MAD Artist's Edition: a massive tribute to Harvey Kurtzman

(The cover; my feet, a KISS matrioshke, and spring-loaded gag eyeballs included for scale)

IDW's Artist's Edition series is a line of enormous (15" x 22") hardcover art-books that reproduce the full-page, camera-ready paste-ups used to create classic comics, from Groo to Spider-Man, offering a rare look at the white-outs, annotations, corrections, and pencil-marks that give tantalizing hints about the hidden workings of these amazing pages.

A recent and most welcome addition to the series is MAD: Artist's Edition, a spectacular tribute to the early years of the magazine and especially to the brilliant satire of Harvey Kurtzman, one of the great heroes of satire, which features an introduction by Terry Gilliam himself.

MAD: Artist's Edition isn't just an amazing book, it's an amazing object, a massive and weighty presence that drew me magnetically to it as soon as I got it back to my office. I spent the next several hours on a rug on the floor with it, clambering all around it (it's much easier to move yourself than a book this size!), marvelling and delighting at it. I snapped a few highlights (full-rez photos here) to give you a sense of what's going on here.

(Love, Kurtzman style -- from Shadow!)

Let's start with the obvious: Kurtzman was a genius of parody, with a wolvertonian grasp of the grotesque and a sense of humor that was capable of expressing itself in both broad and subtle strokes. This was a man who could capture both drama and comedy, as in this sequence from Smilin' Melvin', where the punchline is just a lagniappe on top of a sequence that is as illustrative as it is absurd:

(Q-Tips and the sound-barrier, from Smilin' Melvin')

And Prince Valiant is reproduced with pitch-perfect veracity, even when he's holding his ass and screaming in agony:

(Love the gothic lettering on the onomatopoeia, from Prince Violent)

It's that veering between styles and modes that really makes this stuff sing. Is Howdy Doody a daemonic possessed toy, or a agent of commercial forces bent at getting kids hooked on booze? Why choose?

(Stare into the eyes of madness, from Howdy Doo-It?)

Not only could Kurtzman strike some wolvertonian notes, he could also write some spectacular material for Wolverton to illustrate, like the series of full-page spreads dedicated to portraits of typical MAD readers:

(Wolverton and Kurtzman, a match made on MADison Ave)

And since this is such a big ole compendium, the IDW folks saw fit to include these illos as finished inks, later in the book:

It's only the book's rather smashing price-tag (north of $225) that stopped me from grabbing a scalpel and hacking out some of the full-page sheets and the splashes, as every one of them would make a fantastic framed piece:

(Kurtzman's "Flesh Garden" is much classier than the pornographic "Flesh Gordon," which was a little too on-the-nose)

There's even a lavishly illustrated page of fake classifieds:

Every detail of this book is pretty damned special, right down to the end-papers:

Mad: Artist's Edition

Update: You can also get this from IDW direct for $150!


  1. God, I remember those original issues so well.  I had them.  Images indelibly etched in my memory.  Thanks, Cory :)

  2. I was a MAD addict as a kid. Back then I only knew Kurtzman’s work from paperback reprints — chopped up,  B&W, sized to fit a mass market paperback. It was very puzzling to a kid.

    Then maybe 10 years back I got the complete run of the “Humor in a Jugular Vein” reprints of MAD stories. COLOR. Decent size pages.

    Wow, was that good shit. Color, with all the bizarre little details (background characters, little signs) fully visible.

  3. Damnit Cory! I did NOT need to have another largely unobtainable yet critically essential tome.  And I thought the Cochran reprints were the shit….

  4. A couple of things:

    1) There’s a Harvey Kurtzman exhibit going on right now at the NY Society of Illustrators – 128 East 63rd Street between Park and Lexington.  The exhibit  includes, among many other treasures, the original artwork for the Howdy Doody parody and a never completed Little Annie Fannie story about Annie meeting the Beatles and the Maharashi.

    The exhibit lasts until May 11th.

    2) Don’t despair if you didn’t get a copy.  IDW reprinted the Wally Wood Artist’s Edition (much to the annoyance of those who were paying collector’s inflated prices).  Maybe they’ll do the same with the MAD edition.  Keep checking amazon and IDW’s website.  For those in New York, both Jim Hanley’s Universe and Forbidden Planet have copies retailing for $150.  Still not cheap, but better than $225.

  5. Very Nice. Still even at $150 direct is beyond my price range.

    Anyone else find the Irony in IDW publishing Warner properties when they own DC?  They are also printing Cartoon Network titles, although BOOM has Adventure Time.

  6. Cory, I don’t mean to harp on your coverage, and God knows that Kurtzman deserves all the praise he can get, but that book is as much as testament to EC’s gang of amazing artists as anything. He didn’t build that temple alone.

    The book is actually a smattering of old MAD stories, by Kurtzman and a handful of the EC mainstay artists. The “wolvertonian” bits you referenced were likely drawn by Will Elder (such as that Shadow bit you posted). Kurtzman wrote nearly all the stories in this beauty, but most of the art was done by his brothers in arms Will Elder, Wally Wood, and Jack Davis, and even a bit of young Russ Heath.

    That said, these Artists’ Editions are totally worth picking up. Outside of owning the actual originals themselves, it’s pretty much the next best thing a collector can hope for. The warts-and-all reproduction is amazing. The Wally Wood one is breathtaking, and the Jack Davis one that’s coming down the pike soon has me positively tingling with anticipation. And they’re so huge, i can probably prop a couple up against each other and make a guest house out of ’em.


  7. tony moore is correct. on mad, kurtzman served mainly as editor/writer and occasional artist. the proper art credits for this article’s scans are as follows:

    1) cover – kurtzman
    2) “shadow” – bill elder
    3) “smilin melvin” – wally wood
    4) “prince violent” – wood
    5) “howdy dooit” – elder
    6) house ad – wolverton
    7) wolverton
    8a) “the spectacle” – wood
    8b) “plastic sam” – russ heath & elder
    9) “outer sanctum” – elder
    10) “little orphan melvin” – wood
    11) “flesh garden” – wood
    12) comic ads – elder
    13) comic ads – elder
    14) “restaurant” – elder
    15) “batboy & rubin” – wood

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