Kurtzman Turns The Funnies Into The Sillies

As part of his general send-up of modern popular culture in the original MAD magazine, Harvey Kurtzman took special care with his satirical takes on famous American comic strips. Most often aided by the uncanny mimicry skills of Will Elder, who seemed able to channel any cartoonist’s style, it was clear that their hearts were really in these stories. Whether it was Manduck the Magician, Little Orphan Melvin or Prince Violent, these parodies were coming out of deep familiarity of having been raised on these strips. And Kurtzman always zeroed in on the inane in pop culture as his target.

Putting Manduck into a mind-bending duel with fellow mystic The Shadow was an inspired but typical Kurtzman assault on the shallow and phoney in pop culture conventions.

As he had already proven in the masterful, hyper-realistic war comics, Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat, Kurtzman had no patience with sanitized heroism. His take on Prince Violent took on core aspects of Hal Foster’s grandiose epic: Val’s stilted personality, the glorification of death and violence, and the artist’s own stiff style.

The common Kurtzman satirical move was to inject realistic characterization into pop culture that thrived on heroism and idealizations. And he loved to make his parodies self-aware of their fictional status. Here Skeezix is frustrated with one of the famous innovations of Gasoline Alley, allowing its principals to age. Again, Kurtzman’s genius was for exaggerating to absurdity one of the familiar themes of his target. Skeezix grows up right quick at the sight of the older girl next door. And he underscores the realism by keeping the clothes the same boyish size. Note Elder’s dead on capture of Frank King’s visual signatures, even down to the lettering.

Kurtzman’s collaborations with Wally Wood on comic strip parody did not rely on stylistic imitation. Instead Wood focused on retaining signatures from the select strips, like the empty eyeballs of Orphan Annie, but essentially translated serious adventure characters like Smilin’ Jack, Flash Gordon and Terry and Pat, into familiar Kurtzmanesque slapstick figures. They run in that high-kicking way, often with index finger up to indicate their comically delusional thought. I have to say that I don’t find these Kurtzman/Wood pieces as fully satisfying as the 360-degree parody that Elder’s freakish mimicry brought to them. And yet Wood’s style works also effectively in the opposite way Elder’s does. He is stripping these comic-strip staples of pretense and making them into antic, animated rag dolls. But Kurtzman’s mind is still very much at work to find the soft underbelly of these strips. In Little Orphan Melvin he zeroes in on Harold Gray’s chatty philosophizing and suggests that there is a pretentious folksiness to Annie’s moralizing.

The Kurtzman/Wood sendups of Terry and the Pirates, Smilin’ Jack and Flash Gordon are more madcap than pointed. Kurtzman knew his artists and had specific talents in mind when he penciled his layouts and no doubt considered his story. When he just wanted a zany romp rather than a thoughtful parody, Wood seemed to get the call. One gets the feeling he went with Elder’s ability to forge a style so well when he simply had more to say comically about the cartoon or cartoonist.

One gets the feeling he went with Elder’s ability to forge a style so well when he simply had more to say comically about the cartoon or cartoonist. Kurtzman’s main take on mid-century popular culture across all of MAD was that too much if it felt phony, sanitized, idealized. He took every opportunity to turn heroes into clueless goofballs, happy goofballs into nefarious villains. Most of all he liked to call attention to how detached mass media had become from the world it pretended to depict. In some cases, he would compare movie and TV depictions with their real life counterparts, or he would call out some of the premises we tolerate in a comic world that we never would outside of it. While MAD was certainly in it for the fun of making fun, Kurtzman knew well what he was really doing when he tagged the title with “Humor in A Jugukluar Vein.”

Perhaps the most coherent, perceptive and effective of MAD’s comic-strip send-us was Bringing Up Father. Here he not only makes a gag out of the domestic violence at the heart of the strip, but he elevates it by shifting us between the pristine mimicry of Elder doing McManus and Bernie Krigstein’s expressionist nightmare of Maggie and Jiggs. Every torrent of thrown dishes knocks Jiggs literally into another stylistic world. It is a tour de force. Special props to Krigstein, who exercises a ghastly surrealism that is more effective than we found in much of the EC horror library. The gag, likely Kurtzman’s around Jiggs getting fed up with the animated picture frames (a McManus signature) is made so much more effective with Krigstein using perspective and motion to show Jiggs putting his whole body into it. This whole episode is such an example of the words+image synergy that makes the comics singular and exceptional among the arts.

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