Humbug (Harvey Kurtzman) - Humbug Publishing - 1957

The immediate, post-Mad efforts of Harvey Kurtzman (1957-1958) were interesting, if not successful alternatives to Mad.  The 468 pages in thirteen issues of Trump (2) and Humbug (11) are excellent examples of the classic humor of the era.  After Hugh Hefner closed his wallet, Kurtzman continued on a shoestring with basically the same staff.  He took two giants from Mad (Will Elder and Jack Davis), added three future stars (Al Jaffee, Larry Siegel and Arnold Roth), got a little help from comic veterans (Wallace Wood and Russ Heath) and got some more help from some of his other friends (Roger Price, Stan Freberg, Mel Brooks, Doodles Weaver and Ira Wallach).

He wrote some terrific stories and made some terrible editorial decisions.  I do not believe that Kurtzman was ever able to separate the two functions.  He had some help in the Trump/Humbug days from Jaffee and Roth, both of whom delivered completed articles that required very little work from the editor.  For their efforts, Harvey gave them the title: "Assistant Editor."

The quality of the humor in these thirteen issues was certainly better than many of the Mad issues of the same period, but few people knew about this (including me at the time).  Whereas Trump and Humbug were absent from many newsstands, they also suffered from nearly non-existent cover art that buried them behind the great art of Mad's Norman Mingo and Frank Kelly Freas.  Only three issues of Humbug (#4, #6 and #7) had covers to attract new readers.

Thirteen months after his last issue of Mad and five months after the last issue of Trump, Harvey Kurtzman presented Humbug #1 which could have been Mad #31 in a parallel universe.  Will Elder and Jack Davis played major roles with excellent drawings of Kurtzman's movie, television and advertising parodies.  Wallace Wood penned one page plus a terrific self-portrait, his last work for Kurtzman.  As publisher, Kurtzman still had trouble with cover art ideas but the contents were excellent.  "Doll-Baby" and "Twenty-Win" could have appeared in any issue of Mad.  Will Elder gave us at least 75 caricatures in the great parody of Around the World in 80 Days.  The small Humbug format did not do justice to the excellent Elder drawings.  Can you imagine the volume of humor art that Elder would have produced if he had stayed with Mad?  We lost at least 40 years of his inspired lunacy.

By issue number three, Kurtzman was in the groove with another comic magazine.  Humbug #3 presented a movie parody ("O.K. Corrall"), a television parody ("You Are There Then"), three ad parodies, several illustrated short features, text fillers by Siegel and Wallach, and a letters page.  The major feature of the issue was the five-page article on highways by Al Jaffee.  Unlike the 23 Mad comics, Kurtzman had considerable writing help from talented humorists like Jaffee and Siegel.  The format was set but how long would it be before Kurtzman would want to change it?

Humbug #4 presented two magazine parodies: the cover (Time parody) and "Consumer Retorts" written by Mad-superwriter, Larry Siegel.  The cover was the best yet with Victoria on Jack Bailey's Queen for a Day.  The movie parody ("The Cannon with the Passion") is a classic Kurtzman-Elder collaboration.  As good as the post-Kurtzman Mad was to become, it never approached the craziness of Harvey and Will.

By the fifth issue, Kurtzman was showing signs of running out of ideas and almost missing deadlines.  Humbug #5 included two recycled Mad parodies: "Bofforin" (Mad #24) and "Confidentially" (Mad #26).

Humbug #6 was the best Christmas issue by Kurtzman.  He ended it with a six-page, updated Dickens tale that ends with Humbug staff caricatures by Arnold Roth.  The cover by Davis was also great and Elder fans were treated to his amazing interpretation of a game show parody.

 The launching of the Russian Sputnik satellite was such an event (October 4, 1957) not to be ignored by a humor magazine (or comic book).  The Mad ("Sputnik Issue") was number 38 (March 1958) that was probably on the newsstands at the same time as Humbug #7.  Kurtzman had the better cover.  The Kurtzman-Elder "Frankenstien" is wonderful; Larry Siegel's "Hamlet" primer is a classic; and the Kurtzman-Davis western parodies are excellent.

The major part of Humbug #8 was the car magazine parody ("The Greese Pit") which utilized the artistic talents of Davis, Roth, Heath and Kurtzman, and the writing talent of Siegel.  The magazine parody and the Kurtzman-Elder parody of Jailhouse Rock are the best of the issue.

Humbug #9 was the last of 44 classic satire comic books (Mad #1-23, Panic #1-12 and Humbug #1-9) that were all published in the 1950s.

Humbug #10 was bigger but not better.  It was still 32 pages and a cover but the cover was a big mistake.  Once again Kurtzman underestimated the importance of an attractive cover.  The first Humbug magazine featured a clever little photo joke that looked like a fashion magazine cover.  For a newer magazine-sized periodical on the newsstand, this was not the image that would win the quarters of teenage boys.

Missing from issue number ten were the classic movie and color comic strip parodies.  The major article was the seven-page parody of a gardening guide.  There seemed to be a lot of filler in this one with only half of the pages showing the creative drawings of his talented staff.  The highlight of the issue was the photograph of Stan Freberg on the subscription ad.

By popular demand, the second and last issue of Humbug magazine was expanded from 32 pages to a Mad-sized 48 pages.  But was it really an expansion?  The last issue included 16 pages reprinted from Trump (with permission from HMH), four pages copied from Gulliver's Travels and four pages of letters.  The amount of new material in Humbug #11 was actually reduced from 34 pages (including cover but not letters and ads) to 29 pages.  The cover was red.

In retrospect, some of Kurtzman's editorial decisions were disappointing.  He crammed 21 excellent drawings by Elder ("Randan") into two pages.  This should have been a four- or five-page article.  He also took 38 drawings by Davis ("T.V. Titles") and reduced them to fit three pages.  In 1958, Harvey Kurtzman needed someone to tell him that Will Elder and Jack Davis were the stars of the show.  [JAM archive]