The Art of Harvey Kurtzman: The Mad Genius of Comics
By Denis Kitchen and Paul Buhle
Introduction by Harry Shearer
How and when did you first meet Harvey Kurtzman?
Denis Kitchen: I corresponded with Harvey starting in 1969 after I drew my first underground comic, Mom’s, and founded Kitchen Sink Press. We didn’t meet until June 1971, when I arranged for him to give his first public talk, in Milwaukee, and got him considerable TV and newspaper coverage. As a reward he offered me a quick tour of Hugh Hefner’s Chicago mansion. The “quick tour” turned into a twenty-four-hour adventure, and our bond was secured.
How did you become interested in the work of Harvey Kurtzman?
Paul Buhle: I was a reader of MAD comics at its very end, in 1955, and wrote an English class paper on Kurtzman when I was a high school junior. (The teacher liked the paper but disapproved of comics. I got a “B.”) After I published Radical America Komiks in 1969, I wrote a fan letter. Harvey responded, kindly, sending me an issue of Help! that I had missed.
The Art of Harvey Kurtzman is obviously a labor of love—what was the process of putting this book together like? Did you make any new discoveries about him and his work along the way?
PB: What I discovered was how much more Denis Kitchen knew than I did. And what a wonderful person Adele Kurtzman is. It’s been thrilling to go through the archives and write about a childhood hero whom I had imagined writing to when I was still in high school.
DK: Reviewing Harvey’s life’s work, I was struck repeatedly by how brilliant he was, how far ahead of his time he was and, sadly, how tough it was to make a good living in comics during his lifetime. I was also reminded of various unfinished projects, such as a 1954 graphic novel based on the work of Charles Dickens, that raise intriguing “what might have been” questions. Assembling the book has been a dream come true, but the cutting room floor was painful. I wish I had talked Abrams into a two-volume set!
Harvey Kurtzman was a huge influence on countless artists. Who or what inspired Kurtzman’s own work?
PB: In his own From Aaargh! to Zap! Harvey Kurtzman’s Visual History of the Comics, Kurtzman says that Will Eisner was the greatest of comics artists, so one must assume he was an influence.
DK: Eisner was a big influence, for sure, as were Milton Caniff, Alex Raymond, and George Herriman. Harvey had a “Krazy Kat” Sunday page on his living room wall for many years. He loved a lot of the early European illustrators, too: Heinrich Kley, H.M. Bateman, and Caran d’Ache, among others.
Since Kurtzman’s death the appreciation and respect for comics art has exploded. How do you think Kurtzman’s legacy fits into the overall history of comics?
PB:Kurtzman will remain the master writer/artist/editor/creator of the most important comics satire magazine in the twentieth century—certainly the most important in the English language—and a profound influence in the creation of a comics art realism treating historical and current conflict, wars, and military life, which other artists romanticized or avoided.
DK: Kurtzman loved the underground comix generation that followed him, and he would have been excited to witness the graphic novel explosion and the wide acceptance of the art form. In every field there are recognized giants. In comics, Harvey will remain the gold standard.
About the Authors:
Denis Kitchen is a pioneering underground cartoonist, writer, editor, and publisher (Kitchen Sink Press). His partnership, Kitchen, Lind & Assoc., represents the Harvey Kurtzman estate, providing unprecedented access for this book. In 1986 Kitchen established the nonprofit Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and served as president for its first eighteen years. He lives in western Massachusetts.
Paul Buhle is a senior lecturer in the American Civilization and History departments at Brown University, and a distinguished scholar of the Organization of American History and the American Studies Association. He has written and edited thirty-five books, including a half-dozen volumes about comics art that explore various facets of American history and popular culture. This is his sixth biographical volume. Paul Buhle lives in Rhode Island.
Harvey Kurtzman (October 3, 1924–February 21, 1993) was a writer, artist, and editor with enormous influence on several generations of cartoonists and readers. He was the creator of “Hey Look!” for Stan Lee at Timely (Marvel) Comics, Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat for E.C. Comics, and the comic genius who created MAD in 1952, first as a full-color comic book, then as a black-and-white magazine. He later created Trump for Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner, Humbug, and Help! magazines. Kurtzman was also the writer/artist of Jungle Book, “Goodman Beaver,” and “Little Annie Fanny,” which appeared inPlayboy from 1962 through 1988. In 1988 the Harvey Awards were founded, named in honor of Kurtzman to recognize the achievements of comic-book industry professionals. They are currently held each year at the Baltimore Comic-Con in September.