Saturday, 9 May 2015

Kurtzman Speaks!

Harvey Kurtzman (2012)
Portrait by Drew Friedman
(from Following Cerebus #3, 2005)
There are snapshot moments in my mind, associated with each of the interviews I did for the Now & Then Times and for Comic Art News & Reviews (CANAR). In the case of Harvey Kurtzman, the man most responsible for the introduction of parody into the comic book field, it was a common room some distance from the one-day Fancons that Marty Herzog was staging at the time at Toronto's York University (whose Winters College had already been the site of larger three-day Cosmicons). Adding to the physical distance was the turn-out of many York students for Kurtzman's talk. I really wondered how he would do, what the mainstream audience reaction would be to a cartoonist who wasn't exactly a household name. I had my tape recorder ready to go and was seated against the wall to Kurtzman's left as he began...

Kurtzman Speaks
Comic Art News & Reviews #25, September 1974, edited by John Balge
(Click image to enlarge)

After a nice round of applause, Kurtzman was guided out of the common room to a place in the hall that had been set aside for him to sign autographs. Somewhere along the line, I had already asked if I could interview him, and he said sure. When he got to his table, he informed me that he would be doing an interview for the York University student newspaper first, which was conducted by a young female student. It was an interesting experience sitting and watching him sign autographs and do quick sketches of Little Annie Fanny for fans and students waiting in line. I would say that only Sergio Aragones could match him for quickness and the variety of his sketches.

Anyway, the student who was interviewing him had only a pad and pencil with her and wrote sporadic notes as Kurtzman answered what I remembered being largely political questions of the sort that you would expect from a student in the mid-seventies, with many digressions and (not unexpectedly) an undercurrent of flirtation. I began to despair of getting to do my interview, as Kurtzman's answers got longer and longer, and the student had long since stopped writing anything down. Finally, as he signed the last few autographs and did the last few sketches, it was my turn. At that point, between the talk and the student interview, he was pretty well "talked out", as you can see from his first few answers. He opened up a little bit as we went along, but, at one point when I attempted to ask a follow-up, he stabbed my list of prepared questions with his forefinger very emphatically and indicated that I stick to those. This I dutifully proceeded to do.

Harvey Kurtzman Interview
Comic Art News & Reviews #25, September 1974, edited by John Balge
(Click images to enlarge)
I think he was pleasantly surprised when he finally saw the special Kurtzman issue of Comic Art News & Reviews. He sent a short note to John Balge printed in the next issue:
Dear John Balge, Where has CANAR been all my life? I especially enjoyed the Andy Capp inteview. Smythe must be quite a guy.
...Three years before I began work on the first issue of Cerebus, I was already beginning to assess what would and wouldn't work in a humour comic book. I was pretty sure that the Kurtzman and Elder approach had been milked dry, and I suspected that the key was in balancing the writing and the art and making both as funny as possible.

I wonder if the interview conducted by the university student ever saw print.

1 comment:

Paul Slade said...

Al Capp, the creator of L'il Abner, was a big fan of Reg Smythe and his work on Andy Cap too.

In a 1973 Saturday Evening Post interview, Capp said the world Smythe drew was "as solid and persuasive as Norman Rockwell's". He also called him "the most popular English humorist with Americans since Charles Dickens".

More details here: