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The 'Mad' Art Of Comic Harvey Kurtzman

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Retrace the strands that led to a lot of current American satire — including The Simpsons, Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show — and sooner or later you end up at Harvey Kurtzman. A comic mastermind who created Mad Magazine and Playboy's"Little Annie Fanny," Kurtzman also happened to discover Robert Crumb and gave Gloria Steinem her first job.

Now, in The Art of Harvey Kurtzman, Denis Kitchen explores the life and art of the famous satirist, weaving together the story of Kurtzman's career with a collection of the artist's images and illustrations.

As Kitchen tells Robert Siegel, Kurtzman was, "in a sense, a one-man band" when he worked on the original Mad comic: He created it as a concept, drew most of the early covers himself and laid out every story so that artists had to follow his vision for every page.

The comic books' political jabs created controversy on Capitol Hill, where politicians called for Senate hearings to investigate the connection between comics and juvenile delinquency. When newsstands started pulling Mad from their racks, Kurtzman decided to turn the publication into a magazine.

At its peak, Mad Magazine sold 2 million to 3 million copies per month. Though the magazine expressed a sense of liberal leftism that was uncommon in its day, Kitchen insists that Kurtzman was largely apolitical.

"You can't be a good satirist and have an ax to grind. You need a certain absolute neutrality," explains Kitchen. "As Harvey often pointed out, real satire reveals a truth in society or in culture or in life in general. So you can't really be a great satirist and be a political activist."

Kurtzman may have had a knack for satire, but he was not a gifted businessman. After a dispute with the publisher, he left Mad Magazine when the publication was at its most popular, instead going to work on Trump, a magazine published by Playboy's Hugh Hefner. When Trump folded after only two issues, Kurtzman moved on to Humbug, a two-color magazine that also failed, leaving the illustrator and his partners penniless.

Eventually, Kurtzman went on to create the "Annie Fannie" comic strip for Playboy. Kitchen describes "Annie Fannie" as a "gorgeous strip" featuring individually painted panels that took a great deal of time to create. But the artist was ultimately limited by his partnership with Hefner, who had his own ideas about the direction of the strip. Further limiting was the fact that each strip had to end with the title character taking off her clothes. Still, Kitchen says, Kurtzman was happy for the gig:

"After so many failures, he was grateful for a job that paid him well. His fans thought he could have been doing much greater things, but, of course, they were never in his shoes and they never had his mortgage payments to make."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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