Mad magazine as we know it is coming to an end. This is a sad day.
The entire world of traditional publishing is on shaky ground. The utter demise of all books, magazines, and newspapers as physical objects has become all-too conceivable, and Mad has been deteriorating in quality for decades anyway, so this news shouldn’t come as too much of a shock, yet somehow it still does. Mad is a cultural touchstone; it’s iconic; it’s an institution. If you’re a millennial and all you know of Mad is the shell of itself it’s been for the last quarter century, you’re not going to get it. But for all the Boomers and my fellow Generation Xers, we get it all too well—this is a big part of our childhood we’re burying today. Not just a big part of our childhood, but a big part of the adults we grew into, really.
A Ray of Hope
Begun by legendary comic genius Harvey Kurtzman in 1952 (the same year my biological parents were born), Mad got its start during an era of rampant paranoia and tremendous societal pressure to conform. So it’s understandable how so many, both young and old, found Mad to be a true oasis for them, as the comic made fun of all the institutions that were then crushing them. And for kids, it quickly taught them that they shouldn’t trust anyone—their parents and teachers least of all.
More light-heartedly, the publication also served as an excellent primer in Yiddish. There weren’t many other books or magazines out there where you’d come across terms like “portzerbie” and “furshlugginer” with this much regularity.
The image most associated with Mad is that of Alfred E. Neuman. The character’s face first appeared on the cover of the original Mad Reader, a paperback collection of comic reprints published in 1954. He appeared again in a fake ad on the cover of issue #21 (Mar. 1955), and then as the central image on the cover of issue #30 (Dec. 1956), where he was officially named and announced his catchphrase (“What—Me Worry?”) for the first time. He would be a cover fixture forever thereafter.
In 1955, Mad changed its format. Its final issue as a color comic was #23 (May 1955); issue #24 (June 1955) was the first in the B&W magazine format. At this same time, Kurtzman left in a business dispute with publisher Bill Gaines, taking most of his best artists with him. This should have crippled the new magazine, but somehow it flourished. Kurtzman would go on to do other humor mags like Trump, Humbug, and Help!, but none could compete with the commercial juggernaut that Mad had become.
In fact, Mad’s vast legion of imitators probably speaks to its success better than anything else. My generation is well aware of Cracked, Crazy, even Sick, but there were even more back when Mad first took off in the 50s. Even Mad’s own publisher, EC, got in on it when they published Panic.
Upon Mad’s twenty-fifth anniversary in 1977, the New York Times published the article “25 Years of Mad Magazine,” wherein they declared:
The skeptical generation of kids it shaped in the 1950s is the same generation that, in the 1960s, opposed a war and didn’t feel bad when the United States lost for the first time and in the 1970s helped turn out an Administration and didn’t feel bad about that either … It was magical, objective proof to kids that they weren’t alone, that in New York City on Lafayette Street, if nowhere else, there were people who knew that there was something wrong, phony and funny about a world of bomb shelters, brinkmanship and toothpaste smiles. Mad’s consciousness of itself, as trash, as comic book, as enemy of parents and teachers, even as money-making enterprise, thrilled kids. In 1955, such consciousness was possibly nowhere else to be found.
Mad’s popularity peaked in the mid 70s when its circulation numbers surpassed two million. This alone would have made it a cash cow, but at the same time they were also publishing a mountain of paperbacks (of both original material and reprints) and quarterly “Super Specials.” The first Mad Super Special (originally just called “Special”) came out in 1970. These contained almost all reprints, but usually had a collectible item attached to them in order to entice long-time readers—items like posters, stickers, flexi-disc recordings, and inserts. One such insert was the “Nostalgic Mad,” featuring reprints of classic Kurtzman material from the 1950s, the first of which was included in Super Special #9 in 1972. There would be seven more in issues 12 (1973), 15 (1974), 18 (1975), 21 (1976), 24 (1977), 28 (1979), and 32 (1980).
My Mad Journey
My first encounter with Mad was via my old buddy Ed, who had Super Special #24. It was one of the issues with the Kurtzman inserts, and this one had “Flesh Garden,” a parody of Flash Gordon; Kane Keen, Private Eye; and “Mole!”—a tale featuring a crook that could dig his way out of any prison with just a toothpick or even a single nostril hair!
There was also some good stuff in the larger reprint section, such as “Fairy Tales Continued” (or “What Happened After They Lived Happily Ever After”), Dave Berg’s Lighter Side of Corruption, “Oz Revisited,” the Sergio Aragones offering of “A Mad Look at Karate,” and Don Martin’s “Yecch” (or “What a Waste”). Plus, Spy vs. Spy, a TV satire (“Bawde,” a satire of Maude)… all capped off, of course, with an Al Jaffee fold-in on the inside back cover.
I was immediately hooked.
The next time my father took me took me to the newsstand for one of my comic-book runs, I begged him to buy me a copy. It was the spring of ‘78 when I purchased my first-ever issue of Mad at Davidson’s on Springfield Avenue in Maplewood. As it just so happened, it was the 200th issue (July 1978 cover date), with the cover declaring, “This is our 200th issue! (Big deal!)” As shown on that cover, the issue featured a parody of the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind entitled “Clod Encounters of the Absurd Kind.” I started reading it in the car, and just as we’re pulling into our backyard, I break up laughing. My father asks what’s so funny and I shove one of the pages under his nose and tell him, “look, Pop!”
There’s this one panel in the story where the Richard Dreyfus character is about to fly off into outer space with the aliens and “Jelly” asks him, “Aren’t you going to miss your wife and kids, don’t they give you anything?” And he tells her, “Yeah, a pain in the ASS!” Well, this was just the most amazing thing my then-eight-year-old eyes had ever read: the word “ASS” in a printed magazine. And I wasn’t the only one—my father damn near coughed up a lung when he read it, as well.
“Just don’t let your mother see that,” he warned me.
Of course there were other gems in that issue. The Don Martin illustrated “Time of the Modern Skateboarder,” based on Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” introduced me to piece of classic literature (though I didn’t recognize it at the time, naturally). And there was also “When Those Old Line Comic Strips Follow the New Wave, Cerebral Doonesbury Trend”—a feature that also went over my head, for the most part, but I could still find funny.
At the same time I’d bought that two-hundredth issue, or perhaps the week after, I got Mad Super Special #25. The gimmick with this one was a Don Martin-illustrated rock poster, with different images on each side. On one was a collage of then-contemporary pop & rock artists, while the other showed the classic Beatles line-up, complete with Ringo picking his nose with a drumstick. It also had “A Mad History of Sex,” “Wishful Thinking,” and “Cliché Killers.”
In the five years to follow, I would barely miss an issue. I had been a strictly orthodox, fanatic superhero buyer up until then, but Mad converted me—and in so doing, had widened my horizons immeasurably.
Scope of Mad-ness
In Comics Journal #210 (Feb. 1999), they listed the top 100 comics of all time. Kurtzman’s Mad was in the top ten, holding the eighth spot on the list. As they put it:
The balance between deconstructive cliché-busting and well-structured routines, between Swiftian wit and pure spitball silliness, helps account for Mad’s sustained and wide-ranging popularity.… Godfather of the undergrounds, influencer of modern film humor, infiltrator of virtually all media, Kurtzman’s little “quickie book” stands not just as one of the greatest comic books ever, but as a true cultural phenomenon.
You can draw a fairly straight line from Mad to The National Lampoon to Saturday Night Live. It’s no exaggeration to say Mad is the bedrock of nearly all modern comedy. Between its pages is where my own adult wit and sense of humor were born.
As I said at the beginning, this is a sad, sad day.