This note accompanies the follow episode(s):
The Writer’s Almanac for October 3, 2017: Lives of the Great Composers

October 3, 2017: birthday: Harvey Kurtzman

Today is the birthday of Harvey Kurtzman (1924) (books by this author), cartoonist and creator of MAD Magazine. Born in Brooklyn, Kurtzman started drawing comics at a young age and sent, in his words, “very bad” drawings to Walt Disney hoping to get hired. He had a eureka moment when he discovered college humor magazines and realized he wanted to write in that style.

Kurtzman started MAD in 1952 as a comic book, and it switched to a magazine format in 1955. The magazine satirized other comics, like Archie and Superman, and American politics and culture in general. Every subject was fair game for criticism: advertising, the sexual revolution, Democrats, and Republicans. Critics see the magazine as a forerunner for much of American satire that came after it, including The Simpsons, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report. Art Spiegelman, the writer of the graphic novel Maus, said, “The message MAD had in general is, ‘The media is lying to you, and we are part of the media.’ It was basically … ‘Think for yourselves, kids.’”

Kurtzman saw an early-20th-century dentist’s ad showing a gap-toothed boy proclaiming the wonders of novocaine and used it as the inspiration for a drawing of a goofy, red-headed boy with the caption: “What — me worry?” The character later took the name Alfred E. Newman and became the mascot, and the most recognizable image, of MAD.

Harvey Kurtzman left MAD in 1956 and went on to found two magazines, Trump and Humbug, which both failed. He wrote a satire of The Jungle Book, which, for a book of comics, was unique for its attempt to write only to an adult audience. He edited the magazine Help! which employed both Gloria Steinem and the future Monty Python member, Terry Gilliam. (Gilliam named the character of a harsh boss after Kurtzman in his sci-fi dystopian film Brazil.) He went on to write a risqué comic strip for Playboy — Hugh Hefner admired his work and had gone in with Kurtzman on one of his failed magazines.

Kurtzman also drew comics of WWII, which depicted Japanese and German soldiers more sympathetically and showed the horrors of war more realistically than other comics would dare to. For example, he once dramatized the drowning of an enemy soldier in seven panels, drawing out the scene to give a reader the sense of disgust a real person would feel in that situation. There was no triumph in Kurtzman’s comics about war; the Allies may have won, but he wanted the reader to understand the ugliness of war, no matter what side you were on.

Kurtzman and his wife, Adele, had three daughters and one son. Their son had autism, and Kurtzman volunteered with special-needs kids in his community. He was able to spend a lot of time with his kids because his cartooning allowed him to work from home. Despite his sharp wit, he tended to come off as serious in person. And despite his cutting criticism of authority figures, he had a demure personality. Someone once described him as “a beagle who is too polite to mention that someone is standing on his tail.” He died of cancer in 1993 at 68 years old.