Harvey Kurtzman self portrait, from The Jungle Book, 1959.


Born: 1924 : : : Died: 1993
Job Description: Cartoonist and editor
Worked in: Comic books
Noted for: Mad magazine, Little Annie Fanny, “discovering” R. Crumb, and much more
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Harvey Kurtzman has won many awards for his work in comic books, but that's not all. Considered by many to be among …

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… the most influential cartoonists of the 20th century, in a sense, he is a major award. The Harveys, which are named after him, have been given for outstanding comic book work since 1988.

Kurtzman was born October 3, 1924, in New York City. He grew up loving the full-page comics in the Sunday papers — in fact, Monday mornings would often find him rooting through neighborhood trash cans, looking for the ones his family didn't get. He didn't go through the usual childhood ambitions of being a fireman or a cowboy — from the beginning, his goal was to be a cartoonist. His first comic strip, Ikey & Mikey (no relation) appeared very early, and in an unusual medium: chalk on the sidewalk. His first work printed in ink, on paper, came out in 1939, when he was still in high school, on the amateur art page of Tip Top Comics (where Li'l Abner, The Captain & the Kids and other United Feature funnies were reprinted).

Later, he got a job assisting Louis Ferstadt, whose work of choice was portrait painting, but who maintained a "day job" supplying artwork for comic books, including ones published by the companies that eventually evolved into DC and Marvel. Before long, Kurtzman was working on his own, handling such features as Magno & Davey (a superhero/sidekick team appearing in Ace Magazines' Super-Mystery Comics), Flash (aka Lash) Lightning (another superhero in the same publisher's Sure-Fire Comics) and Flatfoot Burns (a bigfoot-style cop in Police Comics, where Plastic Man and Phantom Lady got their starts). It wasn't until the late 1940s, however, in series such as "Hey Look!" (a one-page filler that appeared in many Marvel comics of the time) and "Pot Shot Pete" (the first multi-page series he both wrote and drew) that his distinctive style began to emerge.

It was also in the late '40s that Kurtzman shared the "Charles William Harvey" studio with his friends, Will Elder and Charlie Stern. Elder remained a collaborator with Kurtzman for decades. Others working at the studio, who maintained lengthy professional associations with Kurtzman, include John Severin (best known for western and war comics, plus a long stint at Cracked magazine) and Dave Berg (whose "Lighter Side" series was a Mad magazine mainstay for decades). René Goscinny, co-creator of Asterix the Gaul, also worked there briefly.

Kurtzman's rise to fame began when he joined EC Comics, in 1949. His first work associated with that company wasn't particularly notable, however — EC publisher Bill Gaines sent the young cartoonist to his uncle, David Gaines, a packager of non-newsstand educational comics. Kurtzman's first job there was to illustrate a western-themed anti-syphillis tale about "That Ignorant, Ignorant Cowboy".

Within a few months, tho, Kurtzman was drawing horror and sci-fi stories for EC. When he also showed a flair for writing, Bill Gaines put him to work editing and writing a pair of new titles in a genre EC hadn't done before — war stories. Guided by Kurtzman's point of view, however, Frontline Combat and Two-Fisted Tales weren't so much war comics, as anti-war. His method of scripting was to provide fairly tight page layouts, which the artists seldom deviated from, so a Kurtzman story tended to look like a Kurtzman story no matter who drew it.

Editing only two EC comics didn't provide enough income, so in 1952 Kurtzman talked Gaines into launching a new title, radically different in both concept and style from any that had ever been published before — Tales Calculated to Drive You Mad, which, under the title Mad magazine, is still in print. Cartoonists such as Art Spiegelman (Pulitzer-winning author of Maus), Bill Griffith (Zippy the Pinhead) and R. Crumb (Mr. Natural) credit the early Mad with seminal influence on their own creative development. In later years, when all had achieved fame in the underground comix movement of the late 1960s and early '70s, Kurtzman sometimes referred to himself as the "brother-in-law of underground comix".

All his life, Kurtzman strove to elevate comics, in both social stature and production values. He made a big step toward the latter in 1955, when he persuaded Gaines to convert Mad into a full-size magazine. The 24th issue (July, 1955) was the first in the new format. Since then, Creepy, Savage Tales, Vampirella and many other comics have been published that way, but it was Harvey Kurtzman's Mad that started the trend.

In 1956, tho, Kurtzman left the magazine, and EC, to launch one with even better production. Trump was bankrolled by the deep pockets of Playboy's Hugh Hefner, who had run an interview with Kurtzman several months earlier. Even so, it lasted only two issues, both published in 1957. The self-published Humbug was Kurtzman's next attempt to repeat his success, but its final issue came out in 1958. Help! was a good deal more successful, lasting from 1960-65, 26 issues in all. It was at Help that Kurtzman became the first editor to publish the work of R. Crumb (Fritz the Cat), Gilbert Shelton (Wonder Warthog) and Jay Lynch (Nard 'n' Pat).

In 1962, Kurtzman began a parody of a famous newspaper comic, which he would later describe as his "golden cage" — a feature that paid his bills in fine style, but left him less time than he wanted to pursue other projects. Little Annie Fanny ran in Playboy magazine, and thus achieved production values seldom seen anywhere, much less in comics. Assisted by many other artists, including some old Mad cronies such as Will Elder, Jack Davis and Russ Heath, Kurtzman continued the fully-painted series until 1988.

Even during the Annie years, Kurtzman found time to do a few other minor things. Nutz (1985), a periodical formatted like a paperback book; Betsy's Buddies (1988) (with Sarah Downs), a full-color, hardcover comic book published by Kitchen Sink Press; and other work display the same style of humor and illustration he made famous with Mad and Annie.

His last comic book was Harvey Kurtzman's Strange Adventures (1990) (with several other cartoonists). It was published by Marvel Comics in the same format as Betsy's Buddies, but with the addition of a dust jacket. His last published book of any kind was From Aargh! to Zap!: Harvey Kurtzman's Visual History of the Comics (1991).

He died on Feb. 21, 1993, sending a shock wave through the comics industry. But in his 68 years, he managed to elevate his work from chalk on the sidewalk to a full-color, hardcover book with dust jacket.


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Text ©2001-07 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Estate of Harvey Kurtzman.