Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Hey Look!

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Hey Look! (Kitchen Sink, 1992).

When I was still writing Reprint This!, I learned about Harvey Kurtzman's very silly comic page from the late 1940s. It was called Hey Look! and it ran sporadically in whatever humor or romance or funny animal comic published by Timely that needed an additional page of story that month. Kurtzman just churned the heck out of these filler pages for about three years. There were a few sample strips included in the wonderful Art of Harvey Kurtzman (Abrams, 2009) and I found them silly and charming. I was all set to scan those pages and write up a feature about it, when I got bored with Reprint This! and I learned that Kitchen Sink had already compiled all the material anyway.

A few months ago, I found the Kitchen Sink book. You know why I love used bookstores? I paid two dollars for this. The cheapest copy on Amazon right now is going for $40. Sure, it's in demand and out of print from a defunct publisher, but there are limits, you know?

Speaking of limits, despite only having a page for each feature, Kurtzman didn't seem to feel that he had any. This is only rarely laugh-out-loud funny, the humor having been blunted by time and by imitation, but it is wildly clever and inventive. As early as February 1948, Kurtzman was having his characters - principally a nameless "big guy" and "little guy" who dress in plain white T-shirts and suspenders - acknowledge their medium, break the fourth wall, and, in one really memorable gag, end a strip by ripping the final panel away. There are meta-gags that reference Charles Addams and incredibly novel panel layouts. Even if readers don't find this funny, they're certain to be surprised by the command that Kurtzman has over his medium.

Kitchen Sink's reprint, in black and white, starts with an unbelievably hyperbolic introduction by John Benson that, sensibly, references Ernie Kovacs and Stan Freberg as peers who were, similarly, stretching the boundaries of comedy. Some of these strips really did remind me of Kovacs' weird and surreal humor in the best way. By the time it wrapped up, it didn't feel tired or exhausted yet, but very fresh and promising.

The book concludes with a selection of other material that Kurtzman was also prepping as fillers for Timely from 1950-52. These include the single-page features Genius and Egghead Doodle, which star little kid protagonists, and the longer Pot-Shot Pete, a character that reappeared in an early issue of Mad. The little kid strips are more conventional than anything that happened with the big guy and the little guy, but one particular Genius, in which the little menace, Sheldon, safely bullies an older kid only to have his backup plan falter at a critical moment, really is hilarious.

The material is great, and I love the way that Kitchen Sink compiled it, with full credits and unobtrusive notations. It is apparently all of the original work, and certainly worth hunting down until some other publisher dusts off these pages and gives them another airing. That said, considering how many times Dark Horse has delayed and delayed their proposed collection of Kurtzman's Trump, that could certainly be a while. Highly recommended.

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