Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Legends in a Jugular Vein

This month marks the 20th anniversary of the passing of MAD magazine founder and editor-in-chief William Gaines.  The milestone was not acknowledged by any media outlets, but his role in mid-to-late 20th century American satire is invaluable.  After my Playboy essay several months ago, I felt the need to write about a magazine that had a far greater impact on my formative years.

I was an undisputed comedy nerd growing up, and my three most reliable sources for laughs couldn't have been more disparate: newspaper comics, "The Simpsons," and MAD.  Reading strips like "Peanuts" and "Calvin & Hobbes" were age-appropriate, but I got away with MAD and the Springfield clan because they were, at least in my parents' aloof minds, "a comic book" and "a cartoon" respectively.  Even though MAD came into existence as a satirical comic book --I'll go more into the "classic 23" later on-- it was, and still is, a satrical magazine illustrated by commercial and comic book artists.

Even though Bill Gaines had the vision, it was the creative talent --the famed "Usual Gang of Idiots"-- that were the bloodline of the magazine. Some names became legend for their consistency, zaniness, and longevity: Al Jaffee, Jack Davis, George Woodbridge, Don Martin, Bob Clarke, Paul Coker, Antonio Phohias, Desmond Devlin. Some were masters of the caricature: Mort Drucker, Angelo Torres, Frank Kelly Freas, Jack Rickard.  Some fulfilled a niche: Irving Schild was the in-house photographer whenever realism was necessary; Frank Jacobs could be counted upon for poetry and song parodies; Dave Berg was given five pages of real estate per issue to espouse on middle-of-the-road, middle American foibles. Norman Mingo, the only World War One veteran to ever contribute to the magazine, gave birth to the magazine's most lasting symbol: mascot Alfred E. Neuman.

What made MAD even more idyosyncratic was that it allowed its readers to explore its past while offering its present. From the mid-60s until 2005 or so, MAD published a "Super Special" collectors' series alongside its regular publication that featured memorable articles from yesteryear. In any alternating month, I could laugh my butt off or get a skewed history lesson. More often than not, the oldies ran laps around the new stuff.

So what was the downfall of MAD, if there ever was one?  Even though the legendary roster mentioned above held tight for more than two decades, Gaines was reluctant to explore new talent.  The Usual Gang of Idiots were more than just hired hands and starving artists; they were Gaines' social circle.  Rather than ease in new talent sporadically a la SNL, the mid-to-late 1980s marked an awkward transitional period that some argue still affects the magazine to this day.  Rickard's sudden death, Phohias' retirement, and Martin's exodus more or less forced Gaines' hand. It's not to say that young guns like John Caldwell, Sam Viviano, Tom Bunk, Tom Richmond, and Drew Friedman haven't kept the tradition alive, but criticism of these new keepers of the torch has been much more harsh than they deserve.

For me, the turning point was issue #353, January 1997. I was on a day trip to Chicago with my dad, and bought the issue at a Union Station newstand. The majority of the issue was a combined parody to the movie "Mars Attacks" and a homage to the classic trading card series. My three dollar investment was an unexpected dud. Most of the articles in #353 relied heavily on gross-out humor, which would be fine if it were funny and not pandering.  Even at 12 years of age, I could tell that the magazine's editoral staff had betrayed Gaines' vision. The new guys didn't get it. Looking back, this 48-page pool of pus was a fluke of sorts, but my love was clearly on the wane.

By late 2002, my senior year in high school, I stopped reading MAD on a regular basis. On one hand, my taste in comedy was getting more sophisticated; on the other hand, the new editors' decision to a) publish in full color and b) include outside advertising had repelled to me to my breaking point. However, I still found the magazine's history to be utterly compelling. In the late '90s, EC Comics and Time Warner reprinted the "classic 23," the first three years of MAD's existence.  I bought two of these reprints when they first came out, I bought on the other volumes on eBay several years later.

As a comic book, MAD  was incredibly subversive for its time; the contributors were veteran artists, mocking their work and others, biting the hand of the square '50s culture that fed them. After 23 issues, the newly established Comics Code heavily censored and defanged the entire American comic scene, and Gaines and head writer Harvey Kurtzman were forced to reinvent MAD into a semi-monthly magazine.  Gaines and Kurtzman had a falling out shortly after, and Gaines guided the magazine into its aforementioned "classic" era.  Kurtzman spent the next 10 years trying to launch several MAD imitators and failed miserably.

Now that I'm nearly a decade removed from my one-sided relationship with MAD magazine, I can skim through old issues with critical thought and an adult sensibility. Its comedic influence on me plateaued years ago, but whenever I take my own stabs at satire, its aftertaste still lingers in my mouth.  Comedy is far more mondaine than it was six decades ago yet MAD still stands, weathered yet still driven, sitting at your local newstand, waiting for a new generation of smart-alecks to mold and shape.


  1. As a teen my husband collected Mad books, which I assume were compilations of what had been published in magazine form. They very much formed his sense of humor. He still quotes them from time to time. He brought a paper grocery bag full of mad books to our marriage and I read through every one of them in a couple weeks time. (This was probably 30 years ago.) Reading some of the names above brought back memories of their style, such as the droopy feet on Don Martin's characters. I always liked the little drawings in the margins of the books. My husband has a great memory and a talent for parody, and still today he can sing a Mad song parody, such as Ground Round (to the tune of Petula Clark's Downtown), at the drop of a hat.

  2. I used to have "Sing Along With Mad". I remember one of the pieces was "The Sound Of Murder", with an old school 1920s-style gangster just released from jail contrasted with the well-dressed, well-connected modern Mafia.

  3. Not only did Don Martin have a unique style, but he had an hilarious talent, ala Dr. Suess, with making sounds come alive in text.
    Sergio Aragones marginals tickled the brain, and made you look like a complete moron if you tried to read it in public, turning the magazine round and round. It also felt right because who hasn't doodled in the margins of a book, magazine or newspaper?
    Who can forget Al Jafee's "Stupid Answers to Stupid Questions" or his very creative "Mad Fold-In".
    I still have the issue that has the feature, "A Mad Look at Hockey" that still makes me laugh.

  4. I have to admit that I held out a long time as you did. I read Mad from the early 70's through the mid-to-late 90's. The accent on gross humor also got to me. I found this blog while looking for the picture of AE Neuman shedding a tear to mourn the loss of Gaines. It took a couple years, but it's clear the staff took things away from the directions that Gaines successfully took the magazine for the preceding several decades. I remember bypassing other humor magazines like "Cracked" and heading right to the Mad magazine. When I realized Mad had become the ones I skipped, I simply stopped reading.