Sunday, May 27, 2018

Up From The Apes And Right Back Down Again!

Harvey Kurtzman's Jungle Book is actually quite an important tome in the now rather long history of comics. It's the first original collection of comic material in book form, a not insignificant accomplishment in a field overripe with such volumes today. The book came about when MAD's publisher pulled reprints of the popular magazine from Ballantine which had done the first five volumes and switched over to Signet. Ballantine was casting about for replacements and Kurtzman, freshly broken from MAD saw an opportunity. Sadly the book didn't sell as it should have done to result in sequels, but as a singular vision of what a truly evocative artist can achieve.

There are a mere four stories in the volume. A spoof of the TV western Gunsmoke, a lampoon of the detective show Peter Gunn, a potent indictment of the violent South, and a searing presentation of what the morality of ad executives is really like which introduces the Kurtzman character Goodman Beaver. I don't find the book funny in a way which made me laugh, but the satire was stinging and the gags were resonant with the source material. 

Harvey Kurtzman's Jungle Book ultimately was not a financial success, but it was a nifty window into the mind of one of the purest cartoonist the field has produced. Like Action Comics #1 and Fantastic Four #1, this "comic book" was influential and important despite inherent flaws in its construction.

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Saturday, May 26, 2018


After Mad, after Trump, there came Humbug. It was Image Comics decades before the launch of that later more famous brand. When Harvey Kurtzman left Mad for a host of reasons, he had a scheme with Hugh Hefner to launch Trump another magazine in the Mad mode but slicker and upscale. It lapsed after a mere two issues, so Kurtzman and the talent he'd assembled to produce Trump were left without a gig. So they decided to make their own gig, and pooled their money and became not only talent but owners of their own magazine. That magazine they named Humbug and in some of the most desperate times in American publishing history they launched.

With distribution avenues limited they sought a partner in Charlton Comics, a likely  mobbed-up operation which had its own distribution system in addition to publications. And for eleven issues spread over 1957 and 1958 Humbug hit the stands. The magazine was oddly sized for its first many issues and so landed somewhere between regular mags and comics and it cost more to book than did comics. It was not in full color, but that was not necessarily a hindrance. Mad was a hit and it was in black and white and Trump had been in color and apparently failed to find an audience, or enough of one fast enough. So Humbug tumbled along for nearly two years before the end and in those eleven issues Kurtzman and his gang of talented artists such as Jack Davis, Arnold Roth, Will Elder, and Al Jaffee made a pretty funny mag. Here is a much more detailed description of how Humbug came into being by Bill Schelly from his biography of Kurtzman.

Even while Humbug was still running, Kurtzman made a deal with Ballantine Books (which had just lost Mad reprints to Signet) to reprint some Humbug material in paperback form. It didn't have the same success alas.

Several years ago Fantagraphics reprinted the eleven issues of Humbug in two handsome volumes. They sport new covers, one by Al Jaffee and another by Arnold Roth.

I came into this world in 1957, so reading a magazine which so resolutely satirizes the events of that year and the next is a fascinating window in to the time I was born into.

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Friday, May 25, 2018

MAD's Original Idiots - Will Elder!

Of all of the original MAD artists, Will Elder is the one I'm least familiar with. I've seen plenty of his work over the decades, but in my formative years he was not all that present in the publications I got hold of. His work in Playboy with Harvey Kurtzman on Annie Fanny was not material I would see until I was an adult and so I didn't have a grasp of who he was or what he contributed to the whole look and feel of early MAD. I read others wax on about his amazing images full of something weirdly called "Chicken Fat" but I never really grokked what that meant until later.

Like the other great artists in this collection, Elder was there from the very beginning, his hectic energetic panels filling up at story in the debut issue.

But when I think of Elder, I think of the amazing spoof of the noxious Mickey Mouse from Disney. The gag on Donald Duck in this sample page goes right to the heart. In the modern day, Mickey and his friends have been reduced to brands, but when Kurtzman and Elder took them on, this was only beginning to be the case, but it was clearly the direction nonetheless.

Perhaps my favorite Elder story, aside from his great Mandrake and delicous Wonder Woman spoofs is the oft reprinted "Starchie". The pure-hearted naifs of Riverdale were the ideal targets for the MAD treatment.

Elder was an artist who influenced a generation of underground talents who went on to redefine the comics form. Elder himself was somewhat hidden away at Playboy for most of my reading life, but upon discovering the master of "Chicken Fat" at last, I'm very glad I did.

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Thursday, May 24, 2018

Battlestar Frazettica!

Recently picked up a dvd set of 1978's sci-fi TV blockbuster Battlestar Galactica. This series was one of the better things inspired by the rampant success of Star Wars and elevated the TV space opera into a new visual zone. Alas the show was a bit of bomb in the ratings, costing much more than a regular TV series of the time and not finding an audience large enough to support that expense. The stories and acting remained typical of the era for the most part, though I've always thought getting Lorne Greene to play the paternalistic Adama was inspired. Mostly the show is a gaggle of vintage sci-fi tropes, handsome people and amazing hair, but it also has another distinction. The ads for the show were illustrated by the late great Frank Frazetta. I can remember being stunned at seeing real life Frazetta artwork in my weekly TV Guide. Here are those ads along with the original art that graced them.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Refreshing Breakthroughs! Oh Yeaahh!

Kool-Aid Man has been a proven advertising star for longer than I thought possible. Here is a refreshing history of the living pitcher of fluid, the anthropromorphic jug of tasty juice who has been around since 1954.

Star of TV and print, Kool-Aid Man had his own comics of course, first from Marvel for three issues and then over at Archie Comics for many more. The artist most closely associated with the comics is proven Archie veteran Dan DeCarlo. Some see the hand of John Romita (or his "Raiders") on a few of the Marvel covers. The Adventures of Kool-Aid Man are weird artifacts from a weird time when entertainment and advertising were the same thing, it's a time in which we still live alas.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Criterion's King Of The Monsters!

I bought Godzilla again. The King of Monsters has been part of my collection since as long as I've been able to purchase copies of the movie. VHS versions of the classic Godzilla King of Monsters starring Raymond Burr, the only version of the movie I ever saw growing up and later the original Gojira when the Japanese version came available some years ago from Classic Media.

I've enjoyed the movie time and again and share it annually with my high school classes, prompted by the new "Monsterverse" movies which have been arriving on big screens since 2014. Yesterday I bought Godzilla yet again.

This time I got the Criterion Collection edition of the great 1954 classic by Ishiro Honda and his fantastic ensemble of creators who made this movie something special. Godzilla has become an iconic part of world culture, a monster who has been played for laughs, satire, and horror. The original film is a an emotionally moving masterpiece of all three. It's a terrifying image of war painted by people all too familiar with the reality of war, it's a potent satire of the consequences of human folly, and it's a moving character drama filled with romance, humor, and a grounded reality which makes the tumbling buildings and the exploding backgrounds all the more effective.

Also, there is a renewed respect for the American version of the movie and a sound argument made for it as a proper presentation all its own in its own time.

The new print is the cleanest I've ever seen and it was fantastic to enjoy it. The commentary was informative and performed with wit and focus, full of facts which I knew and some I didn't know. I read that more Toho classic monster films might be coming from Criterion, and I must make plans to acquire them. Though I own most all of them, it will be great to see them in something akin to what was the original intent.

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