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Harvey Kurtzman
October 3, 1924 - February 21, 1993
Early Biography
The EC Years
Trump, Humbug! and Help!
Later Biography

Early Biography
Harvey Kurtzman was born on October 3, 1924 in New York City to parents who were Russian Jewish immigrants. Like many others of their generation, Kurtzman's parents brought with them a strong loyalty to the Communist Party. They subscribed to The Daily Worker and sent young Harvey to Camp Kinderland, an upstate New York, left wing summer camp.

His first comics were done daily with chalk on the sidewalks outside his Brooklyn school. "The kids became interested," Kurtzman is quoted to have said. "But, by the next morning, it would be gone, washed away by a sanitation truck or by rain. Then all the kids would ask me what Ikey and Mikey were going to do next. Even the grown-ups on the block would ask, so I knew I was good. And that was my first comic strip."

At 14 he won a drawing contest held by Tip Top Comics and his first printed work appeared on the amatuer art page.

Kurtzman attended the High School of Music and Art in Manhatten and graduated in 1939. It was there that he met his future colleagues at Mad Magazine, Al Jaffee and most importantly, Wolf Eisenberg - later known as Will Elder, who would become Kurtzman's long time friend and co-conspirator.

Straight out of High School, Kurtzman went to work for Lou Ferstadt, who interstingly enough was a politicall activist, like Harvey's own parents and drew a regular strip for the Daily Worker. Comic books, as an art form were only just getting a footing in popular culture at the time and Ferstadt was already in the game.

While working for Ferstadt, Kurtzman drew his first published comic book serial, called Magno and Davey. He also penned a Lash Lightning feature for Sure Fire Comics, both published by the Ace Comic-Book Group.

In 1943, Kurtzman was drafted into the US Army and assigned to the U.S. Army Department of Information and Education. He drew cartoons that appeared in the Army weekly, Yank, and reportedly gained a great deal of insight into army life and weaponry, knowledge he would put to great use in the 1950's.

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The EC Years
After the war, Kurtzman went to work for worked for Timely comics, which would later become Marvel. He met his wife , Adele there and a young Stan Lee commissioned him to draw a one-page feature called “Hey Look.” , which he would continue to work on for the next three years. He produced about one page for "Hey Look" a week and continued to refine his cartooning and story telling abilities.

In 1949 Kurtzman joined EC. His first job was illustrating a pamphlet describing the dangers of syphilis. EC, after-all, stood for Educational Comics, at that time. Later, the EC would find it's nitch in the marketplace and be renamed to Entertaining Comics.

Publisher Bill Gaines quickly realized that Kurtzman had a gift for writing and in 1950 had him start writing for Two-Fisted Tales, starting with issue #18. Kurtzman brought an entirely new sensibility to what had previously (titled Haunt of Fear) been a simple, often patriotic comic.With the cold war gearing up, Kurtzman brought complex, serious themes and Anti-war politics to readers. The comic collections that resulted, along with three others, set in Korea, Rubble, Conflict on the Imjin and The Big If are singularly pointed out as giving birth to a new age of comic realism. Biggots are portrayed for who they really are, madmen really are madmen and death is randomly dished out to both the good and the bad. Kurtzman, with legendary attention to detail, used memories of his war service to make certain all of the weapons, uniforms, vehicles and various details of army life were correctly drawn. He also drew on field trips, such as a test flight he took in a Grumman seaplane to bring a heightened sense of reality to these works. Many of the political ideals he writes into the Two-Fisted Tales are traced back by comic historians to the politics of Kurtzman's parents and his mentor, Lou Ferstadt.

Kurtzman wrote and storyboarded every issue of Two-Fisted Comics, and drew all but one of the covers. When Two-Fisted Comics proved to be a modest success, Gaines put Kurtzman to working creating another war comic, Frontline Combat. For the first 12 issues, he wrote and designed every story, and did the covers.

Working on these two titles for EC didn't provide enough income for Kurtzman. Barely able to get by, he convinced Gaines in 1952 to start up a new humor magazine titled, Tales to Drive you MAD. Kurtzman wrote (virtually alone) and supervised the first 28 issues. The humor of these issues was aimed at adults, and the format was full-color.

In 1954, the well respected psychiatrist, Fredric Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent and as result nearly single handedly dismantled the American comic industry of the time. Through his book, Wertham managed to convert the majority to his notion that comics were the major cause of juvinille crime, deviant sexual behavior and social disaffection, among many other allegations, including sexual deviancy charges against Batman and Robin. Comic book bonfires followed, Senate Judiciary Committee's conveened. The result was the creation of the Comics Code Authority of 1954.

EC Comics, with popular titles such as Tales From the Crypt was forced to shut down. Kurtzman and Feldstein put all of their money into the one remaining proftable and Code complient title, Mad Magazine.

The full-size, black-and-white, 48-page, 25-cent MAD made its debut with #24, the July 1955 issue. Kurtzman would write five issues of the magazine version of MAD. The Two-Fisted Talesseries ended with its 41st issue of the same year.

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Trump, Humbug! and Help!
In 1956, five issues into Mad Magazines life he left EC after a dispute with Gaines, taking all his artists — Bill Elder, Jack Davis and (briefly) Wally Wood, with him. They followed him to Trump, the slick humor mag that Hugh Hefner funded.Trump folded after only two issues.

In 1957 Kurtzman and others started up Humbug, which lasted eleven issues. Kurtzman moved on, and created the humor magazine, Help!, published by Jim Warren. In 1965, Help! folded after 26 issues, but not before giving first voice and pages to the rising underground comix generation of artists, including Gilbert Shelton (Wonder WartHog appeared in Help! in 1963) as well as Robert Crumb and many others.

In 1966, Hurtzman again went to work for Hugh Hefner, along with Will Elder to write and illustrate the Little Annie Fanny comic, which ran in Playboy, off and on until 1988. The Annie Fanny comics were full paintings, and extremely time consuming, and the parade of assistents that helped out reads like a who's who list at the cartoon hall of fame, including Jack Davis, Frank Frazetta, Russ Heath, Al Jaffee, Arnold Roth, Paul Coker, Jr and many others.

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Later Biography
In 1988, My Life As A Cartoonist, an autobiography for a young adult audiance, was published by Pocket Books. Betsy's Buddies, a collaboration Kurtzman had been working on for many years with Sarah Downs, was published that same year by Kitchen Sink Press.

Kurtzman's final work was a reprise of Two-Fisted Tales, which was published by Dark Horse Comics in 1993. He died before seeing the first issue published.


Adam Gopnik, wrote in the New Yorker, “Kurtzman’s MAD was the first comic enterprise that got its effects almost entirely from parodying other kinds of popular entertainment.... To say that this became an influential manner in American comedy is to understate the case. Almost all American satire today follows a formula that Harvey Kurtzman thought up.”

"Kurtzman has been the single most significant influence on a couple of generations of comic artists.”
- Art Spiegelman

. . . . .

Started in 1988, the Harvey Awards, named for Kurtzman, are one of the comic book industry's oldest and most respected awards.

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Important Dates
October 3, 1924 - Born in New York City
February 21, 1993 - Passed away in Mt Vernon, NY
Contributors: Robert Zimmerman
Last updated October 3, 2006 at 12:28 pm by Joshua Carpenter