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Harvey Kurtzman’s ‘Hey Look!’

April 13th, 2007

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Harvey Kurtzman is so important to comics that the leading artist awards in the industry are named for him. In a couple of weeks Channel Frederator will be featuring a cartoon adaption of one of his early strips, Hey Look!, directed by Vincent Waller, so I thought it might be fun to share this 1992 introduction to the out-of-print (but available) Kitchen Sink Press collection of the comics, edited by Dave Schreiner.

Fred

Harvey Kurtzman is probably the greatest creator who ever appeared in comic books. First, there’s his Mad (I refer to the original early 1950’s- for-color ten cent comic book written for adults, not the black-and-white magazine for children edited by others for the last thirty-plus years), which places Kurtzman as an equal among the other giants of that golden decade of comedy: Ernie Kovacs, Sid Caesar, Stan Freberg. In Mad, which he created, edited, wrote and laid-out, and in his subsequent magazines-Trump, Humbug, and Help- Kurtzman evinced a style of humor that was wild, iconoclastic and extremely inventive, yet at the same time thoughtful, critical and even occasionally touched with a sense of mystery. Amazingly, Kurtzman had an equal facility for dramatic comics. His Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat, which appeared simultaneously with Mad, featured gritty tales of war from Korea back to ancient history, and remain high-points of comics art.

This book represents the first chapter in Kurtzman’s career, one that until now has been largely hidden. The 150-odd Hey Look’s appeared in approximately 100 issues of two-dozen mostly obscure titles in the late 1940’s. It would take a lifetime to collect all of these strips in their original appearances-take it from one who’s spent a lifetime-trying-and only a fraction of them have ever been reprinted. And one still wouldn’t be able, in this huge stack of comics, to readily see them in the order that Kurtzman created them. Fortunately, all but a handful are numbered in the order of their sale, so Kitchen Sink has been able to present them here approximately in the order they were created. This book represents not only the first opportunity to see these strips as the substantial body of work they are, but to see Kurtzman’s style develop and mature before our eyes.

To appreciate the strips it helps to understand the background of their creation, and how they fit into Kurtzman’s career. Kurtzman’s got his first job in comics though a teacher during his short stint at Cooper Union (after graduating from New York’s High School of Music and Art). It was “for the most obvious reasons: I just wanted to make my way in the world. I wanted to be a cartoonist.” His first work was in 1942, filling in the blacks and doing some inking on Moby Dick for Classic Comics in Louis Ferstadt’s comic shop. Ferstadt hired artists fresh out of art school to produce material in an assemblyline basis, which he then sold as a package to various publishers. Here Kurtzman did some of his earliest published drawings on routine strips like “Mr. Risk” and “Magno and Davey.” Although fellow artist and critic of the form Gil Kane has said that this early work “had a certain quality, an ability to do something directly with out having to fall back on superficial or external techniques, but to get the essence of the material,” the fact is that, without knowing what came later, Kurtzman’s early work would not be singled out from the vast amounts of shop work produced in the mid-40’s for study of comment.

At this point, Kurtzman’s career was interrupted by a two-year stint in the Army. At the end of World War II, he faced a changed comics industry. Independent shops like Ferstadt’s had largely been repalced by a free-lance system, with the publisher’s editor buying scripts and assigning them to artists. Kurzman’s found his freelance niche at Timely Comics, the forerunner of Marvel Comics, where many of the books were produced by a room full of artists sitting in rows. Editor Stan Lee “would blow the whistle at nine in the morning, and everybody was supposed to start drawing,” says Adele Hasan, Lee’s assistant at the time. It was against this bullpen backdrop that Kurtzman created his first personal work. Kurtzman himself never worked on the staff, but started freelancing there in spring, 1946, when he got out of the Army.

The first Hey Look in this book has been identified by the artist as the first one he did, even though the next three were vouchered by Timely as week or so earlier. This first strip is the only one that doesn’t use the standard logo, and it also has a different style of humor. The visual surrealistic aspects (walking on the wall for no reason, a candle outdoors, an L-shaped spy-glass) are matched by nonsequential action and the shaggy-dog “pickle soup” punch line. All the later strips had some kind of strong internal logic, no matter how fantastic they were. But even with the first three strips Kurtzman sold, the two cartoon characters have the developed Kurtzman-esque personalities that they retained throughout the run. Kurtzman’s self-reference (“the guy dat wrote dis gag”) is uncharacteristically self-depreciating, and above all, self-conscious. After he bought it, Stan Lee didn’t publish this strip for a year-and-a-half.

Although at first Kurtzman did a few other stips for Lee, such as “Pigtales” (six-pagers featuring Homer and Hickstaff, tow pigs, one tall and one short), he soon settled in with Hey Look, producing an average of one a week for three years (early 1946 to early 1949). At the same time he was producing material for other venues, the most interesting of which was Silver Linings, a single-tier Sunday newspaper strip quite similar to Hey Look, for the New York Herald Tribune feature syndicate.

In the 1940s and ‘50’s, comic editors and publishers required a house style. To achieve a uniformity of a product, an artist was not allowed to ink the job he penciled, and certainly not allowed to write the job he drew-and these policies were often even applied to one-page fillers.

But Stan Lee, whether through laziness or a talent democratic sense, would sometimes permit individuality to creep though. From Lee’s point of view what went into the fillers really didn’t matter much. In the case of Hey Look, Lee gave Kurtzman no restrictions.

“It was really the first thing I had complete control over,” Kurtzman says. “I had a radical amount of control. I’d come in with a completed page and he’s take it. It was unlike anything I’d done before, where people would say, do this, that or the other thing. So Hey Look was the first real excitement of doing something creatively where I had few conditions. And working without restrictions I came up with strange techniques-not so strange in retrospect but still they were strange enough to set me apart. Suddenly I would become a special character when I would go up to Stan Lee’s office. I was the guy who did those strange fillers. This, to me, was the first clue as to where I should put my energies. I knew I was better off being my own m an than trying to part of the system.” Kurtzman feels that Stan Lee was quite aware of Hey Look’s unusual qualities, and that it was a conscious move on Lee’s part to allow Kurtzman to use the filler space freely.

Click here to see more Hey Look! pages,
and to purchase republication rights.

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Kurtzman’s time on Hey Look was crucial to the flowering of his talent. It was a virtual three-year training ground for every aspect of his storytelling, art style and form of humor This book gives the reader the unique opportunity to see that development unfold before one’s eyes. The changed are so imperceptible that that one hardly notices when reading the strips in order, but the difference is dramatic when the first strips are compared directly with the last ones. The major breakthrough comes about one-third into the series with voucher numbers 2192-2194. Here, the Hey Look characters first acknowledge awareness of their existence as cartoon characters, and the humor plays on the technical aspects of the form itself. In 2192, the characters stare out at the reader through “the little dots that make the color,” and for a punch-line they tear away the page. Many of Kurtzman’s best gags in the later strips turned on this awareness that the characters were inhabiting a comic book pages. The art is different from what went before, too. The exaggeration is essentially that of a camera lens, not of cartoon conventions as in the earlier strips, and for the first time Kurtzman uses a black background, to highlight the dramatic effect. In the same batch, Kurtzman realizes that his characters inhabit a world where a picture can draw on a person as vice versa, and that person can then be erased. In the next batch of strips, 2228-2229, Kurtzman starts experimenting with formal design, alternating borderless panels with those enclosed by borders (and in the case of the “wet paint” gag, giving the enclosed ones a solid black background). It’s obvious that Kurtzman had apparently figured out that he could get round this problem by putting the bordered panel in the center of the top tier.

A final transition period occurred from around 2785 to 3022 in which Kurtzman continued to experiment with panel formats, and over a rather short period of time modified his cartooning to the distinctive and familiar style that he used the rest of his career (a style which led Robert Crumb, one of them any underground cartoonists influenced by Kurtzman, to call him “as good as any cartoonist in history that I know of”). Strip 3132, with its postcard backgrounds rendered in detailed penwork, signals the beginning of new assurance on Kurtzman’s part, and from that point to the end of the series, nearly every strip is classic.

Most comic are the result of a collaboration, and most comic artists of note have achieved fame within that collaborative structure. Kurtzman could never have made his mark that way. “I was never successful at the standard comics,” he says. “I was a lousy comic book man. It was only when I created my own form that I was successful. I couldn’t do superheroes, or any of that stuff. I couldn’t even do the funny stuff. I was bad at all of it.” For Kurtzman to shine, he ad to have control of the subject matter, the writing, and most especially control of that essential integral realationship between picture and text. (Of course, later Kurtzman did collaborate extensively with other artists, notably, Eill Elder, Jack Davis, Wally Wood and John Severin, but their exceptional contributions were always subordinate to Kurtzman’s total concept of the work at hand. )

It’s not clear why the Hey Look’s stopped just when they did. The decline in visual experimentation in the last ones suggests that Kurtzman was asked to tone down that aspect. In any case, the heyday of the Millie-Mitzi-Ellie-type books that Hey Look ran was coming to an end. Shortly after the last Hey Look, Kurtzman was given the assignment of illustrating Stan Lee’s scripts for Rusty, a blatant imitation of Blondie. Lee and publisher Martin Goodman urged Kurtzman to copy Chic Young’s more closely. “I was like a counterfeiter. It was madness. They kept wanting changes. And I was desperate for money,” Kurtzman recalls.

At this point, the very point when Kurtzman had finally established his métier and could create assured, sophisticated material, he was made acutely aware that his type of material seemed to have no market in comics, and that they way he worked did not fit into the general comics assmeblyline process. With the discontinuance of Hey Look and his failure on Rusty, he faced bleak prospects. He had just gotten married to Adele Hasan(who, incidentally, even before meeting Kurtzman, had, as Stan Lee’s assistant, weighted records of readers response toward Hey Look because she liked the strip). Kurtzman recalls coming back from their honeymoon to the prospect of “no job, no work, no money, no income.”

To Kurtzman, “they guy that stands out in that period is Elliott Caplin, who came in with work, just gave me work on the basis of knowing that I was desperate.” Caplin, an editor at Toby Press, gave Kurtzman more filler work, but the assignment also indluded three five-page Pot-Shot Pete stories, again produced with complete independence, that allowed Kurtzman to apply all the lessons that he had learned on Hey Look to an extended narrative. If it isn’t obvious to the reader that these stories are direct precursors of Mad, it can only be added that two of these stories were actually reprinted in Mad. (Kurtzman’s introductory comment, “This is not a story of women, children or sissies! As a matter of fact, we don’t really know who this story is for!” is particularly Mad-like). Genius, was grounded in real childhood experience and one wishes Kurzman had done more than nine of them. Simultaneously, Kurtzman continued to do a filler, Egghead Doodle, for Stan Lee.

If Kurtzman’s shop work showed promise, mainly in hindsight, this is not so for the material in this book. Had he left comics in 1950, his name would still be highly regarded among the cognoscenti for this small, but original body of work. Even compared to his later more famous achievements, the best of these strips represent some of the high points of his career.

Caplin helped tide Kurtzman over, but in the long term, Kurtzman hadn’t resolved his basic problem, finding a viable outlet for his talent. The temptation to play “what if” here is overwhelming. What if Kurtzman hadn’t been able to continue in comics? Talent will out, and perhaps he would have been a success in newspaper strips, magazines, advertising, or eve the then-blossoming medium of television. Somehow, though, as one examines each of these options, it’s difficult to imagine that any of them would remotely have compared to Mad in terms of it’s impact on American popular culture, or the opportunity it gave Kurtzman to create such a highly personal body of creative work.

Kurtzman’s ultimate rescue from the seeming oblivion came during the cold winter of 1949-50. As Kurtzman was scrambling for work, he had the good fortune to stumble into the offices f Entertaining Comics, where he found Bill Gaines busily engaged in starting up his famous/infamous line of horror comics. Says Kurtzman, “when I brought in my Hey Look’s, he sat there for an hour just roaring at the stuff. After hustling for weeks, and then coming in to see this man, who, just all of a sudden, saw, appreciated my stuff, that was a good feeling! Gaines, who wasn’t publishing any humor comics, nevertheless knew that “we had to get this talent.” He immediately gave Kurtzman some horror and science fiction scripts, and before long Kurtzman was editing for Gaines comic book titles of his own invention.

So it turned out-because of blind luck, or because of those mysterious forces that Kurtzman deeply believes bring people together and shape artistic careers-that Hey Look not only prepared Kurtzman artistically for producing Two-Fisted, Frontline Combat, Mad, and all that followed, but was instrumental in his being hired at EC, the one company that would let him edit comics and exercise consistent and total artistic control over the content and the all-important writing/art relationship issue after issue. It was also the one company that would let him try out such an untested idea as Mad, essentially a continuation of the humor ideas of Hey Look and Pot-Shot Pete which had seemingly come to a commercial dead end in 1949, and let it continue at a loss for nearly a year until it found its eventual broad audience.

-John Benson
New York, 1992

John Benson is a comics historian and publisher. Though best known for the EC historical magazine Squa Tront, Benson has published many other such publications. Panels, for example — the first issue was devoted to Eisner, and included extensive comments on The Spirit by Jules Feiffer, plus an extended version of the oral history by Eisner found in The Comics Journal #267.

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