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The Mad World Of Harvey Kurtzman: A Look Back at America’s Comic Virtuoso

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Harvey Kurtzman, legendary American satirist and comic illustrator, will always be revered for his spellbinding and burlesque caricatured depictions of post-war America. Well versed in the art of parody and pastiche, Kurtzman orchestrated the resurgence of the American comic enterprise, most notably through the publication of Mad, a comic series that would eventually emerge as a penetrating mirror of working-class America and its socio-cultural mores. A meticulous and stringently methodical artist (he hand drew extensive preparatory story boards and drafts before beginning any project); Kurtzman strived for an artistic grandeur that outshone the work of many of his contemporaries.

In many ways, Kurtzman had invented his own formulaic recipe for creating truly memorable comic pieces. Of particular highlight was Kurtzman’s innovative development of comic ‘panelling’, the creative process of planning and drawing up individual frames for a comic strip. Kurtzman’s proficiency lay in how he managed to connect and assemble a series of self-illustrated comic strip panels into a single, succinct and fluent narrative. Kurtzman's conceptualization of ‘panelling’ significantly differed from the more traditional/orthodox approaches adopted by fellow practitioners such as Art Spiegelman and Bob Clarke. For Kurtzman, comic panels were not solely independent components advancing the narrative, but a single and continuous ‘conversation’ between various characters and scenes of the comic strip.

This skill was particularly executed to pinpoint perfection in an edition of Kurtzman's popular filler series entitled, “Hey Look”. In it, a guy finds a crayon and leans into the next panel to draw another guy, who continues the trend by using a piece of chalk to draw a third person in the subsequent panel who in turn uses a paint brush to draw a fourth guy in the last panel, who regrettably states that there is a paint set outside the page which he cannot reach, and thus the comic strip must come to an abrupt end. Apart from the harmonious interaction between various frames of the comic strip, there was an engaging and humorous sense of self-reflexivity in Kurtzman's development of comic characters that were often injected with an imaginary awareness of their own roles as comic participants within a wider narrative scheme.

In 1962, Kurtzman re-embarked on a long running project which he first started in 1954. He attempted to publish a graphic novel adaptation of “Marley’s Ghost”; based on Charles Dickens’s magnum opus, “A Christmas Carol”. The preliminary stages of this ambitious undertaking involved the creation of 70 hand-drawn thumbnail images intended to span over 100 pages. Unfortunately, Kurtzman’s pioneering effort in transforming classic literary works in to comic adaptations was received with much contempt from the American public, who labelled the campaign as a blatant derogation of refined cultural and literary traditions. The proposal was thus widely viewed as illogical and extravagant. It became evidently clear to Kurtzman, that his prolific vision of expanding the American comic industry was several steps ahead in time.

Despite the setback, Kurtzman’s creative ingenuity prevailed through his famous illustrations for Mad magazine. It was in the covers of Mad where Kurtzman’s critical foresight to transform American political and social culture into something uniquely humorous had truly blossomed. Kurtzman’s Mad covers portrayed the truth of what he thought were fundamental social opinions. The cover of Mad issue 16 (see accompanying image), hinted at the current socio-political climate of the 1950s, dominated by pressure groups and a Congress who were ferociously intent on imposing a permanent ban on the distribution and sale of comic books.

The sub-headline on the cover, which read “Humor In a Jugular Vein” and featured the pictorial simulation of the black and white tabloid newspaper of the period, together with grey-tone illustrations of fictional ‘comic-book’ paddlers, was said to be reflective of Kurtzman’s intuition that a new breed of comic books, featuring non-mainstream content (content which defied the laws of social decorum) would soon develop. In almost clairvoyant fashion, a small press of self-published comic books, aptly titled, Underground Comix, soon gained precedence in the late 1960s. The cover of issue 16 is said to predict (and even inspire) the rise of “Underground Comix” and is attributed as being one of the most captivating Mad magazine covers of all time.

Harvey Kurtzman’s industrious career may have struggled at times for public acceptance, as a brilliant artist whose craft was intended for an audience of a future era, but he will always be remembered as the sublimely talented forefather of American comics.

Resources
MAD Magazine Cover 1 image (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Madhk1.jpg)

Kitchen Denis & Buhle Paul 2009, The Art of Harvey Kurtzman Publisher: Abrams ComicArts

Harvey Kurtzman Photo (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/5756899/My-MAD-mentor-Terry-Gilliam-on-Harvey-Kurtzman.html)

MAD Magazine Cover 2 (http://www.coverbrowser.com/covers/mad)

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