I have not said anything deliberately provocative in a while (and the last time I tried it passed without comment) so, with that in mind, I'll just come right out and say it: I don't think Harvey Kurtzman was all that funny. He gets full credit for MAD; the comic book was indisputably the most imitated humor comic of the 1950s. Even EC published their own knock-off, Panic, edited by Al Feldstein. Kurtzman remained at the helm for the transition to magazine format, but he lasted for only four issues as editor. He had asked publisher William Gaines for co-ownership, and Gaines generously offered him 10%. Kurtzman demanded 51% and was refused. At that point (#28) he was replaced as editor by Al Feldstein. My position is that what most people remember when they think of MAD magazine are the Feldstein issues (#28 on), not the Kurtzman issues (#24-27) and not the comic book.
Here is what I posted about Jungle Book back on April 22 of this year.
Jeff of Earth-J said:
HARVEY KURTZMAN'S JUNGLE BOOK: I have been thinking about launching a "Harvey Kurtzman" discussion for some time now, but haven't because I didn't think I would be able to do it justice. I am currently actively working toward completing my collection of Harvey Kurtzman comics and am re-reading a few in anticipation. Harvey Kurtzman's Jungle Book (1958) is the first volume in the "Essential Kurtzman" series from Kitchen Sink Books (2014), an imprint of Dark Horse Comics. It contains four stories: parodies of the Peter Gunn and Gunsmoke television shows, a satire of the publishing industry as it existed in the late '50s, and a semi-autobiographical story of prejudice in "the warm-climated part of the country." Are they funny? Not really, no, but the original paperback volume was highly influential to a certain class of cartoonists such as R. Crumb and Peter Poplaski. One should not approach Kurtzman work looking for humor, but rather truth. Of the four stories, the fourth, "Decadence Degenerated" (and Kurtzman's own second favorite), holds up best today.
MAD: Kurtzman was the editor who brought it all together (full kudos for that), but what made MAD (the comic book) funny was the work of Will Elder, Wally Wood and others. If you were to look at Al Feldstein's Panic, it's just as funny as Harvey Kurtzman's MAD.
HEY LOOK!: Kitchen Sink Press released a collection of Kurtzman's pre-MAD (mostly) single-page gags back in 1992. (Mine is #67 of 500 signed copies.) The gags are aimed at a decidedly juvenile audience, but are they funny? No, they are not. I have come to appreciate his drawing style (I didn't like it at first), but the gags read as if they were generated by a computer programmed to be funny. Technically and artistically they are quite solid, though.
I think a good yardstick to measure what MAD would have been like if Kurtzman had stayed with Gaines is his work that followed.
TRUMP: KSP/Dark Horse published Trump: The Complete Collection, the second volume in the "Essential Kurtzman" Library (the first was Jungle Book) in 2016. About it, Hugh Hefner famously said, "I gave Harvey Kurtzman an unlimited budget... and he exceeded it." It's funny, but very "intellectual" (that is to say, pseudo-intellectual). Al Jaffee, always an enthusiastic Kurtzman booster, said that "if Harvey had stayed with MAD he would have upgraded it to the point that fifteen people would buy it." Trump lasted two issues.
HUMBUG: Kurtzman's next venture was Humbug. In 2009, Fantagraphics released a two-volume slip-cased set of the entire series. This is what I think MAD would have been like had Kurtzman stayed with Gaines. It is funny, but not as funny as MAD (as evidenced by the fact that Humbug lasted only 11 issues).
HELP!: When I said that I was "currently actively working toward completing my collection of Harvey Kurtzman comics" back in April, HELP! is what I was talking about. I have long held the (absolutely unprovable) opinion that Al Feldstien's MAD magazine is better than Harvey Kurtzman's would have been, but I never went on record as saying so because I didn't have enough evidence, namely, HELP! magazine. It's not that I couldn't find HELP!; backissues are everywhere. It's just that I couldn't find any at prices I was willing to pay. Gwandanaland has two volumes available, however, reprinting the first eight (of 26) issues. I have read the first (the second is on its way) and feel I have enough evidence to move forward.
HELP! is not what I expected, not at all. It is mainly photos with (unfunny) gag captions, a few cartoons, and some text pieces... some satire but mostly just short stories. HELP! is so unfunny that I thought perhaps I was mistaken in my assumption that it was supposed to be. I've read the first four issues and I will read the next four, but I doubt I'll buy any future volumes should they be forthcoming. "Goodman Beaver" sprung from the pages of HELP! and so did Jungle Book but, based on what I've read so far that's the best of the lot.
LITTLE ANNIE FANNY: Dark Horse published two volumes of the complete long-running serial from Playboy magazine. I bought and read the first upon its initial release, but procrastinated buying the second assuming it would "always" be available. I eventually found a copy of the second at Half Price Books but haven't been in the mood to read it. (At this point, I'd probably need to re-read the first as well.) I would say that "Little Annie Fanny" is Kurtzman's most successful post-MAD work; Jungle Book is his most personal; Humbug is his best.
I don't think I've ever read anything by Kurtzman.
I agree that the Feldstein version of Mad is the classic version. I first read Kurtzman's Mad via the Ballatine paperback reprints. The art was good, and often very funny, but I wasn't terribly impressed by the writing.
I think Kurtzman's best work as writer/editor was on the EC war books. The material in those comics still holds up today.
Right you are, Kevin! I meant to say something about Kurtzman's EC war books but forgot, so thanks for reminding me. Not only did Kurtzman commission good contemporary stories of WWII and Korea, but he also set out to tell the enire story if the Civil War in 16 chapters. Unfortunately, the series was left only half completed when he dropped the war titles to devote his time entirely to MAD. In 1993, however, Dark Horse Comics brought Kurtzman back to edit the New Two-Fisted Tales, which not only included stories from Viet Nam, but also set out to complete the Civil War saga. Unfortunately, Kurtzman passed away after only two issues.
(Note covers laid out by Kurtzman, finished by Will Eisner and Wm. Stout, respectively.)