only because I really liked the first two, but because CC designer Mike Reddy drew one of the stories in it. Mike showed me a few of the pages, and they were great, and I can’t wait to see the whole thing. Ok, I’m done now.

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I Spoke Too Soon


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Monday, December 4, 2006


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I was wrong, and in a good way. Ivan Brunetti‘s Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, & True Stories, is starting to get some well-deserved hype, this time a longish, overwhelmingly positive review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. This is an unalloyed good thing, both for Brunetti and for the field as a whole. But…

Well, maybe it is just a little alloyed, but only because the reviewer was one lazy and condescending (at least in this instance) critic named David Hajdu, who is probably best known for his book about the ’60s folk scene in Greenwich Village, Positively 4th Street. I say lazy and condescending because it is quite clear from reading his review that he didn’t bother to do the relevant research, but still felt qualified to act as a generous mandarin, bestowing status on a “disreputable” art form that has finally earned his good graces.

Take for starters his description of the book’s editor:

Brunetti, a comics artist and writer himself, is best known for his comic-book series “Schizo,” a hodge-podge of spare, poetic vignettes heavily influenced by Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts.”

It seems likely to me from this that Hajdu only read the two pages of Brunetti comics included in the book under review, but let’s be generous and assume he skimmed Schizo‘s unusually gentle fourth issue. Hajdu clearly didn’t bother checking into the earlier issues, which might well be the most scarifying comics ever drawn. “Spare”, “poetic”, and “Peanuts” are not the words (well, “poetic” maybe, but not the way Hajdu means it).

Here’s a less important one:

[Brunetti] likes the funnies to be funny; we get few adventure stories — not even, among the historical selections, a panel of “Little Lulu” or Carl Barks’s “Donald Duck,” both of which were more dramatic than literally comic.

Hmm. Little Lulu always seemed pretty funny to me.

More from the maestro:

[Brunetti] is indifferent, even silently hostile, to superheroes, none of whom appear anywhere in the book … There is no question that the vast bulk of superhero comics are factory-made product, rather than works of individual expression; still, at least a few mainstream comics published in recent years — including a series of Batman stories drawn by David Mazzucchelli, who has other work in the anthology — are as artful and subtle as some stories in this book.

Mazzuchelli‘s work on Batman is greatly accomplished, but so many of his other, non-superhero comics are superior that it would be very strange to include it while skipping the rest.

More than that, considering the nature of this anthology, Hajdu’s argument is just silly. Only when discussing comics do people feel the constant need to glorify or excuse work on licensed properties in this way. You’d never find a critic reviewing an anthology of contemporary literature and bemoaning the lack of excerpts from Star Wars novels. (Who knows, maybe there’s a book about Yoda that’s just as good as the story about a novelist suffering writer’s block at Yaddo—it would still feel out-of-place in a book meant to showcase stories that are personal and intimate.) If Hajdu really feels like comics are now finally “suitable for adults”, maybe he could treat them with the respect (and expectations) accorded to other adult media.

Hajdu continues by calling for the deletion of Aline Kominsky-Crumb‘s “clumsy noodling” and praising Kim Deitch “for her [sic] cynical romance with the past and sheer kookiness of spirit.” I love Kominsky-Crumb’s work, but I guess I should give Hajdu a pass here, seeing as everyone’s entitled to their own taste. But would it be too much to ask that, if he’s going to say an artist may be “the literary voice of our time”, and do it in the New York Times, that he actually bother to conduct enough research to get the Possible Voice of Our Time’s gender right? [UPDATE: The Kim Deitch gender mix-up was apparently an editing error, in which case the writer should of course be excused.]

Here’s his final paragraph, a wonderful mixture of clichés, misconceptions, and patronization:

Now going under the name graphic fiction, no doubt temporarily, the comics are all grown up, and this anthology represents the most cogent proof since Will Eisner pioneered the graphic novel and Art Spiegelman brought long-form comics to early perfection. What other kinds of art or entertainment invented for young people ever transcended their provenance as kid stuff? Not coloring books, nor paper dolls, nor board games. There are no Etch a Sketch drawings in the Museum of Modern Art and no View-Master slides in the International Center for Photography. While it took more than a century for the medium to be accepted as suitable for adults, the fact that the comics made it here at all testifies to their resilience and adaptability.

Ugh. Well, I guess it’s good that comics are more of a legitimate art form than the old View-Master, but this seems like faint praise to me.

(By the way, this isn’t the first time Hajdu has written about “grown-up” comics for a prominent cultural publication, or the first time he’s proven himself not quite up to the job.)

I should stop whining. What does it matter really? It’s nice overall that the big cultural arbiters are recognizing comics, and these mistakes aren’t really that important. But it would be even nicer if the people deciding what art is serious and legitimate would take their own jobs just as seriously.

And what is Hajdu up to next? He’s working on a new book, a history of the comics. As he graciously acknowledged in a 2003 interview, it’s something he “knew virtually nothing about before”, but he’s found that doing the research “is the fun part”. I hope that the new year finds Hajdu having lots of fun.

BONUS GRIPE:

Oh, and one more thing, related only in general theme: When you’re putting together a large-scale, scholarly exhibit of the Masters of the American Comics, ostensibly in order to demonstrate the artistic significance of the form and its practitioners, and you display one of the most famous and iconic comic book covers of all time, go ahead and make the effort to find out who drew it. Don’t just credit Harvey Kurtzman on a guess. Especially when Basil Wolverton‘s signature is clearly legible, right at the bottom of the page.

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Making History


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Monday, July 10, 2006


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In an attempt to beat Dan to the manga-reviewing punch, I recently read the first volume of Path of the Assassin, another ninjas-and-samurai epic from Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima, the writer/artist team most famous for the legendary Lone Wolf & Cub series. I read the first four or so volumes of the Lone Wolf series a while back, but eventually got bogged down by the endless sword fights.

It was impressive enough, though, that I decided to give them another chance, especially since this Path of the Assassin series is 1) much shorter, and 2) more directly concerned with ninjas, which I’ve never seen handled in any kind of intelligent way before. (I’m sure Cold Heat will be an exception.)

Maybe ninja stories usually fail because assassins are basically repellent people; I don’t know.

In any case, I liked the first volume of this, though I have to admit much of the feudal politics and gender roles are a little off-putting. I don’t know what Japanese audiences make of this material, but 16th century Japan is almost totally alien to me, which is actually one of the things about it I found most appealing.

In fact, comics seem almost ideally suited as a medium for historical fiction (or non-fiction, for that matter). Unlike in straight prose, the comics artist can immerse the reader directly into the world visually, with unfamiliar clothing, vehicles, and tools depicted accessibly and immediately.

Movies can do this, too, but they aren’t able to easily impart a lot of the factual and contextual information needed without resorting to often clumsy exposition. (“Ever since Custer fell, Butch, the Sioux have been restless.”) Comics, on the other hand, can seamlessly include textual notes, glossaries, maps, et cetera, directly into the story.

Of course there have been many great historical comics. The late, lamented Jack Jackson specialized and excelled in them; and he could always be relied on not to cut out the good parts. Harvey Kurtzman’s period pieces from Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat are still considered by many people (including me) to be a high-water mark for the medium.

This obviously isn’t a comprehensive list, but I’m somewhat surprised that more cartoonists haven’t attempted historical work. Joe Sacco’s Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde are at least partly in this vein, but I can’t think of too many other contemporary artists that apply. (Probably the comic book I am most looking forward to is R. Crumb’s adaptation of Genesis, especially after I learned that he was using Robert Alter’s astounding translation and annotation of the Five Books of Moses as a source.) Oh, and I almost forgot Maus! And Tezuka. And Jacques Tardi

Anyway, time to end the rambling. I imagine that the biggest single reason that historical comics aren’t more prevalent is economic: research takes time, and readers aren’t particularly interested. (Jackson didn’t get rich off Comanche Moon, and Kurtzman’s war comics had to be subsidized by more popular EC series like Tales from the Crypt.)

And I guess, like a lot of things that I wish were better about the world of comics, that’s just the way it goes.

UPDATE: The more I think about it, the more period comics occur to me, from Enemy Ace to the World’s Fair sections of Jimmy Corrigan. I don’t know if that supports my post, or hurts it, or both.

UPDATE II: And Louis Riel! Maybe I’m just stupid…

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Tintin in Academia


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Thursday, June 29, 2006


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Due to some perversion of my taste (and too much exposure to English literature grad students in college), I’m kind of partial to satires of tortured academic theory, like Frederick Crews’s The Pooh Perplex and its sequel Postmodern Pooh. (It’s an acquired taste, and I certainly don’t recommend it.)

Yesterday, on the Literary Saloon, I came across mention of a book that seems to be of the same kind, only tackling comics criticism instead of literary theory, at least if this review in The Economist is accurate. (It’s hard to tell for sure, since the publisher’s page doesn’t appear to indicate any satirical intent, and I’m not familiar with the author’s previous work.)

From the Economist review:

[T]he Castafiore Emerald, the author argues with sweeping confidence, is not just the oft-misplaced bauble belonging to a forceful but absent-minded opera singer: it is her clitoris. Switch on the “sexual sub-filter”, he explains, and the jewel’s real nature is clear. … Poor Captain Haddock’s plaster-covered leg, meanwhile, is “a sign of both castration and an erection”.

The book is sprinkled with enough pretentious jargon, factual error and illogicality to infuriate and baffle the unwary. But the result is a satire of which Hergé, himself the creator of a cast of immortal parodies, would indeed have been proud.

In any case, this book seems right up my alley, and whether genuine or parody, it’s probably a harbinger of things to come for comics. As graphic novels continue to garner attention in high-brow journals and universities institute more comics programs and departments, it’s only a matter of time before the medium gets the full Roland Barthes treatment on a regular basis.

This will inevitably lead to a lot of grumbling and hostility from longtime comics fans, who are unlikely to cut some English professor (whose familiarity with the medium begins and ends with the Fantagraphics catalog circa 2006 Spiegelman and Satrapi) any more slack than they give Scott McCloud. (This is not meant to imply that McCloud and the professors don’t deserve to be criticized.)

I, for one, though, welcome the wrong-headed, jargon-ridden, and pretentious comics scholarship of the near future with welcome arms. No matter how popular a particular work or artist may be, cultural oblivion is unavoidable without a legion of eggheads scrambling for tenure and over-examining an artwork’s every nuance in search of “subversive” intent and hidden signifiers.

Mistakes will inevitably be made, and dumb judgments will abound, but it also may keep Harvey Kurtzman in print for posterity. Comics fans won’t be able to do it alone, no matter how many variant covers they buy.

UPDATE: It’s probably worth mentioning that as far as I can tell, Tom McCarthy’s book has not been published in the United States, and I have no idea if it ever will be. FYI, for all five of you who may be interested.

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