Humbug's 1958 collapse, arrived at within a year of its first publication, is often attributed to the magazine's lo-fi production specs: cheap paper, cheap printing, two colors, short cut. "We turned out this incredible magazine which had the most beautiful artwork we'd ever done, the most carefully crafted stories and layouts," Kurtzman later mused, "and we printed the whole thing on toilet paper! A terrible mistake! The format was a disaster."
Comparing intricate original pages like Jack Davis's "Sputniks!" and "Cigar Store Indian 1957" here to their crummy printed versions, it's hard to disagree. The shoddy reproduction of the latter so obscured Davis's signature that one careful Humbug scholar even misattributed the page to Russ Heath. Humbug's 15-cent premium price clearly wasn't driven by premium production quality.
From an ephemeralist's perspective, however, the merits of Kurtzman's production concept for Humbug are indisputable -- it was a scheme that, after all, afforded Humbug's artist-publishers the opportunity to ship eleven issues of the damn thing, negligible newsstand sales notwithstanding.
Recall that Kurtzman's prior effort, Trump, was every bit as lavish as Humbug was lousy, and thereby managed to last all of two issues. Were it not for Kurtzman's excessively prudent production management in 1957, we surely wouldn't have two volumes worth of Humbug reprints to slobber over in 2009.
Harvey may have disdained Humbug's print quality, but the comic's format was the least of their problems. The declining economy that had driven Hugh Hefner's bankers to call in their loans in 1957 had by 1958 sunk into the most serious recession since the Great Depression. The idea of jump-starting a monthly satire comic as a for-profit artist-collective during such an economic climate itself reads like a gag.
Given the truly hopeless odds stacked against them, I'm just happily astonished that Humbug's founding partners -- Harvey Kurtzman, Arnold Roth, Jack Davis, Will Elder, and Al Jaffee -- were reckless enough to even try. (You can be sure their wives never let them forget it.)
Another benefit of Humbug's shoddy production, limited distribution, and compact 11-issue run, I must admit, is that it makes for an irresistible lure to comic obscurantists. It was my good fortune to be an upstanding member of that cohort, steadily accumulating battered copies on eBay throughout 1997 and 1998, before I lucked into the Humbug archives themselves in 1999. Having assembled a nice collection of reading copies, I had at least some idea of the pieces I was looking for.
Besides covers, I focused on splash pages instead of multi-page stories. Davis's Cigar Store Indian I remembered from the San Francisco Comic Book Museum's 1995 Kurtzman exhibit, and it was easily on top of my list on the basis of sheer technical virtuosity. Some pages stood out for having still relevant brands and themes: Cadillac, Philip Morris, Sputnik, the Space Race. The coolest piece I found was probably the smallest -- the Humbug family portrait from the back cover of Humbug #3, with each of them holding a miniature rendition of that issue.
In addition to the Humbug pages, notice also the amazing Vienna nightscape Harvey Kurtzman did for Esquire Magazine in 1960. For all the accolades Kurtzman's won over the years, he's still never got his due for his pioneering work as a cartoon journalist. The magazine feature this scratchboard masterpiece came from, "Vienna: Three Views," was the result of an assignment Harvey got from Esquire editor Harold Hayes to visit the Austrian set of the Franz Liszt biopic Song Without End, his third such movie set visit for the magazine.
I'm listing this Kurtzman original on eBay along with the Humbug pages for the simple, improbable reason that I actually have doubles of it. As fate would have it, Harvey had a false start on this project, and completed a more overwrought version of this illustration before he began again fresh with a less busily cross-hatched approached. Because I happen to prefer the rough draft, I'm placing this version, the finished version as published in Esquire's June 1960 issue, up for sale. They're both jaw-dropping.
Your friendly neighborhood funny-book dealer,
Jan. 22, 2009