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It was December 1956, a golden age for magazine illustration. Hugh Hefner had recently dazzled the publishing world with Playboy, a stylish compendium of contemporary fiction, advice for young men on the make, airbrushed photos of curvaceous women — and plenty of gag cartoons, because Hef loved comics almost as much as he did sex.
Enter Harvey Kurtzman, who was not only a top-flight cartoonist but also the brilliant editor who had created the original MAD comic book in 1952. By 1956, however, Kurtzman was weary of cheaply printed comics — terming them a “bastard form”— and was eager to move on to more upscale publications.
So the brash young entrepreneur teamed up with the audacious graphics auteur to create a glossy satirical magazine, Trump, and the high production standards shine through in a new art book from Dark Horse Comics, Trump: The Complete Collection. The magazine’s title was Hef’s idea, but it was control freak Kurtzman who detailed the scripts, layouts, and overlays given to the artists. In a parody of the Hollywood epic Giant, one of Kurtzman’s favorite collaborators, Jack Davis, used thin watercolor washes to achieve a wider gamut of color than would’ve been possible in the limited palette of comic books. Similarly, Al Jaffe’s painting Skewered at Sunset needed quality printing to capture details of dripping blood in order to successfully lampoon Hemingway’s macho Death in the Afternoon.
But Hefner was having cash-flow problems, and Kurtzman’s lavish production demands — full-color foldouts, extravagant photo shoots, multiple art revisions — became problematic. As Hefner later put it, “I gave Harvey Kurtzman an unlimited budget, and he exceeded it.” Hef’s money can be seen here in page after page of graphic eye candy, but that did not compensate for such wan jokes as “Trump: A new magazine for brihgt people.” (Annotations in the book help non–New Yorkers appreciate the humor of a detailed spoof of the then recent Suez Crisis, set in Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal.) Hefner pulled the plug after only two issues, saying years later, “When the bat hits the ball, you know it’s going over the fence, you know it’s a home run. I knew that from the very first issue with Playboy magazine. It was not there with Trump.”
Which is too bad. Kurtzman was well into designing the third issue and had asked virtuoso illustrator Will Elder for a Norman Rockwell–style send-up of a kindly elderly couple entertaining their clean-cut grandkids in a greenhouse. In three versions, each more polished than the last, Elder refined details of poison ivy and other noxious flora to reveal the slow-burning realization that the smiling tots were feeding songbirds and goldfish to carnivorous Venus flytraps.
It would’ve been the perfect con: a gloss of old-time Americana to obscure the sadism.
Trump: The Complete Collection
By Denis Kitchen
184 pp., $29.99
Dark Horse Books