Saturday, September 24, 2011

Maddening Comic Books

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I'll be taking a short break from collecting comics to concentrate on my writing. I've found that the hobby has been getting in the way just a bit with my fiction work. This particular book will be the last back issue that I'll purchase until probably some time in November when I should be done with a couple of writing projects.

I do like to purchase a Golden Age comic book now and again. They're sometimes far too expensive for me to afford, so I buy them rarely, and only when I can get them at a bargain price. Years ago I had an impressive collection of early issues of MAD, the comic book precursor for what we now know as MAD MAGAZINE. The first 23 issues of the book were in comic format. It was part of the EC Comics stable, and by far the most popular and profitable book that William Gaines published. In fact, when Gaines was basically run out of the comic book business by the right wing insanity infecting the USA during the 1950s, he chose to circumvent the destructive Comics Code Authority by turning Mad into a magazine, thus exempting it from that restrictive body. He experimented briefly with the magazine format for a couple of other genres, but it was MAD that continued to sell in huge numbers and make him, eventually, the highest paid independent publisher in the country. In his way, he had the last laugh on his enemies in comics and in government, if by revenge one defines it as achieving the good life in spite of your enemies' best efforts.

When I was a dealer in old comics, I owned quite literally every single issue of the MAD comic book, including the iconic Mad #1. But currently this is the only issue of the original book that I have in my collection.

The tragedy of MAD is that it was created by Harvey Kurtzman. To my way of thinking, Kurtzman was perhaps the most talented comics artist ever to put pen to paper. He was the very rarest of talents in the world of comics, and I've struggled for years to note anyone who was his better. I've yet to find that artist.

MAD arose out of a pay dispute with Gaines. Kurtzman apparently chafed at the fact that his colleague at EC, Al Feldstein, made more than he did. When he voiced this to Gaines, his employer told him that if Kurtzman could produce a good humor comic then he'd raise Kurtzman's pay to match Feldstein's. (At the time, Feldstein was editing the horror and science-fiction titles while Kurtzman ran the war and adventure books.)

Well, then, that was a project for which Harvey Kurtzman was uniquely placed to create. Thus, MAD came into being. Packed with dangerous humor, the comic was an instant success. It sang. The comic hit at just the right time and impressed just the right audience to ensure that its sales were off the charts and its influence would be felt for decades. It was, from the beginning, a child of Harvey Kurtzman who did the heavy work for each of the comic's early issues.

From the very beginning, MAD was not only a success, but also cutting edge culture. It insinuated itself into the undercurrents of society that would soon make themselves felt in the looming counterculture that was about to raise its head in America.

And, of course, MAD eventually led to yet another in a very sad line of thefts of intellectual property. When Kurtzman demanded a 51% controlling interest in the comic, Gaines of course refused. And Kurtzman either left or was forced out, with the last remaining title of the once formidable EC Comics company being handed off from Kurtzman to Feldstein, the man whose salary had initially instigated the creation and production of the publication.

Kurtzman went on to attempt to duplicate the success of MAD with a number of other, similar concoction. But as so many have sadly learned, lightning generally strikes but once. In what had to be a truly painful turn of events, the comic genius who had created the happy monster of MAD MAGAZINE found himself, hat in hand, at the editorial door of his own creation, selling work to that publication as a freelancer in the twilight of his creative years.

This is the kind of classic parody that later got Kurtzman and Gaines into so much trouble. I mean, who would screw around with the Disney corporation? Why, a canny Jewish humorist named Harvey Kurtzman, that's who! And of course this one didn't get them into nearly as much trouble as "Starchie", the Kurtzman/Elder parody of Archie that apparently sent Archie's publisher, John L. Goldwater, into a frenzy that apparently began a warfare against EC.

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