Humbug (Fantagraphics)

Harvey Kurtzman’s post-MAD satirical comic series returns in this deluxe reissue.




400 pgs. full color; $60.00 hardcover

(W / A: Harvey Kurtzman, Jack Davis, Will Elder, Al Jaffee, Arnold Roth)


Humbug is such a curiosity—so much like MAD magazine, but created by Harvey Kurtzman after a contentious split with MAD founder William Gaines. Kurtzman became known as the demanding genius who made MAD great (he invented Alfred E. Neuman, among other triumphs), but who backed the loser in a two-horse race.

Click for a larger image.Then, too, Humbug is a by-product of the intellectual bent of Hugh Hefner, so easy to forget in the long shadow of the sex pioneer’s horn-dog revolution. Hef funded a humor magazine called Trump that only lasted two issues before he killed it, as it was extravagantly expensive to produce. He then graciously allowed the bullpen of future nerd gods Kurtzman, Will Elder, Al Jaffee, Jack Davis and Arnold Roth to use the toys in his chest to fund Humbug.

This omnibus of all 11 issues of Humbug is equal parts giddy genius and period piece. The satire is razor-sharp. A "glossary of dance terms" depicts two dancers frozen in mid-leap. Clearly, their pose indicates "Springtime." And "youth." And, um, "health." In three tiny panels an entire art form is perfectly skewered as utterly inscrutable. Wiseassed pieces on false advertising, how to fleece people as a TV repairman, and popular crooners’ songs of the day ("Wanna, wanna, wanna, wanna, wanna…") must have been a balm to skeptical types during the squeaky-clean ‘50s.

Topical satire – Kurtzman’s stated intention—is so topical that it may take a few trips to Wikipedia to get all the digs at Peyton Place, Sputnik-mania, and the over-the-top cologne ads from the men’s magazines of the day.

But most importantly, there 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. Wiseassed American satire wouldn’t be the same without him, and neither would comics, which salute him with the annual Harvey Awards for the best in the medium, named in his honor. Kurtzman intended Humbug as a "MAD for adults," and he succeeded—for one year only, until the ship ran aground.

Humbug is a long-lost chapter in American comics and humor, yet it arrives with a mighty "thunk" as a hefty, two-volume hardback set in a slipcase—as an object, it definitely makes its presence felt. The annotations at the end, plus a lengthy interview with Jaffee and Roth on all the backstage gossip, give juicy perspective to the work.

At $60, it is better to receive than to give, but it’s very much worth it. | Byron Kerman

Click here for a slideshow preview and 32-page excerpt (the entire first issue!) courtesy of Fantagraphics.

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