There's much to love about Denis Kitchen and Paul Buhle's The Art of Harvey Kurtzman. Kitchen is probably the most qualified person in the world to write this book; Kitchen Sink Press published numerous Kurtzman books (collections of Hey Look! and Goodman Beaver, a new edition of Jungle Book) before the artist's death in 1993, and Kitchen currently functions as the literary agent for the Kurtzman estate. In other words: Kitchen knew Kurtzman well, he had keys to the archive, and as a result Art is generously packed with obscure and previously unseen Kurtzman work. Paul Buhle, professor emeritus of American Civilization at Brown University, contributes a deep understanding of the social milieu--the leftist, American-Yiddish microcosm that thrived in New York City and its environs--that Kurtzman was born into and that would shape his life and art ever after.
That's not to say, however, that Art is a perfect book. On the Comics Journal message board, Pat Ford referred to Art as a "hybrid" between an art book and a biography, like Mark Evanier's Kirby: King of Comics, but this hybrid approach runs the risk of "neither-fish-nor-fowlness," where neither the words nor the pictures are as comprehensive as they ought to be. The illustrations in Art are magnificent, but after reading (and not just staring at) Art, I found a few subjects that Kitchen and Buhle should have discussed in more detail. Below are three questions that I wish they had answered in Art.
How did his son Peter's autism influence Kurtzman's life and art?
In Art, Kitchen and Buhle chart the major events of Kurtzman's personal life. Much of chapter 1, for instance, focuses on Kurtzman's service in the army during World War II (1943-1945) and his "meet cute" with Adele Hasan, the future Mrs. Kurtzman, in early 1946. (Apparently Adele, Stan Lee's secretary at Timely Comics in 1946, rigged a survey to make it look like Kurtzman's Hey, Looks were sensationally popular with readers.) Kitchen and Buhle also note the births of Harvey and Adele's kids: Meredith (1950), Peter (1954), Elizabeth (1956, on the very day that Hugh Hefner cancelled Trump, Kurtzman's upscale humor magazine) and Nellie (1969). Not much else is said about the children--appropriately, the focus is kept squarely on Harvey's art--though there are family tidbits like a charming photo of Harvey and a bubble-gum-blowing Nellie at the 1977 San Diego Comic-Con (page 230):
Then, on the final page of the book before the sources and index, Kitchen and Buhle write about the disappointments in Kurtzman's life, beginning with the increasingly painful Parkinson's disease he suffered during his last decade:
One of [Kurtzman's] great tragedies was that his youngest daughter had to grow into her teen years with a deeply ill parent. The other chief tragedy was, of course, his son's autism and the shadow that it threw across their family life, a shadow lifted only somewhat by Harvey and Adele's local volunteer work for autistic and special needs children. (236)
This is the first and last time Kitchen and Buhle mention Peter's autism, and the passage reads like an editorial mistake. The "of course" dropped into the second sentence seems like a casual reference to an earlier passage about Peter that doesn't exist in the published version of Art. Maybe there was more about Peter that was cut from the final draft of the book? Personally, I would like to know more about how Kurtzman dealt with Peter and his autism--not for voyeuristic reasons, but because every artist (and, consequently, their art) is influenced by their personal circumstances. I have no idea how severe Peter's autism is, but raising him was undoubtedly a challenge for Harvey and Adele, and I admired Kurtzman's fortitude more than ever when I discovered that he was parenting an autistic pre-schooler while coping with the cancellation of Trump and launching Humbug. And perhaps the golden cage of Little Annie Fanny looked especially appealing to a freelancer who had a desperate need for health insurance and expensive therapists for his son.
Is it possible to overpraise Kurtzman's Mad?
I love Kurtzman's Mad, and Kitchen and Buhle love Kurtzman's Mad too. In Art, they reprint in their entirety "Superduperman!" (Kurtzman and Wally Wood, Mad #4, April-May 1953) and "3-Dimensions!" (Kurtzman and Wood, Mad #12, June 1954). Wonderful stuff, though I've got other favorites that I would've been just as happy to read again, including "Restaurant!" (Kurtzman and Will Elder, Mad #16, October 1954) and "Bringing Back Father!" (Kurtzman and Bernard Krigstein, Mad #17, November 1954).
There are certain Mad stories, however, that I like considerably less, and that Kitchen and Buhle rave about, including the two-part story "Murder the Husband!" and "Murder the Story!" in Mad #11 (May 1954). The 3-page "Murder the Husband!" with art by Jack Davis, is a condensed version of a tale with the same title originally published in ShockSuspenStories #12 (December 1953). "Murder the Story!" then uses the same images as "Husband!" but replaces the word balloons with untranslated Yiddish and non sequitors that defy narrative logic and sense. Here are the final pages of "Husband!" and "Story!":
Well, I'm not so sure about all this. Giving all the credit for Kuhle Wampe to Brecht is wrong, given that Brecht only co-wrote (and didn't direct) the film. Further, Kuhle Wampe is a serious, socially progressive melodrama about poverty and unemployment--in one scene, a jobless man takes his watch off his wrist before he throws himself out a window--that only occasionally displays Brecht's signature alienation techniques: if Kuhle Wampe and "Murder the Husband!" are at all similar, then I guess Clifford Odets and Milton Berle were fellow travelers. It's also odd that Kitchen and Buhle talk about Kurtzman's deconstruction without ever citing (in this passage, elsewhere in the book, or in Art's bibliography) J. Hoberman's "Vulgar Modernism" (1982), a key text in Mad criticism that discusses Kurtzman's (and collaborator Will Elder's) freewheeling satire and intertextuality in the context of a larger wave of post-World War II American pop-culture deconstruction.
A couple of paragraphs later, Kitchen and Buhle praise a later issue of Mad as the supreme realization of Kurtzman's lampoon approach:
The end of this experimentation, at once logical and glorious, was reached in April 1955. In MAD no. 22, the penultimate comic book, a "Special ART issue" is devoted wholly to the story of artist "Bill (Chicken Fat) Elder" ("from the time he was a tiny, two-bit hack infant to the present when he is now a big, miserable, two-bit hack grown up"). Nothing more Jewish could be imagined than the infant "shmearing" chicken fat on towels, bald heads, visitors' dresses, and convenient walls--illustrated in color with thousands of blue and red lines. "Today those shmears...are hung in various museums and signed with Elder's various pen names such as 'Braque,' 'Matisse,' 'Picasso,' etc. In effect, Kurtzman had taken on the whole world of respectable art, carried it to the Abstract Expressionist extreme that was then in high fashion, and deconstructed it around his favorite artist's supposed life. (106)
I'd agree that it's fun to watch Kurtzman and Elder run like maniacs through art history, as in this page of appropriated images (and zany captions) from Mad #22:
Kitchen and Buhle never point out, however, the most obvious fact about both "Murder the Husband!" and Mad #22: they're fill-ins. During his tenure as Mad editor (which includes the initial 23 Mad comics and the first five magazine-sized issues), Kurtzman was hard against deadlines, and he sometimes turned to reprints to fill pages and rush Mad out onto newsstands. In Mad #7 (October-November 1953) and #8 (December 1953-January 1954), Kurtzman reprinted several of his Timely Hey Look! pieces, and his western parody "Pot-Shot Pete," originally published in John Wayne Adventure Comics # 6 (1950), reappears in Mad #15 (September 1954). The recycled imagery of "Husband!" and "Story!" strikes me as another example of this panicked reliance on reprints.
Ditto for Kurtzman's use of fumetti, which added pages that Kurtzman didn't have to thumbnail and his artists didn't have to draw. In Mad #13 (July 1954), the six splash pages of "Baby Quips" probably took Kurtzman a whole hour to write:
Mad #22 is a combination of fumetti and reprints: the fake biography of Elder is cobbled together with photographs (some lightly altered), and the issue also includes a reprint of Elder's "Mole!" from Mad #2 (December 1952-January 1953). I've always considered features like these mildly disappointing fill-ins that represent Kurtzman's mediocrity when he wasn't firing on all cylinders; I don't consider any of this material cutting-edge deconstructive mid-century American art. Clearly Kitchen and Buhle disagree with me about the merits of, say, "Murder the Story!" but I still think they have an obligation to mention that the fumetti and reprints were how Kurtzman coped with crushing deadlines.
Was Michelle Urry a good editor?
The facts about Urry's life and career are available in various obituaries. Urry was born in Winnipeg in 1939, attended the University of California at Los Angeles, and owned an LA clothing boutique in the early 1960s. She began working for the Playboy corporation in Chicago in 1965 and through a series of promotions became Cartoon Editor of Playboy magazine in 1972, an influential job she held until her death on October 15, 2006.
In The Comics Journal #280 (January 2007), various cartoonists and Playboy staffers mourned Urry's passing and praised her skills as an editor. Hugh Hefner called Urry "a close personal friend and valuable staff member" (22), while Jennifer Thiele, second-in-command on the Playboy cartoon editorial staff, considered her a "brilliant person" who took her job very seriously: "Her dedication to the cartoonists was unparalleled, and she really believed that they were magical people" (25). Art Spiegelman remembered his close friendship with Urry ("She liked to laugh, she was funny, she was smart, she was beautiful and she was incredibly generous..." ), and both Spiegelman and Gahan Wilson appreciated the "marvelous job" (24, in Wilson's words) that she did as a liaison between the cartoonists and Hefner. Arnold Roth wrote, succinctly, that Urry "was a great cartoon editor and an exemplary woman" (23), while TCJ editor Gary Groth offered the most detailed celebration of Urry's life, a three-page tribute that chronicled their collaboration on An Orgy of Playboy's Eldon Dedini (2006) and concluded with the following paragraph:
She had great presence. She was 66, but looked (and acted) more like a woman in her late 40s. There was an energy about her--not a nervous energy, but focused and purposeful. She had a sly sense of humor and there was mischief in her eye. She was effervescent, funny and flirtatious. She was committed to good work and a joy to work with. I'm sorry I didn't get to know her sooner but happy that I got to know her the brief time I did. (28)
I know very little about Playboy cartooning, and nothing at all about Urry beyond these testimonials, but she was clearly adored by many in the biz. Of course, Kurtzman was a Playboy contributor--he (and Will Elder and a cast of thousands) produced Little Annie Fanny for 26 years (1962-1988)--and as I read the chapter on Fanny ("Satire in Technicolor") in Art, I expected to learn that the relationship between Kurtzman and Urry was congenial, "magical," etc. Kitchen and Buhle claim, however, that Kurtzman was poorly served by the Playboy editorial staff. They label Hefner "a heavy-handed and demanding editor," but still a damn sight better than Urry:
As Hefner's life became more complicated, he increasingly delegated tasks, and Kurtzman was shuttled off to various editors, eventually to Michelle Urry, whose pettiness, abuse of situational power, and weaker editorial sense drove Kurtzman and Elder bewilderingly crazy. They yearned for the punctilious but direct Hefner. (Art 215)
Ouch. Needless to say, I was taken aback by Kitchen and Buhle's contrary opinion, and disappointed that the sentence above was their only mention of Urry in Art. As a writer, Kitchen is usually scrupulous about proving his points: in a previous article on Kurtzman ("'Man, I'm Beat!': Harvey Kurtzman's Frustrating Post-Humbug Freelance Career," Comic Art #7 ), Kitchen backed up his argument that Kurtzman was out of sync with the late-'50s Playboy sensibility by quoting extensively from correspondence among Kurtzman, Hefner, and Playboy executive Ray Russell. (Some material from "'Man, I'm Beat!'" is imported into Art.) Throughout Art, Kitchen and Buhle likewise present all kinds of primary historical material--sketches, mock-ups, excerpts from letters--but they don't offer any direct, hard evidence of Urry's "pettiness" and "abuse of situational power," and I think they owe us more of an explanation. More, please.