Harvey Kurtzman’s comics version of the classic insect fable was originally produced in 1960 for Esquire magazine, and almost 50 years later it’s still a remarkably relevant work. Perhaps that should come as nor surprise; 50 years is awfully recent compared to the original fable’s suspected vintage (Heck, the Bible’s Book of Proverbs includes a version of it).
Of course, it might also come down to the fact that this is a Kurtzman comic we’re talking about, and the late, great cartoonist’s work boasts a vitality and originality that makes it always seem fresh and new. (When I first encountered his work, it was his covers to the earliest issues of Mad that were reprinted in various price catalogs and histories of comics, and I remember being quite shocked to learn that those drawings were done before my parents were born, but looked just as fresh as the previous Saturday’s Saturday morning cartoons).
Kurtzman’s The Grasshopper and The Ant is a 37-page story, with each page consisting of a single large drawing, the edges of the page making each page its own de facto panel, with the lovely hand-lettering in dialogue balloons sometimes breaking the single image into several moments, by virtue of the time it takes to read all the words. (We probably shouldn’t get into this now, but Kurtzman does some pretty amazing stuff in these pages when it comes to manipulating time through the interaction of the words and pictures…it’s particularly amazing given the perfect uniformity of the pages and panels; given the format, each page should “last” as long as every other one, but that’s not the case. Shit, this is a comic not just to read, but to study).
You probably know the basic story. There’s a grasshopper and an ant. The former wants to sing and dance and play all year around, while the latter works gathering food; when winter comes along, the grasshopper has nothing to eat and either starves or is saved by the ant so he can survive to learn his lesson.
Kurtzman’s version has a sucker-punch twist befitting the work of a cartoonist—particularly a cartoonist who is also one of the founders of Mad—but it’s the execution and the details that make this an exciting read.
The 1950s origins of the comic are somewhat apparent in some of the details, with the grasshopper making long-winded speeches and playing the bongos while his fellow insect beatniks (bugniks?) read poetry or play jazz, or the insect equivalent: “This is th enew ‘cool-chirping,’ Ant…semi improvisational, distinguished by an immediacy of communication; an expressiveness characteristic of the free use of the voice and forming a complex, flowing rhythm.”
All the ant wants to know, however, is “Can you gather grain to it?”
Kurtzman gets a lot of mileage out of simple bug jokes, like Grasshopper talking to what he thinks is Cicada (but is really just Cicada’s discarded exoskleton), and/or the application of insect details to normal human situations and conversations, like Ant remarking on how a hot, Kurtzman-curvy butterfly was the “freckle-faced caterpillar I sued to know—with pigtails and braces” or individualistic Grasshopper scoffing when someone hints there’s a “big Locust Plague staring up…Big outfit! Security…”
“Me?” he says, “Join a plague? CONFORM?”
Underlying the panel-to-panel gags is the sense that bug-life, even more so than the human life they’re playing at, is extremely short and likely to end suddenly and violently, adding to the tension of a story we all know ends with one of the characters either dying or almost dying.
As I said though, Kurtzman’s version is his own version. As big a fool as his grasshopper may be, he’s still a cool fool, and if never doing any work at all is bad for your health, constantly doing work at the expense of all else isn’t presented in a necessarily healthy light either. This Grasshopper and Ant are two unappealing extremes, so it’s neat to see that they both have something to learn from the other before the final pages, and that Kurtzman has a darkly funny ending in mind all along.
If the moral of the original was something along the lines of “To work today is to eat tomorrow” or “If you don’t work in the spring, summer and autumn, you’re totally going to starve to death in the winter,” Kurtzman’s seems to be something along the lines of, “No matter how hard a worker you are, and no matter how with it and cool you are, if you’re a chump, you’re going to come to a bad end.”
And is there any more important moral to learn and internalize than, “Don’t be a chump?”
I think not.