I recently finished Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created Mad and Revolutionized Humor in America by Bill Schelly. It's an interesting read; the first couple of chapters are a little choppy, but as you'd expect, it picks up once Kurtzman makes it to EC and Schelly has more sources to work with.
Kurtzman's story, alas, is familiar to anyone who's studied comics history: he created an American institution but never achieved financial success from it.
And what tremendous influence he had, and continues to have. Not only did his work inspire the later Underground Comix artists (he counted Crumb, Spiegelman, and Kitchen in particular as friends), but Schelly's not overstating things with that "revolutionized humor in America" line. Mad's influence can be seen everywhere in American comedy, from Airplane! to The Onion to The Simpsons to The Daily Show to "Weird Al" Yankovic, to name a few examples off the top of my head. Hell, did I say "American"? Because that's too limiting. There's Kurtzman influence in Monty Python, too; John Cleese once did a photo shoot for Help! magazine, and that's where he met Terry Gilliam, who was Kurtzman's assistant at the time.
And yet, after Mad, Kurtzman never really had financial stability; he hustled for work for the rest of his life, and died with $35,000 in savings. That's not bad -- it's more money than I've ever had in my bank account, even before adjusting for inflation -- but I'm 35 years old and didn't create Mad.
Of course, part of Harvey's misfortune was self-inflicted. There's little doubt that if he hadn't quit Mad, he would have died a much richer man. His successor, Al Feldstein, went on to retire in comfort, and spent his final years on a 270-acre ranch. If Kurtzman hadn't quit Mad, it certainly would have become a different magazine that it did under Feldstein, but it's reasonable to assume it would have been just as successful.
Schelly notes that, of course, hindsight is 20/20. Kurtzman quit Mad because Hugh Hefner had offered him an unlimited budget and total creative control on a new magazine, glossy and in full color. Let's put it this way: if this were 1956 and you didn't know what you know now, and you heard that the entire creative team of Mad had left to start a new magazine, backed by Hugh Hefner, and Mad was being handed over to the editor of Panic and a bunch of new artists, which of the two magazines would you bet on?
In 2009, Warren Ellis remarked that the late Alex Toth "never drew a story worthy of his talent". Similarly, Kurtzman, in a career that spanned half a century, only ever produced one magazine that was up to his own high standards. It was called Trump, and it got cancelled after two issues.
Schelly posits two major reasons for Trump's cancellation, and neither one was related to sales.
One of the reasons Trump was cancelled was due to external circumstances entirely beyond Kurtzman's control: Collier's unexpectedly ceased publication, and it sent shockwaves through the entire magazine industry. Hefner suddenly had trouble getting investors; something had to give, and it wasn't going to be Playboy.
The other reason was Kurtzman's fault: his perfectionism kept him from meeting deadlines. Gaines had been effective at riding herd on him at EC and making sure Mad (and Kurtzman's previous comics, Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat) shipped on time, but Hefner didn't have similar success keeping Trump on schedule (Hefner was in Chicago and Kurtzman was in New York; this no doubt played a role). Schelly quotes Hef as saying, "I gave Harvey Kurtzman an unlimited budget, and he exceeded it."
And that's what frustrates me the most about Kurtzman's work: I think he got in his own way. I think he was a micromanager who needlessly restricted his incredibly talented collaborators, and his own output suffered from it. Spectacular as Kurtzman's work is, I can't help but wonder how much more he could have done if he'd been able to take a step back and give greater autonomy to guys like Jack Davis and Wally Wood.
And I suspect I'll have more to say about that in a later post.