Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Art of Harvey Kurtzman, Part 1

Illustrator Dave Gibbons says when he and writer Alan Moore started to think about Watchmen, they agreed they wanted their super heroes to look like “Superduperman,” a comic-strip feature created back in 1953 for MAD magazine by Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood. (Sickly Clark Bent, assistant copy boy for the Daily Dirt, has an unrequited crush on Lois Pain, girl reporter. But he has no better luck as a costumed crime fighter. “So you’re Superduperman instead of Clark Bent! Big deal!” Lois proclaims after smacking him silly. “Yer still a creep!”)

That Gibbons and Moore picked a silly comic hero for their tragic outlaws isn’t that surprising. Everyone borrowed from Harvey Kurtzman or were inspired by his work, in one form or another. Just ask Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Terry Gilliam or Harry Shearer ….

Testimony to this can be found in The Art of Harvey Kurtzman: The Mad Genius of Comics, by Denis Kitchen and Paul Buhl, published this summer. It’s the kind of biography Kurtzman deserves — it’s as much picture book as narrative. It includes the abovementioned “Superduperman” feature along with lots of other art and writing samples from MAD magazine, plus pages from Kurtzman’s other well-known creation, “Little Annie Fanny,” which ran in Playboy from 1962 to 1988.

But even better: This book shows his early work from the 1940s, plus examples from Frontline Combat and Two-Fisted Tales, war-themed comic books for EC Comics that eschewed the then-standard gung-ho heroics for stark realism and often frightened protagonists.

To be continued …

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