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posted September 11, 2013
Harvey Kurtzman, Jack Davis, Al Jaffee, RO Blechman, WIll Elder, Larry Siegel, Arnold Roth
Humbug Publications, comic book, 36 pages, May 1958, 15 cents.
Not to in any way denigrate the minor miracle that was Fantagraphics' recent, laudable re-publication of the Humbug
comics in collected form, I have to admit it's wonderful to occasionally encounter work like this in its original form: in this case, an honest-to-god comic book. The copy I'm reading was purchased by a friend of mine at a comic book convention last year for $60. That sounds like a lot -- and it is -- but seeing as I bought a mainstream comic book starring superhero space adventures for $5 earlier this week it's not an unbelievably luxurious experience to plunge into a funnybook like this one. It doesn't register as something decadent or wrong. Humbug
#9 feels fragile and lonely; it provides a cold embrace. There's a joke inside its pages about a move to magazine format where the comic will no longer be ignored among the comic books and is choosing instead to be ignored among the coloring books. That's the kind of acidic appraisal of market realities I tend to think of as a 1990s-2000s mindset. The memory of Kurtzman-era MAD
hangs over the entire affair, like it or not. If this were a concert by a second musical group rising from the ashes of an all-time band you might find yourself shouting your favorites into its pages.
It's fine, fun, comic book, though, full of exquisitely drafted drawings -- from Arnold Roth and Al Jaffee in particular, at least to my reading. Kurtzman and his creative partners have continued their assault here, an attack begun from several camps in the years stretching all the way back to World War 2 that the media apparatus and those that benefit from the message promoted therein? Those folks are lying to you. The drier edge to the satire, the lack of junk
appeal, seems to me a move away from the strategy employed by many satirists over the last six decades to make their material palatable to the exact kinds of people they'd like to criticize. Humbug
#9 is chillier and, in a way, braver. It's easy to see why this specific approach didn't have an extended run as a sales success. There is nothing gleeful in these pages, except maybe some of the flourishes of drawing. It feels like the work of someone that knows how quickly the subjects of satire adopt elements of early criticism in order to change and stay ahead of more damning indictments further down the road. If individual issues of MAD
invited the reader in with blinking, doe eyes before locking folks into a ruthless stare, an issue of Humbug
never makes eye contact at all. There are several moments here that feel like they were read over the shoulders of smart, talented men. That's not a reading experience everyone will enjoy, but I found it affecting.