Devil in the Details: Harvey Kurtzman (11/05)

kurtzman4Beginning on November 20, through March of next year, you can go into the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and see the postwar half of the ambitious survey “Masters of American Comics” (the prewar portion is at the UCLA Hammer Museum). Featured are Jack Kirby (The Fantastic Four), R. Crumb (Zap), Art Spiegelman (Maus), Gary Panter (Jimbo), and more—along with Harvey Kurtzman, who in moments can make them all seem square.

In the ’50s Kurtzman’s MAD magazine was Lenny Bruce for kids. As a comic book it was the comics inside out, all id, and going too fast for kids to catch, especially around the edges of the panels. Nine- and twelve-year-olds picking their way through the 1954 Dragnet parody “Dragged Net” weren’t going to connect the question that Sgt. Joe Friday continually asked his partner Ed Saturday—“How’s your mom, Ed?”—with Oedipus, and there was no Oedipus Rex payoff. That wasn’t the point.

The point was “How’s your mom, Ed?” as absolute non sequitur. What in the world did it mean? The phrase turned every already-crowded, hysterical page into a mystery, put a hole in it. There was the suggestion that there was more going on in the comics you read and the TV shows you watched than you would ever know.

The non sequitur as the foundation of Kurtzman’s assault on postwar mass culture was an argument about brainwashing, passivity, entertainment reduced to mindless consumption, and any other fear-of-mass-culture shibboleth current in the ’50s. It was also someone fooling around and having a wonderful time. Born in 1924 in New York City, Kurtzman attended the High School for Music and Art, where he met his future MAD compatriot Will Elder. He got his first comics job in 1942, working on the Classics Illustrated version of Moby-Dick; when he came out of the war in 1946, he went to work for Stan Lee, later the founding editor of Marvel Comics. By 1949 he was working for EC Comics as artist, writer, and editor, producing the powerful war comics Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat. But when MAD debuted as an EC title in 1952, it had an impact all over the world. Suddenly, movie epics and Superman comics were speaking in strange tongues, their heroes making complete fools of themselves while carrying on as if everything was going according to plan. In 1956, after a dispute with EC’s Bill Gaines, Kurtzman left the company. He set about publishing his own, far-more-obscure magazines, most notably Help!, while producing the long-running “Little Annie Fanny” strip for Playboy. Help! folded in 1965, and by then the fuse for the underground comix explosion was burning—but in truth Kurtzman had struck the match long before. When he died in 1993, he must have known he had changed the world—or anyway left it less predictable.

In Frontline Combat and Two-Fisted Tales, Kurtzman was fundamentally a European moralist, a serious artist determined to portray the horrors of war and the dignity of man; in MAD and in the years to follow, he was an all-American trickster, a con artist who could actually make art. The non sequitur at the edge of the frame was Kurtzman’s version of the tall tale, told deadpan. “There are several kinds of stories,” Mark Twain wrote in his 1897 essay “How to Tell a Story,” “but only one difficult kind—the humorous… The humorous story is American, the comic story is English, the witty story is French. The humorous story depends for its effect on the manner of the telling; the comic story and the witty story upon the matter.” Twain went on:

“The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it; but the teller of the comic story tells you beforehand that it is one of the funniest things he has ever heard, then tells it with eager delight, and is the first person to laugh when he gets through. And sometimes, if he has had good success, he is so glad and happy that he will repeat the ‘nub’ of it and glance around from face to face, collecting applause, and then repeat it again. It is a pathetic thing to see. Very often, of course, the rambling and disjointed humorous story finishes with a nub, point, snapper, or whatever you like to call it. Then the listener must be alert, for in many cases the teller will divert attention from that nub by dropping it in a carefully casual and indifferent way, with the pretense that he does not know it is a nub.

“Artemus Ward [a popular nineteenth-century American humorist] used that trick a good deal; then when the belated audience presently caught the joke he would look up with innocent surprise, as if wondering what they had found to laugh at.”

The non sequitur is the grave part of Kurtzman’s storytelling—and you can just see his “Where’d you get that?” look when you mention that in “Goodman Goes Playboy,” the otherwise completely naked Playmate of the Month is wearing a Klan hood.

Written by Kurtzman and drawn by Elder, “Goodman Goes Playboy” was published in Help! in 1962, just before “Little Annie Fanny” debuted in Playboy. Here Goodman Beaver, a fresh-faced towhead back from seeing the world, returns to Archie-and-Veronica land: typical-teenager comic-book heaven, where the boys are just looking for a kiss and the girls are almost too perfect to look at. It was a world that Kurtzman and Elder had portrayed in MAD eight years earlier as a riot of dope dealing and bad skin, with ultratypical Archie ending up in prison, old and bald, tortured by his memory of the day acned Betty threw herself at him and he just curled his lip. The kids buying Archie comic books along with MAD weren’t going to know why Betty’s purse contained cigarettes that didn’t look as if they came from a pack, let alone why she had one of those things the doctor gave you shots with right there with them.

Goodman Beaver looks just like Jimmy Carter—or a blond, gosh-wow JFK. But in truth he’s Kurtzman’s version of Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown, the Puritan who finds himself in the forest at a witches’ Sabbath, with all the townspeople he passes every day, his pure young bride among them, pledging their troth to Satan. Back at the soda fountain five years after graduation, the fact that everyone’s talking about Ferraris and champagne and whether the bearnaise sauce at Point’s is better than Le Pavilion’s is so weird that Goodman doesn’t even hear them. That there are huge breasts everywhere—on all the women, in every ad (“Flats Fixed” shows a Dolly Parton-like mechanic—and I only just realized, writing this, that the ad isn’t just for cars)—is so strange, he doesn’t even notice.

“We’re older. We’ve moved into our own city apartments”—Archie, beatnik Jughead, slick Reggie, glamorous Veronica, and good-girl Betty are all living the Playboy lifestyle, convulsed by it. Looking at the panels now, nearly half a century later, little has changed. The Playboy kids with their expensive restaurants and their Lancias—“Courtesy of the road,” Archie keeps saying as he waves at another Lancia driver, pours him a drink, all but changes clothes with him—are just the day before yesterday’s yuppies and today’s food fanatics. Goodman Beaver wants to know how the football team is doing. “You’ve been away too long,” Archie says. “Nowadays, the gang is interested mainly in hipness–awareness.” Welcome to the New Age.

Archie drags Goodman to his pad—they enter the ziggurat-like apartment building through a staircase built into the womb of a huge statue of a female torso, cut off just above the waist. He gets Goodman a toga. He’s throwing a party, his last big blowout—a full-scale Roman orgy—before paying up for all the fun he’s had since high school. “Where did the money come from?” Goodman asks, as Archie leads him through grottoes filled with Nazi stag films, porno comic strips, sex dolls, and a crate of copies of the illustrated edition of Tropic of Cancer. “You want to know where it comes from?” Archie says, his face gleaming, his eyes mad. “HAHAHA! I’ll tell you where it comes from! I’VE SIGNED A PACT WITH THE DEVIL… THAT’S WHERE IT COMES FROM! HAAAHAHA!—IN EXCHANGE FOR MY SOUL!”

This is all very satisfying—up to a point, or rather up to the punch line that, to Twain, was really beside the point. As you gaze into the big orgy panel, taking up two-thirds of a page, and then follow the action through twelve panels more, your eye is drawn away from the Playmates diving into the indoor pool filled with grapes, the men groping the women wrapped in gauze, the couples piled in mounds. Instead you see what is on the edges of the story: a woman in a prim suit, spectacles, broad-brimmed black hat, black cloak and black boots, watching—a Quaker bearing witness to sin. A huge bust of Tony Curtis, emblazoned “OUR LEADER—BERNIE SCHWARTZ.” A roasted woman with an apple in her mouth borne by a chef on a platter, then a second roasted woman carried on a spit. The she-wolf that raised Romulus and Remus as a wine dispenser. Whistler’s mother, naked except for her white cap. A statue, or a woman, on a pedestal, with her head broken or cut off, and a man kissing it—or drinking from it. And you say—Tony Curtis? What’s he doing here?

Kurtzman left you hanging, wondering, falling flat on your face from the trip-cords he left all over the landscape of the familiar. There was always something odd, something that didn’t fit, something blank and indecipherable that drew the whole story to itself. “How’s your mom, Ed?” All these years later, I understand that it wasn’t just a joke. Friday knew what Saturday and his mother were doing. He knew what was going on. But he told his story gravely, as if he had no idea.


Artforum, November 2005


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