Review: Meet Mad's creator in The Art of Harvey Kurtzman

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

He was the one of the immortal geniuses behind the classic EC Comics. His war stories were dark, sophisticated, and morally ambiguous in an era when most depictions of frontline combat starred square-jawed American action heroes.

He established the attitude and the snark behind the comic book that became Mad Magazine, and then walked away, in favor of successive humor magazines like Help and Humbug that struggled and failed.

He was Harvey Kurtzman, and he was both one of the great comic book artists of all time and, unfortunately, one of the great case studies in bad career moves. In detailing both the heights of his achievements and the depths of his many disappointments, The Art of Harvey Kurtzman: The Mad Genius of Comics by Denis Kitchen and Paul Buhle (Abrams Comic Arts, 242 pages, $40.00), gives equal coverage to the latter, in the process exposing us to Kurtzman work not already reprinted about half a zillion times.

Sure, it's terrific that we get the entire classic story "Superduperman!", which was Kurtzman's memorable take on a certain Man of Steel—and which ends with the Lois Lane figure as wholly unimpressed with the hero as she was by the "assistant copy boy," Clark Bent; and it's great that we also get Kurtzman's original thumbnail sketches for that piece, as well. It's also marvelous that we get Kurtzman's Mad take on the 3-D craze, and a number of Mad covers which were gimmicky and inventive and often as funny as anything to be found within.

But there's also a war story that captures the sheer terror and desperation of men fighting for their lives, and illustrations like his 1960 two-page spread of a Times Square penny arcade that are teeming masterworks of detail. Folks who want details on craft will want to spend extra time with a page from one of the many "Little Annie Fanny" stories that Kurtzman did for Playboy with fellow EC veteran Will Elder, complete with four layover transparencies, detailing intermediate production steps from pencil sketches all the way to completed page.