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COMMENTARY

Humbug set

Bah...

I bought the two-volume collected edition of Harvey Kurtzman's magazine Humbug as soon as it was published early last year, and for weeks afterward it was an ornament of my bedside table. Reading it was a return visit to Humbug for me: I remember my delight upon discovering the second issue during a school trip to Chicago in the summer of 1957. I quickly became a subscriber, and Humbug was one of the lights of my life until it expired after only eleven issues. (It seems to me I got a refund of part of my subscription money, but that may be a trick of memory.)

Fantagraphics' reprint edition is exemplary in every way, the magazines themselves meticulously restored, and accompanied by helpful annotations, an illuminating introduction by the editors John Benson and Gary Groth, and a highly enjoyable Benson interview with the two surviving Humbug artists, Arnold Roth and Al Jaffee. There's everything a new reader might need to make sense of a satirical magazine more than a half century old. A reprint of the two issues of Kurtzman's Trump, from 1956 (that glossy magazine came out between his stints with Mad and Humbug), is promised for March, and with that a remarkably high percentage of Kurtzman's best work will have returned to print in books, the major exception being the 26 issues of Help!, his magazine that followed Humbug in 1960-62.

I wish, though, that I could feel as much enthusiasm for Humbug itself as I feel for the perfectly realized reprint edition. The problem is with that word "satirical" that I used in the last paragraph. Let me put it this way: If, fifty-odd years ago in America, you were an exceptionally outspoken satirist, if you fearlessly declared with raucous laughter that the emperor had no clothes, if you stripped folly of its pretensions and pierced pomposity with words as sharp as daggers, you might win applause from a small but discerning audience; you were also quite likely to get arrested.

I have on my desk a paperback book called The Essential Lenny Bruce, which was published in 1967, the year after Bruce's death. I never saw Bruce perform in person at the nightclubs that were his usual venues, but I remember listening to his recorded routines on LPs as a college boy, with a mixture of shock and amazement, and I can hear his voice when I read the transcriptions of those routines in the book. There was, to say the least, nothing politically correct about Lenny Bruce, no shrinking from controversy, no dancing around derogatory racial, religious, or sexual epithets. Bruce's satire was satire at its rawest. There's a "chronicle" at the back of the book that lists Bruce's many arrests—for narcotics sometimes, but most tellingly, in such bigoted backwaters as New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, for obscenity.

This was the choice facing comedians in the '50s and early '60s, if they aspired to be satirists: go the distance, and risk jail and destitution (Bruce was declared a pauper in San Francisco in 1965), or be a clown whose jokes occasionally tasted of the acid of real satire. And if you published a magazine, especially one that resembled a comic book—comic books in general were in bad odor in the late '50s—you had to tread very carefully if you wanted access to the indispensable newsstands, where Humbug, with its odd size, odd price, and odd content, was always an anomaly anyway. Humbug died a quick death, but, as far as I know, without a push from the authorities, and I don't think Kurtzman was ever in danger of spending a night in the slammer for anything he wrote or drew.

Benson and Groth in their introduction put the best possible gloss on the course Kurtzman followed in Humbug:

His preference was skewering pop artifacts and cultural trends—his primary targets had been movies, TV, comics and advertising—in order to underscore the absurdity of American culture, and his tone was one of tolerant bemusement rather than moral censure. His satirical impulses were sly and subversive, not trenchant or hectoring; more [Stan] Freberg and [Ernie] Kovacs ... or [Sid] Caesar ... than Mort Sahl ... or Lenny Bruce. (Perhaps popular culture wallowed less in vileness and vulgarity in 1957 and required less invasive satirical measures to deride it than it does today, when it has absorbed a self-satirical dimension that has made it virtually impervious to such criticism.)

What I find in Humbug is indeed a dilute kind of satire similar to that on the records Freberg made around the same time, records whose comedy once seemed bright and even daring but was always fundamentally tame. I think too of Al Capp (not mentioned by Benson and Groth), whose "Li'l Abner" comic strip was, for all its brassiness, comedy of the same safe sort. I remember Capp's saying that he asked permission of Liberace to caricature that ridiculous pianist in his comic strip as "Liverachy"; when Liberace refused, Capp came up with a pianist named "Loverboynik," who bore a vague resemblance to Liberace but was several steps removed from the real thing.

Such was the wary world of mainstream satire in the '50s. Benson and Groth say of Kurtzman and his Humbug colleagues: "According to [Arnold] Roth, they were trying to produce a magazine that was equivalent to the sophistication found in a college humor magazine but that would appeal to a more general readership." Anyone who remembers the college humor magazines of the period may not see that as a particularly lofty ambition, but back then, the college boys who published those magazines—and listened to those Lenny Bruce records—could hope to get away with satire that might land their adult peers in trouble.

Kurtzman was a much greater artist than Stan Freberg or Al Capp (or Mort Sahl, who is best classified not as a comedian in the Lenny Bruce vein but as a sort of left-leaning Bob Hope), and there are many traces of his genius in Humbug. I think immediately of the derisive awards to the "Humbug Hero of the Month" and the wonderful Jack Davis-illustrated variations on movie clichés, titled "You Know Who Gets Killed." There is a lot more good stuff in Humbug. For me, though, it was in the comic-book Mad of the early '50s that Kurtzman really flourished.

In stories like "Superduperman" and "Howdy Dooit"—the two stories from Mad that I chose for A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics—Kurtzman was a superb satirist, with an unerring eye for what was phony and meretricious in the subjects of his burlesques; and since just about everything in Superman and Howdy Doody and their ilk was phony and meretricious, the prevailing tone in Kurtzman's best stories was bracingly nihilistic. That he chose such worthy targets did not exempt him from complaint, of course; the publishers of the crummy comic books he ridiculed took them much more seriously than Kurtzman did. Even if the risks Kurtzman ran were slight compared with those that Lenny Bruce embraced, they were greater than those that most other self-proclaimed satirists were prepared to take.

In Humbug, Kurtzman cast his cultural net wider than Mad usually did, basing comics stories on such unmistakably adult targets as Elia Kazan's notorious 1956 movie Baby Doll and the TV western Have Gun Will Travel. In literary terms Kurtzman's Humbug versions were travesties—that is, he didn't so much ridicule the originals as use them as vehicles for clowning that was sometimes inspired, sometimes not. Other Humbug features, picture pages like those in the magazine version of Mad—one on "radiation," for example—have dated beyond the capability of even excellent annotations to revive them.

(Some of the best things in Humbug were text parodies that were written not by Kurtzman but by Larry Siegel. They were often very funny—I think especially of Siegel's expert skewering of Robert Ruark's novel Something of Value—but in a subtly different way than Kurtzman's best parodies. The tone was not one of "tolerant bemusement"; rather, it was as if Siegel were grateful for the stupidity he found in what he parodied, because it gave him so much to work with.)

I wouldn't choose to be without this set, or anything else Kurtzman wrote or drew or edited, but reading it made me aware of how curious reputations can be. It is Kurtzman who is celebrated as a satirist; cartoonists like John Stanley and Carl Barks are rarely if ever mentioned in such terms. But I find in their best stories a much more skeptical opinion of humanity as a whole than I detect in even the most aggressive of Kurtzman's stories, the ones in which his "tone of tolerant bemusement" is stretched near the breaking point. I don't know of any Kurtzman satire as bleak—or as funny—as Barks's story in the June 1951 Walt Disney's Comics, in which Donald Duck is beset by hordes of brutally grasping suburban children (that is, his readers) and their even more appalling mothers (that is, the people paying for the children's subscriptions to Walt Disney's).

There are nods to Barks and Stanley in From Aargh to Zap! Harvey Kurtzman's Visual History of the Comics, published in 1991, the year before Kurtzman's death, but the words are almost all mine; I was Harvey's collaborator/ghost writer, and although he approved what I wrote, he simply wasn't much interested in most comic books other than the ones he wrote or drew or edited himself. I spent an afternoon with him, recording his thoughts for the book, and this was all he had to say about Stanley:

I knew Little Lulu was good, but I don't know why. I wasn't a Little Lulu fan, but for some reason I knew it was good. I probably had read some Little Lulu and was impressed, but I didn't read any more.

I don't think that Barks's name came up at all.

It's just as well, I now think, that Kurtzman didn't share Barks's intensely skeptical world view. If that world view had been channeled into stories that were not camouflaged by "funny animals" but were as topical as Kurtzman's work almost always was, the results would probably not have been pretty. Wildly funny, almost certainly, but dangerous, quite likely. So, I'm content that Harvey never stopped being Harvey. One Lenny Bruce was enough.

[Posted January 12, 2010]

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