Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 70 (4/14) -- The Art of Harvey Kurtzman by Kitchen and Buhle

A coffee table book has a very specific purpose: to showcase pictures of something (kittens, architecture, war atrocities, fine art, open-pit mining) clearly and attractively, with enough text to surround the pictures and to make the package look like a book. Sometimes the text is actually worth reading on its own: this is not necessary, strictly speaking, but it's a nice bonus when it does happen.

The Art of Harvey Kurtzman: The Mad Genius of Comics is an above average coffee-table book, curated and written by Denis Kitchen (founder of Kitchen Sink Press and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and, even more importantly, the agent for the Kurtzman estate) and Paul Buhle (a history professor at Brown who has focused on comics and mass culture), with lots of rare Kurtzman art, particularly his roughs and vellum overlays on stories that he wrote for other artists to illustrate. There's plenty of art from Kurtzman himself (from Hey Look!, Jungle Book, and various other solo pieces) and from his collaborators, such as Will Elder, Jack Davis, and Wally Wood, from Mad, Kurtzman's EC war titles, "Little Annie Fanny," and other projects. The art is well-chosen, positioned well on the pages, and reproduced cleanly: that's exactly what a book like this is supposed to it, and it does that expertly.

The text isn't detailed enough to be a serious biography of Kurtzman, and it occasionally has the coffee-table book problem of repeating information from captions on the same page -- and sometimes has the opposite problem, skipping over things that should be mentioned somewhere -- but it's more than serviceable for its purpose. Its major failing is towards the end, where the book truncates the last third of Kurtzman's life into a chapter on the problematic "Little Annie Fanny" strip he did with Will Elder for Playboy. A close reading of that chapter reveals that Kurtzman's major professional activity, and probable source of most of his income, for most of those years was teaching at the School of Visual Arts, but Kitchen and Buhle mention that briefly in a longer list of other (marginally successful, at best) projects from those years.

The captions are usually useful, though they tend to wander off the reservation at time -- particularly in the section on Help!, when they fail to describe or explain the cover pictured while explaining some aspect of the interior that is not pictured. So the text isn't always as detailed or focused as it could be -- but most readers will only stop to read the text on the second time through The Art of Harvey Kurtzman, if ever.

This book makes a strong case for Kurtzman as one of the originators of the satire boom of the late 20th century, tracing his influence to Monty Python, the underground cartoonists of the '60s, art spiegelman, Saturday Night Live, and the movies of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker. Actually, the book would like to jettison that "one of," and call Kurtzman the great originator of all of the latter, but realizes that there were others, like Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce, who share in the glory. Kurtzman was recognized and feted in the comics field towards the end of his life, but he never had a period when he was both creating good work and being noted for it -- such is the fate of pioneers, I suppose. The Art of Harvey Kurtzman explains who he was and why he should be taken seriously -- and the fact that it was published by top-rank art-book publisher Abrams makes much of that case all by itself.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: The Kinks - Dedicated Follower Of Fashion
via FoxyTunes

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