The Art of Havey Kurtzman: The Mad Genius of Comics/Kirby: King of Comics

By Lolis, Thomas | Shofar, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

The Art of Havey Kurtzman: The Mad Genius of Comics/Kirby: King of Comics


Lolis, Thomas, Shofar


The Art of Harvey Kurtzman: The Mad Genius of Comics, edited by Denis Kitchen &C Paul Buhle. New York: Abrams Comicarts, 2009. 241pp. $40.00

Kirby: King of Comics, by Mark Evanier. New York: Abrams Comicarts, 2008. 223pp. $40.00

While comic book scholarship has enjoyed a welcome rise to prominence in the past decade, access to source materials has often remained difficult. Dedicated collectors with the financial resources to pay exorbitant prices for seminal issues have dominated the genre since the early seventies, while the less devoted (or simply less wealthy) reader has had to struggle to amass representative works of the recognized masters of the discipline. While the rise of public auctions has doubtless provided a boon to many aficionados, the need for easier, wider access to vintage material remains clear. Indeed, there are few library archives of note in the United States that feature a formidable collection of comic books and comic art, though one may expect that to change in the coming decades.

To correct this problem - and, one would assume, not solely in the service of comic scholarship - comic book publishers have recently embarked upon the publication of relatively inexpensive reprint volumes of notoriously inaccessible material. DC and Marvel Comics have spearheaded this movement with their respective "Archives" and "Masterworks" collections; Dark Horse Comics has followed suit, reprinting classic titles from defunct publishers such as Gold Key and Warren Magazines; IDW has released hardcover collections of newsprint stories such as Ièrry and the Pirates and Dick Tracy; and Fantagraphics has begun the ambitious project of reprinting every Peanuts strip Charles Schultz ever drew.

This renaissance of reprinting has reinforced the need for context. Who created these rediscovered masterworks? Who was responsible for fostering the grammar of American comics, and what circumstances encouraged these innovations in the production of popular art? Abrams Comicarts, a relatively new book series, is seeking to contextually ground new and old readers alike with a series of books that function as both biographies of important artists and coffee-table styled artbooks. Two in this series, Denis Kitchen and Paul Buhle's The Art of Harvey Kurtzman: The Mad Genius of Comics and Mark Evanier's Kirby: King of Comics, track the lives and careers of two Jewish American comic art innovators who were at the forefront of their chosen field. While their artistic contributions were unique in tone, style, and influence, both Kurtzman and Kirby, as these biographies reveal, suffered from the dilemma of creating a visual grammar that was too far ahead of its time for the commercial good of its designers. Indeed, both of these books reveal the perils of artistic creation in a medium that was incapable of properly responding to the new caliber of production. Unable to effectively cultivate a "pop art" persona in the Warholian vein, Kurtzman and Kirby labored at their respective drawing boards for decades, deeply effecting the American cultural landscape while remaining almost entirely unknown personalities in the public sphere.

In The Art of Harvey Kurtzman, Kitchen and Buhle make a clear case for Kurtzmans role in shaping not just the field of comics but also the larger discourse of American satirical humor. While Kurtzman played a vital role in a number of important comic titles - his anti-war stories in EC's Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat have never received their due acclaim - the artist's greatest contribution remains, without question, the invention of Mad magazine. Under the majority of Kurtzmans tenure as editor, Mad began its life as a comic book; when the future of EC (i.e. Entertaining Comics) looked dire, Kurtzman convinced head editor William Gaines to make the jump to a magazine format. Since its inception in 1952, this iconic publication has had an incalculable influence on the genre of satirical comedy. …

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