Harvey Kurtzman

The Mad genius (in more ways than one!) kept going after parting company with William Gaines, creating other bastions of enduring satire, cartoons and humor in the 1950s and 1960s, such as Humbug, Trump, and Help! Contributors included John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Gloria Steinem, even Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury.

It was the winter of 1964. I was about to turn 14. I was visiting my grandparents’ house in Bayonne, N.J., when, perhaps just a little bored, I strolled down to Broadway and into a smoke shop called Goldie’s. I headed for the magazine rack, probably looking to see if the latest issue of Mad was out. It wasn’t, but something else was – a magazine I’d never seen before, a magazine called HELP!

The cover caught my eye immediately. It was remarkable in its stark simplicity. A naked toddler, the New Year’s baby with ’64 drawn on his back, was standing on chubby little legs and reaching up, his pointed index finger just inches away from something he clearly was about to touch – a red thingy on the wall marked MISSILE BUTTON.“Yeah, man!” I thought to myself. Here was something daring, funny and vaguely illicit. I paged though it quickly and saw news photos and movie stills festooned with humorous, hip, sometimes racy, captions. There was a wild multipage cartoon called “Wonder Wart-Hog,” a takeoff of “West Side Story” called “Surfside Story,” featuring rival gangs of surfers and scuba divers, and a cartoon essay on the previous summer’s epic civil rights March on Washington. I paid my 35 cents and took HELP! back up to Grandma’s, where I sequestered myself in my room to savor my new find.

It was there that I noticed a feature I’d previously overlooked. It was called “My First Golden Book of God.” It was obviously based on the popular Little Golden Books series, which included titles such as The Poky Little Puppy and The Little Red Hen. But here, written in nursery-school prose (“Look at God create. Create, God, create.”) was the story of earth’s formation and God’s subsequent deep disappointment with the murderous, revolting people he’d invented. God was depicted as a schlumpy, goateed little guy wearing a baggy Superman-style costume with a “G” on his chest. In the end, he becomes so fed up that he pledges a fiery holocaust:

Next time it will be fire and everything will burn.
Burn, burn, burn.
And you will burn and I will burn.
Even your mommy and your daddy and
your dog, Queenie, will burn.
And even Caroline Kennedy and
her mommy and her daddy and all her
aunts and uncles will burn.
And then the fire will burn out and there
will be darkness.
See the darkness?
Don’t be silly, how can you see darkness!
And in the end there will be nothing.
Nothing, nothing, nothing.

I was on the one hand appalled, and on the other totally hooked. This was my introduction not only to HELP! but to an entire beckoning world, a place of cynicism and very dark and daring humor, of hipsters, poets, peaceniks, nihilists – and a whole new way of looking at things in preparation for the tumultuous decade to come.

HELP! was the brainchild of the great Harvey Kurtzman, once described as “the most influential and arguably the most important cartoonist of the 20th century.” Kurtzman was born in Brooklyn in 1924 and soon after was producing a cartoon called “Ikey & Mikey” in chalk on city sidewalks. He published his first legit drawing in Tip Top Comics in 1939 and then spent the 1940s in the military service and working as a freelance artist for the likes of Stan Lee (RIP) and, finally, as the decade ended, EC Comics and William Gaines, who proposed he try his hand at a humor magazine.

MAD No. 1

The magazine turned out to be Mad—in its earliest manifestation, the full title was Tales Calculated to Drive You Mad—and Kurtzman was the major influence for its first 28 issues. His irreverent, satirical, sometimes nonsensical, always topical strain of humor was everywhere on Mad’s pages. Most notably, he teamed up with artists Wally Wood and an old friend, Will Elder, to produce hilarious TV show and movie parodies such as “Superduperman,” “Dragged Net!” and “The Ed Suvillan Show.” For these, Kurtzman set down his illustrator’s pen and focused on the text.

Mad’s success apparently went to Kurtzman’s head, however, and in 1956 he demanded 51 percent ownership from Gaines. He didn’t get it, so he left and tried his hand at a couple of other start-ups, Trump, with Hugh Hefner as publisher, and Humbug. Both were cult favorites, and remain so today, but they never took off commercially. Trump only survived for two issues and Humbug lasted just 11. But Kurtzman wasn’t done. Not quite yet.

Trump #1, Jan 1957. Cover by Harvey Kurtzman.
HUMBUG #2 Sept 1957, cover art by Will Elder, border art by Jack Davis; layout by Harvey Kurtzman.

In August, 1960, the first issue of HELP! hit the stands with red-hot TV funnyman Sid Caesar on the cover. Maybe this would be the magazine that would make everyone forget about Mad.

Dave Garroway and Mort Sahl
Sid Caesar and Jackie Gleason covers.

Over the next five years and 27 issues, Kurtzman gave it everything he had, calling on all his friends in the hip demimonde. Besides Caesar, he got Ernie Kovacs, Jerry Lewis, Mort Sahl, Jackie Gleason and Jonathan Winters, among others, to appear on HELP!’s covers. Inside the issues, all sorts of people turned up, many of them just beginning their careers, as writers or actors in photo strips known as fumetti. Future Monty Pythonians John Cleese and Terry Gilliam were there, along with Woody Allen, Gloria Steinem, Jean Shepherd, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Rod Serling and future artists of the underground Gilbert Shelton and Robert Crumb.For all that, the content was wildly inconsistent, with many misses but also a good number of memorable hits.

Classic fumetti included “On the Coney,” a parody of the dystopian novel of the day, On the Beach, “Christopher’s Punctured Romance,” depicting Cleese’s infatuation with a Barbie doll, and “Beatsville” (written by Steinem), in which everyone at a Manhattan drug party is, as it turns out, an undercover narcotics agent.

For illustrated stories, HELP! dispatched Al Jaffee to Miami, Arnold Roth to Moscow and R. Crumb to Harlem. There were cartoons gleaned from college humor mags from around the U.S., pages of jokes, and many, many captioned photos which were not always funny but certainly took up space. Even the letters to the editor were worth reading, like the one from the December 1960 issue that read in its entirety: “Thank you ever so much for your effort in Lysergic acid diethylamide type humor.”

But HELP!’s greatest success had to be Kurtzman and Elder’s brilliant collaboration, “Goodman Beaver.” Beaver was a wide-eyed, innocent young man set loose in a wicked, dangerous world, as depicted in Elder’s nonpareil drawings, which included more gags going on in the background than in the foreground.  The five Beaver stories that appeared in HELP! included “Goodman Meets T*rz*n,” a riff on African nationalism and the burgeoning Soviet presence there, “Goodman, Underwater,” somehow a take on Don Quixote, “Goodman Meets S*perm*n” and “Goodman Gets a Gun.”But the epic installment, and arguably HELP!’s all-time high point was “Goodman Goes Playboy,” in which Goodman goes back to his home town of Riverdale and finds that his old pals Archer, Joghead, Bette and Veromica have moved from malteds to martinis and are adopting many of the lifestyle choices, including teenage orgies, laid out in what would later be called the Playboy Philosophy. The strip unsurprisingly brought legal action from the publishers of the actual Archie comics, a years-long action that cost HELP! more than it could afford.

The Comics Journal Library Vol. 7: Harvey Kurtzman

Eventually, with the September 1965 issue, Kurtzman gave it up and moved on – ironically to Playboy, where he and Elder took Goodman Beaver, gave him very large breasts, and turned him into Little Annie Fanny, a ribald back-of-book cartoon that had a run of 26 years.As for me, it will soon be 55 years since I walked into that New Jersey smoke shop. At about that same time, a new group named the Beatles was just beginning to make its presence known on our AM radios, and before long they would have their own creations called “Help!” (single, album and movie) for us to consider. Indeed, the whole popular culture was about to blow up into something bright and exciting, offering a whole new world to a 14-year-old who didn’t even know yet how eager he was to experience it all.

Kurtzman’s HELP!, largely swept aside by what followed, provided one of the most thrilling bridges I took to get there.


Help Magazine issues online

More on Harvey Kurtzman

The Comics Journal Library Vol. 7: Harvey Kurtzman