While each of Aesop’s fables offers a moral lesson, the collective body of work attributed to him paints a comprehensive picture of the human condition that remains remarkably accurate, even today. The Ant and the Grasshopper, circa 550 BCE, juxtaposed the fates of a pragmatic ant and an improvident grasshopper, neither of whose polarized approaches toward living ends very well. In May 1960, Harvey Kurtzman’s take on the tale was published as a tiny strip in Esquire magazine, illustrating the culture clash between the beatnik movement and mainstream society. As with much great art, Kurtzman’s The Grasshopper and the Ant disappeared into the proverbial ether where it remained for over forty years. Lucky for us in the here and now, BOOM! Town has re-released a larger formatted and hard covered edition, much better for posterity.
Upon the 1957 publication of Jack Kerouac’s seminal On the Road, beat culture swept the American youth. By the time 1960 rolled around, the authentic, beatific ethos had long since disappeared, having been adulterated and commodified by a deluge of bongos and daddios. Kurtzman, a keen observer, and a master of satire (he created MAD magazine in 1952), recognized Aesop’s dichotomy within the culture, and within himself, and set out to create the time capsule that is The Grasshopper and the Ant.
In poetic verse and dialogue, a la beat poetry, and rendered in spontaneous, spirited line and wash, like the jazz music writers sought to emulate, Kurtzman created a perfect habitat for his beat little bugs to learn about life. The future is inevitable, and so we must prepare. But so is death, and so we must not miss out on the present. This quandary of immediacy and acquisitive society is the heart of the matter.
“Must we plod the frightening stretches of the vast back lot without meditating on the meaning of life? Without thinking?” Grasshopper laments.
“Gathered seven grains while you were thinking,” Ant replies, with casual contempt.
But it’s 1960, and so eventually Ant gets hip and Zen, and gets himself a beret. And when the two meet again, they do so humbly, and lovingly, recognizing the merits in each other’s actions. It is not a happy ending, per se, but it is promising in a greater sense. Fifty years later, or twenty five hundred, and here we are, still reckoning with this very lesson.