The Anti-War of Harvey Kurtzman

In the early 1950s, Entertaining Comics was king of the ten-cent jungle. EC invented the horror comic (Tales From the Crypt, Vault of Horror, Haunt of Fear). It issued the first “scientific” science-fiction (Weird Science, Weird Fantasy). It re-invigorated the crime comic (Crime SuspenStories, Shock SuspenStories), with a social conscience. And with the blessing of its owner, William M. Gaines, it packaged them with an unprecedented—and splendiferous—amount of sex and gore. Unfortunately, when a public outcry linking comics to juvenile delinquency—to the outraged, befuddled sputterings of Gaines and avid pre-teen readers, like myself—it was an antipathy toward and a ban on just such content that forced him to gut his line.

EC had employed the finest artists and writers in its field, and, of these, Harvey Kurtzman became the most revered. Kurtzman was the first EC alum inducted into the Comic Book Hall of Fame. He alone had an industry-wide award of excellence (The Harveys) named for him. (He has also been called the father of underground comics, though when told of this honor, Kurtzman demanded a blood test.)

Kurtzman stood somewhat apart at EC. He considered horror comics “immoral.” (What he thought about the others was probably not much more positive.) His reputation today primarily rests upon his having created, edited and written the first twenty-four issues of the satiric humor comic MAD, whose impact on a generation used to the cozy cliches and platitudes of the Eisenhower Age was immeasurable. (After leaving EC, Kurtzman launched three unsuccessful humor mags, Trump, Humbug, and Help, before settling in at Playboy, where he created and wrote “Little Annie Fanny” for twenty-one years, providing stimulation of a different sort.) But before any of this, at EC, Kurtzman produced what have been recognized as the first “anti-war” war comics. With them, the novelist/ newspaper columnist Pete Hamill once wrote, Kurtzman “revolutionized the form…(His) combat stories were hard, bleak, free of rah-rah patriotism. They were about men, not costumed superheroes.”

The recent publication of Corpse on the Imjin! (Fantagraphics. 2012), reprinting, in black and white, twenty-five of Kurtzman’s war stories, and reproducing each of his color covers, made it seem a good time for me to look back at this phase of Kurtzman’s career, especially since, throughout the years I and my EC-devotee pals were cramming his inclinations into our skulls, we were also avidly assaulting alleys, storming porches, playing war.

I

Kurtzman was born October 3, 1924, in Brooklyn. As a kid, he drew cartoons in chalk on sidewalks. As a teen, he assisted the staff cartoonist at The Daily Worker. Kurtzman graduated New York’s High School of Art and Music and, after a brief stint at Cooper Union, was drafted. He was still stateside when Japan surrendered. Following his discharge, he kicked around the lower tiers of the comic book industry, most notably turning out about 150 idiosyncratic, one-page gag strips, “Hey Look!”, for Marvel.

In 1949 Kurtzman brought his portfolio to EC, hoping for work in its tonier non-fiction books like Picture Stories From the Bible or Picture Stories From American History. But Gaines was about to end these and launch his self-proclaimed “New Trend.” Gaines hooked Kurtzman into a one-shot warning about the dangers of VD and then plugged him into other books, where his new hire fit uneasily.

The following year, Gaines agreed to Kurtzman’s idea for an adventure comic, Two-Fisted Tales, and, after several issues, named him editor. It did well enough that, in 1951, Gaines put him in charge of a new war comic, Frontline Combat. With the public becoming absorbed in the Korean conflict, war became the focus of both. Kurtzman edited fourteen issues of TFT and fifteen of FC. He wrote all but one of the stories these issues contained, drew nearly three-quarters of their eye-catching covers, and illustrated over a dozen of the tales to which they opened. But with the armistice of 1953, war book sales declined. Since Kurtzman was by now thoroughly involved with MAD, Gaines killed the other two titles.

II

Before Kurtzman, war comics, wrote William W. Savage, in Comic Books in America 1945-1954, confined themselves to expressing “the virtue of the American cause and the sterling qualities of the American fighting men…(T)hey questioned nothing; and they dealt almost exclusively in happy…endings.” Kurtzman conveyed his counter-message by exercising a degree of control over his books that made him an auteur before Francoise Truffaut let anyone know such a thing existed.

Kurtzman began with a story idea, whose “twisteroo” ending would deliver a moral lesson. He would write a one-paragraph summary, which he would flesh out to fill the six-to-eight pages allotted it within the comic for which it was intended and tailor for the style of the artist to whom he would assign it. While other editors punched stories out daily, Kurtzman could spend weeks on one of his.

Most comic editors gave artists pages whose panels were blank, except for lettered captions and word balloons. But Kurtzman gave them tracing paper sketches of what he wanted, close-up or long shot, darkness or light, minute detail and angle of viewing. He often acted out scenes to be drawn for artists, changing his voice, facial expression and posture to capture characters’ emotions. He presented “absolute, complete layouts,” John Severin, one EC artist, said. “He knew exactly what he wanted,” said Jack Davis, another. “All you had to do was pencil and render his sketches.” And if you didn’t, you got no further work.

Besides his control, Kurtzman was known for his research. He was driven, he said in a Comics Journal interview, to imbue his depictions of war with “precision… accuracy… authenticity.” He scoured library archives. He interviewed veterans, historians, members of foreign consulates. He visited army camps and airplane factories. He or staff members went up in planes, down in subs, off in tanks, or into armories to guarantee his stories resonated as genuine. He peppered readers Spanish, German and Korean phrases. He taught them how to stop a bleeding jugular vein under combat conditions. Kurtzman’s comics were right about everything, from the geography of Iwo Jima to the color of buttons on Civil War tunics. His approach, said his long-time associate, Will Elder, was “meticulous.”

Kurtzman considered war “the ugliest disease… men were cursed with.” He believed that if he showed this ugliness to a younger generation, it might find another way to solve its problems. But that turned out to require more than maps and buttons.

III

Kurtzman’s objection to war seems to have been that it killed people. “Thou shalt not kill,” he reminded readers (TFT 23). “Life is our most precious possession,” he instructed (TFT 25). “Each and every life… is important,” he reiterated (TFT 28). “What good is revolution,” he asked, “when everything you love is dead?” (TFT 22).

But on the other hand, as one Kurtzman soldier told a buddy, “(T)here are times you have to fight… To some degree we have an obligation to support war.” (TFT 24). “We kill… because we gotta,” said another. “It’s a dirty job we have to do.” (TFT 19). “Why are we dying?” a Seabee asked himself. His answer, two pages later, was to save his brother. (FC 7). “No man is an island,” was the message of FC 1. We are “all in war together, soldier and civilian,” was that of TFT 30. “A good American is one who has been loyal to his country,” stated FC 5. By FC 12, Kurtzman was urging us to join the Ground Observation Corps to spot approaching enemy bombers.

Was it any wonder a concerned but confused ten-to-twelve-year old might be unwilling to commit to the Ghandian way?

The problem we presented Kurtzman was that we were already well acquainted with fictionalized death. Even in other war comics, as Savage unceremoniously noted, “American boys dropped like flies.” And in the war movies of our Saturday matinees, supporting actors, whether fuzz-faced recruits mooning over photos of their gals back home or grizzled vets one mission short of returning to the wife and kids, fell with regularity. Even stars didn’t always survive until the final credits. Robert Mitchum went in G.I. Joe. So did the usually indestructible John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima. Death, we knew, came to the best of us. But it didn’t irrevocably follow that put us personally at risk.

Given our hard-heartedness, Kurtzman’s de-glamorization did not go far enough to disturb us. His American soldiers did not butcher prisoners of war. They gang-raped no women. They did not live in fox holes amidst their own bodily filth. Their wounds lacked even the gore of EC’s horror books. Because his stories were short, he could not develop his characters sufficiently for us to empathize with them. No sickening slaughters, occasioned by the madness or stupidities or geo-political greed of leaders, were exposed to overwhelm us. We flipped his pages and skipped on.

Even more problematically, Kurtzman was a patriot. This is not surprising, since he wrote in the glow that followed World War II. (He also considered Korea “justifiable.”) He seemed to have believed, like most of the country in these days before Bob Dylan twisted the phrase with irreversible irony that God truly was on our side. “As long as believe in GOOD, we can’t go wrong,” he wrote in FC 2. In TFT 24, one fighter at Bunker Hill reassured another that, despite being out-numbered and under-weaponed, they would prevail. “We have something to fight for. We have a cause!” When conceding that Americans might have committed atrocities, in answer to a reader’s letter (TFT 28), he argued that, unlike other countries “our government and constitution condemn such practices.” He seemed blind to the reality that both sides always have “a cause” and one fellow’s atrocity may be another’s patriotic act. As Max Hastings points out in Inferno: The World at War, 1939 – 1945, “It was only because many young men of many nations shared… (a) dogged commitment to do ‘the right thing,’ as each belligerent society defined it, that the war could be carried on.”

For someone with Daily Worker roots, Kurtzman was a surprisingly timid political thinker. He could write about the Spanish-American war without mentioning imperialism. He could omit specific reference to the Holocaust from his stories of World War II. He repeatedly stressed his neutrality in depicting the Civil War. (Slavery, he wrote, was just one of its several causes, and his readers never saw a Negro whipped or sold.) The only behavior for which Kurtzman criticized the government was its treatment of Native Americans. There, he decried the breaking of treaties and killing of women and children. But when he addressed the bombing of Nagasaki, the lesson Kurtzman drew from this arguably unnecessary killing of 30,000 was: “HOPE was not destroyed… Life… bloom(ed) again.” With a message like that, anything short of turning the planet over to cockroaches seemed to warrant parades and marching bands. Kurtzman’s war comics were not without value. His depictions of ordinary soldiers were relatively nuanced, humanizing and admirable. George Evans’s lovingly rendered bi-planes, Alex Toth’s immaculate jets poised against blank space, and Jack Davis’s muddy, sweaty, stubble-faced G.I.s were wonderful examples of illustrative art. And Kurtzman’s own pages were superb. Sometimes they filled with anguished faces. Sometimes they emptied of all but a “RROWAR,” extending across several panels, letters rising or falling in size, darkening or lightening in tone to express volume and intensity. Often his prose trooped across his panels, landing heavily like boots or a tank’s tread as it pounded on. Kurtzman’s bullets unfailingly left visible paths, reinforcing their constant presence and the fate they foreshadowed. And his corpses lay, twisted distorted, in Guernica-like grotesqueness.

But this phase of Kurtzman’s career falls short of greatness. Certainly it did not achieve the goal he set for it. As Savage concluded “it is questionable that (the stories)…had much effect on the children who happened to read them…(in achieving a) lessening of enthusiasm” for war.

This is not, after all, surprising. If comics, as Bill Gaines and I agreed, could not turn me and my fellows into switchblade wielders, why should one expect them to set us burning draft cards? The deeper, more intriguing question though is, if they couldn’t, were we equally immune to the influence of, say, the Bible, Aesop and fairy tales?

For lessons were installed in us somehow. I doubt we emerged from the womb with more than a desire for food and warmth. Yet we acquired beliefs; we accepted truths; we obeyed rules, not always because we feared spankings or after school detentions if we didn’t. Neuroscientists and psychoanalysts may have more evolved explanations, but my sense is a portion was inborn, waiting to be tapped, and the rest laid upon us, drop-by-drop, by parents and teachers and the remainder of the larger, more powerful world of our surround. Slowly society shaped us into how it wanted us to be. But simultaneously, within each of us, lurked an individualized “I,” fighting toward light and for space so it could grow.

There was a reason EC’s Picture Stories flopped and MAD and Vault of Horror didn’t. Kids weren’t looking to comics for instruction. Kurtzman’s war books, for the most part, missed the point that, of this, we’d had our fill. So when he told me double-crossers would be punished, and heroes could be scared, and blacks and whites should pull together, I nodded and snoozed. But one early story jolted me awake—and its concluding images stayed with me for sixty years.

In “Tin Can” (FC 3, art by Davis, regrettably omitted from Imjin!) the primary duty of its central character, the unsubtly named Eddie Yearling (nicknamed in-case-you-missed-it “The Kid”) is the cleaning of his destroyer’s lavatory. Yearling doesn’t mind, for he recognizes everyone on board is “part of the big plan,” and as long as everyone plays their part their “operation” will succeed. Then his ship hits a mine. To prevent its sinking, the crew seals off the head, realizing too late he is inside. Saving him means losing the vessel. So Kurtzman delivers his biting message. “It’s like you said, Seaman… You’re just a small part of a large operation! Every man counts on the big job, but no man is bigger than the job…” And Yearling is left to drown.

Kurtzman was a young man who experienced a “good” war. He believed war a terrible thing, and he hoped a new generation of young men would find a way to do without it. He seemed not to recognize that wars are the creation of older men and the young only pawns by which they play them. But when he locked Yearling in that lav, his pounding on its door growing weaker and less frequent with each concluding panel, the consequence of accepting one’s self as a cog in someone else’s machine was made manifest.

At a dime-a-pop, comics were the first chance for my friends and I to pick and pocket our own theologies and to pen our own declarations of independence. Al Feldstein, EC’s other great editor, astutely recognized that the company’s great appeal to the young was that, whether “with a laugh…(or) blood” it was engaged with “flaunting…the destruction of…authority.” The laughs popped social pomposities and sacred cows. The blood bathed us like Carrie at her prom. EC showed us, when nothing else around us dared to, that defiance was an option. And once constraints were loosened, we could try to figure out what to do, where to go, how not to end up trapped, the waters rising.

This article reviously appeared online at www.tcj.com.

From April, 2014

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