Tag Archives: Harvey Kurtzman

It’s a MAD, MAD world!

A little while back, Tom Spurgeon at The Comics Reporter ran a birthday notice for one of my Top 5 All-Time-Favorite comic artists Mort Drucker, and the panel he included was this one:

I can’t remember who wrote this one, but the dialog itself, even out of context is hilarious as is the art, and it’s beautifully drawn to boot. Besides that fact that I dedicate of my blog writing to the hopes of one day winning Tom Spurgeon’s approval, all of this got me thinking that I have to do a write up on Mad Comics / Mad Magazine.

Recently, there was news that John Landis is trying to put together financing for a Bill Gaines biopic called Ghoulishly Yours, William M Gaines. According to the description at the link, Gaines:

was driven out of the comic book business by 1950s morality policers after his unapologetic testimony before a U.S. Senate subcommittee investigating juvenile delinquency. Gaines retaliated by converting one of his titles Mad into a satirical magazine which specialized in skewering all aspects of uptight society.

Something about this doesn’t quite sit right with me, but maybe the problem is just the summary the website decided to come up with rather than the actual movie Landis is pitching to financers.

1) As I understand it (and I may be wrong), Gaines was driven out of comics by the moral furore around comics at the time and other publishers using that to their advantage to gang up on him. The subcommittee hearings may have simply been the final nail in the coffin.

2) Gaines’s testimony was not “unapologetic” — it was confused and flustered thanks to his medications. I’m seriously worried about a climactic scene where Gaines gives a stirring speech defending the First Amendment while violins swell in the background.

3) Did Gaines really convert Mad into a political magazine because of the Senate hearings? My understanding was that turning Mad from a comic into a magazine was a result of pressure from Harvey Kurtzman, MAD’s creative lifeblood, threatening to walk away if Gaines didn’t. Gaines complied. Then Kurtzman wanted a bigger stake in EC Comics, Gaines refused, and Kurtzman walked anyway. The unexpected advantage was that being a magazine and not a comic, Gaines no longer had to worry about Comics Code Authority approval to get MAD on the stands.

But this entire preamble is just an excuse for me to write a few words about MAD which is a huge inspiration and sometimes direct influence on Weird Crime Theater.

My MAD was the 80s MAD which was full of sex and politics jokes I had no hope of understanding but which I knew I was not really supposed to be looking at. Typically they were stored in a shoe box or the like along with various Wacky Packages and Garbage Pail Kids cards. I learned what the PLO was from MAD magazine in a panel gag by Al Jaffee which comes into my head to this day every time I think of Palestine or Israel. Sometimes I’d come across an old 70s MAD and they seemed kind of lame to me at the time — maybe there just wasn’t enough of the artists that I was used to in them. 90s MAD was something which in my world existed only as covers on newsstand shelves. 60s MAD as far as I can tell never even existed, although as many writers better than me will tell you, this was the period when MAD Magazine re-shaped the entire nature of American humor. 00s MAD might have one gag that makes me laugh per issue and some occasionally nice cartooning — Hermann Mejia in particular is a true gem. If there is a Mort Drucker parody of a TV show or movie that I have seen, I will pick up that issue. I almost never buy the magazine these days, so you can do the math. Whenever I find the paperback at garage sales, I buy them.

And I generally avoid buying the Australian-editions if at all possible, no matter how cheap. I don’t know when they started publishing the Australian-edition, but in the 80s they would take out a few of the American pages and replace them with locally-produced content, which at the time looked like it had been written and drawn by your six-year-old sister and then stapled into the centrefold. Sometimes, they would replace Al Jaffee’s fold-in on the inside back cover with this junk! Blasphemers! Nowadays, the Australian-produced art is drawn more professionally, but all the gags are almost exclusively about Australian politicians. This is fucked. Australian politics is lifeless and utterly humourless. This country has some of the worst music and TV I’ve ever experienced in my life and yet the Australian version of the magazine seems incapable of recognizing this.

50s MAD was, of course, the Golden Age when it was still a comic and featured the EC Comics stable of artists. For a long time MAD was Alan Moore’s favorite comic of all time (though in recent years he’s been preferring Richard E Hughes and Ogden Whitney’s Herbie more often). Kurtzman wrote and laid out all the stories himself — just as he did with the war titles — leaving the artists to fill in the blanks with more of their individual styles than you would imagine given Kurztman’s perfectionism.

Around 1997 – 1998, DC reprinted those first 23 issues in an eight-issues series called “Tales Calculated to Drive You MAD.” This was a magazine-size, full-color series reprinting two or three issues of the classic comic in each issue. It’s one of the most incredible, wonderful, beautiful, hilarious things I’ve ever read in my life, and is unfortunately very difficult to find these days. DC also released the first six issues of MAD in standard comic size in its hardcover archive format for a ridiculous cover price, so there is no longer any affordable way for people to read these amazing comics. (At least on the toilet — there is a DVD version as well.)

(By the way, while I’m here, if I may be allowed a digressive rant: they say this is the Golden Age of strip reprints, but why the hell do they all have to be $30 hard covers?! Here is a list of what I would call must-read-comics which are currently in-print, but only in hardcover format. Good luck being able to afford more than two volumes of any of them: Polly and Her Pals, Captain Easy, Peanuts, Popeye, Little Nemo, Prince Valiant, Gasoline Alley, Bringing Up Father, Dick Tracy, L’il Abner, Little Orphan Annie, Terry and the Pirates, The Spirit, and more that I’m forgetting. Never mind reprints of classic comics too like Jack Kirby’s Fourth World, Ditko-era Spider-Man, etc., etc.)

I came to the EC Comics line quite late in general, even considering the generation gap. In the 90s they were only available in those big black & white slip-cased hardcover (grr…) EC Comics Library editions. Later on they started packaging them into affordable softcover “Annuals” reprinting five or six issues each. I started out with the horror comics (Vault of Horror, Tales from the Crypt, Haunt of Fear), then learned the crime ones were better (Crime SuspensStories, Shock SuspenStories). The horror titles were great but they had a habit of “cheating” on the endings. Sometimes instead of a climax to the story, in the last panel the Crypt Keeper would simply pop up and describe everything that happened, like, “And then his eyes exploded and his tongue got ripped out of his head!” Much later, I learned that actually the war titles were the best of them all (Two-Fisted Tales, Frontline Combat). These days I’m partial to Weird Science. Of course, the Annuals are now out of print and hard to obtain. Gemstone started up a line of “EC Archives” a while back of recolored stories in overpriced hardcover format with five or six issues per volume. The line has since stalled. Maybe someone like dark Horse could pick up the ball — but in softcover, please?

But actually, way back in 1987, what I started with were Gold Key horror comics — Boris Karloff, Twilight Zone, Ripley’s Believe it or Not — reprinted as the “Mystery Comics Digest” series. Compared to the EC horror books, the Gold Key books were laughably flaccid. Softball horror where some dude makes a deal with a leprechaun to become the greatest candlepin bowler in the world. Twist-ending kinda stuff, competently drawn, but basically Comics Code blandness. Quaint, if you will.

And yet somehow they stuck with me. I wrote one Weird Crime Theater story — which you won’t see for a while yet — which was deliberately written in the Gold Key vein. And ironically it’s the closest I’ve ever gotten to my MAD comics ideal as well with at least two gags in every panel. It’s my favorite WCT story but you’ll have to wait about a year to see it.

But not only did I want WCT to be like MAD (and “Weird Crime Theater” is as close to an EC-sounding title as I could come up with as well), I wanted to work with actual MAD artists. When we started the book, one of my dreams was that we would one day make just enough money for me to be able to pay some MAD artists to draw a few pages for us. The heartbreaking thing about the length of time it is taking to complete the project is that these guys aren’t getting any younger, and, sure enough, some have passed away in the time since we started. The ones I love especially are: Al Jaffee (1921-), Sergio Aragones (1937-), Mort Drucker (1929-), Dave Berg (1920-2002), George Woodbridge (1930-2004), Duck Edwing (1934-), Jack Davis (1924-), Paul Coker (1929-), John Severin (1921-), Will Elder (1921-2008), and Richard Corben (1940-), who never drew for MAD but should have. Never mind those before my time like Wally Wood (1927-1981), Don Martin (1931-2000), and the maestro Harvey Kurtzman (1924-1993).

I believe in the goodness of Weird Crime Theater, but, hey, I’m not naïve. I mean, will we ever do anything nearly as good as Kurtzman and Elder’s “Shermlock Shomes”…? Read the full thing here: http://ethunter1.blogspot.com/2009/06/sunday-funnies-mad-7-sherlock-holmes.html.

I mean look at it! So what’s the deal DC? Are you going to reprint these things in an affordable format or not?

KS

P.S. This panel is the story of my life. May Crosis bless you, Stan Hart and Mort Drucker.