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Two-Fisted Truth 

Harvey Kurtzman and the birth of Cold War comics

Thursday, Jan 2 2003
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In the course of creating seven powerful Korean War stories in the early Fifties, a New York City “red diaper” baby by the name of Harvey Kurtzman, only 26 years old, effectively invented a new pop genre which we are free to call Cold War comic-book noir. In so doing, more than a decade before the Vietnam War, he helped to change how a new generation began to think about war.

Kurtzman was born in Brooklyn in 1924. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Russia whose lives had been defined by the weight and consequence of their faith, and by the earth-shaking experiments in Communist self-rule which were taking place in their native Russia.

By 1924, the Bolshevik Revolution had begun to travel the globe. It was brought to New York City by men and women much like Harvey Kurtzman‘s parents. In the year of Kurtzman’s birth, the Communist Party in the USA ran William Z. Foster, a Wobbly journalist from Seattle and the son of an Irish peasant from County Carlow, for the office of president of the United States. Two years later, the party threw its full might behind the textile-mill strikes in Passaic, New Jersey. In the neighborhoods of Kurtzman‘s youth and for a small but significant number of Americans, communism and its ideals had become commonplace.

But Kurtzman himself had little use for this new ideology. He had already found a religion, in the Sunday pages of the major New York City newspapers. By the time he was old enough to draw, Kurtzman was a convert to the funny papers. On the streets of Brooklyn, literally, he created his first four-panel serial. It was called “Ikey and Mikey,” and Kurtzman drew it every afternoon after school.

“The kids became interested,” Kurtzman later recalled. “But, by the next morning, it would be gone, washed away by a sanitation truck or by rain. Then all the kids would ask me what Ikey and Mikey were going to do next. Even the grown-ups on the block would ask, so I knew I was good. And that was my first comic strip.”

In Manhattan, after high school, Kurtzman went to work for the man who became his first real mentor in the comic-book business.

Louis Goodman Ferstadt (1900--1954) -- or just Lou Ferstadt to those who only knew him as a cartoonist -- was a talented painter respected enough to be collected by the Whitney; and accomplished enough to create murals at the RCA Building and the Eighth Street Subway for the 1939 World’s Fair. During the years when Harvey Kurtzman first went to work for him at his studio, Ferstadt was also a political activist, committed enough to draw a regular comic strip for the leading Communist newspaper in the United States, the Daily Worker.

“My grandfather was a lifelong Communist,” Ferstadt‘s grandson Jerry Graham recently wrote. “He came to New York from the Ukraine before the Soviets rose to power. I believe his first language was Yiddish rather than Russian.” To Harvey Kurtzman, Lou Ferstadt must have seemed like a lost uncle. Most importantly for young Harvey, Ferstadt actually made his living by creating strange and fascinating narrative-picture poems called comic strips for this new thing called the comic book, which had been invented only a few years before.

Working for Ferstadt in the early ’40s, Harvey Kurtzman penned his first published comic-book serial, a truly wonderful and goofy strip called “Magno and Davey.” He also took over a “Lash” Lightning feature for Sure-Fire Comics, both of which were published by the Ace comic-book group.

The influence of the Ferstadt years surfaced for Kurtzman when he began to edit and write two of his three great EC comic books in the ‘50s, Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat. His third great EC book, of course, was Mad.

As editor, Kurtzman wrote all of the stories to appear in these two series; the best of these, though, were the seven stories which Kurtzman also decided to draw. Those seven stories changed the history of American comics. The anti-war politics for which these stories became famous is clearly traceable back to Kurtzman’s parents, Uncle Lou and the neighborhoods of Kurtzman‘s youth. Four of those seven stories -- “Kill,” “Contact!,” “Prisoner of War” and “Air Burst” -- remain remarkable today for the way they stand in contrast to the jingoistic efforts that typified comic books of that era.

Kurtzman’s war stories were the very first to be dominated by psychopaths and racists, portrayed as psychopaths and racists, and not as all-American red, white and blue heroes. Madmen alone thrive, Kurtzman‘s stories argued, when the cap comes off the bottle and war fever seizes command. Kurtzman’s other three Korean War stories, “Rubble,” “Conflict on the Imjin” and “The Big ‘If,’” are among the most brilliantly constructed, carefully observed stories ever created for this medium. In recent years, only works such as Art Spiegelman‘s MAUS and, to a lesser extent, Joe Sacco’s Palestine and Gorazde speak to the complex truths of this madness which Kurtzman‘s Korean War stories first confronted.

Speaking about his accomplishment shortly before his death in 1993, Kurtzman suggested that it was the emphasis on realism which seemed to change everything. He was right, of course, and yet it was a realism of a kind, a period realism, which succeeded in turning everything on its head. The world of Harvey Kurtzman’s war stories is roughly the same world that can be found in early Jim Thompson novels or in the best films of blacklisted Hollywood film-noir directors of the time. It is interesting to note that the first of Kurtzman‘s Korean War stories was published the same year that Hollywood released films such as The Big Night, Detective Story, Strangers on a Train, The Racket and I Was a Communist for the FBI. The next year -- Kurtzman’s second and final year as the editor of both Frontline Combat and Two-Fisted Tales -- Hollywood followed with dozens of others in the same vein, including Beware, My Lovely; Clash by Night; Kansas City Confidential; Scandal Sheet and The Turning Point.

In the name of this New Realism, a strange, queasy, post-atomic feeling rose up in this country, and began to seep through the pores of all of our popular arts. Throughout America, the true impact of the Cold War had arrived in all of its horror. Kurtzman brought these feelings with him to the comics. Certain old faiths may well have failed, but we have not yet banished these feelings, or this madness. As the desert floors of Iraq now open before us, they seem as bleak as any landscape we ever found in Korea; it is easy to see how Harvey Kurtzman‘s war stories still speak to us from the point of view of tomorrow.

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