Friday, January 7, 2011
preview: PBS's PIONEERS OF TELEVISION: SF and Friday's "Forgotten" Books: THE ART OF HARVEY KURTZMAN by Kitchen & Buhle (Abrams 2009)
So, lets deal with some attempts to celebrate some icons. The PBS series Pioneers of Television, which will be bumping the science-documentary series Nova over to Wednesdays for a couple of months starting on 18 January, returns for its second short season with an episode devoted theoretically to the pioneers of televised science fiction, at least in the US...a task which it slights pretty dismally, since it utterly fails to mention such 1950s series as Tales of Tomorrow or Science Fiction Theater, or even the relatively famous kiddie shows Captain Video (that stalwart of the DuMont network, which employed actual sf writers to do scripts, oddly enough) and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. Instead, it focuses almost exclusively on Gene Roddenberry and Star Trek, Irwin Allen and Lost in Space (never quite managing to make clear that the similarly bad Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea preceded Lost onto the airwaves by a year, albeit mentioning this series and even interviewing a cast member from The Time Tunnel, apparently the most expensive of Allen's terrible quartet of '60s skiffy embarrassments), and then doubles back to Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone. Only actors are interviewed, though a bit of the footage of a famous (and much YouTubed) Serling interview, conducted by sf writer and lit professor James Gunn, is used as well, with Roddenberry and Allen represented in re-enactments at least as much as by still photos (I suspect for the cost of those cutesy re-enactments, any rights-fee questions could've been settled for any taped or filmed interviews with Roddenberry or Allen). The ST material is almost all likely to be familiar, as it is to me as a casual fan of the series and a devout fan of some of the sf writers who wrote for it (Robert Bloch, Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, et al.--and Fredric Brown's classic story "Arena" was laughably poorly adapted for the hissing lizard-man episode), though Leonard Nimoy and to some extent Nichelle Nichols come off well in their interview segments (no attempt made, apparently, to sit down with George Takei, Walter Koenig, or any of the surviving off-camera talent). The usual misrepresentations of ST's pioneering of such matters as The "Interracial" Kiss--France Nuyen and Robert Culp had taken care of that in I Spy a season or so before, if indeed they were the first, either (and they actually kissed, rather than more or less rubbed faces), or of pioneering the use of metaphors for dealing with similar taboo subjects...when even the documentary itself has mentioned Roddenberry's previous series, the 1963-64 NBC cop show The Lieutenant, had broached at least some of these matters...and it typically manages to forget the rather more famous 1963-64 series East Side, West Side both in this context and as an example of a series with a recurring African-American woman character, Cicely Tyson's social-worker, who was not a domestic or otherwise blatantly stereotypical. To say nothing of utterly punting recognition of the sometimes effective, sometimes clumsy attempts to address such matters on The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits (which series is Never mentioned here). At least Bill Mumy, Angela Cartwright, and Marta Kristensen are rather down to Earth about the utter goofiness of their series, Lost in Space, and again as a casual observer of media fandom I've heard less from them over the years (though they were clearly moved by a years-later visit to the Kennedy Space Center, where some of the scientists and technicians told them that their series had inspired the Floridans in their childhood to consider astronautics-oriented careers). Aside from Serling, only Veronica Cartwright (two sisters, no waiting...she was a child actor in the TZ adaptation of Ray Bradbury's "I Sing the Body Electric"), William Shatner, Peter Graves (albeit he mostly refers to his Corman film work) and Mumy (of course, his star-making child-actor turn in the adaptation of Jerome Bixby's "It's a Good Life--") are interviewed for the Serling series, and only brief mention is made of his later work, though at least they do cite some of his earlier, notable teleplays, such as "Requiem for a Heavyweight," and they run a bit of "Patterns." They cite how Bradbury was annoyed by an elision of a scene in the episode's final form, leading to a falling out between Bradbury and Serling, but, aside from a casual reference to Richard Matheson, they manage not to cite any of the other "Little Bradburys" who wrote for the series, such as William F. Nolan (whom Matthew Bradley notes in a comment below never saw his contributed script produced) or the series' best writer, Charles Beaumont (whom Bradley notes was ghosted in some of his last credited work, as his health failed, by Jerry Sohl). There are good bits, here and there, again mostly from the less self-important actors (the script, as narrated by Kelsey Grammer, even attempts to make a virtue of Shatner's take-ruining and scene-stealing), but this is a very poor showing for a series that has been a somewhat superficial but reasonably accurate historical survey in its previous episodes (I'll be reviewing the subsequent new episodes soon, devoted to crime and western drama). And it certainly notes the pressures from the network suits, for Serling to dumb things down, for Allen to go campy (which he gleefully did), and for Roddenberry to emulate Allen (or the unmentioned Outer Limits) and get more monsters on board (the multicolored womenoids, almost all hot for Kirk, apparently not quite enough exotica). And it wraps up with a pronouncement, plummily intoned by Grammer, that TZ was the best-written series in television history, a claim neither Serling nor any reasonable judge would make, even if we took only the Beaumont episodes into consideration; even Bill Mumy, in calling it the best tv series so far, isn't nearly as sweepingly wrong.
Meanwhile, I'm breaking my "rule" again here and am featuring a book that's still in print, albeit it might not be for long, and it certainly turns up a wealth of material from magazines and books that are harder to find. Comics historians Denis Kitchen (a comics artist and publisher, and executor of Kurtzman's estate) and Paul Buhle (a Brown University historian with particular interest in comics and Judaica) have produced a slightly stilted but reasonably informative and beautifully illustrated biography/Festschrift of Harvey Kurtzman, whose career was at least as spectacular in publishing as Serling's in electronic media, his influence at least as great, his ultimate disappointment with the shape of his career probably at least as heartbreaking to him. From his earliest comics aspirations and early one-page humorous strips, "Hey Look!", for Atlas/Timely Comics (which would become Marvel), through his revolutionizing war comics at EC while that house was coming to the fore with its similarly challenging horror titles, and then out-challenging everyone in that business when Mad, which he wrote and designed nearly every aspect of from founding in 1952 to 1956, became a huge success and the only title to long survive the attacks on EC from without (driven by such rabble-rousing as Frederic Wertham's distorting "study" The Seduction of the Innocent--which, it should be noted, was more focused on crime-fiction comics than even the horror titles) and within the comics industry (notably from the triumvirate, including Columbia pulp-line owner Louis Silberkleit, who published Archie Comics, and resented enormously and litigiously Kurtzman's parodies of their cash-cow throughout the decades)...and became, in the course of that success, ever more ambitious and rule-breaking (even the reformatted black-and-white Ballantine collections from the early years of Mad didn't adequately give a sense of all the elegances and innovations of the standard-sized, richly-colored comic book it was, the authors note, and how thrilled Kurtzman was when the title was remade, briefly, into a slick-paper, 8.5 x 11" magazine--the dimensions remain the same through today, but the paper was downgraded not long after). But Kurtzman's desire to continue to run Mad according to his vision was far less practically possible once it was no longer part of a profitable stable, but the sole EC publication, and publisher William Gaines was unwilling to turn it essentially completely over to Kurtzman...who then left, and much of Mad's glory left with him.
Kurtzman already had a fan in Hugh Hefner, who offered an opportunity to do a fully-slick, full-color, more "adult" humor magazine, and a few more artists, such as Arnold Roth, signed on along with a core of his staff from Mad for the two issues produced of Trump. Then a credit-line crunch, partly in the aftermath of the American News Company magazine-distributor dismemberment, slapped around the Playboy Enterprises cashflow and Hefner was, essentially, forced to fold Trump despite excellent sales; a core group of Kurtzman and his ex-Mad and -Trump cronies banded together to produce Humbug!, an inexpensive (from the distributors' point of view, probably Too inexpensive) small-format comic, which lasted for about a year and a half, from '57-'58; Kurtzman and his collaborators scrambled pretty hard for the next year or so, but received interesting assignments from such slick magazines as Playboy, Esquire, and Pageant, and Kurtzman published with Ballantine an all-original paperback comics collection, Harvey Kurtzman's Jungle Book (1958). In 1960, Kurtzman's fourth and last satire magazine emerged; James Warren, doing well with Famous Monsters of Filmland and its stablemates, was willing to partner on the release of Help! magazine, again in large-sized format but, if anything, on as much a shoestring budget as Humbug! had been. But Help! was about as important a snag in pop-culture history as Kurztman's Mad had been, reuniting most of the old crew from the previous three magazines, at least for occasional contributions, and adding such folks as Robert Sheckley, Ray Bradbury, Gahan Wilson, Serling and Algis Budrys mostly as script/text contributors, along with occasional work in this wise by the likes of Orson Bean, who also, like such up-and-coming comics and actors as Woody Allen and John Cleese (the latter in New York with an Oxbridge Fringe-inspired troupe), would star in the photos used in "fumetti" strips--similar to comic strips, with speech balloons coming from the actors in the photos. Also, for the first year of the magazine, rather more famous comedians and actors, ranging from Ernie Kovacs to Mort Sahl to Tom Poston, posed for humorous cover photos; most of these folks were apparently convinced to do so by assistant editor Gloria Steinem, just beginning her magazine-production career. She left after the first year, but was soon replaced by a promising young Midwestern cartoonist, Terry Gilliam, who was in place when Cleese was employed for his photo shoot; this would result in their mutual participation in Monty Python's Flying Circus when Gilliam moved to England to avoid the Draft in the latter '60s. Other Kurtzman-inspired young cartoonists, including Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton, contributed to the magazine in various ways; Crumb even a had a bit-role in a fumetti, as well as debuting Fritz the Cat in Help!. But the constant budget restrictions Warren offered, as well as his caving in quickly to the again-outraged Archie Comics folks after Kurtzman's recurring character Goodman Beaver had an adventure which thoroughly mocked Archie and company again, led to discontent...and the magazine folded in 1965. Beaver, a somewhat Candide-like figure (with an ambiguously provocative name) was pitched to Playboy, which countered with a desire to have Beaver become a female character, and the strips to have a fair amount of cheesecake in them, and thus was born Little Annie Fanny, who would be a prime source of income for Kurtzman and his usual partner on the strip Will Elder for nearly three decades. Other activities came and went, but Annie went on forever (and oddly rather resembles actress Loni Anderson, not on the scene in the early '60s, but who might've patterned her look after the character a bit).
But Kurtzman also had opportunities to teach, and see his work influence further generations of comics and comix artists, who understandably lionized him; his early projects in graphic novels were mostly stymied, aside from the collection of Goodman Beaver from Macfadden and the Ballantine original book, and best-ofs his magazines with Ballantine (Mad comics, Humbug!) and Fawcett Gold Medal (Help!). Kitchen and Buhle note that the kind of graphic novel he wanted to do, and did manage, in relatively short form, to see one impressive example published, reprinted here in color from The Saturday Evening Post, wouldn't be too common until after Will Eisner's A Contract with God appeared in 1978, and not popular nor critically acclaimed till the likes of Art Spiegelman's Maus in the next decade--true unless you take into account such works as Walt Kelly and Jules Feiffer were publishing in the 1950s and later. But it's a very handsome book and does some innovative presentations of unpublished and work-in-progress from Kurtzman and his collaborators. You would do well to supplement it as a history with such items as the Fantagraphics complete reprint of Humbug! (and its accompanying interviews) and their collection of interviews with Kurtzman, reprinted from their critical magazine The Comics Journal, but this is a valuable book. Even if Harry Shearer's witty, bitter intro is too short to be so prominently advertised.
Please see Patti Abbott's blog for more of today's "forgotten" books...