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"Nose to Nose With Reality"

Of the many nuggets of fact, large and small, that fill Bill Schelly's impressive new biography, Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created Mad and Revolutionized Humor in America (Fantagraphics Books), my favorite may be that Kurtzman admired Charles Biro's Crime Does Not Pay when he read that comic book as a young man in the mid-1940s.

Kurtzman book If his high regard for Biro came as a surprise to me, it was undoubtedly because so much time has elapsed since I spent an afternoon with him at his home in March 1990, taping an interview for the book that was published later that year as From Aargh! to Zap!: Harvey Kurtzman's Visual History of the Comics. I had signed on as Harvey's co-author early that year. We looked through a pile of old comic books that included Crime Does Not Pay, and Harvey said then of Biro's comics: "They affected me like the underground stuff. It had a touch of Hollywood Babylon—real-life crime stories."

The completed manuscript that I sent to Byron Preiss a couple of months after the interview mentions Biro at greater length. I'm not sure how much of the wording of that paragraph originated with Harvey and how much with me. Some sort of Kurtzman history of the comics had been promised for years, and I was given temporary custody of lots of source material intended for use in the writing of that book. It was Harvey's poor health, and his desire to provide for his family, that was spurring the book into print at last. It may be that the Biro paragraph originated in that source material. In any case, the sentiments expressed were certainly Harvey's, and the paragraph survived his review with only minor changes (unlike some other parts of the manuscript).

"I remember how Biro's stories affected me," Harvey says in the book. "I felt the same excitement about them that I felt about the underground comic books of twenty years later. In both cases, it was something of a shock to be brought nose to nose with reality. A lot of young readers, sated with super-hero make-believe, were not so much shocked as delighted, and they were quick to lay down their dimes for this exciting new kind of entertainment."

Bill Schelly elaborates: "Reality-based comics struck a chord with Kurtzman, one that would have reverberations throughout the rest of his career. He talked about about how, in the realm of popular entertainment, there was the reality-based and the fantasy-based, and he preferred the former. ... 'I'm a fantasy idiot, but with reality I'm good.'"

Crime Does Not Pay was barbershop reading for me when I was a kid, but there is no need for me, or anyone else, to trust to memory where that comic book is concerned. A handsome anthology of what the editors presumably believe are the two dozen best stories was published by Dark Horse Comics a few years ago. Those stories are just as lurid, and as far removed from reality, as I remembered. The graphic violence especially is as fantastic as anything in the horror comics produced by Kurtzman's colleagues at EC (comics that he despised, rightly). But, as crude as it was, Crime Does Not Pay was indeed "reality-based," in the very narrow sense that the stories were based on actual criminal cases. For Kurtzman, apparently, that was enough.

I think that when Harvey spoke of his work as "reality-based," he was really acknowledging that he was exceptionally literal-minded. (Talking animals? Flying men? You've got to be kidding.) I'm not complaining; in his case, to be literal-minded was a source of strength, as a satirist especially, because it meant he saw many things as they really were, a rare attribute in popular culture generally and certainly in the comic books of the 1940s.

That literal-mindedness could be counted as an asset, too, when he was writing (and sometimes illustrating) war stories for the EC comic books, since it drove him to conduct exhaustive research for those stories and strive for an authenticity that was all but absent from other war comics; but like many other EC stories, Kurtzman's war stories tend to be shackled by their short length and their twist endings. They are a little too tidy. I've often wondered if the superhero stories of the 1960s by Jack Kirby—a combat veteran of World War II, as Kurtzman was not—in their ferocious and chaotic violence, are not a truer approximation of combat than Kurtzman's meticulous recreations.

In any case, it's as a satirist that Kurtzman is deservedly best remembered. As the subtitle of Bill Schelly's book says, he was "the man who created Mad," and it was while Mad was in his hands that it was a bracing counter to the increasingly anodyne comic books of the mid-1950s. But the subtitle of Schelly's book also identifies Kurtzman as the man who "revolutionized humor in America,"and that seems to me an overstatement.

Satire is a form of criticism. If it doesn't sting, if it doesn't provoke any anger in its targets, it really isn't satire. For that reason, great satire is always a marginal and often a dangerous enterprise (just ask the survivors of the Charlie Hebdo massacre). As Schelly makes admirably clear, Kurtzman was never interested in being that kind of satirist; he didn't want to be bracketed with Lenny Bruce and Tom Lehrer or, God forbid, Paul Krassner, to mention three of the most notorious of the true satirists who were active when Kurtzman was trying repeatedly to put together a magazine that appealed to a somewhat older audience than Mad's.

In January 2010, when I wrote here about the recently published two-volume set of Kurtzman's complete Humbug, I remarked that it was just as well that he never took risks like those taken by Bruce and other satirists. But as John Benson told me then, it was simply not in Kurtzman's nature to take such risks. As John wrote, "Kurtzman would, of course, get pissed off if you suggested to him that he was ever 'savage' or 'destructive,'" attributes that I'd identified in the comic-book Mad. Harvey was a devoted husband and the father of four children, and he lived in a nice house in the suburbs of New York. He was a middle-class family man who needed a steady income, and his ambition was not to publish full-blooded satire, but to edit a full-color, slick-paper humor magazine.

Kurtzman came close to realizing that ambition only once, when he edited two issues of Trump for Hugh Hefner (whom Schelly interviewed, and who emerges in the book as the kind of friend you might prefer as an enemy). After that, it was all downhill—a trajectory that Schelly describes sympathetically but with dry eyes—as Kurtzman came to slow-motion grief starting in the late 1950s, first with Humbug and then with Help! before taking up residence in the silk-lined purgatory called "Little Annie Fanny."

But it was, I think, in the comic-book Mad that Kurtzman was genuinely satirical—not always, but in his best stories—and therefore almost by definition "savage" and "destructive," if not in the taboo-breaking Lenny Bruce manner. In "Superduperman" and "Howdy Dooit" and other stories of that kind, Kurtzman's targets were not simply "fantasy-based" but actively meretricious; they invited but almost never got the kind of pointed ridicule that Kurtzman could do better than anyone, thanks to his blessed literal-mindedness. It was through those stories, and a few later ones like them—the funniest stories in Humbug, the "Goodman Beaver" stories in Help!, and a scattering of others—that Kurtzman certainly influenced American humor, even if "revolutionized" is too strong. Some of those stories got Kurtzman in trouble, too, notably "Goodman Goes Playboy" in Help! with its mocking appropriation of characters from the unctuous Archie comic books.

For all its many virtues, Schelly's book is too long, insisting perhaps a little too strenuously through its sheer bulk (more than six hundred pages) that Kurtzman deserves as much attention as, say, a deceased president. There are digressions and side trips that testify to the breadth of Schelly's research but add unnecessary pages, and there are passages in which he circles around a point a little too long, as if reluctant to commit himself. Such shortcomings are hard to avoid in serious nonfiction books whose authors must introduce thousands of facts and explain their significance, and Harvey Kurtzman would have benefited from one more reading by a sympathetic and rigorous editor.

At that, I noticed very few errors, and none of great consequence (Fort Bragg, where Kurtzman served in the army, is in North Carolina, not South). When Schelly has the comic-book editor Archie Goodwin say, in regard to the importance of Kurtzman's EC war comics, "His influence can't really be underestimated," I'm not sure if the malapropism is Goodwin's or Schelly's, but Harvey might have enjoyed it.

There are a few whole chapters that cry out for tightening, like the one on Kurtzman's years as a teacher at The School of Visual Arts, but by the time I reached the end of the book my reservations about such chapters were shrinking under the cumulative weight of the book's depiction of Kurtzman's struggles. Schelly tells his readers a great deal about Kurtzman's finances (but not too much), and he makes clear that Kurtzman was almost always financially insecure.

Certainly, Kurtzman's own poor decisions created a good bit of that insecurity, especially his rupture with Mad's publisher, Bill Gaines, and in that part of the book, as in others, the sympathetic reader may find himself cringing. Kurtzman was a gifted artist, and like so many other artists he could be upended by his awareness of his talent and his belief that other people should recognize it and reward him for it. And so, toward the end of his life (he died in 1993), suffering first from Parkinson's disease and then cancer, Kurtzman had no choice but to keep working. In his late sixties, he was known and revered by other cartoonists, especially—Schelly interviewed Robert Crumb, Jack Davis, and many more—but his fame and their affection never translated into more than brief bursts of prosperity.

That was why, a little more than twenty-five years ago, Harvey and I were seated in his living room, talking for the tape recorder as his wife, Adele, Denis Kitchen, and Alex Jay (who would design From Aargh to Zap!) listened. I knew Harvey was ill, but not specifically what was wrong with him. We talked mostly about the comic books that were to be the subject of the book, but we also talked about Harvey's career. He said, in passages from my notes that Bill Schelly quotes in part in his book:

I've been very impractical, and it's been a curse and a blessing. The average comic-book person, even in the best efforts and attempts, to this very day, the concentration, the focus, is on making money. As it should be. But I've always been lured away by having my own little fun. The minute you lose your sense of priorities—the priority being making the buck—you're free to be artistic, and to say things that have nothing to do with money. [But] I see people marching on to greater riches, and I think, I'm doing something wrong. I saw Mort Walker the other day; Mort and I started in the business at exactly the same moment. We had the same customers. There's just one minor difference between us, besides the talent: He never lost that priority, of making the buck. We started at the same time, and he's a millionaire. He was telling me how he used the three-, four-fingered device on 'Beetle Bailey,' so as to cut corners. He took out all the blacks, so that the flow of the ink is the fastest. He's got all kinds of gimmicks to make that feature bleed money. I've never been able to do that. Don't get me wrong; I would love to make money. But I don't know how to keep that priority. My motivation isn't necessarily noble; my motivation may be stupidity of sorts. ... My focus was on the fun of the art, and not on the buck. To this very day, I still fall into that trap. I can only seem to work when it gives me pleasure.

Even when reality would not cooperate, Harvey remained a resolutely reality-based cartoonist. That was to our benefit, and I wish it had been more to his.

[Posted June 19, 2015; revised slightly October 16, 2015, to eliminate repetition]