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Seriously Funny

Today we present Jim Rugg interviewing FUKITOR’s Jason Karns.

And we have a guest blog from the great Drew Friedman, who just finished this phenomenal portrait of Harvey Kurtzman, and had this to say about the man himself:

The legendary Harvey Kurtzman (1924-1993) needs no introduction. So here’s one anyway. Cartoonist, writer and editor, he was the founder and creator of Mad, Trump, Humbug, Help, etc. Along with his long time partner, cartoonist Will Elder, he spent 20 years producing the lushly painted comic strip “Little Annie Fanny” for Playboy.

Beginning in 1975, Harvey Kurtzman was also a teacher at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York, which is where I eventually met him. In fact, the main reason I chose SVA as an art school was because Harvey Kurtzman was listed as an instructor in their catalog. Growing up as the son of a renowned writer (Bruce Jay Friedman), encountering and meeting various celebrities, authors and performers was common for me, but I always held cartoonists on a higher level. The fact that my dad was actually friends with  Maurice Sendak and Jules Feiffer (author of…The Great Comic Book Heroes!!) was just astounding to me, as my goal from an early age was to become a cartoonist, and in addition, I already knew my comics history. Attending a Playboy authors convention in the early seventies, my father posed for a giant group photo (taken by Alfred Eisenstadt) along with about a hundred other Playboy contributors. Hugh Hefner was prominently up front, with many celebrated authors and artists scattered throughout. When I saw the photo in Playboy, what impressed me the most was that my dad was standing right next to one of my Cartoon Heroes: none other than Harvey Kurtzman! I have no idea if they even spoke to each other but it was still such a point of pride for me.

As a teenager in the early seventies, I attended many comic book conventions in NYC, where Harvey Kurtzman was a frequent guest, but I never dared approach him, terrified he’d dismiss me as just another geeky fanboy. Seeing his name listed in the SVA catalog a couple of years later would finally grant me access into his world, or so I hoped.

I eventually signed up for Kurtzman’s course in late 1978. When the first class was ending, and wanting to impress him with my opening line, I made my approach. He was sitting at his desk doing some class paperwork and I leaned in and awkwardly stated: “You know my father!” He lowered his glasses and looked up at me with tired, weary eyes, “Who’s your father?”, he asked.  I answered “Bruce Jay Friedman”. Seemingly unimpressed, he murmured, “Oh, the author” and returned to his paperwork. But he quietly did take note, and would always introduce me to visiting class guests by sarcastically announcing “and this is the son of the author Bruce Jay Friedman”.

Harvey has been criticized by some for not being a great teacher, but never by me (after all, I wasn’t a great student). It actually wasn’t important that he wasn’t a “great teacher” — just being in his presence was enough. For some still unknown reason, Harvey chose to teach “gag cartoons” in his class, preparing his students for a career as, say, a New Yorker or Playboy gag cartoonist. Rarely did he bring up the subject of comics, but if a student ever did, particularly referring to his early Mad or war comics for EC, he clearly (to me anyway) took great pride that anyone still cared and was interested in that work. But most of his students just thought of him as their amiable cartoon instructor “Mr. Kurtzman,” some perhaps knowing he had some vague connection to Mad and that he wrote that sexy comic strip in the back of Playboy (During one of Gary Groth’s extensive interviews with Kurtzman for TCJ, he asked Harvey about teaching at SVA and what the students were like, “They don’t know nuthin’!” was Harvey’s dismissive reply, which sadly, was basically true). But to me and many others, he was the droopy, turtle-faced Living Legend in our midst, and once a week for 3 hours it was our ground zero, the main meeting place for like-minded young cartoonists, future humorists, comics writers and editors, plus you never knew who might drop in. A constant stream of guest cartoonists could show up at any given time, among them were Robert Grossman, Rick Meyerowitz, Neal Adams, Jack Ziegler, et al. The first time I ever encountered Robert Crumb was when he appeared at the class unannounced. Just as I had avoided approaching Kurtzman at the comic cons, I didn’t dare approach Crumb.

Harvey encouraged chaos in his class. At the beginning of his course, he’d hand out balloons and ask everyone to blow them up till they exploded, simulating the “surprise” you should get from a cartoon punchline and leading to inevitable hysterical laughter from all. I’ve often referred to his class (and SVA in general) as “The 13th grade” or “Clown College.”  As the cartoonist Kaz has mentioned, “Drew went into SVA knowing what he wanted to do and left SVA the same way”; meaning, I was hard if not impossible to “teach.” As far as classroom insanity, Harvey usually enjoyed and encouraged the Three Stooges noises and the endless insanity, often instigated by me. He once even quietly took me aside during class to “thank me” for keeping things so lively. But Harvey was also very sensitive and fragile, and sometimes prone to tears, especially at that point in his life when things perhaps hadn’t worked out as he had hoped, and Little Annie Fanny was his main bread and butter. Some days he’d arrive at class and was clearly not in the mood for the hi-jinx that would surely ensue. Oh, and let me go on record and address one particular false rumor that has plagued me for years. I did not hurl a desk out the window during a class! It was a fellow student I hurled.

I’d like to think Harvey and I were friends, or at least as friendly as a wise-ass student could be with his teacher. I was frequently asked to join him along with class guests and certain chosen students (among them, Mark Newgarden, Dave Dubnanski, Phil Felix and Mike Carlin) at the after class get togethers at his favorite Irish bar, The Glocca Morra, around the corner on East 23rd St,  where he could finally unwind and reminisce about the old days at EC, Bill Gaines, Will Elder’s practical jokes, his theories about coke bottle design, politics (he admired Ronald Reagan!) and women.

I was proud that Harvey always seemed to “get” my work or at least appreciate what I was doing and the painstaking detail I was putting into it (he referred to me once as the “new Wally Wood”… Yikes!). He seemed to take pride in the fact that after I graduated I was getting attention and being printed in mainstream publications like Heavy Metal, National Lampoon and Spy. He even wrote a foreword to one of my books. After SVA, I saw Harvey only a few more times. One summer he called me out of the blue and asked if I’d like to edit a humor magazine for him. I was floored by the offer and said “Of course!!”, which is when he earned one of his nicknames, “Harvey the Vague.” That’s the last I ever heard anything about editing a magazine for him. Harvey died in 1993 after suffering for several years from the ravages of Parkinson’s disease, but his legend has by no means diminished, in fact it continues to grow. Aside from the recent coffee table book about his career from Abrams and the deluxe Humbug box set from Fantagraphics, a massive biography is in the works, which will cover in detail his SVA years, as well as a film documentary. During my recent interview (along with Gary Groth) with Jack Davis at the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival, Jack continually brought up Harvey as the best editor he ever worked for,  giving him full credit for pushing him in artistic directions that would eventually make him one of the top commercial illustrators ever.

It was after our talk with Jack that I was inspired to create this portrait (based on a mid-seventies photo by E. B. Boatner) of Harvey Kurtzman, posed in his attic studio at his home in Mount Vernon, NY.

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23 Responses to Seriously Funny

  1. patrick ford says:

    The “dream” Kurtzman book would have to be a thick collection of his tight layouts for “Annie,” and various other projects he worked on.
    There are a decent sampling of Kurtzman’s layouts in “The Art of Harvey Kurtzman,” and heartbreaking is not to strong a word to use when comparing the layouts to the layers of fondant applied over them for the published art.
    Anyone out there even thinking about reprinting “Help!” and what happened to “Trump” ?

  2. Pingback: Drew Friedman on Harvey Kurtzman - Inkspill | Inkspill - New Yorker Cartoonists News

  3. Dave Knott says:

    Greg Theakston announced that he was going to reprint Help several years ago. One assumes that he was fairly serious about it, as he went so far as to solicit a Help collection in Diamond’s catalogue. I guess plans were somehow derailed, as the project has vanished without a trace.
    Same thing with Dark Horse’s collection of Trump. It was announced, but never materialized.

    Aside from the EC material and Little Annie Fanny, Kurtzman reprint projects seem to have difficulty getting off the ground. Drawn & Quarterly announced plans for a new reprinting of The Jungle Book, but that never happened either.

  4. Jacques Dutrey says:

    There’s already quite a few LAF roughs (or layouts) around, in both volumes of PLAYBOY’s LITTLEANNIE FANNY (Dark Horse), THE ART OF HARVEY KURTZMAN (Abrams), Squa Tront, etc but a complete book with all his roughs including the stories that were rejected by Playboy would be a delight!

    But would it sell?

  5. patrick ford says:

    Of course it would sell. It would sell out. It might take a few years, but then it would sell for gigantic amounts of money in the OP market, and people who weren’t around to buy it when in print, or who passed on it when it was in print, would rip chunks of their hair out at the thought they couldn’t afford the OP book. It’s the kind of thing which would remain in demand forever, would never be sought by large numbers of people, but new people would come along all the time who would want it.

  6. Pingback:   Harvey the Baby Killer — Dispatches

  7. Drew Friedman says:

    Since this was posted one of Harvey’s very first students told me that HK actually started teaching at SVA in late 1973 and the class was then more of a “Comics workshop”. By the time I took the class in ’78, HK was more centered on just creating gag cartoons, for publication in the year-end class publication “Kar-Tunz”.

  8. ant says:

    Why do “the comics cognoscenti” dislike “Little Annie Fannie” so much? That’s not a facetious question, I’m genuinely curious.

  9. Kim Thompson says:

    My recollection is that the first several years of Little Annie Fanny are actually genuinely good, but ran out of steam as (a) Kurtzman found the parameters of the character and format restrictive, (b) the same gag/reversal structure and meticulous art style grew oppressive and (c) he slid (further) into curmudgeonly man-out-of-time status. It’s entirely possible that if Kurtzman had been able to continue Goodman Beaver (the male version of Annie, actually) for as long as he did Annie, the Goodman Beaver legacy would be regarded as poorly as Annie now is; interrupted in its prime, it never had a chance to outstay its welcome.

    Johnny Hart’s B.C. is another example of a genuinely first-rate strip for a decade, then four decades of recycled crap. I wonder if the dire example of B.C. was an element in Bill Watterson and Gary Larson’s decision to retire so early on in their careers.

  10. R. Fiore says:

    Actually I think Annie Fanny had a bit of a renaissance in the 1970s. Kurtzman’s problem at the time was that his entire satirical analysis boiled down to “It’s all a con,” and the trouble with that in the 60s was though a great deal of what was going on was in fact bullshit, a lot of the bullshit was completely sinceere, and Kurtzman’s viewpoint was too reductionist to make the distinction. In the 1970s he got into a period when it was, indeed, all a con, and so the subject matter was back in his wheelhouse. Towards the end, though, he lost his touch altogether.

  11. Kim Thompson says:

    Bob has studied late ANNIE more than I have and I bow to actual knowledge. To a degree it didn’t really matter if there was an effective revitalization at that point because ANNIE had been fixed in everyone’s mind as hopelessly stagnant and out of touch.

    It is bitter to imagine an alternate world where ANNIE lasted just five solid years after which Kurtzman and Elder were given the opportunity to go off and do whatever the hell they pleased for the rest of their careers and be remunerated well for it. The PLAYBOY paycheck was a huge part of it, of course. PLAYBOY saved and ruined Kurtzman’s career as a cartoonist.

  12. Drew Friedman says:

    Kim, so well said. And after all is said and done, Hef actually paid Harvey’s medical bills in the end.

  13. R. Fiore says:

    It surprised me, too. I was updating an article on Kurtzman for one of those bedsheet issues of the Journal you did for a while and the second volume of that collection of Annie Fanny had just come out, so I reread the 70s Annies to confirm my impressions and I said to myself “Hey, wait a minute . . .”

  14. R. Fiore says:

    Since you’re looking in on this I wonder if you could answer a question. You say in passing that Maurice Sendak was a friend of your father’s. For years and years if you read any article about Sendak there would be absolutely no discussion of his private life at all aside from the fact that he didn’t have any children of his own, and I’d always be asking myself, “So is he gay or what?” Obviously when he started out this would be a touchy sort of admission for a children’s book author, particularly with all the tsuris from certain quarters about In the Night Kitchen. Then later on he started having Tony Kushner do the introductions for his books, which I took as an indication, and then he came out about it. My question, anyway, after all of that is, did you have any awareness of Sendak’s personal life back in the old days?

  15. Jeet Heer says:

    The whole Kurtzman/Hefner relationship deserves an essay to do justice to its fully complexity. If you read other Playboy cartoonists — Gahan Wilson comes to mind — they’ll say that Hefner was a great editor, full of incisive critiques but not overbearing and willing to let artists do their work in their style. Little Annie Fannie is an exception — here Hefner seems to have been a total control freak, who pushed Kurtzman’s tendency towards excessive revisions to a new level of craziness. Paradoxically I think Hefner did this because he loved Kurtzman’s work so much — as a frustrated cartoonist he wanted to use Annie Fanny as chance to fulfill is Platonic ideal of what comics could be. But this led to a strip that was over-produced in the extreme — all the vitality of Kurtzman’s original sketches getting lost in the process of endlessly revising the strip.

  16. patrick ford says:

    It occurs to me Gary Groth should ask Hefner if he’d be willing to do an interview with a pretty tight focus on comics.
    Hefner obviously loves comics. I recall several years ago he said during an illness he comforted himself by reading Thimble Theater and Dick Tracy. More recently he sent Chester Brown a personal letter commenting on The Playboy.
    There are so many fascinating insights he could give on Jack Cole, Kurtzman, editing, etc..
    Of course he’d probably say no, but has he been asked?

  17. Interesting discussion about Little Annie Fanny. I suspect that Kurtzman’s tendency to excessive revisions (as Jeet puts it) is probably more to blame for the strip’s decline than any possible interference from Hefner. Kurtzman by this point had developed a very laborious process for the strip (described in detail in his 1980’s interview with Will Eisner) that probably helped rob the strip of any spontaneity.

    I haven’t read his “Betsy’s Buddies” (done with Sarah Downs) in a while, but I remember it being more interesting at times than Annie Fanny. It’d be interesting to compare both strips and see how they differ, considering both of them were produced for Playboy.

  18. Drew Friedman says:

    My father was friends with Sendak in the early to mid-sixties, and then it ended abruptly. I have no idea why, and I also never had the opportunity to meet him, while Jules continued to be his friend till this day.

  19. Bhob Stewart says:

    Harvey told me that when he lectured in his first SVA class he told the students everything he knew in the first 20 minutes. He couldn’t figure what to do next, so he said, “Let’s take a break.” He then stepped into the stairwell to be alone and figure out how to continue. However, the door locked behind him, so as he put it, “the rest of the class was devoted to me getting out of there.”

  20. ant says:

    That’s an incredible idea, Mr. Ford. TCJ get on it before we lose Mr. Hefner, please!

  21. ant says:

    Thanks a lot for that. I haven’t seen much of Annie Fanny but to be honest I’m blown away (or, I WAS) by the artwork…but it kind of tarnished it in some way when I found out how many hands it passed through–I believe Crumb did backgrounds for it at one point, didn’t he? @ Patrick Ford–I reckon “fondant” is a pretty good way of describing SOME of the A.F art–there’s so much life and snap to those Kurtzman breakdowns, Mr. Friedman’s so lucky to have known and be taught by this legend!His class was teaching single-panel GAG STRIPS–HAH! Seems kind of wryly perverse or something, know what I mean?!?

  22. patrick ford says:

    Take a look at this:
    http://comics.ha.com/c/item.zx?saleNo=7054&lotNo=&lotIdNo=193009&ts=off#Photo
    Now this second one you have to register and log on to see, but consider the art is almost as finished as the incredible work Kurtzman did for Jungle Book, yet these were comps for a fumetti
    story published in HELP!.
    http://comics.ha.com/c/item.zx?saleNo=7039&lotNo=92208#Photo
    Kurtzman’s “roughs” are fine art as far as I’m concerned. They are where I’m staggered by his talent.

  23. Drew Friedman says:

    One correction. Annie Fanny actually ran for 26 years (1962-’88). the last couple of years it only ran sporadically though, sometimes maybe once or twice a year, further adding to HK’s frustration.

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