Wednesday, March 25, 2009

BOOK REVIEW! HUMBUG by Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, Arnold Roth, Al Jaffee and Jack Davis (Fantagraphics, 2009)

Well, the fershlugginer thing's finally out, and at this particular point in my lifespan all I can mutter is what took yuz bastids so long???? Rilly, I coulda used this two-volume slipcovered collection of classic Harvey Kurtzman satire when I first discovered the existence of the famed humorist's late-fifties magazine via Les Daniels' COMIX at age twelve while I was totally immersed in that entire comic book/MAD magazine ideal of fandom without actually being able to afford being one. After scarfing down the early Ballantine MAD paperbacks, finding out that the spirit of those great sarcastic fifties sagas lived on in the pages of HUMBUG was truly a revelation...I mean it when I say that a burning bush might as well have told me this was so all-umportant to my ever-budding sense of comic/mid-amerigan teenage goofoff history! And who could forget my revived interests in the whole EC universe back in the mid/late-eighties when I would pester everyone from Robert Forward to Brad Kohler about this mag reveling them in what little snatches and bits I had scammed from minuscule reprinted artwork. Heck, I even remember writing a little note to EC reprinter Russ Cochran back during the day asking whenna heck he was gonna reprint HUMBUG for an anxiously awaiting audience of hopefully more than one. Naturally I got no reply which only goes to show you that the bigger the fan gets with his pouring of revenue and precious time into his projects, the more cranky/midaged grouchy he becomes!

So after a good 3/4th of a lifetime of wait, HUMBUG has re-appeared on the scene in this nifty two-volume edition which not only reprints the entire eleven issue run of the mag (that's nine comic-book-sized mags originally going for fifteen-cents a smack and two larger MAD-sized ones without the inside color overlays at two bits each) and even though the impact I woulda had had this edition made it out way back when is long gone I'm sure happier than Barney Frank at a Fire Island nude encounter session over the arrival of this nifty package into my already over-comic historied abode! It's that important to the whole BLOG TO COMM genetic makeup that I would be surprised if none of you serious readers don't already have this collection in your very own squats, and I mean it! (By the way, the package repro that appears to the left is that of an earlier visualization of the product, which eventually ended up looking a whole lot different than what was originally planned (see pic directly above for the "new" slipcase). It is reprinted here not only for referential purposes, but because I wanted to cram as many visuals into this post as I was able.)

Maybe a little background is in order for you newcomers whose idea of comedy and satire is birthed from the nth-generation fizz that has devolved from the original fifties inspiration of men like Kurtzman et. al. As I'm sure even a few of you "new comic book" (circa 1956) neophytes would know by now, the arrival of MAD on the scene first as a comic book then as an "adult" oriented magazine (or, in reality, an over-sized comic book) was one of those big fifties publication successes that not only was representative of the comic book "coming of age" but actually made men like EC's Bill Gaines and MAD editor Harvey Kurtzman well-known in their own right with intellectual magazine articles, praise from like-minded fifties funnymen like Ernie Kovacs and Stan Freberg, plus fanzines cropping up pretty much influenced by the new breed of comics-beyond-entertainment that EC was pioneering in the early-fifties. I'm positive that is was pretty neat to be some loathed comic book industry "hack" suddenly being thrust into this new cult of personality, and that just might have been just one of the reasons for the eventual split between MAD editor Kurtzman and Gaines with Kurtzman supposedly wanting to own 51% of the mag while Gaines either said no or said yes but his mother said no or something like that. But whatever, Kurtzman was out, taking original MAD-men Bill Elder, Jack Davis, and (for a short while until Gaines gave him the ultomato, Wallace Wood) with him adding sometimes MAD contributor Al Jaffee and MAD-fan Arnold Roth along the way.

First stop was at Hugh Hefner's budding PLAYBOY publications, where a hopefully soon-to-be reprinted high-gloss publication called TRUMP managed to get two issues out before Hef pulled the plug due to cost jitters. Stuck with a wee bit of a problem, Kurtzman and company decided to immediately pool their resources and talents together for HUMBUG, a mag which despite the lack of distribution and newsstand space managed to accrue a good portion of the old MAD following if evidenced by the familiar names that have sprung up in the lettercol such as Bhob Stewart amongst many other FIAWOL adherents.

HUMBUG was almost a carbon copy of the Kurtzman-era MAD right down to the square word balloons with corners rounded off and the finely-delineated art from the likes of Davis and Elder picking up where the mid-fifties MAD left off. Unlike MAD you could say that HUMBUG was meatier, with less filler fluff and more of the hard-edged spoofing that the post-Kurtzman edition of the rag did seem to lack. However, being a new and innovative satire comic book and all, it was easy 'nuff t' see that no matter how hard they tried Kurtzman and his pals were still living under the shadow of MAD not only with the steady cross-references but even the presence of advertisements for the Ballantine MAD paperbacks in various issues!

As you'd sorta expect, the former boss didn't seem to appreciate the competition one bit, as a snide reference to HUMBUG (and the more successful CRACKED) was actually made in a '58 issue where the oft-used caricature of the toothless man swallowing his nose (supposedly representing a self-portrait of Kurtzman himself!) was mentioned as being an Alfred E. Neuman swipe a la CRACKED's Sylvester Smythe! Even Kurtzman noted that the newer editions of the Ballantine paperbacks had deleted the contributor biography page in the back so I guess that the mass defection really did bug Gaines to no end! But I'm sure Gaines didn't need to worry that much, because after a little over a year and publishing deadline hassles etc. there was no more HUMBUG to kick around with Kurtzman and crew eventually heading over to Warren where they would produce HELP! (another fine post-MAD endeavor but of an entirely different animal) for a good five years with new features and ideas that I even caught MAD swiping from in the early-sixties so who's the real innovator now, eh?

So what does this all gotta say about HUMBUG anywah? Nothing 'cept that if you're a big fan of that fun and sleazy mid-fifties MAD look and like the sarcasm that went with it as well, this collection is for you! If you, like me, grew up on those MAD paperbacks with that great airbrushed realistic artwork and those wisecracking commentaries on such magazines as CONFIDENTIAL along with all of those amazing and equally realistic ad spoofs, there's more than enough of this in HUMBUG to satisfy even the creepiest of seventies adolescent arrested development in all of us. The MAD-like movie and tee-vee spoofs here (such as those of BABY DOLL, PANTOMIME QUIZ, HAVE GUN WILL TRAVEL and TO TELL THE TRUTH) are on par with, and at times are perhaps even better than their MAD counterparts and at least for me seem to be custom-made for the snide types who would sorta set the stage for snarky humor in the sixties and seventies. At times these comic-oriented spoofs could surpass anything the Al Feldstein-period MAD would dare dream up, such as in the take-off of A CHRISTMAS CAROL wonderfully illustrated by Roth (who was the only HUMBUG contributor who never worked for the original inspiration which is a bloody shame as they say that time of month). And of course Elder's art complete with the infamous "chicken fat" (that is, detailed gags stuffed into just about each and every one of his panels that'll take years to decipher!) is just as good as the stuff he was doing during the early MAD mag days, and sure easier to spot given the horrid reproduction that those Ballantine paperbacks were known for in the very early seventies.

Not that everything is especially hunky dory. Too much text (and who reads that!) whether it be a reprint from PUNCH or a spoof of a then-current paperback really doesn't suffice as the comic-oriented material will, and although I really love fifties spoofs because I love the fifties some things like issue #10's fashion layout with hot models posing amidst labor unrest and racetrack accidents didn't quite catch my attention. And oddly enough, considering how Kurtzman and Elder made a name at MAD spoofing comic strip characters with the latter's impeccable mimicry of whichever artists' style he was copying, the only comic-oriented satire to be found here is the Jack Davis-penciled "Flyashi Gordonovich" where the famous space hero is transformed into a Soviet agent with high-larious results right down to the imitation cyrillic lettering. I sure could have used many more of those MAD-styled strip takeoffs drawn by Elder, whose only attempt at such here would have been the strange Dick Tracy/Columbia Record Club spoof seen on the inside back cover of #11.

Some of these HUMBUG sagas naturally do "date" and not in the fine way I wish they would, such as the spoof of television "bloopers" (here called "bugs") which after a few decades of Dick Clark specials and the like have lost their original impact. Sheesh, those long-circulating DARK SHADOWS gag reels have a lot more humor jam packed into 'em 'n that 'un! Other things, like the re-do of HAMLET for first graders by writer Larry Siegel, foreshadows all of those MAD primers he would eventually end up writing ad nauseum from the early-sixties on down. But for fifties-derived gags and honest-to-Sy Mednick humor HUMBUG really can't be beat even if you (like me) didn't spend your entire life regretting not being born at a time when you coulda appreciated that great tee-vee/music gulcher a whole lot more!

The folks at Fantagraphics did a pretty good job reproducing this too, not only with the classy slipcase but the fine printing that immaculately improves on the color onlays which were one hefty selling point for a magazine that was self-produced by the artists involved w/o any major financial backing. However, I hate to be a douse but I should mention one big quirk I do have with the thing, and that is the fact that the front and back covers repro'd here were taken from old worn magazines complete with rips and creases! I dunno whose idea it was to do this, but whoever it was deserves a good groin kick for making such a mentally-challenged decision!

And, as you may or may not expect (I never can account for the intelligence of my readers, let alone myself!), the historical background and interviews with Al Jaffee and Arnold Roth (howcum no Jack Davis?) really are more than just plain ol' "informative" presenting a whole different picture not only of the likes of Kurtzman and his artistic pals, but of the entire MAD axis so to speak. Interesting tidbits of information and stories abound, like the time Kurtzman was supposed to appear on Henry Morgan's radio show but walked off in anger before he was even introduced because the caustic Morgan (whom you'll remember from I'VE GOT A SECRET before he hadda vamoose off to Canada for "legal" reasons!) gave Kurtzman a most uncomplimentary introduction not only putting him but MAD magazine down as well! (Which is kinda strange in light of the fact that Morgan himself did a Wallace Wood-illustrated piece for the mag during their late-fifties special-guest-comedian writer days!) Even stranger is the revelation that MAD editor Gaines had, by the sixties, grown somewhat conservative in his views even to the point of being a supporter of Richard Nixon, something that I find hard to swallow in light of the harsh Nixon satires and general run-downs that magazine produced ever since his veep days! Well I guess stranger things have happened, but now I wonder if that pic of Ronald Reagan that hung in Gaines' office wasn't just some sort of satirical ploy on the bearded one's part! Well, things you never woulda thunk woulda ever gone down the pike inna millyun years have happened, and given the topsy-turvy world we live in now I'm sure we can expect even STRANGER things to be revealed more sooner than later...really! Until then, getting hold of HUMBUG just might be the best way to connect with fifties gulcheral concerns in the privacy of your own bedroom, at least until you can latch onto your NANCY DUCK comics that is!

No comments: