Good morning. Today, we are happy to present an excerpt from Bill Schelly’s forthcoming biography, Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created Mad and Revolutionized Humor in America. In this section, Trump (Kurtzman’s attempt to out-do Mad with the help of Hugh Hefner’s money) has just failed, and Kurtzman and his collaborators are looking for their next move:
HAVING EXPERIENCED magazine interruptus, Kurtzman and his collaborators on Trump gathered in the brownstone to commiserate. The termination of the magazine had come with no warning. The others wanted to hear the details of Kurtzman’s conversation with Hefner. The news was still sinking in. “After we finished with Trump, we all sat around . . . and we were very unhappy that we were about to break up,” Kurtzman recalled. “And Arnold Roth, who is a dear, sweet fellow . . . was the only one who came up with an optimistic attitude.” He also came up with a large bottle of Scotch.
As they passed around the bottle, the mood lightened. They knew they could produce a terrific magazine if only they had a fair shot at it. They were proud of Trump and confident it would have done well. (This was before Kurtzman had the actual sales figures in hand.) Given the talent in the room—each of Kurtzman’s crew was destined to have a successful career—how could they fail, if only a publisher had the good sense to back them solidly? If Mad magazine became a publishing phenomenon, there was no good reason why they couldn’t produce a magazine that would sell as well or better.
“Quality will sell” was the refrain, but after getting burned by Hefner, seeking another publisher met with little enthusiasm. One can imagine a still-resilient Kurtzman saying, “All we need to do is get a magazine on the stands next to Mad, and we could all make a fortune.” As the supply of Scotch dwindled, someone said: “Let’s publish it ourselves!”
Outrageous as it sounded, publishing their own magazine would have many benefits. The group of six—Kurtzman, Elder, Davis, Jaffee, Roth and Chester—had gotten along well in their nine months together. They would have creative control, own the rights to their own work in the magazine and split all the profits. That meant they would benefit if the material was reprinted, possibly in the paperback format that was doing so well for Mad. They would also be able to keep their own original art. (Gaines had never returned the original pages.)
A publishing cooperative, with each participant owning part of the enterprise, had never been tried in comics. Some creators had owned their own companies, like Simon and Kirby with their short-lived Mainline Comics, but the writers and artists who worked for them received none of the benefits of ownership. With the formation of Humbug Publishing Co., Inc., the workers were rising up to take group ownership of an enterprise. It was agreed that the “six musketeers” would create the magazine and split the profits equally, even though the setup differed from being a purely cooperative effort. The individual members wouldn’t simply “do their own thing.” The operation was predicated on Harvey Kurtzman being the editor and guiding force. The others wouldn’t have entertained the idea except for their confidence in their charismatic leader’s talent and vision. (Kurtzman had learned at the Charles William Harvey Studio that someone needed to be at the top.) As John Benson once put it, Humbug could be more accurately called a “commune” than a “co-op.”
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