Humbug

Overview

Nominated for a 2010 Will Eisner Comic Industry Award: You know MAD. Do you know Humbug?
Harvey Kurtzman changed the face of American humor when he created the legendary MAD comic. As editor and chief writer from its inception in 1952, through its transformation into a slick magazine, and until he left MAD in 1956, he influenced an entire generation of cartoonists, comedians, and filmmakers. In 1962, he co-created the long-running Little Annie Fanny with his long-time artistic ...
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Overview

Nominated for a 2010 Will Eisner Comic Industry Award: You know MAD. Do you know Humbug?
Harvey Kurtzman changed the face of American humor when he created the legendary MAD comic. As editor and chief writer from its inception in 1952, through its transformation into a slick magazine, and until he left MAD in 1956, he influenced an entire generation of cartoonists, comedians, and filmmakers. In 1962, he co-created the long-running Little Annie Fanny with his long-time artistic partner Will Elder for Playboy, which he continued to produce until his virtual retirement in 1988.
Between MAD and Annie Fanny, Kurtzman’s biographical summaries will note that he created and edited three other magazines—Trump, Humbug, and Help!—but, whereas his MAD and Annie Fanny are readily available in reprint form, his major satirical work in the interim period is virtually unknown. Humbug, which had poor distribution, may be the least known, but to those who treasure the rare original copies, it equals or even exceeds MAD in displaying Kurtzman’s creative genius. Humbug was unique in that it was actually published by the artists who created it: Kurtzman and his cohorts from MAD—Will Elder, Jack Davis, and Al Jaffee—were joined by universally acclaimed cartoonist Arnold Roth. With no publisher above them to rein them in, this little band of creators produced some of the most trenchant and engaging satire of American culture ever to appear on American newsstands. At last, the entire run of 11 issues of Humbug is being reprinted in a two-volume slipcased hardcover deluxe format, much of it reproduced from the original art, allowing even owners of the original cheaply-printed issues to experience the full impact for the first time.
Nominated for a 2010 Will Eisner Comic Industry Award: (Best Archival Collection/Project: Comic Books).
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Editorial Reviews

News from ME - Mark Evanier
“[A] superb two-volume boxed set that reprints Humbug in full, plus it also contains proper introductions and interviews with some who worked on the magazine. The material is excellent. It's Kurtzman, Elder, Davis, Al Jaffee, Arnold Roth and a few others working at the peak of their awesome powers. The package is excellent. It's well-designed and well-printed, and I can't think of a way in which it could have been improved.”
Robot 6 - Chris Mautner
“It’s a really impressive collection of work... and the production design here is nothing short of stunning. Fantagraphics really knocked this one out of the park in restoration.”
Fort Worth Business Press - Michael H. Prince
“Smart writing, savvy pop-cultural lampoons mirroring the mid-century’s social turmoil, brilliant artwork.”
Bookforum - Ben Schwartz
“Humbug reveals Kurtzman as a satirist who still demands our attention.”
Comic Book Resources
“Humbug is a testament not only to Kurtzman’s genius, but to the astounding skills of his fellow artists as well—people like Jack Davis, Will Elder…Al Jaffee and Arnold Roth and R.O. Blechman.”
San Antonio Current - John Defore
“A comics blockbuster.”
The Guardian - Roger Sabin
“A deluxe collection of a classic but long-forgotten satirical magazine…Originally edited by Harvey Kurtzman of MAD fame, and written and drawn by his MAD compadres, among them Jack Davis and Will Elder, Humbug was cool beyond cool.”
Hairy Green Eyeball - Harry Lee Green
“The Humbug set from Fantagraphics is out and it's great. Fine printing and binding will keep this slipcased two-volume set looking good long after the rest of us are gone.”
San Antonio Current - Rick Klaw
“Never before reprinted, Fantagraphics recently collected Humbug, complete with new essays, interviews, and annotations, in two handsome hardback volumes....Jack Davis and Will Elder... elevated the comic-book parody beyond the standards of MAD and Trump. For Humbug, Davis produced some of the best work of his long career. Al Jaffee... tackled varied topics... all with equal skill and irreverence.”
Miami Herald - Richard Pachter
“This lovingly restored collection of Humbug's five issues is accompanied by essays, interviews and annotations, providing a glimpse into what MAD had wrought.”
PLAYBACK:stl - Byron Kerman
“This omnibus of all eleven issues of Humbug is equal parts giddy genius and period piece. The satire is razor-sharp... [T]here are such subtleties here and such rapier wit that the line is clearly visible from the Algonquin Round Table to Kurtzman to Crumb to Ralph Bakshi to Mr. Show to The Colbert Report.”
Bookgasm - Rod Lott
“Kurtzman and company aimed high for a more sophisticated humor mag than the competition...Fantagraphics’ package for it is bar none—handsome, sturdy and restored with great care...I was most interested in the behind-the-scenes story of Humbug and the creative process that went into it—not to mention doomed it—and the book’s introduction and exclusive interviews more than satisfy on that count.”
Arthur Magazine - Byron Coley and Thurston Moore
“In a way, Humbug almost feels like a goof-humor version of The New Yorker or something. There’s a lot of fairly serious political/social commentary, cloaked in wry rainment. It’s a blend as interesting as any cocktail, and it’s goddamn great to have this stuff easily available. Hats away!”
Detroit Metro Times - Jeffrey Morgan
“Unparallel parodists Kurtzman and Elder ran rampant for themselves when they published these 11 exceptional issues of comic art anarchy. This two-volume hardcover box set has been reproduced from the original art and digitally restored to make everything look even better than when it first came out in 1957. This long-overdue definitive edition of Humbug is an essential slice of satire from the masters of the genre.”
NPR.org - John McAlley
“A lot of Humbug’s humor now tickles the mind more than the funny bone, collected here it serves to fill in the missing piece on a seminal period of satiric shenanigans.”
Vice - Nick Gazin
“This is the best thing I have ever been sent to review. I didn't think that this book would ever exist but now it does and it'd better than I could have imagined... The eleven issues of Humbug are faithfully reprinted in this two-volume hardcover set and it comes in a fancy and sturdy box. The magazines were funny and beautiful with art by Will Elder and Jack Davis and some other folks. If you don't buy this book then I don't want to know you...There is no excuse for not buying this right now. Sell your hair, blood, or skin to get it.”
Robot 6 - Timothy Hodler
“[I]ncludes so many all-time great cartoonists (Kurtzman, Jaffee, Elder, etc.) at the peak of their powers and ambitions.”
Bizarre Magazine - David McComb
“Featuring the entire run of Humbug satirical magazines masterminded by Harvey Kurtzman, creator of the legendary US comic MAD, this luscious two-volume box set will fascinate.”
North Adams Transcript - John Mitchell
“It’s Humbug that functions as the spiritual father for magazines such as National Lampoon, Spy and The Onion, among many others, but there’s something invigorating about it because of its vantage point in the supposedly stodgy and bland 1950s. Coming out of that decade, Humbug really did break new ground.”
Irregular Orbit - M. Ace
“[T]he artwork is uniformly mind-blowing. ... This collects the whole ill-fated run in a luxurious hardbound package including top-notch background material. Worth it for the mammoth Arnold Roth and Al Jaffee interview alone.”
The Comics Journal - Rich Kreiner
“At long last, a handsome, two-volume, slipcased set brings back into print a pivotal, neglected portion of the oeuvre of Harvey Kurtzman and that of a cadre of gifted pranksters bent on smart satire.”
Mark Evanier - News from ME
“[A] superb two-volume boxed set that reprints Humbug in full, plus it also contains proper introductions and interviews with some who worked on the magazine. The material is excellent. It's Kurtzman, Elder, Davis, Al Jaffee, Arnold Roth and a few others working at the peak of their awesome powers. The package is excellent. It's well-designed and well-printed, and I can't think of a way in which it could have been improved.”
Chris Mautner - Robot 6
“It’s a really impressive collection of work... and the production design here is nothing short of stunning. Fantagraphics really knocked this one out of the park in restoration.”
Michael H. Prince - Fort Worth Business Press
“Smart writing, savvy pop-cultural lampoons mirroring the mid-century’s social turmoil, brilliant artwork.”
Ben Schwartz - Bookforum
“Humbug reveals Kurtzman as a satirist who still demands our attention.”
John Defore - San Antonio Current
“A comics blockbuster.”
Roger Sabin - The Guardian
“A deluxe collection of a classic but long-forgotten satirical magazine…Originally edited by Harvey Kurtzman of MAD fame, and written and drawn by his MAD compadres, among them Jack Davis and Will Elder, Humbug was cool beyond cool.”
Harry Lee Green - Hairy Green Eyeball
“The Humbug set from Fantagraphics is out and it's great. Fine printing and binding will keep this slipcased two-volume set looking good long after the rest of us are gone.”
Rick Klaw - San Antonio Current
“Never before reprinted, Fantagraphics recently collected Humbug, complete with new essays, interviews, and annotations, in two handsome hardback volumes....Jack Davis and Will Elder... elevated the comic-book parody beyond the standards of MAD and Trump. For Humbug, Davis produced some of the best work of his long career. Al Jaffee... tackled varied topics... all with equal skill and irreverence.”
Richard Pachter - Miami Herald
“This lovingly restored collection of Humbug's five issues is accompanied by essays, interviews and annotations, providing a glimpse into what MAD had wrought.”
Byron Kerman - PLAYBACK:stl
“This omnibus of all eleven issues of Humbug is equal parts giddy genius and period piece. The satire is razor-sharp... [T]here are such subtleties here and such rapier wit that the line is clearly visible from the Algonquin Round Table to Kurtzman to Crumb to Ralph Bakshi to Mr. Show to The Colbert Report.”
Rod Lott - Bookgasm
“Kurtzman and company aimed high for a more sophisticated humor mag than the competition...Fantagraphics’ package for it is bar none—handsome, sturdy and restored with great care...I was most interested in the behind-the-scenes story of Humbug and the creative process that went into it—not to mention doomed it—and the book’s introduction and exclusive interviews more than satisfy on that count.”
Byron Coley and Thurston Moore - Arthur Magazine
“In a way, Humbug almost feels like a goof-humor version of The New Yorker or something. There’s a lot of fairly serious political/social commentary, cloaked in wry rainment. It’s a blend as interesting as any cocktail, and it’s goddamn great to have this stuff easily available. Hats away!”
Jeffrey Morgan - Detroit Metro Times
“Unparallel parodists Kurtzman and Elder ran rampant for themselves when they published these 11 exceptional issues of comic art anarchy. This two-volume hardcover box set has been reproduced from the original art and digitally restored to make everything look even better than when it first came out in 1957. This long-overdue definitive edition of Humbug is an essential slice of satire from the masters of the genre.”
John McAlley - NPR.org
“A lot of Humbug’s humor now tickles the mind more than the funny bone, collected here it serves to fill in the missing piece on a seminal period of satiric shenanigans.”
Nick Gazin - Vice
“This is the best thing I have ever been sent to review. I didn't think that this book would ever exist but now it does and it'd better than I could have imagined... The eleven issues of Humbug are faithfully reprinted in this two-volume hardcover set and it comes in a fancy and sturdy box. The magazines were funny and beautiful with art by Will Elder and Jack Davis and some other folks. If you don't buy this book then I don't want to know you...There is no excuse for not buying this right now. Sell your hair, blood, or skin to get it.”
Timothy Hodler - Robot 6
“[I]ncludes so many all-time great cartoonists (Kurtzman, Jaffee, Elder, etc.) at the peak of their powers and ambitions.”
David McComb - Bizarre Magazine
“Featuring the entire run of Humbug satirical magazines masterminded by Harvey Kurtzman, creator of the legendary US comic MAD, this luscious two-volume box set will fascinate.”
John Mitchell - North Adams Transcript
“It’s Humbug that functions as the spiritual father for magazines such as National Lampoon, Spy and The Onion, among many others, but there’s something invigorating about it because of its vantage point in the supposedly stodgy and bland 1950s. Coming out of that decade, Humbug really did break new ground.”
M. Ace - Irregular Orbit
“[T]he artwork is uniformly mind-blowing. ... This collects the whole ill-fated run in a luxurious hardbound package including top-notch background material. Worth it for the mammoth Arnold Roth and Al Jaffee interview alone.”
Rich Kreiner - The Comics Journal
“At long last, a handsome, two-volume, slipcased set brings back into print a pivotal, neglected portion of the oeuvre of Harvey Kurtzman and that of a cadre of gifted pranksters bent on smart satire.”
Publishers Weekly

MAD 's early years have been justly lauded for their japing assault on postwar American culture, but this outstanding two-volume boxed set reflects the history of comedy in the period after staff stars like Kurtzman jumped ship in 1956. Humbug, whose mere 11 monthly issues published in 1957 and 1958 are all collected here, was a refreshing if little-noticed seat-of-the-pants hybrid of MAD-style buffoonery and a tony wit that sadly never found its place. Read today, Humbug seems a time capsule from when comedy was entering its drier, postvaudevillian period; comedians still wore ties and were expected to if not attend college at least have read a book or two. The magazine's mix of chaos and control-Kurtzman's Cecil B. DeMille-sized comedic crowd scenes set against Larry Siegel's pitch-perfect literary satires-creates an uneasy balance that almost necessitated a short shelf life, much in the same manner as National Lampoon(which years later briefly picked up the mantle that Humbug threw down). The set might not be best for end-to-end reading (11 issues is a heavy dose, with all those Sputnik and Have Gun, Will Travel references) but for dry cocktail laughs and low schoolboy snorts, it's hard to think of a better pair of books to have at your nightstand. (Mar.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
The Barnes & Noble Review
How's this for an April Fool's joke? Page 22 of your favorite humor magazine announces: "In a dramatic editorial session last month, the editors decided, that considering the time of year, the following article must be published. We will probably receive violent reactions to this article -- praise and heated criticism. But this is the risk one takes in being bold and willing to take a stand. Remember -- the following is like nothing you have ever read in a magazine. Now steel yourself and turn the page." What followed? A politically charged satire? A sexually risqué parody? A controversial spoof on religion? Well, as you might guess, nothing like that. In fact, it was nothing, as promised. Blank pages, announcing at the end, "April Fool."

OK, it's a joke as old as Tristram Shandy, but this was a magazine willing to try just about anything, especially with its ridiculously small budget, its demanding schedule, and its tiny staff.

And it took its name from another British novel, declaring itself Humbug and honoring Ebenezer Scrooge with the Christmas issue cover. That was the editorial approach to much of modern life: humbug. After all, this magazine was published in the'50s, that era of postwar prosperity, a time when leisure increased and consumerism boomed -- and with it mass culture, from advertising to television. All of it offered ripe targets for satire.

Into the void stepped all sorts of humorists, from the raw and raunchy Lenny Bruce to the thoughtful and bemused Mort Sahl. The chatty clowning of Bob and Ray amused radio listeners alongside the clever narratives of Jean Shepherd, and Stan Freberg's good-humored parodies. Humbug came into the scene well prepared. And now we have all of this magazine in these two slipcased volumes that reprint the entire 11-issue run -- available for the first time since the magazine appeared in 1957. (I should know. Before the Internet, it took me forever to collect the back issues, and most of them were crumbling and expensive.) Five talented cartoon and comic book artists joined together to form a cooperative venture that would be free from the immediate demands of accountants and the marketplace. They would simply do what they did best: write and draw funny stuff. Each brought a unique style and talent, and they were thrilled to be their own bosses.

First among equals was Harvey Kurtzman, the man who changed the face of comic books with his classic work for the EC line. He brought a level of realism, accuracy, and craftsmanship to titles such as Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat. His greatest achievement was the creation of Mad -- but his was not the puerile version of the magazine most of us know from our youth. Kurtzman's Mad began as full-color comic book, taking its form from exuberant and chaotic parodies of other comics: "Mickey Rodent," "Superduperman," and "Starchie." When that idea played itself out, his crew turned to spoofing movies and inventing wild comic illustrations of popular poems, such as "The Face on the Barroom Floor." After 24 issues, Kurtzman and publisher William Gaines, himself under pressure from Congressional comic book investigations and the decline in sales of his once-popular lines, transformed Mad into a black and white magazine, and sales soared.

What happened next is shrouded in mystery. Did Kurtzman get greedy? Was Gaines trying to dumb down the magazine? Probably both, but Kurtzman soon had another offer in his pocket. Hugh Hefner, riding high on the success of his slick and sophisticated girlie magazine, Playboy, financed Kurtzman for a similarly glossy full-color humor magazine. Trump was a thing of beauty all right, Kurtzman's dream. He could hire all the writers and artists who were too expensive for Mad, and he had the full sales force of Playboy behind him. Such dreams fulfilled never last long -- two issues of Trump, in this case, before Hef pulled the plug. A fiscal crisis at the Mansion was the official reason, but there's a good chance the problem was simply Harvey himself. As an editor he held everyone to a perfectionist's standard, resulting in endless revisions and a delayed publishing schedule -- the latter deadly to newsstand sales.

From both of these experiences came Humbug, free of business managers and paternalistic owners. And therein lay its demise. But in its short run, Kurtzman and his cronies served up some of the smartest satire of the time, much of it as fresh today as it was when first printed. And who were the new gang of idiots? From Mad and EC, Kurtzman enlisted Will Elder, a high school buddy famous for his visual style. Every inch of Elder's frames is slathered in what they called "chicken fat" and later comics artists call "eyeball kicks," tiny jokes everywhere: goofy street signs, wacky labels, little people crawling along the borders. Elder could illustrate anything for Humbug -- a spot-on spoof of the scandalous television quiz show 21, the difficulties of modern voting machines, and silly Band-Aids that will appeal to kids.

Kurtzman also stole Jack Davis from the EC stable -- an illustrator whose work continues to amuse on covers from Time to TV Guide. Davis's rangy characters, with their bending bodies and amazing feet, made his work particularly suitable for sports humor -- the sneaky advantages of being tall in basketball, the inadequacies of football equipment, and the fun of spring training -- for fans. But Davis's movie and television parodies -- mostly written by Kurtzman -- are stunning. His thin-line precision, his ability to suggest movement, and his perfect caricatures make for enduring work, even if you don't remember such TV shows as Have Gun, Will Travel or movies like Baby Doll. His ongoing series in Humbug ("and 'you know who' gets killed") punctures cinematic cliché with a precision that matches his expert style.

Also on board at Humbug as partners were Al Jaffee, who later became best known for his surprise foldovers in Mad, and Arnold Roth, recruited by Kurtzman for Trump. Roth brought a new level of sophistication to the EC boys -- his fine-line pen drawings for Humbug, which aren't as elongated as they are in his later, more familiar work, nevertheless demonstrated an ability to mock with the best of them. He carves up the ritual of slicing the Thanksgiving turkey; pinpoints the then-current obsession with Russia's Sputnik satellite, and often sneaks in a voluptuous woman somewhere in his illustrations. His debonair wit added an Anglophilic note to a magazine whose humor was primarily Bronx overstatement.

Among the non-partners who contributed to this writer-artist collective were R. O. Blechman, whose one-page minimalist cartoons were way beyond the dense and overloaded work elsewhere in the magazine. But that was part of Kurtzman's vision of a more grown-up humor, a sensibility that approached but was not as staid as that of The New Yorker (even though Blechman would later grace its covers often). Another discovery was Larry Siegel, who contributed all-text pieces, something Kurtzman had tried to begin at Mad. These parodies -- of O.Henry, Herman Wouk, Robert Ruark -- display Siegel's ability to mimic the language of almost anyone, or even better, to rewrite their plots in a different voice: Hamlet as a Dick and Jane book, or a simple episode of bug-spraying the garden as a World War II melodrama.

Kurtzman's sense of humor was never mean or abrasive. He poked fun mostly at the absurdities of everyday modern life, but the exigencies of putting out this magazine found the group resorting to some quick fixes: a reprint from Punch or an entire chapter from Gulliver's Travels. There were even efforts to sell some Humbug merch: goofy wrapping paper, oddball jewelry, and a paperback reprint of the first six issues. But nothing worked. Yet both Jaffee and Roth contend that it was a splendid time, and Kurtzman demanded their best work. His obsessive nature and willingness to go back to the drawing board over and over were both a strength and a weakness. In the long interview appended to this beautifully restored collection of all 11 issues of Humbug, Jaffee and Roth pay homage to the late Kurtzman, a stickler for design clarity and a mensch in every way.

In his own autobiography, My Life as a Cartoonist, written for young adults, Kurtzman admits his failings with Humbug. Sure, it was printed on cheap newsprint, but that was the least of it. The size was wrong: smaller than comic books, issues got lost on the newsstands; and the price was a mistake as well. Fifteen cents provided too low a margin to motivate distributors. Ah, well! As Kurtzman puts it: "I learned a valuable lesson: I'm a terrible businessman." But a great editor, all seem to agree, served well by this wonderful production from Fantagraphics, complete with helpful annotations to some of the more obscure stuff by John Benson, and a fine historical overview by Gary Groth.

Kurtzman went on to other work, from an even lower-budget magazine called Help to writing a regular cartoon series for Playboy, and nurtured the careers of Terry Gilliam, Gloria Steinem, and Robert Crumb, to name an unlikely few. Every page, though, attests to one thing: his all-American genius as writer, artist, and editor. And that's no April Fool's joke. --Thomas DePietro

Thomas DePietro, a former contributing editor of Kirkus Reviews, has also published in Commonweal, The Nation, and The New York Times Book Review. He recently edited Conversations with Don DeLillo, and his book on Kingsley Amis is forthcoming.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781560979333
  • Publisher: Fantagraphics Books
  • Publication date: 3/23/2009
  • Pages: 476
  • Product dimensions: 7.90 (w) x 10.70 (h) x 2.40 (d)

Meet the Author

One of America’s most beloved and best known illustrators, Jack Davis was born in December 2, 1924 in Atlanta, Georgia, and still makes his home in the area.

Will Elder (Hall of Fame, 2003) was also known for a 45-year stint with Cracked magazineand for being one of MAD’s founding artists.

In addition to his pioneering work on the “serious” EC war comics, Harvey Kurtzman (1924-1993) created the all-time greatest satirical comic (with Mad), the most widely-read adult comic strip (with “Little Annie Fanny” in Playboy), and one of the earliest graphic novels (with the 1959 The Jungle Book).

Arnold Roth’s cartoons and illustrations have appeared in The New Yorker, Playboy, and Esquire. He lives in New York City.

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