When Two Fisted Tales first hit the presses in the 1950s, comics were the medium of choice for kids all across North America. They came after radio, but before television was a common household item, and so held the attention of young people as something new and exciting, all for 10 cents a copy. Although the art was often very good, the writing was largely composed of short, campy stories with horrible dialogue. The artistic layout as well (including the interplay between the images and their captions) had yet to really mature.
At this time, the ‘war comic’ was at its peak in popularity. Comic historian and lecturer Roger Sabin writes:
“During the war years patriotic superheroes were sent off to fight for their country, and the conflict was polarized into one between supermen and supervillains: Tojo, Hitler and Mussolini stood no chance. These comics were unashamed morale-boosters, and retailed in unprecedented numbers: by 1943 it is estimated that they were selling nearly 15 million copies a month, thereby totally dominating the industry.”
Enter a young up-and-coming Harvey Kurtzman:
“When the Korean War broke out [in 1951], I naturally turned to the war for material. But when I thought of doing a war book, the business of what to say about war was very important to me and was uppermost in my mind, because I did then feel very strongly about not wanting to say anything glamorous about war, and everything that went before Two Fisted Tales had glamorized war. Nobody had done anything on the depressing aspects of war, and this, to me, was a terrible disservice to the children. In the business of children’s literature you have a responsibility, and these guys feeding this crap to the children that soldiers spend their time merrily killing little buck-toothed yellow men with the butt of a rifle is terrible.”
It’s really difficult to sum up Harvey Kurtzman’s life, and how it influenced such a leap forward for comic books, but it’s impossible to talk about TFT without him. Although his career began earlier, he is largely credited with the success of Two Fisted Tales and its companion comic, Frontline Combat, as the editor of the pair. In this time, he also went on to be the founding editor of MAD Magazine, among other projects. The contribution MAD has made in comedy cannot be overstated. Some have even suspected that it’s impossible to think of anything within American satire today that hasn’t somehow been influenced by MAD, and therefore, by Harvey Kurtzman.
That being said… what made Two Fisted Tales a good political comic? And Harvey a good writer?
Two Fisted Tales did two incredible things for comics, concerning both form and content. Stylistically, Harvey pushed the envelope in creating amazingly detailed layouts, stronger dialogue, and a text-and-image interplay that seemed much more seamless than work before it (I dare call it ‘cinematic’, even though cinema hardly had this down yet). Qualitatively, he told war stories that were researched and historically accurate, with realistic characters engaged in purposeful dialogue. More importantly, the stories would show blood, grit, death, destruction, civilian casualties, people losing parts of their bodies along with their minds. He showed the things that weren’t supposed to happen in war, but always do. In essence, amidst piles of war-time comics being published, TFT and FC were the first to properly convey that “War is all Hell.”
“I think the best way to look at the war stories, both historical and contemporary, in these comics is to think of them as attempting a previously unseen level of realism and historical accuracy,” says Peter Birkemoe of The Beguiling comic shop—and a big fan of Harvey’s work. “Since Kurtzman and most of the artists were veterans of the Second World War, it is easy to see any attempt at realism ending up showing the actual horrors of war.”
Kurtzman was drafted in 1943, but he never did go overseas. I mention this, because if he had in fact seen combat, I would have more easily attributed his qualitative difference with what he may have seen/experienced in war himself.
Since this isn’t the case, then we might conclude that even more influential than his time in service was his liberal/radical upbringing (his step-father was a staunch trade-unionist, his mailbox the receiver of the People’s Daily World of the Communist Party.) Kurtzman never considered himself a socialist or communist, but he had made his opinions clear on several occasions about war, racism, and religious intolerance.
Still, accuracy does not indicate political leanings–just honesty. Saving Private Ryan wasn’t an ‘anti-war film’, even though it was arguably the most accurate depiction of war in film when it was released. …So is Two Fisted Tales “anti-war”?
Relatively speaking, yes, according to Peter. “Other war comics that rushed to the market when the Korean War started were decidedly jingoistic and make Kurtzman’s work seem politically ‘anti-war’ in contrast.”
When compared to comics and even film of the time, it was definitely an opposing view politically. TFT was so much more multi-dimensional than anything else out there, in terms of both style and content. Specifically, the constrictions within the Hollywood film industry—thoroughly in bed with the U.S. government and military in the 40s and 50s—were so confining graphically and stylistically that films had to fit into the confines of 6 predetermined topics, according to the Office of War Information (OWI): The Armed Forces, The Enemy, The Allies, The Production Front, The Home Front, and The Issues (whatever that means–I don’t seem to remember any poignant films about fascism, Antisemitism, or imperialist rivalry). Obviously, showing civilian casualties, the ‘enemy’s’ perspective, or even blood was out of the question…
I agree with Peter in that these were not “anti-war” comics per se in their agenda—but they were anti-war as a result of their accuracy. This again goes back to the type of person Harvey was.
“I think Kurtzman’s message on war is not entirely different than his message on culture that comes through in his issues of MAD,” says Peter. “[That is,] ‘If you step back and look at this clearly, it is really quite absurd’.”
I will also add that it falls into Harvey’s habit of not being categorized easily. As a political comics enthusiast, I have yet to find a good ‘political’ comic that placed a political agenda before the telling of the story, and I think Harvey understood that well, having worked with comic artists who published everywhere from Marvel to the communist party newspaper. To begin, you create uncompromisingly, and in doing so, you largely defy (or re-define) categorization in your work.
… And yet, perhaps it was even a little bit more than that. I quoted Harvey earlier speaking to a certain “responsibility” in children’s literature. It is possible that Harvey felt a responsibility to show young people an opposing view of war as well as history (including Custer’s Last Stand and The Alamo—not how you learned them in school, kids!). That’s not just a strive for accuracy; that’s pro-actively seeking out an improperly remembered event or ‘hero’ of American history, and trying to set the story straight. In my opinion, that makes Two Fisted Tales not just an anti-war comic relatively speaking, but anti-war and political at its core.
[LEFT: Two Fisted Tales Issue #23 “KILL!” includes some interesting examples of TFT’s superior story-telling skills, as well as the recurring theme that these are war stories being told from someone who abhors war.]
Whether you see it as a bittersweet rite of passage or as a cannon fodder-drive for the imperialist war machine, there is no denying that war is a horrible thing. And sometimes telling it like it is will be enough to set you aside from everyone else. It was a bit of star-crossed fortune that Harvey made TFT at the time that he did… everyone had their gaze fixed so tightly on Hollywood films as the next big medium that comics fell under the radar as an unsophisticated business of “kids’ books”. As such, comic book writers had more freedom—intellectually and politically—to spread their wings. If Two Fisted Tales had been a TV or film series, you can bet Harvey Kurtzman would have been thrown into some Red Scare kangaroo trial. And the world would have been shorted a creative genius.
4 thoughts on “Two Fisted Tales, Harvey Kurtzmann and the Birth of the Anti-war Comic”
* You can pick up Two Fisted Tales in archived hardcover reprints at quality comic book shops. The original color has been re-mastered, which apparently irks some comic book purists– but the great stories remain the same as when they were first printed.
* For more analysis about Two Fisted Tales, there’s a great comparative analysis on the comic and how it compares to contemporary war cinema in Rocco Versaci’s “This Book Contains Graphic Language: Comics as Literature” (catchy name!) Versaci, as an English professor, gives lectures on the incredible literary ability of comic books across a wide spectrum of authors, and breaks down some of the medium’s best efforts like… well, like a pro.