Sunday, April 05, 2009

HUMBUG by Kurtzman & Company

In 1957, following his departure from as editor of EC's MAD MAGAZINE and the quick demise of his next project, the upscale Hugh Hefner financed TRUMP, Harvey Kurtzman next project was HUMBUG, a co-publishing venture with a number of the other artists (Jack Davis, Will Elder, Arnold Roth and Al Jaffee). The book only lasted 11 issues, and despite the reputation of its contributors that material has never been widely seen since those cheaply printed (by Charlton, no less) issues.

Until now, as Fantagraphics has released a 2-volume hardcover boxed set collecting all of those 11 issues (save for some material in the last issue that was reprinted from TRUMP, which is also being reprinted soon). I've only ever seen one issue of HUMBUG, and the printing was indeed lousy (who knew Charlton saved the printing TLC for their own books?). These new reprints, sourced from a combination of original art and printed comics as available, are therefore even better, as well as considerably cheaper, than getting the originals.

I've only read a fraction of the books so far, a random sampling of things that caught my eye, and it'll be a while before I read the whole thing (a book like this you don't eat all at once). Still, I have no problem recommending it. There's a refrain in some of the background material in the book that it's better than MAD, it's Kurtzman's best sustained work. I'm sure some people think so. I'm sure back in 1958 that Kurtzman really thought so. I don't see any evidence of that from what I've read so far, but it doesn't have to be better than MAD to be worth reading. It definitely has some different targets than MAD...

Not too many Duchamp jokes in MAD, after all (paging Larry Marder...). Overall there's rather too much non-comics (though usually well illustrated) material and filler (a long excerpt from Gulliver's Travels, a blank-page gag, several pages of re-touched Gustave Dore) for my taste.

The Elder and Davis artwork is easily the equal of their MAD work, and I'm very impressed with Roth and Jaffee, whose work of the era I'm less familiar with. A few highlights, Davis doing a parody of the western "Have Gun Will Travel" (#7), Roth's version of "A Christmas Carol (#6), Elder's parody of "Jailhouse Rock" (#8) and Jaffee's look at "Rocket Clubs" (#10).

In addition to the reprints, these books include a long, well-illustrated interview with the two surviving artists/co-publishers, Arnold Roth and Al Jaffee, and each volume has an original cover by one of those two, plus there are some annotations to explain a few of the obscure cultural references.

To sample it, Fantagraphics has the first issue available as a PDF file. Which doesn't strike me as the best issue to use as a sample, but definitely check out Elder's game show parody and the multiple half-page movie parodies by Davis.

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