Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Number 145

Kurtzman Cuts To The Core

When I look back on Harvey Kurtzman's career, and especially his satiric comic book stories, I think of two things: He was lucky to have good friends who were such great cartoonists, and he saw through to the core of what he was satirizing.

These two 3-pagers are from Humbug #3, October 1957. Kurtzman satirizes a current popular movie and a current television show, getting maximum laughs with minimum space.

The "A.P.B. On The M.O. At The O.K. Corral" takes on the Burt Lancaster movie, "Gunfight At The O.K. Corral." My friend, Eddie,* who sent me the scans I used for these stories, asked me one time, "Is the O.K. Corral [shootout] the most important event in American history or what?" He was referring sarcastically to the then popular movie Tombstone, and the surge of interest in an event that in real life wasn't as dramatic as the movies made it seem.

The splash panel to "A.P.B." is Davis being inspired. I don't know how much of Kurtzman is in the secondary figures, like the little Indian wearing a hat with eyeholes, the drunk passed out under the table, or even the hound dog flopped over on the floor. But the gag is pure Kurtzman, as is the rest of the strip, which, in three pages, basically takes the movie apart.

"You Are There" was a once-popular CBS television show. It ended its run in October, 1957, about the same time this issue of Humbug was going off sale. What Kurtzman got right about the show was its premise, the odd idea of a modern reporter walking around an historic event with a television camera and microphone asking questions. The assassination of Caesar is hilarious for the principals explaining the events.

Kurtzman did something obvious for the time, which was use the instantly recognizable TV star Sid Caesar as Julius Caesar. He's even got Sid Caesar's sidekick, Imogene Coca, on the sidelines sticking her tongue out. (Following behind Caesar is Howard Morris, one of his sidekicks from the show. Morris went on to play Ernest T. Bass in the Andy Griffith show.) Caesar's humor, as well as that of song parodist Stan Freberg and radio stars Bob and Ray, were elements that Kurtzman folded into his comic book stories. He also used the cartooning and caricature skills of best buddy Will Elder. Elder shared Kurtzman's vision of parody: Make it look like the original. Of the cartoonists Kurtzman worked with, I don't think anyone understood Harvey as well as Elder.

*See Eddie's blog, Chicken Fat. It's not a Mad or Kurtzman blog, but Eddie is a big Kurtzman fan and uses elements from him in his blog.

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