January 24th, 2012 at 7:03 am

Harvey the Baby Killer

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Drew Friedman’s fond reminiscence of Harvey Kurtzman – accompanied by a wonderful new portrait by Friedman – that appeared in a recent installment of the Comics Journal blog enchanted me, and made vivid all over again the time I spent with Harvey back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.

Both of us were being published by Kitchen Sink back then, so we ended up appearing at a lot of conventions together, which gave me time to get to know Harvey and his inimitable wife Adele. I remember flying to New York to see him being honored at the Museum of Cartoon Art in the old Ward’s Castle at Port Chester. On another day, there was a memorable dinner at the Kurtzmans’ home, followed by a long fascinating conversation that ranged all over his career. Wherever we ran into each other, we always had the chance to talk, and those conversations, whether trivial or profound, remain precious memories to me. I may resurrect a few of those here from time to time.

What came back to me when I saw Friedman’s portrait was a moment at a convention when I ran into Harvey and Adele while I was carrying my daughter Brigid through the hotel. She was only a few years past the toddler stage then, and a little overtired and overwhelmed by all these people who were a little more, ah, interesting than she was accustomed to. I stopped to say hello to the Kurtzmans, hoping that Brigid wouldn’t dissolve into tears over yet another delay on the way to our room. And the damnedest thing happened.

Harvey completely ignored me and simply inclined his body forward, fixing Brigid with a deadpan stare over that prodigious nose of his. Within seconds, she’d turned bright red…oh, shit, I thought, please don’t scream…and she began to giggle uncontrollably. He took my daughter’s hand and glanced at Adele with a little self-satisfied shrug. Adele shook her head in her familiar wry manner and said, “Oh, the children always love Harvey.”

In those days Harvey had begun to look more frail every time I saw him, the Parkinson’s disease visibly taking its toll. But for a moment there he seemed to shed 20 years, communing wordlessly with the little girl in my arms while I watched in disbelief. Then we broke and moved on, Harvey and Adele heading off for dinner, my daughter still giggling uncontrollably in my arms.

I liked Harvey personally, I respected him tremendously, I was in awe of him professionally; but that was the first time I’d seen him become magic. His public persona was largely constructed of cynical wit, but I felt privileged to have gotten a brief glimpse of the lovely human being that lay beneath.

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