ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
"The Simpsons," "Saturday Night Live," "The Daily Show," the animation of Terry Gilliam, the Onion, retrace the strands that led to a lot of current American satire, and sooner or later, you end up at Harvey Kurtzman. He was the founding editor of Mad magazine.
Denis Kitchen has collected Harvey Kurtzman's original art and tells Kurtzman's story in a new coffee-table-size book. Kitchen had a lot of material to work with. Kurtzman was not only an editor, he was also an artist and a writer.
Late in his career, he stayed clear of the poorhouse with a Playboy comic strip, and we emphasize the word strip, it was called "Little Annie Fanny." But before that and more memorably than that, there was Mad, first published in 1952.
Mr. DENIS KITCHEN (Author, "The Art of Harvey Kurtzman"): He created it as a concept. He was the writer of every story. He drew most of the early covers himself. He laid out every story so that the artists, like it or not, had to follow his formula and his precise composition of every page.
So he was, in a sense, a one-man band, but he was also aided by some of the very top cartoonists not only of their day but probably of the century, and its influence is profound on the mass culture.
SIEGEL: Yeah, to measure that influence, we should say Mad magazine is credited with the idea of satirizing other things in the mass media of the day.
Mr. KITCHEN: Right. That was virtually unknown before he really plowed that field, and he also satirized politics. He was there attacking Joe McCarthy early on, but mainly it was, yes, a satire of other media, in other words, other comic books themselves but also the mass culture in terms of advertising. As one critic put it back then, it was a machine gun attack on American culture.
SIEGEL: Yeah, my introduction to the work of Harvey Kurtzman, we're talking about 50 years ago now, was in his comic book "Super-Duper Man."
Mr. KITCHEN: Yeah, that's a perfect example of taking on probably the most iconic of all cartoon characters.
SIEGEL: Yeah. Now, something happens in "Super-Duper Man" which is that the mild-mannered, everyday disguise of the super hero runs into a phone booth to change, and much screaming comes out of the phone booth, and he says drat, fool phone booth is occupied, and there's a woman sitting in the phone booth. He wanted to change there.
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Mr. KITCHEN: Exactly.
SIEGEL: These Mad cartoons were considered a bit risque for the time, and in fact, as you write in the book, there had been congressional hearings in - was it '54 - denouncing comic books.
Mr. KITCHEN: Yeah, Senator Kefauver tried to convince the public that comic books could rot the minds of juveniles and in fact lead to juvenile delinquency.
SIEGEL: The hearings actually put a damper on Mad magazine. It was hard for newsstands to sell it.
Mr. KITCHEN: You know, comic books were the cheapest periodical on the racks, thus the least profitable. So all it took was a little controversy, and newsstands - and certainly newsstand distributors wanted to distance themselves.
So it was a very rough time, and that's when Harvey convinced his publisher to turn Mad the comic book into Mad the magazine.
SIEGEL: And he did it for a couple of years.
Mr. KITCHEN: About three years. And then he made the first of what can be seen as a series of bad business decisions, or you could just say bad luck. He left Mad as it was peaking - and remember this is a magazine at its height, sold two to three million copies per month.
SIEGEL: Yeah. To make a long story short, Harvey Kurtzman, immensely gifted as an artist, gifted as a writer, as a satirical writer - gifted as a businessman, not at all.
Mr. KITCHEN: Unfortunately not. In fact, one of his good friends, a colleague, Will Eisner, who's also one of the giants in the comics field, Will Eisner was not only a great cartoonist but a great businessman, and as Harvey's wife, Adele, has recounted: Harvey always went to Will for advice but never took it.
SIEGEL: Well, Denis Kitchen, author of the book "The Art of Harvey Kurtzman," thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. KITCHEN: Thank you, Robert.
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SIEGEL: And to see a gallery of Harvey Kurtzman's illustrations, you can go to our Web site, npr.org.
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MELISSA BLOCK, host:
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