Sunday, April 7, 2013

Harvey Kurtzman's Pigtales for Parkinson's - Sizzling Screwball Comics From 1946!

Ya gotta admit: cartoon pigs are funny. One of the undisputed masters of screwball comics is Harvey Kurtzman, who certainly seemed to appreciate the comedic possibilities of porcine antics. In today's post, I've snuffled out the rare, first Kurtzman Pigtales story that sits like a truffle in the mud of Timely's lackluster golden age humor comics.

If you like the Pigtales comic below, you can buy the entire series of six in a digitally restored ebook (in cbr format) for only $3.00 (please allow 24 hours for email delivery as I sending these out manually to keep the cost low).

Here's the Table of Contents page from the ebook:

You'll also get links to download FREE .cbr viewers for PC and Mac.

Kurtzman's work stands in direct lineage from screwball masters Rube Goldberg, Milt Gross and Bill Holman (with a little Jack Cole thrown in). Kurtzman's work has the skewed perspective, exaggerated action, and zany energy found in screwball comics. It also has the characteristic compression of information, with jokes buried within jokes. In the early 1950s, Kurtzman's MAD brought self-awareness to American pop culture and profoundly influenced generations of creative minds, including art spiegelman and Robert Crumb.

I won't attempt a recap of Kurztman's career and influence, here. There's a few books out there that do a pretty good job of that, especially The Art of Harvey Kurtzman: The Mad Genius of Comics by Dennis Kitchen and Paul Buhle (New York: Abrams Comic Arts, 2009) - which currently (April 2013) is available from Amazon for a bargain price of $18 (regularly $45).

Most fans of Kurtzman's comics know about his wonderful early surreal Hey Look! one-pagers, and a few folks even have the excellent 1992 Kitchen Sink collection (long out of print). Here's a color paper scan from Willie Comics #7 (Timely, April 1947).

Harvey Kurtzman loved drawing pigs. From Willie Comics #7  (April 1947)
It's always been fascinating to me to consider that the editor who bought and published these experimental-type comics was none other than Marvel mogul Stan Lee. That's right, before he hooked up with William Gaines at E.C. Comics and created MAD (as well as Two-Fisted Tales, Frontline Combat, and a stream of brilliant and under-appreciated science fiction comics) Harvey Kurtzman did humor comics for Marvel/Timely under the editorship of Stan Lee. Talk about a study in contrast! Still, it's great that Lee gave Kurtzman this early outlet and encouraged his development.

Eventually, Stan Lee imposed his editorial control over Kurtzman with the Rusty stories, a dismal Blondie knock-off that Kurtzman -- professional that he was -- dutifully created for nearly a year before he jumped ship and eventually found E.C. Comics. Here's a couple of pages from a Rusty story, written by Stan Lee and drawn by Harvey Kurtzman.

Well, you get the idea. When Kurtzman drew the Hey Look! pig- piggybank one-pager above, he may have been thinking of his Pigtales series, which in the last half of 1946. As forgotten as Rusty, the Pigtales stories are worth rooting out, because they are both written and drawn by Kurtzman and show him working out some of the self-reflexive concepts and graphic treatments that would get so crispy and tasty in his later work.

The Pigtales stories appeared in extremely obscure Timely humor titles like All Surprise and Krazy Komics. Below is the very first episode featuring Homer and Hickstaff, from Kid Movie Comics #11 (June 1946).

As you hoof thru this story, notice how Kurtzman is artfully playing with self-awareness as humor. Homer and Hickstaff know they are only lines on paper, and encourage us to see them that way. Essentially, this is a science fiction premise: what if characters drawn on paper were sentient beings? The logical conclusion is that they would be painfully aware of their own limitations as ink on paper, and yet they also posses unlimited potential to go anywhere and do anything:

Carefully considered, the spiral that winds back on itself that is a pig's tail makes a fitting visual metaphor for Kurtzman's approach to humor, which also winds back on itself.

Kurtzman's figures in the 1946 Pigtales have the form, but not the total verve they would assume in later years. Compare the above pages with this visually sophisticated 1949 Hey Look! page:

from Patsy Walker 22 (May 1949)

Here's a rare WWII 1944 Kurtzman cover from his army days that recently surfaced (and as of this writing on April 7 2013 is still available on ebay here). You can see the little heavily outlined blobby figures in this piece have the same playful presentation as Homer and Hickstaff, once again carrying the awareness that they are only lines on paper.

As an army Private, Kurtzman drew this cover for the Camp Sutton, North Carolina base paper

As another example of the embryonic early style of Kurtzman, here's what is believed to be Kurtzman's first professional job in comics, a one-pager than ran on the inside front cover of Four Favorites #8, published in May, 1945. Notice the exaggerated perspective from above and below -- the very same visual approach we see in the Pigtales stories a couple of years later.

Kurtzman's first pro comics page? From Four Favorites #8 (Ace, May, 1945)

In all, Kurtzman wrote and drew six curly Pigtales stories. In the six months he worked on these stories, his art and storytelling style grew richer and more confident. here's a page from the last published story, from December, 1946 where he hams it in fine style:

Page 5 of Kurtzman's last Pigtales story, from Krazy Komics #25 (December 1946)

If you enjoyed the Pigtales story in this post, you might like to pork over three measly bucks and get the whole run. These ain't easy to find, and they are a lotta fun to read. You also get a BONUS section of goodies:

-  Four Giggles and Grins pages which feature nine surreal, silly, color Kurtzman gag cartoons
- The complete rare 5-page Rusty story excerpted in this blog - by Stan Lee and Harvey Kurtzman
- Eight rare Hey Look! page scans from their original color comics publications

I hope you'll go for it, as these fine Pigtales deserve to be re-read. But mainly I hope you'll go for this because I could really use the three bucks -- hoo ha!

Actually, all proceeds from this ebook sale will be donated to the National Parkinson Foundation in honor of Harvey Kurtzman, who suffered from Parkinson's Disease.

Note: This is not connected with any organization -- it's just a little thing I'm doing on my own. I don't expect we'll sell many at all -- other ebooks I'm associated with sell about two or three a month, so it's a pretty small amount we're talking here -- but even so ... it's something.

National Parkinson Foundation

Harvey Kurtzman's Pigtales for Parkinson's
55 page ebook delivered as a download link via email for only $3.00

(please allow 24 hours for delivery as this is a true rinky-dink one-man operation and I'll be manually emailing this to you to keep the costs down on the product):

Yours in all things Screwball,
Paul Tumey

1 comment:

  1. Hi, paul. If you create a linkable banner or ad for this, I will use it on my blog. Many Kurtzman fans there.