The Arts > Book Reviews
Department of the harder we tried, the harder we fell
Humbug will be a crusading magazine. We will tackle important important national issues such as Should the Mayflower Replica be Allowed to Land in the U.S., and Fluoridation — the Red Conspiracy.
Humbug will be a responsible magazine. We won’t write for morons. We won’t do anything just to get laughs. We won’t be dirty. We won’t be grotesque. We won’t be in bad taste. We won’t sell any magazines.
— Harvey Kurtzman in Humbug No. 1, August 1957
Following the 1956 departure from his seminal creation Mad, editor Harvey Kurtzman developed the slick, full-color parody magazine Trump for Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner. Though the initial two issues, featuring contributors and sensibilities similar to Mad’s, sold well, Hefner canceled the series, citing financial limitations. Soon after, Kurtzman and five of his Trump cohorts — Jack Davis, Will Elder, Al Jaffee, Arnold Roth, and production man Harry Chester — formed a cooperative to publish the humorous Humbug. Although they produced only 11 monthly issues, from August 1957 through August 1958, the magazine paved the way for the general newsstand acceptance of National Lampoon and Spy. Never before reprinted, Fantagraphics recently collected Humbug, complete with new essays, interviews, and annotations, in two handsome hardback volumes.
Inspired by the French magazine Le Charivari and its descendant, the British weekly Punch, Humbug contained parodies (a la Mad), faux ads, and satirical prose sending up various aspects of the media, politics, and sports. Each issue featured the artistic talents of Davis, Elder, Jaffee, Roth, and the occasional guests, such as war-comics illustrator Russ Heath, New Yorker cartoonist R. O. Blechman, and Mad alum Wallace Wood. Contributing writers included Larry Siegel (Carol Burnett Show, Laugh-In), screenwriter Ken Englund, and novelist and playwright Ira Wallach.
Jack Davis and Will Elder skewered late-’50s movies, films, and sports. Their individual lampooning of the controversial Tennessee Williams film Baby-Doll, the game show Twenty-one — months before the infamous Van Doren scandal — Mike Todd’s cameo-laden Around the World In 80 Days, the classic TV western Have Gun Will Travel, Flash Gordon, Jailhouse Rock, Frankenstein, Tarzan, baseball, basketball, and auto racing 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, creator of the famed Mad fold-ins, laughed at the cultural icons and artifacts of the period. In issue one, Jaffee’s amazingly detailed flattened Corn Flake (sic) box as a “medium of communication” created a stir with the nearly microscopic accurate reprinting of the urinating-on-a-house-fire scene from Gulliver’s Travels. (Most likely to silence those who doubted the scene’s veracity, Kurtzman printed it — at standard size — in the series’ final issue.) Cut out, the Corn Flake layout itself folded into a working box. In later issues, Jaffee tackled varied topics — highways, health care, advertising, weddings — all with equal skill and irreverence.
Roth’s contributions overlapped the others, but generally focused more on the politics of the period. For the initial issue, he rendered the first Humbug Award, a regular curmudgeon’s pinup of controversial figures including Teamster’s president Dave Beck, disgraced 1957 Miss USA Leona Gage, segregationist Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, Mike Wallace, and Santa Claus.
Humbug also published prose pieces mocking the then-contemporary and classic literature throughout its run, of which the hilarious “A Candid View Of Wm. Shakespeare at Work,” “Something of Mau Mau,” “Marjorie Morningsun,” and “Pagan Place” are highlights.
Editor Kurtzman welcomed letters and devoted one to two pages each issue to the missives, complete with his often witty rejoinders.
For the attractive slip-case-covered reprint, Fantagraphics wisely includes several insightful and interesting extras. The introduction establishes the proper context and historical background for the key players and the publication. A fascinating Kurtzman oeuvre rounds out the introduction. An interview with Roth and Jaffee offers an insider’s account of Humbug’s creation and inner workings. The playful banter between the artists, who clearly like and respect one another, and the inclusion of rare photographs of the entire staff enhances the interchange.
Most importantly, scholar John Benson annotates all 11 issues. In the ensuing 50 years, several of the pop-culture and political references have faded into obscurity. In perhaps the only deficit in an otherwise magnificent two-volume set, all the annotations are included at the end of Book Two. Splitting the notes between the two, placing the revealing backstory closer to the facts in question, would have better served the reader.
Man — we’re beat!
Oh yes — it’s too much.
Radiation has got us beat.
The levelling-off period has got us beat.
Satire has got us beat.
1953 — We started MAD magazine for a comic book publisher and we did some pretty good satire and it sold very well.
1956 — We started TRUMP magazine and we worked much harder and we did much better satire and we sold much worse.
1957 — We started HUMBUG magazine and we worked hardest of all and turned out the very best satire of all, which of course now sells the very worst of all.
—Harvey Kurtzman in Humbug
No. 11, August 1958