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The Comics School of Hard Knocks with Harvey Kurtzman (1988)

THE FOLLOWING PANEL took place at the Dallas Fantasy Fair in the summer of 1988. Originally billed as a shop talk between Harvey Kurtzman and Gil Kane, it evolved into two legendary cartoonists discussing their—and their generation’s—career in comics. Kurtzman rarely spoke publicly after this time.

KANE: I think we might be able to talk about the kind of requisite quality that makes people realize, or helps them understand a little better, what the chances are for their moving into comics professionally. GROTH: Oh, brother. That would depress them.

GARY GROTH: This is supposed to be a “shop talk.” I’m not exactly sure what that means, but it’s my impression that a shop talk is where a couple of artists get together and talk about the kinds of pens they use, which strikes me as being really tedious. So let’s talk about your involvement in comics. HARVEY KURTZMAN: Gil Kane, what do you think shop talk is? [Laughter.] GROTH: So what would you guys like to talk about? Would you like to talk about each other? KURTZMAN: I’d like to talk about myself and nothing else. [Laughter.] No, I don’t know. We’ve talked about so many things. When you have intellectuals … Look at the room. [Laughter.] Two hundred seats and five people.

KURTZMAN: Gil, you were talking earlier about cartoonists we have known and how the business affects their personalities. KANE: Most of the cartoonists that I know, the best guys are almost always guys who have undergone some kind of personal difficulties early on, some kind of family situation or something. Ultimately, they develop some compensating quality. They have the capacity to fill the void that this kind of social or personal trauma created for them with an obsessive need for something, and then they turn towards comics and cartooning. For a young person, comics is a very accessible form, even more accessible than the movies. KURTZMAN: Like being a boxer.

Harvey Kurtzman


Harvey Kurtzman, Gary Groth, and Gil Kane at the Special “K” Panel at Dallas Con, circa 1986.

KANE: Something like that, right. KURTZMAN: Like being willing to get your face smashed in, only I was under the impression that the trauma came after the cartooning and not before. KANE: I think that, in part, you’re right. I think that most of these guys come in here, and in the beginning they become obsessive about work, and the work does stabilize their personality. It gives a real direction to people who are generally erratic in every other aspect of their lives. Then, they start moving up to a point where they begin to be judged and their work begins to be judged and they go through that holy, terrible crucible of learning to be a professional and having to take the beating of rejection and repudiation. Most of the guys that I know had rather humble beginnings in terms of education. I remember that Bernie Krigstein was one of the best read, best educated men that I had met. Bernie, when I knew him, never repudiated his involvement with comics. In fact, he thought that the art in comics was just stupendous. Bernie had been in fine art for a


Sparring With Gil Kane

while when he came into comics. Once he saw comics, he thought it was such an extraordinary area of expression that he wanted to be a part of it. KURTZMAN: Where is that man today? KANE: Back in fine arts. KURTZMAN: Naturally. GROTH: At what point did he begin to denounce comics? KANE: He was an intelligent man, and he was not easy to intimidate. He constantly clashed with people who would try to level some authority at him, and that put him particularly at odds with editors. KURTZMAN: I think he ran out about the time that I gave him a Mad story to do. He did it his way, not my way, and I told him it wasn’t funny. KANE: But at that point he had already run through

three or four publishers with whom, for one reason or another, he had come to a parting of ways. And in effect, the doors of those companies were closed to him. GROTH: Can you talk about why comics creators almost without exception come from a working class background? KURTZMAN: It’s like being a boxer. KANE: Or a musician. Everybody I knew grew up to be boxers, musicians or cartoonists. KURTZMAN: It doesn’t take any training. It’s accessible. You can be a cartoonist and have no equip-

ment except a brush. It’s accessible. I guess that’s as good a way of saying it as any. KANE: And also, it promises a kind of success that they see in an unrealistic way. I mean, you see young people fighting, you see young people playing music, you see young people drawing comics, so you assume that somehow it’ll translate into money. I remember so many people, even people who didn’t have much of a talent for either drawing or music, and they made it sound like a good business situation. Guys were making a living at being musicians in bands, and guys were making a living being in comic books. When I was growing up, jobs were hard to get if you didn’t have specific skills. If they had any sort of desire to express themselves, that

Bernard Krigstein, “Master Race,” Impact #1, March–April 1955.

Harvey Kurtzman


was it. In fact, I knew a number of guys who both drew and then, at the same time, went into boxing. KURTZMAN: Really? KANE: Yeah, absolutely. GROTH: Is the economic motive the same with comics as with boxers? In other words, they’re trying to break out of an economic ghetto? KANE: It also brings admiring attention to them. It’s like a star situation. Boxers in our area— and there were a lot of them—were all zingers. You know, big people in the neighborhood, the same way the musicians and cartoonists were. They were all distinguishing themselves. After all, at 16 or 17 years of age, you got to see your name in print. KURTZMAN: Yeah, to get in print, that was the big thing. To see your name printed. To see your stuff reproduced. Do you remember that first reproduction? KANE: Absolutely. As a matter of fact, I remember the first thing that I ever did. I didn’t even do any drawing. I was just touching up somebody else’s pages. KURTZMAN: Touching up the margins. KANE: Yeah, right. And I squeezed my initials into a little background anagram. Guys were doing that continuously. I was 16, and it was a terrific thrill. It was heady, especially in those times, to be an adolescent and have all that happening. It was tremendous. GROTH: Harvey brought up a topic of conversation earlier. Can you talk about the options that you think cartoonists have these days?


Sparring With Gil Kane

KURTZMAN: Well, I think that there’s a lot of work for cartoonists to do, particularly in the related television areas. I never direct my students to Marvel or DC. I tell them that’s the past; you want to look to the future. To a certain extent I mean it, but I partly don’t mean it, because eventually some of my students will go on to Marvel or DC. But the odds are so bad that I hate to move the students in that direction. I try to open up their horizons to think of cartooning as something that might be television cartooning or comic-book cartooning or syndicate cartooning or commercial-art cartooning. There’s a lot of cartooning to be done. GROTH: I’m not familiar with television cartooning. How does that start? KURTZMAN: Animation, story boards. Gil knows more about it than all of us in this room because he’s done quite a bit of television cartooning. GROTH: Harvey, what if your students are in love with just putting pen to paper and creating a world on that piece of paper? Where do they go? Do you suggest newspapers? Gag strips? KURTZMAN: Well, you never know. There are so many different kinds of cartoon talent. There are people who are good at gag cartoons. It’s instinctive. I don’t think that you learn how to do it. You either do it or you don’t do it. They’ll just rattle off gags. So you send them to gag cartooning. You try to influence them in that direction. There are people who are good storytellers. There are people who are innovators, creative cartoonists who have new, wild concepts, so you send them to Artie Spiegelman. [Laughter.] There’s a great variety in the business of cartoonists and cartooning, and I try to be as flexible as possible. I also tell them to look to their teachers, in the sense that in visual arts the teachers are all

Joe Kubert, “Bonhomme Richard,” Frontline Combat #14, October 1953.

professionals. They have connections. Connections have a lot to do with what happens to you. I mean, you know a teacher who knows somebody who knows somebody, and they’re all in the business. So you get close to people who are in the business, you make contact with people who are in the business— that’s the way to move forward. KANE: A lot of what Harvey’s saying has to do with the whole idea of making a living and building a career where you see yourself evolving into a wellpaid professional. I always hoped to do well when I was younger, but my overwhelming need was to do comics. However, I found that while I had a great need to do comics, everything else that was in my life, like athletics and girls, distracted me—and I became a late bloomer. With guys like Kubert, they

weren’t distracted, and Kubert was good. A guy like Frazetta was distracted, but it didn’t make any difference. He drew like a whiz. One of the things that I remember about Frazetta was coming home from the Army on leave when I was 18 and Frazetta was 16, and finding that I had been replaced by a guy named John Juinta at a company I was working for. Juinta was much better than I was. In fact, Juinta was at his peak, doing extraordinarily good work. But he did it very slowly, so he used a guy named Frank Frazetta, who was 16 years old, to pencil for him, and then he would ink over it. I got sick of it, because the pencils were so beautifully drawn that I couldn’t believe it. He was only 16 years old, and I was 18, and my stuff looked absolutely amateurish compared to his. He was so focused, he had such direction. He was completely

Harvey Kurtzman


Frank Frazetta, Nude and Ape, 1991.

caught up in Foster. He had a sense of movement and animation that was just sensational. I began to understand what work really meant when I was finally repudiated enough times that I could look clearly at my work and begin to understand how little I knew. The great thing about comics at that point was that it became a process of education. It educated me in a million ways. In every way that I know to be informed. Comics was my ticket to all that. KURTZMAN: How do you mean your ticket to information? KANE: Well, I knew nothing. I was illiterate. I was unschooled. I wasn’t a good draughtsman. KURTZMAN: You’re not talking about the fact that cartooning taught you more about cartooning?


Sparring With Gil Kane

KANE: No, I’m talking about my life. What I’m saying was that I knew nothing, and when I finally accepted that I knew nothing, I began to press for things that would help me. I was never objective. I was always subjective. Subjective is like being out in the ocean, say, up to your neck, and just experiencing being hit by the waves. That’s subjective. Objective is being ten feet above that and watching this jerk being hit by the waves. It’s understanding what’s going on— not repudiating the experience, just understanding it. I just didn’t understand all the things that I was feeling and experiencing. Once I began to realize that, it was necessary for me to understand. I ran into a guy named Ross Andru, who was my close friend for a while. Ross was a brilliant, well-read guy who wanted to be a Walt Disney animator. He showed me drawings that dazzled me. I couldn’t believe it. He was so scrupulous. In order to learn

how to draw, he would go to an anatomy book and start building the hand from the vessels on up. He developed an understanding of structure, of design, of composition, teaching himself all of these things. So one day I was talking to him and he was looking at my work and he says, “I like your foliage concept.” Foliage concept? I had never even heard of the idea of foliage being conceptualized, so that you could understand form, pattern, textures, and give it a total conception. Then he told me about fold concepts and fold patterns. He was objective about work and intellectualized it. I thought he was one of the best artists that I ever saw. His best work to this day is totally unappreciated by this field. KURTZMAN: Whatever happened to Ross? KANE: Just buried at DC somewhere. My own curiosity led me to a series of artists like Crane, and ultimately put aside Lou Fine and Hogarth and went to Roy Crane and Foster and Noel Sickles. Artists who had an evolved and sophisticated grasp, who were not merely intuitive. Everything that I know, that I’ve experienced, and the things that I’ve benefited from that have really given me positive things and have offset my old tendency to be self-destructive, is an attempt to be better in comics. It was all just to do good work, and it’s still all to do good work. When I work, I never forgive myself for doing a good job because I never feel that a good job is really a good job. You see great work by other artists, and it’s depressing. You feel that you’ll never catch up. You see guys who were able to focus psychic energy, which when you were younger, you could do. You can handle 33 things at once and bring a laser-like focus to each one of them. As you get older, you’re like the guy in Around the World in Eighty Days who starts throwing everything that’s extra weight out of the balloon. As you get older, you pare down. You want to deal with the most sensual aspect of your work. But maintaining psychic

energy is the most important thing you have to do. Obviously, as an artist gets older, he learns more. But if he loses psychic energy, it’s the end of the work. I’m not sure what this has to do with your questions. [Laughter.] GROTH: I’m willing to bet that you don’t even know what the question was. [Laughter.] Let me ask both of you something. Can you two talk about the economic difficulties your generation faced, working under the conditions that you did? As you both know, artists are now getting royalties; many of them own their own work. Essentially, the artist gives the publisher certain rights as opposed to the publisher giving the artist certain rights—or no rights, as the case may be. Now, for example, Harvey Kurtzman created Mad. You don’t own Mad. KURTZMAN: No. GROTH: You don’t own a piece of Mad. KURTZMAN: I don’t own anything. GROTH: You did Frontline Combat. You did TwoFisted Tales. KURTZMAN: We’ve only received a certain amount of largesse from Gaines. He does it at his own speed, his own little voice, and that was a stumbling block between Gaines and myself. He was always paternalistic in the business of business, especially. His paternalism had good sides to it and bad. Gaines was Papa, and it’s hard to say that he still is, but that’s the role he played. It took away any independence that I had at the time. It took away my essential independence and I never made big bucks in the business. I must say that I worked with great conviction and desire to excel. It didn’t do me any good moneywise, contrary to Gil’s experience.

Harvey Kurtzman


Harvey Kurtzman, Mad #1, October–November 1952.

JACK JACKSON: [From audience] What about those Russ Cochran reprints? Did you get any money from that?

KURTZMAN: Largesse.

KURTZMAN: Yes, but it’s not contractual money, it’s …

KURTZMAN: Yes. Are we going into French? Drifting on into French?

JACKSON: Largesse.

GROTH: Now, Gil, you’ve done—I hesitate to even guess how many pages of comic art you’ve done—


Sparring With Gil Kane

GROTH: Noblesse oblige.

but it was done under the conditions of labor. You got paid, and that’s the last money you see for every page of art. KANE: I would say that probably next to Jack [Kirby] I’ve done more pages than anybody else working in comics or maybe even guys that left comics. I really don’t know guys that did as much work as I did. To me, the best thing that most of the people of my generation could hope for was to be liked by some paternalistic figure in publishing, whether it was the heads of DC where I worked for a long time or some other publisher. If they were patting your head, that meant you’d be assured of work. When I started as a teenager, jobs were hard to get and, what’s worse, hard to hold. I mean, I worked for everybody at least once. I was fired virtually as often as I was hired. I was just getting my basic training in the work. It was a difficult situation. I would say that jobs were hard to get in cartooning up through the ’60s. The paternalistic attitude of the comic-book companies was the same, and I was never at the level of an inspired figure at that time like Alex Toth. Alex Toth generally made a very good living wherever he went. GROTH: But he sold everything he did, right?

GROTH: Would you say that paternalistic attitude extended through the ’60s? KANE: Well, by the ’60s, they started to give Blue Cross. In other words, they were already starting to make accommodations because, and here’s the difference: When we were doing the stuff and they were being paternalistic and giving us nothing, we were in our 20s. When they started giving Blue Cross, we had already begun having babies and we were in our 30s and these were necessary things that we had to have, and they would make these concessions. But they would make them only in very specific cases. KURTZMAN: One of the changes that I noticed, and I’ve been noticing this for the last five years, is that young cartoonists put that copyright notice next to their signature. That’s something that we never did, we never thought about. It would have been interesting to see if we had taken that issue by the horns. But copyright didn’t mean anything to us. A little “C” in a circle. KANE: There’s one thing that went with that period that was absolutely the worst thing, and that is a period of personal tyranny by many editors who, taking advantage of their situation, threatened, intimidated, vilified, crucified artists.

KANE: He sold everything he did. GROTH: So this was a short-term … KANE: Well, it’s not even profit. It’s simply a living. It’s an income and nothing beyond that. You develop no properties. You own nothing. GROTH: Not even a pension. KANE: No pension. No medical coverage. In those days, nothing.

KURTZMAN: Now you’re talking about [Julius] Schwartz and [Robert] Kanigher? KANE: Right. It didn’t mean anything if you were good. Because I saw Severin go flying out of Kanigher’s office, followed by his pages, having turned in a perfectly competent job. I saw Wood doing one job for DC, a war job, and that’s all he did because Kanigher tore him to pieces. GROTH: On the other hand, Gil, don’t you believe in the supreme authority of the editor?

Harvey Kurtzman


KANE: Well, all I’m saying … come on. Yes, I believe that, for the most part, comics work best when someone has a focused idea about where and how the material should go, because I was firmly convinced early on that most artists become so preoccupied with learning the techniques and the abstractions of drawing that they really don’t have anything consequential to say as writers. Most comics writers are people who have failed at other levels of writing and have funneled down to comic-book writing. Believe me, the editors were all simply people who failed at radio, at pulp, at all the other things they had done. We have a new generation of comic-book writers now. Primarily, writers were artists who weren’t good enough to be artists, so they in turn became writers. In any case, what I wanted to say was that it was miserable in those days, because, in many cases, not only up at DC, but in most of the places that I worked, they used to humiliate you. They would watch their P’s and Q’s with people they valued and thought were great. But most of the guys, they treated like trash. AUDIENCE MEMBER: What was the reason for this? KANE: Because jobs were hard to get. I’m telling you: It happened to Severin, it could happen to anybody. GROTH: Also, it kept you in a perpetually subservient position. KANE: Absolutely. I mean, they browbeat Severin so badly, he once came out of there with tears welling up in his eyes, and he didn’t say a word; he just stood there and took it. He did two or three more war jobs for Kanigher and then Cracked or something got started, and I think he just disappeared entirely for several years. He used to surface periodically at Marvel, at Western, at Charlton. He could have worked at other places that paid two


Sparring With Gil Kane

or three times the rate, but he couldn’t stand the pressure. GROTH: Let me ask both of you: At that time, did either of you have the wherewithal to feel demeaned by these conditions? Or were you so young and enthusiastic you overlooked it? KANE: For me, personally, the repudiation is what dedicated me to reading. I used to feel absolutely defenseless when Kanigher would just whip me around that room. I wasn’t articulate enough to take care of myself. It was like dealing with a bully all the time. When I first gave him what was the equivalent of a verbal bloody nose, it was only as the result of going home for years and reading and reading and building up information. GROTH: An intellectual Rocky. KANE: Absolutely. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. That’s what the hell this goddamned business does: It becomes the basis for taking care of yourself, for arming yourself, for equipping yourself to deal with the world. And I wasn’t equipped. When I first started working there, I was a kid. And I had no experience with people like Kanigher. It was deadly to realize that this guy just enjoyed working you over. GROTH: Harvey, how did you feel? KURTZMAN: Well, I didn’t have the same experience that Gil speaks of because I didn’t approach the same editors in the same pattern. I saw Bill Gaines, and I was there to stay for the next 100 years. I didn’t have the experience of knocking on doors. Even though I did my share of that, it was a long time ago, a brief period in my life. About the only two editors that I’m aware of as having touched me and my sensibilities was Stan Lee, who I did a fair amount of work for, and Bill Gaines and Al Feld-

John Severin and Will Elder, “Buzz Bomb,” Two-Fisted Tales #25, January–February 1952.

stein. Or more specifically, Bill Gaines. And that was my editor experience. It always bothered me that I never owned anything. GROTH: Did you find that it was a demeaning relationship?

KANE: One of the big differences between Harvey and myself is that Harvey was very good very early on. I met Harvey when I was a teenager. The first time I saw him work, it just knocked me on my ass. It discouraged me so. KURTZMAN: Gil is easy to please.

KURTZMAN: Well, it wasn’t so much demeaning as depressing. There was no sense of security. And I wanted security that was untouchable. And Gaines, of course, offered me the security of Papa Gaines. But he always reserved the right to the last word, which is OK for him, but I always took great exception to that old system, and I still do.

GROTH: I’m sorry. We’re going to have to cut this off. There’s a panel in five minutes. AUDIENCE MEMBER: We have a Marvel Trivia panel here in about four or five minutes. GROTH: How could you do that to these guys?

Harvey Kurtzman


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