NYCC ’17: Harvey Kurtzman’s Marley’s Ghost From ComiXology Revealed

by Hannah Means Shannon

At the Harvey Kurtzman’s Marley’s Ghost Behind The Scenes Panel, Denis Kitchen, John Lind, Josh O’Neill, Gideon Kendall, Shannon Wheeler, and Calvin Reid took part, hosted by Chip Mosher.

Marley’s Ghost is a comiXology exclusives project completing a comic created by the late Harvey Kurtzman, and the panel filled us in on this comic, launching online in November 2018.

Mosher spoke about the new comiXology Originals line which has already launched comics with Valiant and Marvel.

Marley’s Ghost will join them in the Originals line.

Kurtzman’s birthday was October 3rd, and he passed away about 25 years ago, Mosher said, so it’s a good time to think about his legacy. Kitchen said Kurtzman’s most famous for Mad Magazine, but he also worked on Two Fisted Tales. He also worked for Stan Lee on Hey, Look. He was later known for magazines like Trump, and the creation of Little Annie Fannie for Playboy.

Lind spoke about the Harvey Awards moving to New York Comic Con in 2018, wherein they’ll be inducting Darwyn Cooke into the Hall of Fame.

Kurtzman worked on an adaptation of A Christmas Carol, and completed all the thumbnails for the project, but didn’t complete it. At the time he worked on it, there was not a concept of “book-sized comics” Kitchen said. When we look at his rudimentary thumbnails, they are “surprisingly close” to some of his finished pages. There are some finished pages that Jack Davis worked on with him.

Kitchen described Kurtzman as an “artist’s artist”, someone who wasn’t as appreciated by the public as by other artists, so he often felt he had to collaborate with someone “slicker”. Kitchen feels that O’Neill and Kendall have done a fantastic job with the adaptation and he feels that Kutzman would be very pleased with the results, a high compliment since he was a “stickler”.

Kendall took a bit of Kurtzman’s style and “blended it with his own”, with a touch of Jack Davis, too, doing “justice to it”.

Mosher announced the 8th of November for the arrival of the comic, with a price point of $2.99.

The audience was shown Kendall’s “brand new” cover, finished the day before. Interior pages were also revealed, including some process.

Asked about his drawing process, Kendall said there are two different kinds of process in the book, including using reference materials that were voluminous. There were two phases—working on the sections of the book that Kurtzman had sketched out, and they were really simplified toward the end. As the book went on, there was less to “go on”, Kendall said. But the first 30 to 40 pages really “set the foundation”.

O’Neill did the “breaking down” of the story, he said, matching it to the existing thumbnails. He said that he had the vision of Dickens, the vision of Kurtzman, and then he and Kendall’s own vision trying to negotiate the others. There was a powerful “choreographed” sense to the roughs, and a “narrative voice”. He and Kendall camped out in Kendall’s studio going through the entire work together, panel by panel to make these creative decisions.

Kendall said all the various movies of A Christmas Carol were also an influence on him, watching them all and noting their different choices being made.

Shannon Wheeler came in to the situation and advised to remove too much language. Using a lot of narrative, naturally wanting to preserve Dickens, wasn’t “necessary to the storytelling”, so it needed to be trimmed down. Making sure you aren’t both showing and telling, making the text duplicates of the art, for instance.

O’Neill said one of the amazing thing that Kendall had to do was keep up with the many, many costumes, particularly of women, at Christmas parties with hairstyles and dresses and keep them all accurate and in continuity.

Kitchen explained that Kurtzman tried to pitch the book to Simon & Shuster, and ended up talking to an assistant there because they weren’t taking his pitch seriously in 1954. He produced the existent art for this pitching process. In the 1962, he tried again, but it didn’t go anywhere either. If it had been published in the 50’s when he initially tried, Kurtzman’s work would have been the first graphic novel.

Asked about the title Marley’s Ghost, O’Neill said the title was Kurtman’s. What seemed to draw him to the story was the “ghost story aspect”. In this work, they tried to stick with the focus on the ghost aspects, so they made it a little “moodier” and “darker” than many adaptations, and made it a little “scarier” than they’ve seen in other versions.

Kitchen added that Kurtman didn’t like many of the horror stories being published during his time, so might have wanted to do something “classier”.

Asked if there are other unfinished Kurtzman’s projects hanging around to be completed, Kitchen said this was the “only one unrealized of substance”. Others aren’t as documented. With 60 pages of material, there was a fair amount to go on.

Kitchen said that “correspondence” helped them date the project, too, otherwise they might not have known this was as early as it was.

Asked if he was “scared” or “excited” to take on this project, Kendall said it was a “huge opportunity” but he was scared. It was “intimidating and terrifying”, he confessed. Moving into the parts of the book beyond Kurtzman’s sketches, he stopped being as terrified.

O’Neill said you can’t be precious about a project, and have to simply make the comic and bring the project about. O’Neill and Kendall said at some point they started just “having fun” and that became important to move forward, too.

Asked if there will ever be a print version of the comic, they said “TBD”.

Asked if there were frustrations, O’Neill said there were aspects of storytelling that were difficult. There were things that were hard to translate from prose to a visual format. Kendall added that the original text was not a “perfect story” compared to some other Dickens works. There was some editing that had to be done to be cohesive.

Asked what made this a perfect project for digital format, Kitchen said, “Why not?”. Since there’s no reason not to use this newer format to reach readers. Kurtzman was someone who liked cutting edge access to readers, and making things affordable, this all works well. Even though many of the panelists are “print people”, this was an approach that made sense.

Kendall created the project digitally, so reading it digitally makes sense, too.

Wheeler asked Kitchen if he thought it was strange that Kurtzman was so interested in this “long, rambling story” of A Christmas Carol when Kurtzman was actually a “staccato and minimalist” creator. Kitchen said that Kurtzman clearly respected Dickens a lot, and he may have been trying to dive into the “literary” because he thought book publishers might take it more seriously. And it was essentially a graphic novel approach he was trying to instigate for the first time.

Kurtzman had also worked on Classics Illustrated: Moby Dick and Crime Does Not Pay in his early years, which may have stuck with him.

Asked how this material came to light, Kitchen said the pages were in Kurtzman’s attic, wrapped in brown, aged, butcher paper. Kitchen was helping Kurtzman sort through things in that attic, and he heard a brief explanation of the project then. Kitchen wishes, in retrospect, he had been able to ask more questions and get more answers, but wasn’t able to due to Kurtzman’s health at the time, suffering from Parkinson’s.