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Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Humbug (2 Volume Set) (Humor)

by Harvey Kurtzman, Jack Davis, Will Elder, Al Jaffee, Arnold Roth

Publisher: Fantagraphics; 1 edition (March 23, 2009)

Hardcover 476 Pages

Finished 11/15/2017

Amazon Listing  



“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 magazines.” - Harvey Kurtzman
After the commercial failure of his Jungle Book (which I reviewed here) and Hugh Hefner pulling the plug on his glossy magazine Trump (which I will review in the future) after two issues, Harvey Kurtzman had an idea for another Mad clone. This one was a little different however, it was a creator owned humor magazine run by the original staff that made Mad great: Kurtzman himself, Bill Elder, Al Jaffee (who went onto the create the Mad fold out back page), Wally Wood, Jack Davis, Arnold Roth, and Larry Siegel. If any of those name are unfamiliar to you, their work probably isn’t. If you have read a Mad magazine from the later half of the twentieth century or enjoyed any of the old EC horror comics, then you have more than likely seen their material.

Like his previous hit, Humbug satirizes every aspect of American life from sports, to politics, to films, to television, to music, to the idiosyncrasies of American life at that time. Again this is all very similar to Mad, in fact more than similar. In all intents and purposes, it was Mad by another name. So why did it fail after eleven issues?
It failed primarily because all of the people that were involved were writers, artists, and creators,- not businessmen. Financially, they were on shaky ground from the get-go and the market had reached saturation point for magazines earlier in the previous year. Several big name periodicals had gone under, so what chance did a new magazine, a clone of a more popular one, have? Additionally, the size of the magazine presented a problem. Halfway between a comic and a magazine, it didn’t fit with the comics and easily got lost amongst its larger brethren. It was mostly black & white and priced at fifteen cents, whereas most comics were ten cents and full color. Even with the best material at the time, it wasn’t enough.

Reading it now, some sixty years after its first publication, fills me with mixed feelings. The art is excellent, particularly anything done here by Al Jaffee, Bill Elder, or Jack Davis. It is some of the best they’ve ever done but what dates this book is that the humor is too topical. It is trying too hard to rise above being a labeled a Mad magazine rip-off, so it uses a lot of topical humor . However, topical humor is the type of humor that goes stale the fastest. They do include annotations in the second volume explaining what the parody is off, but that dulls the humor rather than accenting it. When you have to explain the joke, it ceases to be funny. And there are just too many references to Confidential (A gossip mag), Sputnik, Dave Beck (Teamster’s Union boss prior to Jimmy Hoffa), and so on.

When dealing with parody there tends to be two types. The first takes the source material and does a funny take on it that stands alone, as in the source is not really needed. Monty Python and Mr. Show did this best. Secondly, there are the parodies which are only funny if you have a passing familiarity with the source material. WIthout that, the entire piece falls flat. This is not something unique to Humbug. A lot of  humor falls by the wayside. Even the still running Mad magazine has a lot of material in its old issues that is stale. From that perspective, you should look at Humbug as a slice of history, a written relic of its time. While it isn’t as humorous as it once was, it still has value of the old days.


           For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

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