Tuesday, June 12, 2012
Legends in a Jugular Vein
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.