Opus 47:

A Fanny Valentine. Valentine’s Day came a little early for me in 1963. In fact, it came in October 1962—the love of my young wannabe cartooner life.

Most serious historians remember October 1962 for the 13-day Cuban missile crisis that took the U.S. to the brink of war with Russia. Nothing daunted, I occasionally recollect the episode myself: I was, at the time, in the pay of the U.S. Navy, and the ship I served on was dispatched to Cuban waters to deal with the hostilities, should they break out. They didn’t, luckily, and I escaped unscathed by the dogs of war. And so my memory of October 1962, unscathed as it is, veers more in the direction of fond reveries about Little Annie Fanny than it does in the direction of other kinds of pointy missiles. And with that confession, I divest myself forthwith of any pretense at serious historicity. And I do it cheerfully, without a single regret.

Annie first hove into view (to belabor naughty-cal argot a little) with the October 1962 issue of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy. My subscription to Playboy was then into its second year—a regular monthly reminder of what we were all fighting for (if we had, actually, been fighting)—and when I thumbed the pages of the October issue, I found her. There she was, in glorious, fully "painted" (not outlined) color—six pages at the back of the magazine. Little Annie Fanny was the most luxuriously produced comic strip on the planet. No one was then doing anything like it.

And it wasn’t just the appearance of the strip that made it a superior effort. No, Annie was produced by two of cartooning’s comedic geniuses, Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder. What aspiring young cartoonist (as I was then) could ask for more? The highest production values offering the satiric comedy of the nation’s premiere cartooning lunatics.

For the next two or three years, I marveled at this bi-monthly demonstration of cartooning virtuosity. I admired the high quality of the art, of the color. I was awed by the ease with which Kurtzman and Elder seemed to mix the vital ingredients, hilarious sexual innuendo and biting social satire on a variety of hip, topical concerns. I was bowled over by their exploitation of the medium itself: every installment includes at least one spectacular splash panel in which the visual nature of cartooning is deployed in some highly comic or hugely satiric manner. (Here’s a close-up of Annie in which the action is reflected in her sunglasses; here’s Annie as seen through someone’s distorting psychedelic vision; here’s Annie viewed from below as she treads water in a swimming pool—each such picture provoking a chortle at its visual wit.)

And I reveled in Annie, her fantasy embonpoint, and in the suspense that enveloped the proceedings like the steam of overheated desire.

The suspense was created by the Eternal Annie Question: When would she lose her clothes? That was the Real Purpose of the strip—to get Annie naked. Annie’s strip was at the heart of Annie’s strip. The purposeful high-fallutin’ social satire was but a ruse, an ingenious cover-up, designed—like Playboy magazine itself—to mask a pardonably healthy male interest in female anatomy.

And Annie never disappointed. She always—without fail—appeared in her birthday suit glory by the end of each installment. While some doubt may exist as to whether she was sexually active with any of the randy bounders who surrounded her, there was no doubt that she would, eventually, be nude in zaftig splendor.

My subscription to Playboy eventually lapsed, but my interest in Annie never flagged. In the summer of 1966 while wandering the streets of New York, I found a giant paperback that reprinted what portended to be all of the Little Annie Fanny strips; I bought it. And I later bought another volume of reprints that came out in 1972. But, as it turned out, neither tome actually included all of Little Annie Fanny.

For all of Annie, we’ve had to wait over a quarter of a century. And now—thanks to Dark Horse and Denis Kitchen—the long wait is over. The first of two volumes that will reprint all of Little Annie Fanny is out (224 pages; $24.95—a bargain without peer). And it would be impossible to ask for a better book. It is simply delicious. In every way.

It includes all of the strips from October 1962 to January 1970. It includes the never-before-reprinted 6-page story that introduces Annie’s Sugardaddy Bigbucks, the Oliver Warbucks character from the comic strip that gives the Kurtzman-Elder enterprise its name, Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie. Why this essential "origin" strip never made it into either of the two previous volumes is a mystery. But now we have it.

Likewise mysterious is why the longest Annie strip (a 7-page frolic in December 1963) has not been reprinted before. It introduces my favorite of Annie’s would-be seducers, Huck Buxton (a caricature of Britain’s zany gap-toothed actor, Terry Thomas); but since ol’ Huck made but a few appearances afterwards—yielding his place to the Phil Silvers look-alike, Solly Brass, Annie’s agent—perhaps that’s why this episode has languished unseen so long.

About the third un-reprinted piece, a 2-page episode lampooning Vaughn Meader, an impersonator who made a fortune imitating John F. Kennedy, there’s not so much of a mystery: with Kennedy’s assassination, most humorous work about the slain President was kept out of sight in deference to public sensitivities about death and idolatry.

So this collection is laudably comprehensive. But that’s only part of its supremely satisfying achievement.

The book concludes with an essay by Kitchen about Annie’s origins, and the essay is profusely illustrated with seldom-if-ever-seen art—Elder’s first version of Annie in the "Goodman Beaver" manner, for instance, and Kurtzman’s layouts (from raw preliminaries to more finished finals) for the first Annie strip and some others (which reveal how much Elder added in background gags), and (the ultimate in forbidden pleasures) all the partially completed pages of a 4-page 1968 episode that was abandoned before it could be published. (It involves the Beatles’ 1967 foray into Transcendental Meditation with Indian guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi; before the piece could be finished, the Beatles finished with the Maharishi, so the installment, no longer topically pertinent, was set aside. But on these marvelously incomplete pages, we can see Jack Davis’ detailed pencils and Elder’s finishes on Annie and on the Beatles’ caricatures—a stunning glimpse behind the scenes where a creative act is caught interruptus, in flagrante delicto as it were.)

Kitchen makes a couple of historical gaffs (Mad comic book first appeared in the fall of 1952, not 1954; and Playboy emerged late in 1953, not 1954), but the enthralling part of his essay lies in its tracing of the painfully slow evolution of Annie—the misfires Kurtzman proposed to Hefner, culminating, finally, in the sex-change operation on Goodman Beaver. Goodman was a Candide-like idealist, an innocent adrift in a world of avarice and lust, a star player in an earlier Kurtzman venture, Jungle Book.

"Goodman Beaver’s reason for being," Kurtzman explained to Hefner, "is [that] I wanted a character who could be foolish and at the same time wise ... naive, yet moral. He innocently partakes of the bad while espousing the good. That way, I can simultaneously treat with foibles and ideals."

Kurtzman was describing the ideal vehicle for social satire. And a week after making the foregoing pronouncement, Kurtzman wrote Hef again, this time suggesting that "the Goodman Beaver" character be female. Hefner applauded: "Bull’s eye," he wrote back, ". . . a sexy girl. We can run it every issue."

Kitchen’s rehearsal of the conception of Annie is an absolutely fascinating insight into the halting, ever cautious and tentative, exploratory creative processes of Kurtzman and Hefner (about which, more anon), and he caps off his textual contribution to this volume with detailed annotations for each Annie episode, giving dates of initial publication and other relevant details.

Since the strip overflowed with caricatures of popular culture icons of the day, Kitchen’s notes are vital to a full understanding of the satire at hand. He identifies the personages being caricatured and the popular tv programs of the day being spoofed (medical shows like Dr. Kildare and Ben Casey were examined in the strip’s second episode) as well as the fads being lampooned—the Peace Corps, Italian films, the U.S. space program, James Bond movies, nuclear doomsday novels and films, the mindlessness of tv sitcoms, San Francisco’s "Summer of Love" and the counter culture, and so on and on.

In every instalment, Annie is plunged into the milieu of the fad being ridiculed, becoming, at once—inevitably, given her anatomy—the object of every male’s lustful desire. But like Voltaire’s Candide, she traverses the corrupting landscape with her innocence intact. By this combination of maneuvers, Kurtzman strips popular culture of its pretensions and simultaneously reveals that sex lies at the bottom of all human endeavor but that it is not a depraved activity as our Puritan heritage would suggest that it is.

Since Annie emerges from every adventure as wide-eyed and innocent as ever, we might assume, thematically, that she must have successfully protected her virtue from every assault (hence, our previous reluctance to assume that she is sexual active). That, however, is scarcely the Playboy Message. Instead, Annie’s seemingly undebauched innocence signals, by a satiric quirk of masterful subtlety, that sexual activity is not at all corrupting. Annie may never be depicted in the throes of carnal delight, but it’s fairly certain that some of her off-camera moans are not provoked by binging on chocolate.

The production of the strip involved a painstaking exchange of ideas and an equally painstaking execution of those ideas. Like everything else in the Playboy stable at the time, the comic strip required Hef’s constant and minute attention. Kurtzman would submit sketches for an episode of the strip, and Hef would return them with comments and suggestions. Hefner was an extraordinarily canny reader of comics, according to Jules Feiffer (who also began doing work for the magazine about this time), and as far as Feiffer is concerned, Hef’s tinkering was usually precisely on target, and the cartoons were improved by reason of Hef’s suggestions.

Kurtzman probably also recognized that Hefner’s antenna were well tuned, but so were Kurtzman’s, and as a result, every episode of Annie went back and forth between them several times, consuming weeks in the production process.

When I interviewed Playboy’s cartoon editor Michelle Urry several years ago, she remembered the time when she served as the intermediary between these two meticulous and demanding craftsmen.

"Harvey and Hef worked out their deal together originally," she recalled, "and they drove each other a little crazy—and whoever was functioning as their intermediary. They were very different, each in his own way, but I think they loved each other for a long time, and then Harvey became a little more conservative. Perhaps he played it a little safer than he really should have. While he was doing Mad magazine, he was as zany as could be. And he started doing his own thing, and then he got into Hef’s turf. Harvey was interested in satire and wit, political and social commentary. So Harvey started doing political and sexual humor. And Hef knew a lot about the sex part, and Harvey didn’t. Harvey was married and had kids. Hef had lots of ideas, and Harvey would go to the Mansion and look at the hot tubs. There was a slight discrepancy between life styles. Harvey lived in a suburban house.

"And Hef was constantly pushing him," she continued. "Harvey would say, There’s too much sex; and Hef would say, More sex. And Harvey would say, Less sex. And Hef would say, More sex. And they’d go back and forth. But Harvey—Hef found him early and they bonded, and nobody could get in the middle of that," she finished.

In his annotations (as well as on the book’s credits page), Kitchen identifies many of the other cartoonists who worked on the strip (Jack Davis, Al Jaffee, Paul Coker Jr., Frank Frazetta, Russ Heath). The work was simply too demanding and Elder was too meticulous for meeting ordinary production schedules. And when Elder fell behind, other artists would be recruited to help. (As time went by, these extra hands would be engaged right from the start.) One of those recruits was, from time to time, Arnold Roth.

Roth remembers one occasion when he and Jaffee had been assembled to get Annie done by the looming deadline. Kurtzman rented a suite of rooms at the fabled Algonquin Hotel, and he and Roth and Jaffee worked in one room with Elder laboring in solitude in the next. In order to finish the strip as quickly as possible, they each worked on one panel at a time, passing them around the room.

Roth suddenly realized that the panel he was coloring was exactly the same as a panel he’d done before.

"What kind of a story is this, Harvey?" he asked. "These panels are all alike."

Harvey turned pale. But the alarm was raised, and the difficulty was quickly discerned. Elder was picking up the completed panels after Jaffee and Roth finished painting them and taking them into the bathroom and scrubbing them with water to remove whatever he didn’t like. Then he put the panel out to be re-done. When Kurtzman found out, Elder’s perfectionist tendency was curbed, and production went rapidly forward. (For more about Elder, go to www.RCHarvey.com and click on "Harv’s Hindsights" for a biography, complete with the usual wacky Elder anecdotes.)

Finally, the production of the strip became too complicated—or Kurtzman wore out—or Hefner did (or went on to other conquests)—and the strip ceased appearing in the magazine in the late 1980s. It is currently undergoing some sort of revival, having showed up about three times a year or so under the multiple hands of Bill Schorr and Ray Lago. But their work, admirable though it is, is not part of the Dark Horse reprint project. That is all Kurtzman and Elder (and their friends).

With its 8.5x11-inch pages, Playboy’s Little Annie Fanny: Volume 1, 1962-1970 reprints the strip the same size as it originally appeared in the magazine. And the quality of the reproduction is very, very good. Surprisingly so. I say that because Dark Horse was not able to use the original art (which is in Hefner’s possession). And even the color separations, which still exist, were not made available to the publisher. So these pages (except for the aborted Beatles sequence, which was shot from original art) are all reproduced from tearsheets. As a consequence, there’s been a tiny loss of clarity in definition.

But that is wholly inconsequential in the larger, splendid beatific context of this book’s otherwise superb achievements—both as book and as history. Dark Horse’s design team, Mark Cox and Jeremy Perkins, have produced a genuinely superior product, which leaves us (well, me, anyhow) panting for the more. But Annie always did that to me. Bring on two more—I mean, Volume Two.

Meanwhile, if you’d like to know more about Kurtzman’s other career—the one he had before giving Goodman Beaver a sex-change operation—send off immediately for my book, The Art of the Comic Book, an analytical history that includes a close look at Kurtzman’s EC efforts, both before, during, and after Mad. Click here to get beamed up to the right spot for considering the matter at greater length.

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