OVERVIEWS AND GENERAL STUDIES
HARVEY KURTZMAN AND THE FOUNDING OF MAD MAGAZINE
CRITICAL COMMENTARY ON MAD MAGAZINE
THE EVOLVING ROLE OF MAD MAGAZINE IN MODERN SOCIETY
Groundbreaking American humor magazine, founded in the 1950s, that influenced generations of young and old readers through parody and satire.
In an article profiling the history of MAD Magazine, John G. Cawelti noted that observers have called MAD, "one of the two new smash-hit phenomena of the postwar magazine business … Playboy being the other." Though ostensibly a magazine for children and young adults, MAD's pointed parodic explorations of contemporary culture appealed to audiences of all ages and helped shape the American satirical voice of the twentieth century. During the 1960s, readership surveys estimated that MAD was read by 43% of all high school students and 58% of all college students in the United States, making the magazine one of the most widely read counter-culture publications of that turbulent decade. MAD was conceived by co-founders Harvey Kurtzman and William M. Gaines to lampoon the mores of conventional society, employing cartoons, caricatures, and prose to spoof all aspects of American culture, from politics to literature. After the first issue was published in October 1952, the magazine quickly became an unprecedented success, spawning a wealth of imitators and a legion of dedicated fans.
The history of MAD begins with E.C. (Educational Comics), a publishing company founded by Max C. Gaines in the mid-1940s, which primarily released comic books retelling traditional Bible stories and tales of American history. E.C. was one of a dozen comic publishers that sprang up after the conclusion of World War II, seeking to take advantage of the growing market in youth-oriented materials. E.C. quickly became successful and, after Max died in a boating accident, his son, William M. Gaines, assumed control of the company. Gaines disliked his father's mundane educational comics and decided to publish more escapist fare, changing the meaning of the initials "E.C." to "Entertaining Comics." Soon Gaines began publishing a line of pulp-style comics targeted at young boys, including war, science fiction, and horror serials typified by such titles as Weird Science, Weird Fantasy, Two-Fisted Tales, and Tales from the Crypt. The ensuing success of these titles reflected the overwhelming popularity of a new macabre style of comics, which many likened to Victorian penny dreadfuls, that predominated that era. These stories saw a rising backlash of negative attention associated with their questionable content and tremendous popularity among young boys. Such concerns were brought to a head by the publishing of Dr. Frederic Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent (1954), which argued that alleged rises in teen delinquency and homosexuality could be traced directly back to the influence of these so-called "sinister" comic books. As a result of increased political pressure, Congress convened a special panel to investigate Wertham's claims. Though Gaines vehemently argued against Wertham's accusations—labelling them akin to censorship—he nonetheless chose to abandon several of his more graphic titles and began brainstorming ideas for less violent publications.
Gaines found new inspiration in writer-artist Harvey Kurtzman, the man generally credited with creating MAD Magazine and establishing its satirical bent. A tremendous fan of comic books, Kurtzman began working for E.C. in 1949, writing and editing the war comic Two-Fisted Tales. In 1952 Gaines asked Kurtzman to create a new humor magazine for E.C., based on Kurtzman's background as cartoonist for the New York Herald Tribune Syndicate. Kurtzman suggested a comic that parodied other genres of E.C.'s comics, such as westerns, crime, and science fiction stories. Borrowing a title that Gaines used to describe E.C.'s output, MAD Mag was born. Later shortened to MAD, the initial format of the publication differed from its current incarnation in several significant ways. Priced as a ten-cent comic, the October 1952 premiere issue—titled Tales Calculated to Drive You MAD: Humor in a Jugular Vein—contained four spoofs of other comic books. In its second issue, however, Kurtzman included a parody of the Tarzan newspaper strip, which expanded the magazine's satirical targets beyond comic books. Kurtzman recognized the power in parodying familiar aspects of literature and popular culture, maintaining that "there was a treatment of reality running through MAD; the satirist/parodist tries not just to entertain his audience but to remind it of what the real world is like." As subsequent issues of MAD be-gan further mocking entertainment and society, and the comic book began developing a reputation for rowdy, bawdy humor, Gaines saw that the restrictions placed on the publication from the Comics Code Authority were limiting MAD's satirical scope. Kurtzman too had become frustrated with the inherent limits of the comic format now that MAD was no longer simply a compilation of humorous cartoons. By the time the Comics Code was installed in 1954, Kurtzman had begun to extend the reach of MAD to include photographs with farcical captions, oddball puzzles, games, and other new territories. Gaines soon realized that the Comic Code's mandate only extended to comics, and thus, MAD was relaunched as a magazine in 1954, leaving behind its comic book origins forever.
The new MAD Magazine was reformatted to copy the traditional magazine format with a new typeset, the elimination of comic strip panels, and higher quality artwork. In addition, it used its new platform to ridicule the very format it had adopted, featuring joke covers that resembled other more prestigious magazines like Life and Atlantic Monthly. Within a few issues, several of the hallmarks of the MAD tradition began to appear, such as mock advertising and the famous back cover fold-ins. But perhaps the most iconic new feature was the adoption of MAD's mascot, Alfred E. Neuman, who made his first featured appearance in 1955 with issue #28. But Kurtzman, who always had difficulty understanding his role at E.C., began clash with Gaines over the direction of the publication, ultimately causing him to accept a job with Playboy's Hugh Hefner to create Trump, a short-lived magazine very similar to MAD in tone and format. Now edited by Al Feldman, who would remain at the helm of the magazine for thirty years, MAD continued on with the early and successful publishing model outlined by Kurtzman. Highly controversial at times, MAD found itself often defending its style; one memorably bad assessment by Time in 1955 dismissed the new version of the magazine as "a short-lived satirical pulp." Further, MAD became the defendant in a series of high-profile lawsuits, including one brought by Irving Berlin who objected to MAD's parodying of his tune, "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody." In an important ruling for satirical publications, the courts ruled in favor of MAD, noting that satirists have a right to parody material without the permission of the original creator.
Despite maintaining a strong readership throughout much of the 1970s, MAD Magazine has seen its influence and sales wane significantly. By the year 2002, MAD's circulation dropped to 250,000 from its 1973 peak of 2.8 million. In 2001, due to growing financial concerns, MAD began accepting advertising for the first time in its history, also licensing its popular characters such as Antonio Prohias's "Spy vs. Spy" for product advertisements. That same year, MAD was purchased by former rival DC Comics, which is part of the AOL Time Warner media empire. Aspects of MAD's trademark parodies can be found in such contemporary television programs as Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons as well as in modern humor magazines like The Onion. Today, MAD Magazine is remembered as a groundbreaking voice in social satire and one of the innovators of twentieth-century parodic humor. Its absurd, outlandish humor and edgy, irreverent sensibilities have influenced a legion of artists, humorists, and authors such as Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Lenny Bruce, Gilbert Sheldon, Jay Lynch, and Gloria Steinem. Steinem, in particular, has notably said of MAD that, "There was a spirit of satire and irreverence in MAD that was very important, and it was the only place you could find it in the '50s." Many of the MAD stable of writers and illustrators—including Antonio Prohias, Sergio Aragonés, Dick DeBartolo, Don Martin, Dave Berg, Angelo Torres, Al Jaffee, Mort Drucker and Norman Mingo—have themselves become icons in the fields of comics and satire.
MAD's Sergio Aragonés on Parade [edited by Albert B. Feldstein and Jerry De Fuccio] (cartoons) 1978
Good Days and MAD: A Hysterical Tour behind the Scenes at MAD Magazine (history) 1994
MAD Art: A Visual Celebration of the Art of MAD Magazine and the Idiots Who Create It (history and artwork) 2002
Albert B. Feldstein
The Ridiculously Expensive MAD: A Collection of the Worst from 17 Years of MAD [editor; with William M. Gaines] (cartoons and satire) 1969
The Mad Life and Fantastic Art of Al Feldstein: The Madman behind E.C. Comics and MAD Magazine (cartoons and autobiography) 2004
The MAD World of William M. Gaines (biography) 1972
MAD—Cover to Cover: 48 Years, 6 Months, and 3 Days of MAD Magazine Covers [editor] (history and artwork) 2000
MAD Magazine [editor/founder] (periodical) 1952-present
My Life as a Cartoonist [with Howard Zimmerman] (autobiography) 1988
MAD Editorial's "Usual Gang of Idiots"
The MAD Reader (cartoons and satire) 1954
Spy vs. Spy: The Complete Casebook [introduction by Grant Geissman] (cartoons) 2001
Completely MAD: A History of the Comic Book and Magazine (history) 1991
John G. Cawelti (essay date 1977)
SOURCE: Cawelti, John G. "The Sanity of MAD." In American Humor: Essays Presented to John C. Gerber, edited by O. M. Brack, Jr., pp. 171-88. Scottsdale, Ariz.: Arete Publications, 1977.
[In the following essay, Cawelti examines how MAD Magazine revolutionized the growing art of the "sophisticated comic" through its pioneering use of burlesque, radical reinventions of traditional illustration techniques, and inspired use of social satire.]
One of the sanest periodicals issued in the United States these days is a comic book called MAD. In fact, it seems to some of its followers that MAD's chief danger is the possibility that it will become too respectable, too sane, too much a beacon of morality in an increasingly amoral or immoral society. That would be a terrible fate for a comic tradition which had its source in the much reviled horror and crime comics of the late 40's and early 50's. Fortunately, there seems to be plenty of left-over vulgarity to go around, but nevertheless, such portents as the following need to be closely watched. In late 1967, Vernard Eller, a Professor of Religion at LaVerne College created a small stir when he published in Christian Century an essay entitled "MAD Morality: An Exposé." Prof. Eller claimed that far from being a subversive assault on reputable values, MAD has in fact been one of the staunchest supporters of traditional morality. Prof. Eller followed up his article with a book The MAD Morality, or The Ten Commandments Revisited (1970) in which he suggests that one of MAD's central themes is the exposure and ridicule of typical contemporary transgressions and evasions of the Ten Commandments. As the book-jacket puts it:
For years "35¢-cheap" MAD has been dispensing large doses of old-fashioned morality to its readers under the cover of "garbage"—leading its poor unsuspecting audience to believe that it was just another magazine. But now a well-known theologian blows MAD's cover and proves just how moral it really is.
One shivers with delight at the possibility of a MAD feature about theologians who write books like The MAD Morality and The Gospel according to Peanuts. However, since any such treatment would probably include a few digs at academics who write scholarly articles on comic magazines, we had better tread softly here. Anyway, all this respectable theological attention has not yet led to any signs of decadence in MAD, which is still published eight times yearly by William M. Gaines and edited by Albert B. Feldstein, supported by what the masthead refers to as "the usual gang of idiots"—the contributing artists and writers including such regulars as Don Martin, Mort Drucker, Dick De Bartolo, David Berg, Max Brandel, Stan Hart, Jack Davis, George Woodbridge, Bob Clarke, Paul Coker, Jr., Larry Siegel, Al Jaffee, Angelo Torres, Sergio Aragonés, Arnie Kogen, Jack Richard, George Hart, and Antonio Prohias. MAD's average circulation is estimated at 1.7 million, though it is likely that each issue is read by around 6 million people.1 The major audience seems to be high school and college students. A Teenage Survey Poll in the early 1960's revealed that MAD was the favorite magazine of 58% of college and 43% of high school students.2 Almost alone in a period when American magazines have become totally dependent on advertising, MAD has refused all commercial sponsorship. Despite this it has become, according to one observer, "one of the two new smash-hit phenomena of the postwar magazine business … Playboy being the other."3 Though the bulk of its devotees are probably teenagers, MAD is certainly not without its older fans. Even the dignified Atlantic Monthly has been known to recommend it. In September, 1963, C. W. Morton argued "The Case for MAD" in its pages and concluded that:
Having read MAD for a good many years, and with a sense of being rewarded by every issue, I venture to argue that MAD is the funniest magazine we have, that its targets well deserve the mauling it gives them, and that many non-readers would be benefitted [by a] subscription to this nonesuch.4
MAD's peculiar preeminence in the field derives from the fact that it pioneered the sophisticated comic book, which has only recently begun to flourish more widely, particularly in Europe. The comic strip is as old as the turn of the century, and the great age of the comic book began in the mid-30's with the invention of the super-hero adventure comics. But with a few notable exceptions, both comic strips and books were conceived of as entertainment for a non-sophisticated mass audience. While newspaper comic strips have usually had a sizeable adult readership, the comic books largely aimed at a juvenile and adolescent audience. Some of the comic books—those created by Disney and other animated cartoon producers as offshoots of their film creations—had the kind of simple slapstick humor characteristic of the animated cartoon, but there was little in the way of sophisticated, satirical observation of life. Yet the comic book format with its combination of narrative and visual media was enormously effective in an age which, under the impact of the movies and television, was becoming more and more visually oriented. At the time MAD came into existence in the early 1950's a substantial audience existed who had cut their teeth on the comics, but had grown out of the more juvenile fantasies of animals and super-heroes.
Traditionally this audience of more intelligent and sophisticated high school and college students had turned to the humor magazine or to the humorous and satirical elements of general magazines like The New Yorker or the Saturday Evening Post or Colliers. Many students, finding the satirical tone of the commercial magazines a little too tame for their taste, created and published their own humorous and satirical journals like the Harvard Lampoon. But, for a generation which had tasted the striking power of a combined narrative and visual format through movies and comic books, the humor magazine had two serious limitations. First, its narrative humor was purely verbal and second, its visual humor was largely limited to one-shot cartoons and caricatures. MAD's essential contribution was to synthesize the narrative-visual continuity of the comic books with the more sophisticated humorous and satirical approach of the humor and complex magazines thereby creating a medium in which a more extended form of visual and verbal humor was possible.
To effect this combination the creators of MAD had to invent or develop several new comic structures exploiting the joint possibilities of visual and verbal expression. The most important of these was MAD's version of the burlesque, which has been a mainstay of the magazine since its beginning. The MAD burlesque is a lampoon of some typical product of the mass media. Generally, following the narrative outline of the film or program it is taking off, it uses a variety of satirical devices ranging from caricature and parody to standard gags and puns to ridicule its object. At its least inspired, the MAD burlesque does little more than poke fun at obvious inanities in TV, the films, or the comics. But at their best, MAD's writers and artists have been able to use this comic structure not only for brilliant parodies of certain popular works, but also for wider and more complex satirical purposes. In general, the skill and sophistication of MAD's resident lampooners has grown with the years. The early MAD burlesques set the magazine's direction but usually failed to develop the broader satirical resonance of more recent creations. For example, an early take-off on the Lone Ranger strives for humorous effect by simply reversing the characters and typical situations of the original. Most of the comedy derives from devices as inane as calling Silver "Golden." Where the Lone Ranger is brave, noble and selfless, the Lone Stranger is presented as a coward, a fool, and an avaricious hypocrite. In the opening picture we see the Lone Stranger firing his six-guns as if surrounded by enemies. In succeeding pictures we discover that in fact he has been firing at a tin can on the fence and has only hit it once. Then we see the Lone Stranger insisting that Pronto pick up every bullet because "It's plum hard to come by them thar golden bullets." In another sequence, the Lone Stranger and Pronto have come upon a wagon train of pioneers. Pronto announces the presence of the Lone Stranger. At this point in the real Lone Ranger all eyes would be riveted on the newcomer and a rustle of excitement would run through the crowd. But in this case, the group of pioneers shows no interest until Pronto, desperately running through the iconographical attributes of the hero announces "Hey you settlers! Looka dis masked man wit' Indian assistant." At this point the pioneers rush to crowd around the Lone Stranger who says "Now Men! Take it easy, men! I'll shake your hands one at a time … give you autographs! Just don't crowd me." But in fact, the settlers are crowding around in order to hang the Lone Stranger because as one of them says "It's a blasted owl-hoot cattle rustler! Else why would he wear that mask!" After episodes showing the greed, cowardice and womanizing of the Lone Stranger, the burlesque ends with an Indian attack in which the Lone Stranger is captured and faithful Pronto turns out to be the chief of the hostile Indians. In the final picture Pronto is lighting the fire which will burn the Lone Stranger at the stake.5
This kind of burlesque is pretty simple-minded, dependent as it is on one basic humorous point: the reversal of the expected. A more recent takeoff on the Western, Mort Drucker and Arnie Kogen's burlesque of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, illustrates how much more sophisticated MAD has become since the early fifties.6 For one thing, the target of the burlesque is itself far more complicated than the Lone Ranger and the treatment is correspondingly more subtle. Mort Drucker's style of visual parody is much subtler and richer in its range of expression than the rather grotesque caricatures of the earlier MAD. Where the "Lone Stranger" and "Pronto" are cartoon stereotypes pushed to a ridiculous extreme, Drucker's caricatures of Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Katherine Ross are rather subtle put-ons of the typical expressions and mannerisms of these stars. In addition, the visual compositions of many of the strip's pictures cleverly parody some of the film's more striking visual moments. The content of the satire goes along with this. Instead of simply reversing the noble characteristics of the hero and thereby ridiculing him, Drucker and Kogen let their satirical arrows loose at a number of targets, including some of the artistic devices used in the film. For example, one of the film's most striking sequences was a montage of photographs of Butch, Sundance and Etta, visiting New York on the way to Bolivia. The device was rather effective in the film both in evoking a nostalgic sense of the larger historical background in which the characters existed and in carrying out the film's central theme of the traditional individualist outlaw doomed by the progress of modern society to obsolescence. Nonetheless, the montage technique was a rather mannered artistic device and thus open to the kind of mocking at which MAD is so good. The comic version shows an audience watching a series of parodies of the kind of still photos used in the film and making the following comments:
"Isn't this montage something?"
"Yes! It's a daring breakthrough in Motion Picture History! It's called 'Still Photos'!"
"It ranks with the best of Fellini, Antonioni, Bergman, and Polaroid."
"They're almost as good as my Bar Mitzvah slides! But, of course, they lack the symbolism!"
"I haven't seen such artistry since the 1964 album of photos of 'Irene and Herbie Astroe's Wedding'!"
"I understand the photos were developed in 60 seconds."
"That's more than you can say for the plot! It hasn't been developed at all, and it's been 60 minutes."
The central object of satire in "Botch Casually and the Somedunce Kid" is the film's attempt to make a lyrical and humorous statement out of the materials of the Western tradition, a target which in itself shows a rather sophisticated and complex grasp of the film's intention. On the whole, the ridiculing is gentle and good-humored: at one point where Botch's gang is fleeing the posse the picture shows Botch and Somedunce exchanging one-line gags as one of the other outlaws remarks, "it's times like these that I miss the biting, satirical humor of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans!" At another point, where Botch and Somedunce are trapped by the posse on a high cliff, Somedunce points out that they must jump and Botch absolutely refuses whereupon Somedunce says:
Hey did you hear the one about these two traveling salesmen—? I'LL JUMP!! I'LL JUMP!!
But at a number of points, the satire does bite, catching a moment where the film strikes a phony posture. For example at two points the parody takes a dig at the film's refusal to deal more explicitly with the sexual implications of the character relationships. At the very beginning of the parody, a take-off on the card-playing sequence which opens the film, the following exchange takes place between Botch and Somedunce:
Hey, Somedunce, we'd better go! You're cheating again, and that means trouble!
I am not cheating!
Sure you are! You're spending time with other men, aren't you?
Well, to me that's cheating! You know how jealous I get!
And at another point in the famous scene where Botch is riding Etta around on a bicycle, Etta says:
But I don't get it, Botch! The Somedunce Kid makes love to me all night … and all you do is ride me around on this bike! It doesn't seem—uh—normal!
And Botch replies:
You're right! Boy, the Somedunce Kid is some kind of sick pervert!
But most tellingly of all, MAD's burlesque hits the film at its most dubious point, its comic lyrical treatment of violence and outlawry. In one picture, as Botch and Somedunce are escaping after a bank robbery in Bolivia, a stereotype comic South American peasant has the following exchange with his mule:
The Bandidos Yanquis have brought humor and excitement to our poor simple lives.
That's not saying much! A copy of Readers Digest would do the same thing.
And, after Botch and Somedunce shoot the Bolivian bandits they make the following comments:
Gee, Botch, we've had some cute, whimsical moments in this movie, but this is—by far—the zaniest! Six Bolivian bandits, riddled with bullets and spurting blood, dying in SLOW MOTION, yet! What laughs!! Hey, should I shoot 'em again to make sure they're dead?
Nahh! Don't milk it! ONCE—it's funny!
"Botch Casually" represents one main type of MAD burlesque in which the object of satire is more the formal characteristics of the parodied work than the values they represent. These are on the whole friendly satires instead of attacks. Indeed, one might rather call them tributes to the imaginative energy embodied in the original work through that sincerest form of flattery, the parodic imitation. However, many of MAD's TV and movie burlesques are far more biting attacks on the hypocrisy and false values which the satirized works represent. In the last year or so MAD has often taken off after the mass media's fashionable but escapist version of contemporary themes and social relevance with particular concentration on two areas: race relations and the new morality. The opening picture of Angelo Torres and Stan Hart's "Room 22222zzzz," a take-off on one of a number of integrated high school TV series, sets the tone for what is to follow. A handsome tweedy black teacher stands outside a typical high school building watching young couples enter hand in hand. There are two white couples, an eskimo pair, a couple dressed in Arabian burnooses, a black boy and girl and Lucy and Charlie Brown. A conversation takes place between Mr. Dixie, the black teacher and the black student:
Hi! My name is Petey Dixie! I'm a dedicated teacher in the TV series that takes place here at fictional Walt Witless High School, where students of every race and creed learn what Democracy is all about!
Hey, Mr. Dixie! How come when the program opens each week, we show White couples and Black couples, but no MIXED couples—like maybe a White girl and a Black boy?
Because this is TV—not the movies! And TV still isn't ready to show what Democracy is REALLY all about! In fact, it's amazing that we can even show that this school is totally integrated!
Yeah, especially when it's actually located in an all-White suburban area, and no blacks live anywhere near it!7
From here the burlesque moves on to satirize American society's hypocritical racial attitudes. At one point several businessmen approach Mr. Dixie with offers as "Token Personnel Manager," "Token Vice-President" and "Token Chairman of the Board of any giant corporation of your choice." In the next picture a man with the features of Georgia governor Lester Maddox makes Dixie this offer:
Join us and you WON'T be a "Token employee."
I won't be a "Token employee"? That sounds interesting!
We start you in right at the bottom!
The MAD burlesque of a movie, TV program, or musical comedy is only one of several effective parody formats combining the resources of visual and verbal satire. There is the MAD advertisement, for example. The deceptive practices and irrelevant gimmicks of American advertising have long been major targets for MAD satirists and over the years several types of advertising parody have developed. Often, MAD's back cover is devoted to a full-color burlesque of a current advertising campaign. These back covers are superb take-offs on the visual style of the target ads as well as occasions for digs at leading American institutions or public figures. A recent example parodied the series of ads put out by the makers of Ronrico rum. These ads played on the name of the rum and on the current nostalgia for minor celebrities of the twenties and thirties by headlines such as "Ron Rico—wasn't he the …" MAD's version of this ad coupled a skillful take-off of the Ronrico ad's campy visual style with a bit of political satire:
Ron Reagan. Isn't he the ex-movie star who wanted to be President?
Yep! And it's something most folks would like to forget! That things like this are happening here in America! That good old-time movie stars who weren't even that good in the first place have become Senators and Governors and yes—even made bids for Presidential nominations. It's enough to drive a thinking person to drink!8
Another kind of MAD ad takes the form of a direct satire on advertising's deceptive practices, presenting a more or less straight version of the ad, followed by a series of pictures illustrating the true character of the thing being advertised. In the recent feature on "How to Read a Resort Ad," for example, a typical glamorous resort ad is followed by a series of pictures showing how phony the claims of "friendly atmosphere," "courteous staff," "gourmet meals," "scenic hiking trails," etc. are when measured against the sordid reality.9
Another satirical format, often used to good effect is what might be called the MAD newsreel. A sequence of photographs is accompanied by a series of captions which bring out the satirical point. The captions usually consist of the words of some traditional song or speech which, juxtaposed against photographs of the present world strikingly illustrate how traditional beliefs or feelings are being distorted or transgressed in the contemporary world. Along these lines, MAD delights in setting the words of the ten commandments over against current news photographs. A picture of three teenaged girls kneeling in fanatic devotion before the Beatles is captioned "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." A heavily made-up female movie star ecstatically kissing an Oscar she has presumably just received is headed by the words "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image." A photograph of Lester Maddox speaking before a crowd which holds a big sign saying "GOD BLESS George Wallace, Ross Barnett, Lester Maddox, Strom Thurmond, James Eastland, John Stennis," is headed "Thou Shalt not take the name of the Lord, thy God in vain."10 Another MAD newsreel uses phrases from the song "America the Beautiful" to caption a series of photos of slums, factory chimneys pouring out smoke, mountains of junked cars, a wilderness of billboards and neon signs, and other typical contemporary American scenes of pollution and desecration of the environment.11
Some of the MAD features edge away from parody and burlesque toward direct satire on particular American institutions. The format which has developed in this area is the connected series of short one to four picture gags which illustrate in mosaic style many different aspects of a particular institution. Sometimes these brief gags are composed together on a single large double page as in a recent "MAD Peek behind the Scenes at a Hospital."12 Here a double page is structured to give the sense of seeing into many different rooms in a hospital, each room containing a brief scene with a different satirical point about hospital operations. There are similar "MAD Looks at …" analyses of a great variety of American institutions. But the master of this kind of direct satire is an artist named David Berg who uses a similar format—the one to four picture strip in related series—to make sometimes brilliantly sharp satirical commentary on the foibles of American middle-class life. Berg is one of MAD's major contributors and his portrayal of American life is central to the general mood or unity of MAD's satirical attitude.
Two other humorous formats, rather more verbal than visual, though always making use of illustrations, are part of MAD's regular contents. These are the MAD primer, and MAD's parody versions of popular poetry. The MAD primer is an ingenious concept for a certain kind of satirical humor and has proved capable of handling a wide variety of targets. The basic idea was to use the simplified language and style of the primers which children study in the early grades, such as the Dick and Jane Books, to talk satirically about politics, education, and manners. When done effectively the child-like simplicity and repetitiveness of the language adds a special kind of impetus to the satire:
See the Super Patriot.
Hear him preach how he loves his country.
Hear him preach how he hates "Liberals" …
And "Moderates" … and "Intellectuals" …
And "Activists" … and "Pacifists" …
And "Minority Groups" … and "Aliens" …
And "Unions" … and "Teenagers" …
And the "Very Rich" … and the "Very Poor" …
And "People with Foreign-Sounding Names."13
Now you know what a Super Patriot is.
He's someone who loves his country While hating 93% of the people who live in it.
MAD poetry typically begins in parody of some well-known popular poem and ends with a satirical point against some contemporary institution or form of behavior. A good example from MAD's "Sports Fan's Garden of Verses" starts from Christopher Marlowe's famous pastoral lyric "Come Live with Me and Be My Love."
Come bowl with me this evening, dear,14
And we will kill twelve cans of beer;
We'll join the others on the team
And eat three quarts of peach ice cream.
And in between each frame we bowl
We'll have a burger on a roll,
A dozen hot-dogs, sacks of fries,
A meatball and two apple pies:
Come bowl with me, you really should—
The exercise will do us good.
Finally, no account of MAD's contribution to our pleasure would be complete without mention of two specialized contributors whose work, though rather different from the general trend of satire and burlesque, plays an important part in establishing the magazine's mood or tone. These are Don Martin, whose inimitable visual style and grotesque sense of humor continue to link MAD with that style of contemporary humor loosely called "sick" and Antonio Prohias whose inspired visual slapstick in the series "Spy vs. Spy" is the most purely non-verbal of MAD's features.
Beyond the varying quality of its individual contributions and their more or less inventive way of exploiting the complex humorous possibilities of the combined verbal and visual format of the comic book, MAD has created a distinctive comic identity. Most successful magazines must embody some kind of distinctive personality no matter how diverse their contents and this seems to be particularly important for humorous and satirical ventures like MAD. In general, this comic identity is the expression of a particular style of humor and of a social mood or complex of feelings and attitudes which determines the satirical targets and the kind of emotion which is directed toward them. In MAD's case, the magazine's comic identity is symbolized by the gaptoothed grin of Alfred E. Neuman, whose face looks out from every cover of the magazine. Neuman's face was discovered by MAD's original editor Harvey Kurtzman, on the wall of Bernard Shir-Cliff, an editor at Ballantine Books. Apparently, the face was originally used as a dentist's advertisement around the turn of the century.15 Kurtzman evidently sensed that this face superbly embodied the comic mood which his new magazine was evolving and since that time Alfred E., with his motto "What? Me Worry?" has been MAD's presiding spirit. The name, Alfred E. Neuman, was also an excellent choice. Its flavor of pompous respectability and adult dignity comically sets off the infantile vacuity and clownish roguery of the face, in a way that reminds one of Eliot's wonderful name for his impotent hero J. Alfred Prufrock. The name Neuman of course carries with it a complex of American cultural meanings—one thinks, for example, of Henry James' archetypal American Christopher Newman. Also, it may embody some suggestion of the role which Jewish humor plays in the magazine, for Alfred also embodies something of the great Jewish humorous tradition of the shlemiel. If this is the case, then the conjunction of Alfred E.—a supremely Anglo-Saxon name which evokes the memory of the one-time Kansas governor who ran for the presidency in 1936—with Neuman—ambiguously Jewish—suggests another comic paradox.
Alfred E. Neuman is a witness and bemused observer but not an accuser. He is invariably represented as looking straight out of the picture, his eyes fixed on the reader as if inviting him to recognize his own part in all this. The emotion represented on Alfred's face is a rather mild one compared to the traditional rage of satire. There is none of the fierce indignation of a Lucian or a Swift, nor of the profound melancholy of a harlequin or clown. Instead, the smile on Alfred's rather simian features suggests most strongly a silly giggle. The implication is the reader's world is so ridiculous that it makes even an idiot like Alfred laugh, but in a rather innocuous way and good-humored way as if the whole silly thing didn't make much difference. Thus, Alfred's famous motto—"What? Me Worry?" Though Alfred suggests the traditional shlemiel of Jewish humor, he is never represented in a situation of failure. From his point of view it is we who are the shlemiels. Finally, Alfred's face has some semblance to the comic tradition of roguish boys who poke fun at the false dignity and comic inconsistencies of their elders. He has that air of vacuous innocence with a glint of mischief in the eyes that suggests a passive Katzenjammer kid or perhaps even a less intelligent and perceptive Huckleberry Finn.
The humor of MAD generally reflects these characteristics of its presiding spirit—it shows few signs of real anger or indignation, puncturing its targets with a giggle instead of a rapier. Despite its wide-ranging satires on current events, it concentrates on personalities rather than political issues. For example, a satire on Nixon, one of MAD's perennial targets, ridicules Nixon as a cold, insincere, hypocritical man rather than as a political leader who stands for certain policies and social attitudes. The magazine's title and some of its contents, particularly the work of Don Martin, are related to the trend in modern American humor which has been generally termed "sick" because of its peculiarly grotesque forms of comedy, its emphasis on disgusting subjects, its ridicule of persons like the sick, the handicapped and the mentally deficient, and its espousal of shocking attitudes toward traditional pieties. However, MAD was far "sicker" in its earlier days when it was emerging from the horror comics of the late forties and early fifties than it is now.16 Indeed, MAD has become so moderate in its temper, so traditional in its implicit values and so restrained in its mischief that, as we have seen, it is not impossible to interpret its satire as support for a liberal version of a traditional religious morality.
Since the function of satire is ridicule rather than affirmation, a good satirist can rarely be pinned down to specific ideological or ethical commitments. The humorist is precious because of his sense of the comic and the ridiculous, not because of the depth or complexity of his philosophy of life. Nonetheless, satire does grow out of a complex of attitudes and feelings and this mood is an important source of the comic identity and unity possessed by effective satire. Just as a joke takes on much of its power from our relationship with its teller, so a successful comic magazine must project to us a definite personality. We have specified some of the emotional qualities of MAD's comic identity in our discussion of Alfred E. Neuman. What might be called the central theme of this identity is the idea of the crazy kid, the innocent shlemiel whose very silliness and lack of concern seem a point of sanity and moderation in a world given over to extremism, phoniness and anxiety. This complex of feelings relates to some of the implicit social attitudes which underlie MAD's ridicule.
One major area at which MAD aims its satirical arrows is the manners and mores of the affluent suburban middle class. The suburban life style, particularly in the fine work of David Berg, is handled incisively but amiably, as befitting Berg's running title, "The Lighter Side of …." As Berg and other MAD satirists portray it, the suburban middle class is ridden by anxiety, status-seeking, the fear of aging, hypocrisy and the generation gap. The adult female is a shrewish helpmeet whose constant grimaces reflect tense anxieties about her children, her status, her fading attractiveness and the boorishness of her husband. The male of the species is presented through a wider variety of types. Some embody characteristics similar to their mates, but the majority are seen as impotent and frustrated slaves of the scornful demands of their wives and children. Among this pair's children is a young male hippie who counters his parents' phony respectability with an equally phony rebellion, and a teenage daughter whose selfish narcissism is mainly centered on attracting boys. If the son has not become a hippie, he is obsessed with sports cars and his reputation with his contemporaries. In sum, MAD's portrayal of middle-class suburban life is a comic version of the portrait of affluent, other-directed Americans painted by liberal social critics of the 40's and 50's like David Riesman, Vance Packard, and John Kenneth Galbraith. Yet, like many of these critics, MAD is essentially sympathetic to the class and life style whose foibles it ridicules. Though the suburban middle class is narcissistic, hypocritical, and sick with status anxieties, these problems are treated by MAD with some complexity, subtlety, and sympathy. The magazine's implied point of view could best be defined as that of a bright middle-class adolescent who has not been sucked in by the hang-ups that bind his parents and his contemporaries, is amused by their petty selfishness, hypocrisy and conformism, annoyed when these characteristics impinge on his freedom, yet not particularly concerned with upsetting the way of life of which they are a part.
The traditional middle-class mood of MAD's satire becomes even more apparent when we turn to those targets for which MAD reserves its most scathing caricatures and least-qualified ridicule, for we find that these are typically those social groups and institutions toward which the middle class feels a strong but covert animosity and ambiguity. For instance, though MAD is generally liberal in its politics—anti-war, anti-racism, anti-pollution—its treatment of the urban working class is almost entirely based on hostile stereotype and caricature. The social background of those fat, greasy slobs who eat enormous amounts of hot dogs and then shout for blood at mass spectator sports is unmistakable and reflects the same basic animus as the Polish joke. The same attitude underlies, I believe, MAD's persistent attack on the service industries and the incompetence, greed, and arrogance of repairmen, waiters and garage attendants. Another favorite object of MAD's animosity is the South and rural America in general, which appears in its pages as an area of unmitigated barbarism, stupidity, and prejudice. In recent years, the radical youth and Black power movements have joined these traditional MAD targets as objects of fear and ridicule. The April 1969 feature "You're in trouble … when they smile" nicely summed up this side of MAD's view of the world problems. It began "You're in trouble when the local bully smiles at you … especially after you just gave him your best karate chop" accompanied by an illustration of a nicely dressed young man surrounded by a group of brutal slobs with motorcycles; ran through a standard series of middle-class moments of anxiety—open zipper at the school play, a blind date, a minor auto accident, etc.; and concluded "AND LASTLY, YOU KNOW YOU'RE IN TROUBLE whenever you see any of these guys smiling!" with pictures of Charles De-Gaulle, Mao Tse Tung, Stokely Carmichael, George Wallace, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.17
Thus, for MAD, the United States is a country of basically decent middle-class people beset by their own foibles, but profoundly threatened by extremists of the left and right and by the surging barbarism of the urban masses and the narrow bigotry of the provinces. As if this were not enough, this saving remnant is also constantly subjected to the exploitative strategems of the organized hucksters who control the mass media. Though I feel its treatment of the working class and of new political movements is important in characterizing its comic mood, the main target of MAD remains, as it has always been, the mass media. However, MAD's satires on movies, TV, Broadway shows, comic strips and advertising cannot be characterized in any simple way. The satires on advertising are as direct and scathing as anything in the magazine. For example, "MAD's Christmas Cards" in January 1968 were directed at "seasonal exploiters" most of whom were advertisers and packagers—the others were service workers like the garbageman and the janitor out for tips. MAD's greetings to the cigarette industry illustrate the kind of Consumer Report indignation which MAD's writers and artists typically work up when they contemplate large corporations and their advertisers:
Your Christmas cartons are adorned18
With mistletoe and holly,
And happy faces all aglow,
And Santas who are jolly;
But though your wrappings may be bright
With sleighs and snow and stars there,
It's just a Christmas cover-up
For all those killing tars there!
These satires on advertising and, more recently, the attack on pollution represent the nearest which MAD has come to a basic criticism of the American way of life. Most of the rest of its mass media satires, though scoring many incisive points, are at least partly tinged with affection. On the whole, these features parody the central characteristics of the target film or TV program instead of attacking the political or ethical implications which the targets might suggest. MAD's parody of Adam-12 ridiculed the slow pace of the show as boring rather than satirizing, for instance, the show's avoidance of many of the political and social implications of police work; the burlesque of Family Affair makes fun of its insipid "cute" portrayal of children; when MAD took on the movie M∗A∗S∗H it was, ironically, to kid its penchant for "sick" humor. On the whole, these are what might be called friendly burlesques. They actually enhance our appreciation for the targets by articulating in a humorous way their most distinctive qualities rather than exposing their hypocritical postures and false values. When confronted with a particularly inane TV practice, such as its escapist treatment of race relations, MAD can still scratch, if not fatally:
Are you a Negro?
Not really! Actually, I belong to a different race altogether! It's called a "TV Negro"! I'm what White people THINK a Negro should look like: Dark-skinned with Caucasian features!19
On the whole, however, MAD's treatment of the creations of popular culture can be sharply differentiated from its attacks on the organization and leaders of the mass media. Satires on advertisers, producers, press agents and publishers are, like the attacks on advertising, generally rather sharp and indignant. The big wheel in mass media, like the highly successful businessman or politician, is seen as a rapacious and ruthless exploiter. The products of the mass media may be a bit "ecchy," to use a favorite MAD expression, but they fascinate us in spite of ourselves.
The comic identity of MAD—its fascination with the mass media, its presiding spirit of Alfred E. Neuman with his insouciant innocence and mischief, its solid middle-class point of view, and its particular attacks on extreme political commitments, on large corporations, and on both urban working class and rural America—reflects above all the mood of withdrawal and mockery which characterized the 1950's and the early 1960's in America. The prevailing middle-class mood of that era, which already seems another world in the dynamic political turbulence of the 1970's, was one of retreat from the political arena into the quest for individual liberation and fulfillment protected by a stance of ambiguous cynicism toward the established culture. It was an era of widespread dissatisfaction with the power structure of American society, but the ethos was not strongly oriented toward total rejection; perhaps the strongest ethical imperative was to use the established culture to gain a secure position from which to cultivate individual freedom and the good life. When the established culture impinged on the quest for individual liberation, it could be withstood by the put-on, by irony, by mockery rather than by direct opposition. Because it, too, embodies this mood, MAD shares many qualities with some of the major works of art and literature of its period. This was a time when Jewish humor and fiction greatly flourished because its complex humanism, its particular sensitivity to obsessions and hang-ups, and its powerful sense of the conflicts that arise when the individual has rejected many aspects of his traditional culture but still remains committed to it, also embodied the mood of the 50's and 60's. Not surprisingly many of MAD's contributors are Jewish and their work resembles the humor of Mort Sahl, Shelley Berman, and Lenny Bruce. Like the MAD satirists these comedians often make their points through parodies of mass culture. One of Lenny Bruce's best numbers was a wild take-off on the Lone Ranger, which is far more erotic and obscene than anything in MAD, but not dissimilar in structure.20 Philip Roth's wild comedies of Jewish life with their emphasis on the neurotic and demanding mother, the impotent father and the frustrated obsessive son match the world of David Berg at many points. Like Berg, Roth anatomizes and seeks to exorcise with mockery those middle-class obsessions which prevent the individual from liberating himself. We have already noted MAD's relation to sick humor, another characteristic cultural development of the 1950's, embodying that stance of mockery toward traditional pieties which seemed necessary to shake the individual loose from received cultural attitudes. MAD also has a direct relation to that important movement in the arts known as "pop." The ambiguous combination of mockery and affection with which MAD treats the products of the mass media has its more complex counterpart in the Campbell's soup cans of Andy Warhol, the gigantic hamburgers and ice cream cones of Claes Oldenberg and the monumental comic strip paintings of Roy Lichtenstein. There seems little question that the MAD satires of the mass media played an important role in establishing a new attitude toward the products of mass culture: neither the uncritical acceptance of earlier periods nor the total denunciation of many intellectual critics, but that newer attitude associated with the pop revolution of using the techniques of mass culture without being used by them.
We are now in a position to see some of the reasons why, as we said at the outset of this paper, MAD was one of the two great magazine innovations of the 1950's, the other being Playboy. At a time when the traditional middle-class magazines like Saturday Evening Post and Colliers were collapsing in the face of television, Playboy and MAD became tremendous successes because they caught the new mood and grasped the central needs of the time. Playboy of course became the direct exponent of the quest for individual liberation from the cultural prohibitions of the past and a model of how the newly affluent middle class might exploit the possibilities of mass culture for individual gratification without shame or guilt. MAD, too, became an exponent of liberation from middle-class anxieties and hang-ups through mockery and satire, but also, to its credit, set up a running critical examination of the new morality as well. Indeed, some of MAD's most effective satires have been burlesques of those films which, like Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice represent the affluent middle-class' tentative and fumbling quest for sexual liberation.
Though MAD may have had some role in creating the younger generation's alienation from modern American culture, it retains enough of the ethos of the 50's to be generally critical of radicalism and the new youth culture. In fact, as we have already noted, MAD has become increasingly conservative and mature in its satires, reflecting more and more a concern for sanity and moderation and less and less interest in the more grotesque and extravagant forms of humor with which it began to lampoon American culture in the early 1950's. If the world situation becomes still more desperate and young people continue to develop their radically dissenting subculture, the sanity, moderation, and traditional middle-class individualism implicit of MAD's comic identity will probably no longer match the mood of the times; more apocalyptic and revolutionary forms of comedy in the underground press have already emerged to compete with MAD's milder mockery. But for the present, while it may not be the whip that stings or the fire that purges, MAD's spirited burlesques of contemporary manners and media are still a healthy, delightful and highly sane commentary on American manners and mores.
1. J. M. Flagler, "MAD Miracle," Look, 19 March 1968, p. 46.
2. J. Skow, "MAD: Wild Oracle of the Teenage Underground," Saturday Evening Post, 21 December 1963, p. 62.
3. Flagler, p. 46.
4. C. W. Morton, "The Case for MAD," Atlantic, 212 (September, 1963): 100.
5. "The Lone Stranger" which originally appeared in 1953 has been reprinted in The Bedside MAD (New York: Signet Books, 1959), pp. 30-50.
6. "Botch Casually and the Somedunce Kid" is in MAD, no. 136 (July, 1970), pp. 4-10.
7. MAD, no. 136 (July, 1970), p. 43.
8. MAD, no. 131 (December, 1969), back page.
9. MAD, no. 138 (October, 1970), pp. 17-19.
10. Reprinted in Eller, The MAD Morality (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1970), pp. 4-6.
11. Reprinted in Eller, pp. 22-24.
12. MAD, no. 131 (December, 1969), pp. 2-25.
13. Reprinted in Eller, p. 12.
14. MAD, no. 138 (October, 1970), p. 15.
15. R. Gehman, "Just Plain MAD," Coronet, 48 (May, 1960): 96.
16. For some brief but interesting comments on the early MAD see Robert Warshow, "Paul, the Horror Comics, and Dr. Wertham," in The Immediate Experience (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1964), pp. 44-62.
17. MAD, no. 126 (April, 1969), pp. 26-28.
18. MAD, no. 116 (January, 1968), p. 10.
19. MAD, no. 126 (April, 1969), p. 9.
20. Cf. John Cohen, ed., The Essential Lenny Bruce (New York: Ballantine Books, 1967), pp. 70-75.
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Craig Stark (essay date July-August 2003)
SOURCE: Stark, Craig. "'What? Me Worry?': Teaching Media Literacy through Satire and MAD Magazine." Clearing House 76, no. 6 (July-August 2003): 305-09.
[In the following essay, Stark presents a methodology for teaching media literacy to students through humor and satire, particularly by employing examples taken from MAD Magazine.]
Teaching media, like teaching anything else, can lead to some very difficult discussions. It's always possible for students to get bogged down or confused by new material, but when approaching media literacy specifically, students can become especially fatigued. Not only are there literally countless media texts and volumes of relevant criticism for student consumption, but much of that criticism damns students' everyday, and pleasurable, experiences with media like television, film, and radio. Therefore, discussions of media literacy often feel to students like personal attacks rather than academic explorations. Moreover, students who do begin to examine their relationship to mass media and their unquestioning acceptance of many media messages may start asking themselves some very hard questions about unconscious values they've adopted and choices they've made. Although they may learn some very important things about themselves, the lessons can feel discouraging. For all of those reasons, students may find the study of media to be very personally trying.
To help things run more smoothly and to alleviate some of the "heaviness" that the topic can bring, teachers may wish to inject some humor into their classes, as I began to do several years ago. I began integrating humor primarily with media literacy and criticism, although it is important to note that not every type of humor was effective. What I discovered (after several "egg on the face" moments) was that satire seemed to be the most effective way of using humor in class. I found that it helped my students pay more attention, remember examples more often, and recall examples from previous semesters over a longer period of time ("Hey Mr. Stark, remember last fall when you talked about the subjective camera perspective?"). Generally, I have found that satire is a very effective supplemental tool for teaching media literacy; more specifically, as a classroom teacher I have found MAD Magazine a particularly useful resource, in part because it so often satirizes the media.
THE NATURE AND PEDAGOGICAL VALUE OF SATIRE
Researchers, including Kirman (1993), Bogel (2001), and West and Orman (2003), all agree that satire must contain certain specific elements to be effective: It must be relevant, it must be humorous, and it must poke fun at a person or position of authority. Although this should be obvious to the seasoned media literacy teacher, several other characteristics of satire, which teachers may not have considered, might make satire a more relevant and effective tool in their classrooms.
For starters, it makes sense to borrow a page from the study of political satire when considering satire in an educational setting. According to West and Orman (2003), "[Satire] is a way to boost public interest in a subject about which many Americans are not deeply absorbed. The idea is that politics doesn't hurt as much if you are laughing at public officials" (98). Although it may seem unlikely that students are not deeply absorbed in the mass media, the statement nevertheless is relevant to using satire in the teaching of media literacy. This is especially true if one substitutes some words in the statement—"student interest" for "public interest," "critical media analysis" for "politics," and "a familiar film, television show, ad, or song" for "public officials," so that it reads thus: Satire is a way to boost student interest in a subject about which many students are not deeply absorbed. The idea is that critical media analysis doesn't hurt as much if you are laughing at a familiar film, or television show, or ad, or song.
Used in this sense, satire raises student awareness about media-centered issues just as effectively as it does social, political, and economic ones. Satire can be thought of as a cognitive "bucket of water in the face" for students, helping to startle them into a new awareness of media messages and a new understanding of themselves. Such awareness is a prerequisite to media literacy, and satire can be an effective trigger.
Once satire has increased awareness among students, it can help students take the next step—critical analysis of what they see and hear. Kirman (1993) claims that satire is useful as a means of "giving people power … [as] a tool that can help to make them effective critics of politics and society" (139). In this sense, satire gives students the power to more critically engage mass media texts and gain more control over their consumption; thus, media literacy itself offers to students the gift of critical thinking habits in relation to their daily lives. Arguably, viewing the world through a satirical lens may even lead to positive social activism later in a student's life.
Essentially, then, satire can potentially help a student see the world in a different way and even spur the student to work for change. The link between the concepts of awareness and power should be obvious: satire is useful in helping students gain not only further knowledge, but also the potential to do something with that knowledge in the world at large.
Several media texts with satirical content popular with students clearly demonstrate the strength of satire with younger audiences. Television programs such as Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and South Park constantly poke fun at current events, politics, fads, and social issues in satirical ways. For instance, in a recent episode of South Park, the entire planet Earth was turned into a "reality" television show for an intergalactic television network, thereby calling attention to a recent plethora of cheaply produced and patently absurd reality shows that have been thriving on network television (Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? or Survivor, for example). Called Earth! by the network, the show was created after the aliens took various races and species from other planets and put them on an unpopulated Earth many years ago and subsequently broadcast the show to the rest of the galaxy. In the alien programming executive's words, "Watching Jews, Asians, and moose all try to live together has been great for our ratings." Once humans learn that their existence is one big reality TV show, however, Earth is slated for "cancellation" by the aliens—to be saved only when the regular South Park characters catch two of the alien TV executives in a compro-mising, Hollywood-style scandal and so can force the network to renew Earth! for another season (Parker, Stone, and Craden 2003). However little viewers might have thought about serious issues surrounding peaceful multicultural coexistence, the motivations of television network executives, or both, it's hard to miss the relevant issues and questions this storyline raises.
Because texts such as those are already familiar to students, it is worthwhile to consider using them as examples of satire in a media literacy course. As theorists and teachers agree, familiarity with a topic or a text leads to more active learning and deeper understanding when that text is used as a building block for other topics and concepts. In this sense, students who are familiar with a text like South Park might well be more open to considering learning about other examples of satirical mass media texts and other media literacy issues.
As they begin incorporating satirical elements into the study of media literacy, teachers might even consider using a more collaborative approach to capitalize on the expertise students bring with them to class. A basic tenet of collaborative learning is that "students bring ideas and experiences to learning situations that advance and enrich understanding for everyone else" (Matthews 1996, 102). Even though I am personally familiar with the programming on over fifty cable channels and the Internet, as well as new releases in music and film, I am the first to admit that I have a tough time keeping up with my students when it comes to what's currently popular. From the simplest standpoint, then, students can be encouraged to discuss their favorite films, music, and television programs, functioning as collaborators in generating course materials and discussions, and helping the teacher and other students stay up to date on currently popular media texts.
Aside from simply helping teachers "keep up with the times", however, a collaborative approach may help both students and teachers see aspects of media literacy from a different perspective. This occurred to me several years ago when several African American students informed me that my lectures weren't "reaching them" because, unintentionally, my references were predominantly from white and Anglo media sources. Admittedly, my students had a better understanding of African American media at the time than I did. I encouraged them to bring this topic up for discussion in the next class period and to then provide some examples from African American media texts to help make the connection between their point and the media topic being discussed. After the students made their presentation, I realized that they helped provide the rest of the class with a different perspective that enriched the entire learning experience for everyone. In addition, they provided me with a fresh insight into a familiar topic that I was able to use in subsequent semesters.
As my experience suggests, some students may be more knowledgeable about a text or genre and may therefore be able to bring a more current and credible perspective to a discussion. Collaborating with students in identifying relevant satirical media products can be a very powerful tool serving a variety of purposes: to ensure the inclusion of popular media texts; to provide different "takes" on media content, making class discussions more diverse and lively; and to raise students' awareness of issues, helping them develop a sense of power and control.
GUIDELINES FOR INCORPORATING SATIRE IN THE CLASSROOM
There are at least two considerations that teachers must keep in mind when using any kind of humor, much less satire, to make a point or teach a topic. These should be obvious, but because I've managed to ignore them myself at times, I offer these reminders to help the reader avoid any egg on the face moments such as the ones I've experienced.
First, remember that for satire to be effective, students need to be able to understand the joke and the reference. Examples that are too old or too obscure will not be effective. Bogel (2001) argues that for satire to succeed, the audience and the satirist must be familiar with the satirized object. This framework is comparable to a media literacy classroom, in which it is important for the teacher and the students to be on the same "wavelength" regarding the topic. If the audience and satirist are not familiar with the satirized object, then the satirical comment is nonsensical. Bogel describes this relationship as "the triangle of satire".
A second thing for teachers to consider when using satire is to not overdo it. Using satire too often may decrease the seriousness of the topic or devalue the learning process. In their discussion of political satire, West and Orman (2003) consider the harm humor can do to the political process:
Rather than using humor to engage the public in serious substantive issues, humor deflects from substance and draws our attention to personal or trivial aspects of the political process. When voters form impressions based on comedian monologues, it risks debasing the civic discourse. In these ways, then, humor has political consequences that can affect campaigns and governing.
Again, minor rewording of the point makes clear its relevance to satire in the classroom: Relying too much on satire to engage students with media literacy may deflect their attention from serious substance, trivialize aspects of the critical process, and jeopardize the educational goals of the teacher.
However, teachers who, like me, decide that it's worth the caution and effort necessary to start incorporating satire into their classes will find that they have a plethora of media texts to choose from as supplement material. One text I believe particularly useful is MAD Magazine.
GOING MAD IN THE CLASSROOM
MAD1 has unabashedly satirized everything from politics, to sports, to everyday life for over fifty years (Reidelbach 1991), and during all of those decades it has excelled in satirizing the media. Over the years, the pages of MAD have featured film and television parodies, wordplay with advertising, and biting commentary on our relationship with the media in general, making MAD's potential for use as a satirical classroom tool tremendous. For example, educators will find that MAD provides satirical material for teaching media history (Original Finger Painting by J. Fred Muggs [Muggs 1958]), advertising (If Advertisers Made Use of the Old Masters [Jacobs 1985]), television programming (How TV Networks Can Work Simpson Trial Updates into Their Regular Program [Boni 1994]), and audio production (What Disc Jockeys Say … and What They Mean [De Bartolo 1982]). This is a very small sampling of the many pages of MAD Magazine that target critical media literacy topics. [In one example, featuring Rodin's The Thinker,] Jacobs is satirizing advertising on several levels. On one level, the figure represents the way advertisers continually repackage old material (The Thinker) to sell new products (toilet tissues). Many critics will argue that in the world of advertising, nothing is really new—it is just packaged and sold differently to appear new. On another level, however, this spoof advertisement also points out the triviality of advertising. It can also be argued that advertisers will stop at nothing to sell a product, trivializing a cultural icon like The Thinker to sell more toilet paper. Even as it provokes laughter, MAD's satire can call consumers' attention to deeper issues beneath the surface of media texts that are so common that they may routinely provoke little, if any, critical thought.
If the magazine offers such a rich mine of material, then what are some ways to incorporate its material into the classroom? One of the easiest ways to use MAD is as a straight supplement to the material used in a lesson plan. Simply making an overhead or a handout of an article is easy enough. After conducting a lesson discussing the issues and concerns of video game violence, for example, a teacher may wish to wrap up on a satirical note by displaying MAD's "Heart-stopping New Improvements Planned for the Next Grand Theft Auto" (MAD 2002,). One option is to run people over with a vehicle that leaves heart-shaped tire tracks, allowing the player to grimly and bloodily kill with love. Satirical material can also be used either to help introduce new material or to help conclude a lesson.
Given MAD's rich history of media satire, teachers might consider taking time to explore beyond the latest issue of the magazine; classroom relevance of MAD's materials has held steady for well over a decade. For example, ideas that teacher Robert Perrin developed in 1989 remain worthwhile. Perrin suggested that teachers use MAD as an introduction to a topic, and then use examples from the magazine for projects and in-class activities. Perrin himself used a MAD article titled "Why Are We Always Impressed By …?" to help his students explore the values underpinning major media events. In this piece, MAD artists and writers wondered why we're always impressed, for example, by "a movie that wins 'The Academy Award' even though the Motion Picture Academy is filled with the same idiots who gave us Ishtar, Shanghai Surprise, Back to the Beach, Blind Date, and The Carebears in Wonderland" (49). To push his students' thinking about values, as an in-class exercise Perrin asked his students to come up with their own satirical comments about "recent fads, current topics, and popular fashions" (49).
Perrin describes teaching another interesting exercise based on a MAD parody of the film Dirty Dancing, still familiar to many teens. Called "Dorky Dancing," the parody lists classic clichés from the film such as "Rich girl meets boy from wrong side of the tracks," "Hero accused unfairly," and "Impromptu dance turns into a slick, choreographed production" (50). Using "Dorky Dancing," Perrin has his students come up with their own list of clichés from recent movies. The exercise seems particularly useful in calling students' attention not only to clichéd language but also to the functions of convention within any genre and to the heavy reliance of the media (as well as other texts) on audience familiarity with predictable traditions. A particularly astute class might even approach the question of what makes a film or other text "art" as opposed to entertainment, and whether/how the purposes of art and entertainment might intersect.
Perrin's main point, however, is sufficient to argue for such activities: They are useful in helping students see past the hype of much mainstream media, and they can ultimately lead students to deeper understanding of how media texts are produced and consumed, letting them see familiar media texts in new and different ways and helping them to "assess the originality (or lack of …) in current films" (50).
Perrin's experience and suggestions reinforce a point made earlier: Media analysis is best done collaboratively, with teacher and students all active in analyzing texts. The student interaction and activity being suggested here has been discussed by many researchers as an effective means of learning (Jarvis, Holford, and Griffin 1998; Leamnson 1999; Nilson 1998). When students actively "dissect" a media text, they simultaneously engage in "critical thinking, honest and candid evaluation, and thoughtful though irreverent responses to life's absurdities" (Perrin 51).
With the potential for such pleasurable and productive classroom activities as well as for nurturing such important growth in student thinking, who should worry, then, about inviting satire—and particularly the iconic MAD Magazine—into the classroom?
1. Teachers who are interested in using MAD in the classroom do not need to invest their life savings in acquiring a paper copy of every issue. Broderbund software released a package of seven CD-ROMS that contain every issue of MAD through 1998. Up-to-date information on MAD can be found on its Web site 〈http://www2.warnerbros.com/web/madmagazine/home.jsp〉.
Figures that appear in this article were obtained from Broderbund Software's 1999 release "Totally MAD: Every Issue of MAD Magazine on CD-ROM."
Bogel, F. V. 2001. The Difference Satire Makes: Rhetoric and Reading from Jonson to Byron. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.
Boni, J. 1994. "How TV Networks Can Work Simpson Trial Updates into Their Regular Programming." MAD, December, 4-5.
De Bartolo, D. 1982. "What Disc Jockeys Say … and What They Mean." MAD, June, 24-25.
Jacobs, F. 1985. "If Advertisers Made Use of Old Masters." MAD, July, 28-31.
Jarvis, P., J. Holford, and C. Griffin. 1998. The Theory and Practice of Learning. Sterling, Va.: Kogan Page.
Kirman, J. M. 1993. "Using Satire to Study Current Events." Social Education 57 (3): 139-41.
Leamnson, R. 1999. Thinking about Teaching and Learning. Sterling, Va.: Stylus.
MAD. 2002. "MAD Magazine—On the Stands!" 23 February 2003. 〈http://www2.warnerbros.com/madmagazine/files/onthestands/ots_426/gran_theft_auto.html〉.
Matthews, R. S. 1996. "Collaborative Learning: Creating Knowledge with Students." In Teaching on Solid Ground, ed. R. J. Menges and M. Weimer. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Muggs, J. F. 1958. "Original Finger Painting by J. Fred Muggs." MAD, March, 1.
Nilson, L. B. 1998. Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors. Bolton, Mass.: Anker.
Parker, T., M. Stone, and B. Craden, prods. 2003. South Park. Television broadcast, 7 May. New York: Comedy Central.
Perrin, R. 1989. "Don't Get Mad or Go Mad: Use MAD." English Journal 78 (3): 49-51.
Reidelbach, M. 1991. Completely MAD: A History of the Comic Book and Magazine. Boston: Little, Brown.
West, D. M., and J. Orman. 2003. Celebrity Politics: Real Politics in America. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall.
Robert C. Harvey (essay date 1996)
SOURCE: Harvey, Robert C. "The Comic Book as Individual Expression: Harvey Kurtzman and the Revolution." In The Art of the Comic Book: An Aesthetic History, pp. 126-40. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 1996.
[In the following excerpt, Harvey evaluates the legacy of MAD Magazine co-founder Harvey Kurtzman, suggesting that Kurtzman's early mastery of the comic book form provided an important foundation for the genre—the effects of which can still be seen in contemporary comic books and satirical publications.]
Harvey Kurtzman was another whose life's work in comics paid to the medium the respect it was due as an art form. Famous as the creator of that manic magazine of parody and satire, MAD, Kurtzman also told serious stories in comic books, deploying the rhetoric of the medium to achieve an unprecedented narrative intensity. His work is different from Eisner's. Both men viewed their endeavors in the literary tradition of the short story. Both were virtuosos of the verbal-visual blending that is at the aesthetic core of the comics medium. Each, however, achieved a slightly different emphasis in his work. In Eisner's stories, we are more conscious of atmosphere and mood than we are in Kurtzman's; in Kurtzman's work, of timing. Not that Eisner was in any way deficient in timing his stories; he emphatically wasn't. Nor was Kurtzman inattentive to atmosphere and mood in his stories. It is a matter of emphasis, as I said. Kurtzman was concerned about atmosphere, but he tended to create it by pacing the verbal and visual content of his stories. By the same token, Eisner was keenly aware of the narrative function of timing—and he was thoroughly master of it as an aspect of storytelling vital to producing a desired effect (as we have seen); but his work usually makes us, the readers of it, more conscious of atmosphere than of timing. Both cartoonists, regardless of the varying emphases we may detect in the work of each, are indisputably masters of the medium; and the work of each had far-reaching effects, shaping the form in ways neither could have imagined.
Born in Brooklyn, Kurtzman was only seven years younger than Eisner, but those years were critical ones. Comic books did not exist when Eisner was a teenager aspiring to be a cartoonist; Kurtzman saw and read comic books as he went through high school. When Eisner began his career, he had to fashion the form as he worked in it; Kurtzman came upon comic books in full feather. He belonged to the first generation of comic book artists who had grown up with the medium and who were therefore familiar with it as a narrative form.
Kurtzman's first work in comic books was for Louis Ferstadt, whose shop produced material for Quality, Ace/Periodical, and Classic Comics—the latter, a series of comic books that retold such vintage works of literature as The Three Musketeers, Ivanhoe, Moby Dick, Treasure Island, and the like. Kurtzman's work began appearing in early 1943, but toward the end of the year he was called up for World War II. Identified as an artist, he was assigned to work as a draftsman in various ways, winding up, finally, in the Department of Information and Education. When he was discharged after the war, the comic book industry was no longer in its infancy: it was a healthy, growing adolescent.
Kurtzman formed a commercial art studio with a couple of other artists (one of whom was Will Elder, who'd been a classmate at New York's High School of Music and Art), and he freelanced, mostly selling humorous features—among them, Silver Linings, a one-tier filler strip for the New York Herald Tribune Syndicate to distribute as part of its Sunday funnies package, and a series of wacky one-page features called Hey Look!, which he produced as fillers for Stan Lee at Timely Comics. He did a Hey Look! page every week for three years until 1949, when Lee stopped running fillers. Kurtzman then tried doing Rusty, the Timely clone of Blondie, but neither he nor Lee was happy with the results. That's when Kurtzman went to the E.C. offices on Lafayette Street and walked into the history books.
E.C. stood for Educational Comics in 1949. It was a mediocre line of comics founded by Max Gaines chiefly to amuse himself. Shortly after he'd given Superman away to Donenfeld, Gaines had entered into an agreement with Donenfeld to produce a line of patriotic and educational comic books under the DC umbrella. Called All-American Comics after one of the titles, Gaines's company eventually produced a modest collection of superheroes (including Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and Flash) in an assortment of titles, as well as the purely educational series, Picture Stories from the Bible. By the mid-1940s, Donenfeld had withdrawn from the arrangement, leaving his interest with Jack Liebowitz, his DC partner and former accountant. Unable to work with his new business associate without quarreling, Gaines sold his interest in All-American Comics to Liebowitz for $500,000. Max could have retired comfortably on the interest from this settlement, but comic book publishing was in his blood, so he continued producing his Picture Stories series (adding American and world history titles) as well as some mildly humorous comic books under the Educational Comics imprint. Then, on August 20, 1947, Max was killed in a boating accident, and his wife and twenty-five-year-old son Bill inherited the comic book company.
William M. Gaines knew nothing about the business, and neither he nor his mother needed any additional income: Max's half-million dollar nest egg generated ample annuities. But his mother wanted to keep the comics going for sentimental reasons, so Bill dutifully went to work every day and played at being a comic book publisher. His activities over the next couple of years echoed in microcosm the entire industry's feverish attempt to find a substitute for superhero comics, whose wartime popularity had slumped so drastically once the hostilities ceased. In this effort, he was aided and abetted by a young cartoonist who had wandered into his office in early 1948 to display his wares.
Al Feldstein had been doing teenage comics for Fox, and he showed Gaines some of his work. "All the broads had big busts," Gaines said later, "and I was so taken with those busts that I hired Feldstein on the spot to put such a book out for me."1 They discovered immediately that teenage comics were losing money, so instead of publishing Going Steady with Peggy (the proposed title of their buxom new comic book), they imitated every other postwar trend they saw. They converted one of Max's humorous titles, Happy Houlihans, to a western, Saddle Justice, which lasted only until they saw that romance comics were selling better, whereupon the book became Saddle Romances. Similarly, Max's educational International Comics was transmuted into International Crime Patrol in early 1948 and then simply Crime Patrol that summer. Theirs was a wholly undistinguished effort until Gaines and Feldstein decided to start a line of books that reflected an interest they'd discovered they shared—a fascination with eerie tales of the supernatural like those featured on the popular radio programs of the day, "Suspense" and "The Inner Sanctum."
The first of these horror stories appeared in Crime Patrol, and when it generated favorable reader response, Gaines and Feldstein did what they were by then very good at: they followed the trend, but this time, it was a "new trend" of their own devising. In the spring of 1950 they converted Crime Patrol to The Crypt of Terror. The enthusiastic reception of the horror tales resulted almost at once in two more titles, The Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear. Delighted at their success, the two men indulged another common interest by cranking out a series of science fiction books, Weird Science and Weird Fantasy, followed by another that combined crime and horror, Shock Suspense. To reflect the shifting emphasis of the company, Gaines changed its name to Entertaining Comics.
Almost from the beginning, the E.C. books were some of the most literate and best drawn on the news-stand, although the headlong method by which they were produced would seem more likely to have resulted in an entirely opposite outcome. Gaines read science fiction and horror stories every night, bring-ing plot ideas to the office the next day to try them out on Feldstein. As soon as an idea ignited Feldstein's imagination, he went to his drawing board and laid out the story, writing dialogue and captions on the illustration boards as he went. The story was then completely lettered before the pages were turned over to an artist to illustrate. As they added titles, the need for material grew to such an extent that they had to do a story every day or else miss production deadlines. At that pace, Feldstein had little time to deliberate over his breakdowns or layouts; he relied almost entirely upon verbiage to carry the narrative burden. As a result, the comic books he produced were seldom very good examples of the art inherent in the medium. But the stories were gripping nonetheless, inspired by some of the best pulp fiction around. And the artwork was, simply, superior.
To do the drawing, Gaines was able to attract the best young talent around. He paid better than many of his competitors, for one thing: he wanted good artists and he wanted them exclusively, so he paid them when they delivered the work; they didn't have to wait for publication as artists working for other publishers did. Moreover, he and Feldstein encouraged their artists to draw in their own styles rather than forcing them to adopt a "house style." And they all inked their own work, too. This policy resulted in the most distinctive-looking line of comic books on the racks. What's more, the artists were permitted to sign their work. With their names on the artwork, the artists, all young and ambitious, were spurred to do their best, and a spirit of friendly competition pervaded the E.C. enterprise. "You were embarrassed not to do your best because everybody was doing their best," Kurtzman said later; "it led to some of the finest work in the business."2 The stable Gaines eventually assembled included men whose achievements would be enshrined in the memories of students of the medium for decades—Johnny Craig, Graham Ingels, Wally Wood, Jack Davis. And Harvey Kurtzman.
But when Kurtzman took his portfolio into the E.C. offices late in 1949, he thought the company was producing educational comic books, and that's the sort of work he thought he wanted to do. Gaines and Feldstein had yet to produce any of the titles of their New Trend, but they were by then committed to the idea. In any case, most of Max's educational titles had been converted into crime and love comics. They roared in appreciation of Kurtzman's Hey Look! samples, though, and Gaines, not wanting to lose Kurtzman to anyone else but not knowing, either, how to make use of this comedic talent, steered Kurtzman to his uncle, with whom Gaines sometimes packaged educational comic books. Kurtzman took an assignment to illustrate a cautionary tale about venereal disease called Lucky Sees It Through. By the time he finished that, Gaines and Feldstein were actively producing horror and science fiction stories for their new titles, and Kurtzman was given assignments in both genres.
Kurtzman wasn't particularly comfortable doing horror. The stories were rife with vampires, zombies, werewolves, treacherous spouses, disembowelments, rotting corpses and opening graves, vengeance murders committed in every imaginable mode, and a host of other assaults on civilized squeamishness. But Gaines and Feldstein were having great fun. They spun out these hideous yarns with fiendish glee. Never for an instant did they take the revolting activities of the characters in these stories as seriously as the critics of comic books soon would. Their tongue-in-cheek attitude was clearly signaled by the "Ghoulunatics" who introduced the stories. Each of these "mad mags" (as Gaines called them, coining a pregnant phrase) was "hosted" by some sort of old hag—the Keeper of the Crypt, the Keeper of the Vault, the Old Witch—who introduced each story with a diatribe of macabre puns and double entendre. Still, the stories were unsettling, and Kurtzman, perhaps looking for a way to do something more congenial to his bent, suggested to Gaines that they create yet another title, this one for rousing adventure in the tradition of Roy Crane's Captain Easy. Gaines was game, but since neither he nor Feldstein had either the time or the talent for doing adventure stories, he turned the whole project over to Kurtzman.
Two-Fisted Tales appeared in the fall of 1950, the latest in another series of mutations for which E.C. comic books are noted. The book began as a humorous title under Max Gaines, Fat and Slat; Bill converted it to Gunfighter and then Haunt of Fear. When wholesalers objected to the word "fear" appearing on the cover of a comic book, Gaines discontinued the horror title but gave the book to Kurtzman. The first Two-Fisted Tales was No. 18 because it had been preceded by seventeen issues published under other names.3
By the second issue of the adventure book, Kurtzman was writing most of the stories. Like Feldstein, he provided the artists with lettered pages to illustrate. But there the similarities ended. Kurtzman was driven more by storytelling passion than by compulsion to meet deadlines; he took longer than Feldstein to write his stories. Indulging a fascination with authenticity, Kurtzman spent days, even weeks, researching a story, digging up factual details as well as pictorial aids for the artists. Moreover, he took great pains to deploy the visual resources of the medium, eschewing words where he could make pictures tell the story more dramatically. He did complete layouts for each story, roughing in the composition of every panel. And as time went on, his layouts became more and more detailed. Feldstein let the artists draw whatever they wanted as long as it illustrated the story. But Kurtzman insisted that the artists follow his layouts exactly.
Years later, one of the artists, George Evans, appeared with Kurtzman on a panel presentation during a comics convention and kidded him about the precision of his layouts.
"The first thing I did for Harvey was the story of Napoleon [Frontline Combat No. 10]," Evans said, "and Harvey wanted me to draw every one of Napoleon's troops, and every one of the Austrians, the Prussians, the Russians and everything else. And he had taken the time …"
"Uh-uh," Kurtzman interrupted, "—not every one."
"Complete with uniforms and name tags!" Evans said.
"All I wanted was half the Napoleonic army, not all of it," Kurtzman continued. "We didn't have enough room in the panel. You didn't have to draw their feet."
"I drew little dots," Evans said. "But Harvey had meticulously done all those [in his layouts]. I think he knew every man's name that was in it."4
Some artists objected to being so tightly reined in. Others, like Jack Davis and Alex Toth, didn't. Toth was not one of the E.C. regulars, but he penciled a story from Kurtzman's layouts once and explained his feelings this way: "He wasn't easy to satisfy. He knew graphics, though, and I could accept his methods. In a way, it's offensive to be told exactly that you have to do something this way or that way, but it was just a matter of respecting the man who'd written the story and laid it out. You usually agreed with him."5
With the debut of Two-Fisted Tales, Kurtzman became what he called "a behind the scenes" cartoonist.6 Most of his cartooning from then on would be in the form of meticulous layouts for other artists to follow in preparing finished artwork. Kurtzman prepared final art for the covers of many of his books, but only an occasional issue carried a story for which he did the finished art.
In devising his stories, Kurtzman began by writing a "treatment," a paragraph outlining the action. Like Gaines and Feldstein, he admired O. Henry's story structures. "It's like the basic structure of a joke," he explained, "where you draw your reader in one direction and then you hit him from another with the old twisteroo. I've always likened short story structure to the blowing up of a balloon. The more energy you put into blowing up a balloon, the scarier it gets. You don't know when the balloon will break, but suddenly—it does. Bang! Surprise! You except it but it happens unexpectedly. You can't tell when it will happen. So you feel a jolt of shock inside. That jolt, that excitement, is what I want every reader to feel."7 After settling on a subject for a story, Kurtzman then looked for an ending, a way to puncture the balloon.
Using the prose treatment as a guide, he made thumbnail sketches for the narrative breakdown and then wrote captions and dialogue. "Once I have my pictures," he said, "then I know what the characters have to say."8 After completing the verbal script, he returned again to the drawing board and prepared detailed layouts. Kurtzman revised his compositions again and again, making adjustments on successive layers of tracing paper tacked on top of the previous drawing. Each of the final panels is a painstakingly crafted composition, a carefully conducted balancing act that juggles verbal and visual content. "Cartooning consists of the two elements, graphics and texts," Kurtzman believed. "Obviously it is to the advantage of the total product to have good text and good art and the more closely integrated the good text and the good art is, the greater the opportunity is to create the capital A Art."9
As an example of the art Kurtzman achieved, "Pirate Gold" is fairly typical. Published in Two-Fisted Tales No. 20 (cover-dated March-April 1952), the third issue, it is one of his earliest works, but Kurtzman's storytelling style is already clearly evident. This story comes to us with a bonus, too: it is one of the relatively few for which Kurtzman did the finished art, and his graphic style is as distinctive as his way of telling a story. Although he could draw in a convincingly realistic fashion, he increasingly chose to render his stories in an abstract and telegraphic manner. He used a line of uncommon simplicity and boldness for realistic storytelling, and his figure drawings were exaggerated and contorted, demonstrations of posture as drama rather than reality as perceived. By reducing his visual representations in this way to their absolute narrative essentials, Kurtzman achieved a reality in his stories that was stark and raw, as uncompromising as truth itself. Seldom, as his later war stories would vividly demonstrate, have subject and treatment been so perfectly matched in theme and tone.
"Pirate Gold" is set in the late eighteenth century and begins when two native fishermen find and rescue "a great big bull of a man" whom they find clinging to a spar in the sea. A cut on his head suggests that his dip in the drink was the consequence of some violence, but the blow has apparently addled the man's brain: he can't remember much. Although he recalls names, faces, and a casket of Spanish doubloons, he can't connect them all or attach much significance to them. He searches his pockets and finds enough to remind him of his own name—"Captain Ben Sawkins! Long Ben Sawkins—that's me!"—and to suggest that his questions about the treasure of doubloons can be answered if he goes to Galveston. The fishermen are a bit wary because of the ferocity of Sawkins's manner and his threatening size, so they don't want to take him to Galveston. Not deigning to argue, he throws them both overboard and takes their boat to Galveston by himself.
As Sawkins strolls the waterfront of the Texas town, he is recognized by a passerby whom he fiercely grabs and roughly questions in order to find out more about his own vaguely recollected past. He finds out that the three men whose names and faces he remembers were members of his crew and that they left Galveston yesterday for Barataria Island, so he sets out after them. When he gets there, he comes upon his former shipmates, who are contemplating a cypress tree across a stretch of swamp. "It's Captain Sawkins! 'E's back from the dead!" says one. "Quick! Shoot him down!" In the ensuing scuffle, Sawkins dispatches two of the three men with his cutlass, then, facing the last of them, he wrings from him the explanation of the Spanish doubloons. It seems the four men buried a casket of stolen treasure in the very swamp in which they now stand, planning to return to divvy the swag. Since Sawkins's share was to be half and the other three wanted larger shares, they plotted to eliminate him. At this point, the story is taken up by the panels reprinted here, as Sawkins's captive finishes his narrative flashback.
The first step toward appreciation of the storytelling artistry at work here is, I suggest, to notice the extent to which the story's conclusion is a verbal-visual blend. Neither the words nor the pictures alone make complete sense. Neither words nor pictures alone give the story its "end." Our understanding of Captain Sawkins's dilemma in the last two panels arises entirely from our simultaneous grasp of the implications of both the verbal and the visual. And the narrative economy that is achieved by this blending gives the story its peculiar dramatic momentum and impact.
These panels also illustrate that other unique aspect of the art of the comics: timing, the deliberate manipulation of verbal and visual information to achieve a dramatic effect. In Kurtzman's story, the narrative breakdown of the last five panels paces the story's conclusion, slowly doling out information both visually (Sawkins's getting closer to the tree and the treasure) and verbally (his gradual recollection of the last forgotten bit of intelligence about the circumstances of the buried treasure). The timing and coordination of the visual and the verbal "messages" creates first suspense and then dramatic clout. By withholding until the last panel its final verbal-visual revelation, Kurtzman gives his story its shocker conclusion. The balloon explodes.
In the four panels at the top of the final page, narrative breakdown times the action by repeating it, thereby building dramatic intensity as well as portraying personality. Repetition of the same action and the same words emphasizes Sawkins's obsessive character, his intense single-mindedness—with the additional suggestion in the eventually purposeless hacking (Tew is probably dead after a couple of blows) that Sawkins verges on madness so intense is his obsession. His teetering sanity is suggested in the panel preceding this series: Sawkins's eyes seem to burn with feverish insanity because all facial detail is enveloped in shadow.
Although the four-panel series is not a perfect visual-verbal blend (the pictures do make sense without the words), the words make little contextual sense without the pictures. But, when joined to the repetitive action, the words underscore the fierce intensity of Sawkins's emotional state. And the depicted action gives Sawkins's words their bitterly sarcastic ring. Thus, the meaning—the significance—of the series arises from our taking in simultaneously both words and pictures.
Color also plays a storytelling role in this series. Each of the four panels is a single color: the first is light yellow; the second, darker yellow; the third, orange; and the final panel, blood red. The color builds in intensity as Sawkins's emotions build in ferocity. Then in the next panel (the first in the third tier here), his fit of insane vengeance subsiding, normal color begins to return: the background is a pale yellow, against which Sawkins stands in solid blue—the muted monotone echoing his now more placid emotional state.
Another narrative role is played by the composition of the panels on the page—in cinematic terms, by the distance and angle of the camera. To begin with, there is graphic variety here: we don't see everything panel-to-panel from the same distance or angle. Variety is a vital part of the visual excitement of the art of the comics. But the varied compositions are also selected with care to enhance the drama of events. The four-panel series, for instance, concludes in a tight close-up—a composition that suggests intensity by the narrowness of its focus. As the camera draws closer in the series, the maneuver emphasizes the feverish heightening of intensity that every other element of the series likewise conspires to create.
The camera backs off as Sawkins's fit passes, but it doesn't change distance much as he begins to run toward the cypress tree. He runs toward the next panel, a composition that capitalizes on the normal movement of the eye in reading to add momentum to his dash—and thereby to suggest his headlong, unthinking single-minded pursuit of the treasure. In the next two panels, the cypress tree—the object of the story's quest—looms in the foreground. The camera closes in slowly for these two panels; it is far enough away to show us what Sawkins is doing and, in the next-to-last panel, what is happening to him, but close enough to the tree to keep the as-yet-unexplained chain dangling before us, pregnant with significance. The meaning of the chain, its function, suddenly becomes clear as Sawkins remembers a crucially important forgotten fact. And as it dawns on him that his monomaniacal quest will result in his own demise, the camera closes in for one last look at the man in his self-inflicted agony. The close-up eliminates all of Sawkins's surroundings, thereby focusing our attention exclusively on the dilemma that now similarly absorbs the exclusive attention of the rampaging pirate captain.
At first blush, Kurtzman seems not to deploy layout—the size and arrangement of the panels on the page—for any narrative effect. But that impression arises simply because his use of layout is very subtle. As I've said before, the capacity to vary panel size and position gives the comic book format its most potent means of creating dramatic effects. Large splash panels have a crescendo impact in the course of a story (as opposed to their orienting or mood-setting function at the beginning of a story). A series of narrow panels may suggest the rapid passage of time; long vertical panels, height (or depth). It's my feeling that such effects are achieved best when the irregular-size panels break a pattern. Judging from the evidence of the page before us, Kurtzman shares this belief. To prepare for these effects, then, most of a story must be devoted to constructing and maintaining a pattern, using panels of nearly uniform size; this uniformity creates the basic framework of time for a given story—its normal rhythm. An odd-size panel in such a sequence accordingly disrupts the established rhythm of the story, attracting attention to itself by the very act of disruption itself. The narrative content of the irregularly shaped panel then prompts the response appropriate to the story—joy, fear, sorrow, and the like. Although Kurtzman gives us no particularly spectacular example of the storytelling contribution of layout, he does illustrate the effect of breaking a pattern. He disrupts the story's rhythm with the four-panel series: he puts more panels than usual on a tier. And their quantity and similarity of size emphasize the repetitiveness of the action being depicted.
Kurtzman's story has a single plot that moves inexorably, virtually uninterrupted, along the path appointed to reach its conclusion. While there is a flashback that covers two-thirds of a page, that maneuver contributes directly to the movement of the main story line. This onward thrust of the story gives it dramatic power: the momentum that Kurtzman is able thereby to create and maintain heightens the dramatic impact of events. Momentum also derives velocity from the narrative economy inherent in letting words and pictures blend to tell the story. Since neither word nor picture is doing unrelated duty, each contributes to our understanding of the other, and there is consequently no excess, nothing to distract our attention from the forward movement of events.
This is not to say that every element of the story is bent to the single purpose of moving the plot forward to its conclusion. Kurtzman takes time—that is, space, panels—to develop the personality of his principal, too. Of the twelve panels we have before us, four are dedicated to this purpose—the four that show Sawkins slashing Tew repeatedly. And Sawkins's personality is integral to the theme of the story.
Thematically, Kurtzman's story deals with greed. The obsession of Captain Sawkins is an object lesson: greed, if indulged, has a way of shutting out all considerations except its immediate goals. The single-mindedness of greed is suggested here by the artifice of Sawkins's inability to remember much except the buried treasure. And the story leaves no doubt that obsessively greedy persons are so enthralled by their idée fixe as to be vaguely insane and wholly self-destructive. Seizing upon the metaphorical import of the quicksand, we might even say that greed is so self-absorbing as to be fatal. (Puns, much as I love them, don't necessarily make good thematic summary statements; but this one is too apt to let slip away.)
The personality of Sawkins is pivotal in the tale's theme. And Kurtzman has exploited fully the capacity of his medium to portray both the personality of his protagonist and the progress of events. Our understanding of Sawkins's character—his maniacal ruling obsession—arises from our grasp of the implications of words and pictures, blended in mutual dependence for their meaning, just as our comprehension of the story itself—its outcome and significance—depends upon our correctly interpreting a visual-verbal blend. The story thus serves as a convincing demonstration of the artistry in the art of the comics—of the narrative use of visual-verbal blend to create the meaning of a story as well as to depict its actors and the events of which they are a part. Kurtzman's moral is scarcely a profoundly philosophical revelation, but his blending of words and pictures to tell his tale and to enhance its meaning, its import, is masterful. In the context of Western civilization, the moral point is a commonplace. But that is not a fault in Kurtzman's story: the greatest books in literature make moral points that are equally ordinary—ordinary because they are universal. The artistry in literature—and in comics—lies in how the moral points are scored. And how they are scored will in large measure determine how we react—whether we are moved and how much.
The moral passion that found expression in "Pirate Gold" soon informed all of Kurtzman's work in Two-Fisted Tales and in a sister publication, Frontline Combat, which began in the spring of 1951 (cover-dated July-August). Within a few months after the launch of Two-Fisted Tales, it became apparent that the United Nations' "police action" in Korea was a full-scale war. As more and more Americans were called to the battlefield, public interest in the conflict grew, and with Frontline Combat, Gaines sought to capitalize on this interest. Directed to tell war stories in the two titles he was now editing (which meant he was writing both books, too), Kurtzman decided to tell the truth about war. The war stories in the comic books produced by other publishers championed American servicemen at the expense of the enemy's humanity, proclaimed unequivocally the justice of the U.N. cause, and glorified battlefield action by making killing, bloodshed, and death seem patriotic. This, Kurtzman believed, was a lie. And he set out to erase the lie.
It was this crusade that inspired Kurtzman's passion for research. Only the truth can eradicate a lie, and to tell the truth, one needed to study history and news reports in order to unearth facts and then to be able to portray those facts accurately. Kurtzman had been impressed with Charles Biro's storytelling in the Lev Gleason crime comic books. "He offered stories based on fact, presented in a hard-edged documentary style, a highly original approach to comics back then," Kurtzman said. He recalled the excitement he felt when reading those stories, "the shock" of being brought "nose-to-nose with reality."10 He set out to do the same thing with his war stories. He knew that young readers could not long sustain the phony glamorous vision of war once they knew the realities of the battlefield.
Kurtzman's war stories were not antiwar: in deglamorizing warfare, he did not oppose the effort in Korea. His stories acknowledged the necessity of the fight—not only in Korea but in wars generally. Against that necessity, though, Kurtzman balanced recognition of the overall futility of warfare. His unique achievement was to strike that balance. But in those days—in the wake of the superpatriotism of the world war just concluded, during another war in which veterans of the previous conflict were also fighting and dying—to publish such a balanced view was extraordinary, unprecedented. While Kurtzman's stories acknowledged the causes of wars and the necessity of fighting them, he dramatized the loss, the profligate waste of human life that has characterized wars everywhere in every time.
To show the effects of war, Kurtzman's stories often focused on the fate of a single individual. One story chronicled in elaborate detail the steps a Korean farmer took in building his house—picking a site, laying the foundation, erecting a framework, making bricks, putting it all together. Then, on the day he finishes his work, a bomb falls on the house and in a second destroys the painstaking labor of months. In another story, a dying soldier wonders about the arbitrariness of timing: if he hadn't stopped for a moment to tie his shoe, he would have been twenty feet further down the road and when the bomb hit—he would have been far enough away to survive. In yet another tale, a soldier watches a body float down a river and wonders how it came there. Kurtzman turned to history for many of his stories, again directing our attention to obscure but ordinary individuals rather than celebrated personalities. Custer's last stand at Little Big Horn is seen through the eyes of one of the soldiers, who recognizes the general for the vainglorious grandstander he was. Kurtzman told stories of other famous battles—some in Korea, some from the Civil War. The starting point for most of his tales, he said, was "the observation. I would observe elementary truths and shape them into stories—for example, 'war's battles are fought by men, not machines'; 'death comes unexpectedly'; 'war is devastating, tragic'—any one of those ideas can be fleshed into ten stories."11
Kurtzman was justifiably proud of the work he was doing: he had dedicated his art to a serious, moral cause. No artist can aspire higher. But Kurtzman's greatest impact upon the moral attitudes of his society would come from another quarter. It would be as the founding genius of MAD that he would exert his most lasting influence. And MAD was started with no higher purpose than to increase Kurtzman's income in the simplest way possible.
By mid-1952 Kurtzman was spending almost every waking hour researching, writing, and laying out stories for the two titles he edited. As good as his work was, he was making much less than Al Feldstein, and he complained about it. Gaines paid his editors by the book, and in the two months Kurtzman took to produce an issue each of his bimonthly titles, Feldstein produced seven issues of his books. Gaines couldn't raise Kurtzman's salary without raising Feldstein's, and he couldn't afford to pay them both more without an accompanying increase in the company's revenues. Still, he wanted to do something. His solution was to offer Kurtzman a third book to do. Remembering the hilarious cartoons Kurtzman had showed him when he first came looking for work, Gaines suggested that Kurtzman do a humor book. Being funny, Gaines reasoned, would require no research; Kurtzman should be able to knock out an issue in a week. It would be a respite wedged between the throes of research for the war books. And he'd increase his income by fifty percent. Gaines took the title of the new book from the expression he'd been using on the letters pages of the horror books—E.C.'s MAD Mag. Kurtzman later shortened it to MAD—"a stroke of genius," Gaines said.12
The first issue hit the stands in late August 1952 (cover-dated October-November). The four stories inside were genre parodies of horror, science fiction, crime, and Western comic books. They were good parodies, but one could do only so many parodies of Westerns before that subject would be exhausted. Then, in the next issue, Kurtzman chanced upon what would become MAD's métier. He did a parody of Tarzan and discovered an axiom: "Satire and parody work best when what you're talking about is accurately targeted," he decided. "Or, to put it another way, satire and parody work only when you reveal a fundamental flaw or untruth in your subject." To expose a fallacy, he had to be specific about where the fallacy lay. A parody of Westerns in general didn't have the satiric clout that a parody of High Noon had. In Kurtzman's view, MAD served the same gods as the war books: "Just as there was a treatment of reality in the war books, there was a treatment of reality running through MAD; the satirist/parodist tries not just to entertain his audience but to remind it of what the real world is like."13
For the next twenty-one issues of MAD, Kurtzman honed the insight he had gained from the Tarzan parody. In each issue, Kurtzman picked one newspaper comic strip or comic book to parody—Little Orphan Annie, Terry and the Pirates, Smilin' Jack, Flash Gordon, Superman, and Black-Hawk among others. And his parodies had teeth. In one of the most popular, "Superduperman," he ridiculed the adolescent dream at the center of the Superman myth: when the mid-mannered reporter in Kurtzman's parody reveals his secret identity as the all-powerful Superduperman in order to impress Lois Pain, the object of his desire, she is not impressed. "Once a creep, always a creep," she says as she undulates away, leaving Superduperman (not to mention all us adolescent readers) forever crushed. In his parody of Disney characters, Kurtzman puts trousers on Donald Duck, making us aware of the sexless fantasy we'd always accepted without question. And in his treatment of George McManus's Bringing up Father in MAD No. 17, Kurtzman turns his comedy into a powerful statement about our tolerance of domestic violence. The story alternates a page drawn in imitation of McManus's style with a page drawn realistically. The McManus-style page ends with the usual hailstorm of crockery launched against the long-suffering Jiggs by his domineering wife, Maggie. The realistically ren-dered page picks up the action at this point, and we see Jiggs bruised and bleeding from Maggie's assault. The realistic Jiggs complains about his treatment, too, pointing out that there's nothing funny about being hit with flying kitchenware.
Kurtzman also needled movies, TV shows, advertising practices, literary classics, and the like. He pointed out the exaggeration (and hence, the fundamental dishonesty) in newspaper headlines. He compared the motion picture version of a book to the book itself (to the detriment of Hollywood). He explored the wasteland of goods in supermarkets. And he and the other cartoonists, led by Will Elder, filled all the space in every panel with "eyeball kicks"—chochkes, Kurtzman called them, sight gags irrelevant to the main story, tiny people carrying placards proclaiming nonsense, passersby with their own satiric axes to grind.14 In no time, MAD was an uproarious success: the newsstands were awash in imitations from other publishers. Even Gaines, in a magnificent gesture that mocked his own industry, produced an imitation—Panic, edited by Feldstein.
Almost at once, it was apparent that Gaines's scheme wasn't working: instead of cranking out the humor comic book in a week, Kurtzman was pouring as much time and energy into MAD as he did into his two war titles. And he wasn't increasing his monthly income, because he was always falling behind the production schedule for one title or another. By the fall of 1953 he was only nominally editor of Two-Fisted Tales—and other circumstances were shaping events. The Korean War went on permanent hold in July 1953, and interest in war stories flagged, Gaines discontinued Frontline Combat that winter (with No. 15, cover-dated January 1954). Kurtzman maintained his income, though, because MAD became a monthly title with the April 1954 issue.
Meanwhile, the Wertham-inspired foes of comic books made their beachhead with the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency in the spring of 1954. By fall, Gaines's distributor would no longer handle his horror titles. Gaines tried to stay in business by producing a series of new books—the so-called New Directions titles—but these were so poorly received that by fall 1955 he had shut down production of all comic books. Except MAD. And MAD, by this time, was no longer a comic book.
Fired up by the growing success of the title, Kurtzman had been increasingly impatient with the limitations of the comic book format. Some of his features, in fact, were no longer, strictly speaking, comics. In MAD No. 13, he did a photo feature, running witty remarks under photographs of cute babies. And he parodied the puzzle and game pages often found in other comic books. The covers of MAD betray Kurtzman's ambitions, too. He did a parody cover of Life and another of Atlantic Monthly. The latter was designed for readers who were ashamed to be seen reading MAD: with the cover camouflage, they could peruse MAD in public—on the subway, say—without fear of being ridiculed. Another cover looked like a racing form, another, like a composition notebook, so that it could be sneaked into schoolrooms.
In the spring of 1955 Kurtzman almost left E.C. to take a position with Pageant magazine, but Gaines persuaded him to stay by letting him convert MAD to a magazine format. Kurtzman stayed because the new format promised a broader, more flexible platform for satire. The new MAD appeared with issue No. 24 in July 1955. The interior pages were entirely black and white, no color whatsoever—a concession to budgetary limitations that also served to establish the title's new status as a more serious (well, purposeful anyway) publication. Kurtzman took advantage of the magazine format to poke fun at features found in popular magazines of the day. A page purporting to be a special report from "our Soviet correspondent" was entirely in Russian. A "Photo Quiz" mocked Look's feature of that name. And a do-it-yourself article parodied Popular Mechanics and other similar magazines. The new MAD had the appearance of a picture magazine: in place of comic strip panels were Craftint drawings that looked somewhat like photographs. And the captions underneath were typeset. There was more straight text. Most articles were introduced with a page of prose in the style of Life magazine. Hemingway was parodied in a short story. And Alfred E. Neuman made his first appearance.15 The new MAD was destined to be as popular as the old comic book MAD, Kurtzman having set it on the course it would maintain for the rest of Gaines's life.
But Kurtzman left E.C. a few months later: his last issue of MAD was No. 28. He had asked for complete control of the publication, and Gaines had not been willing to give it to him. Kurtzman wanted to improve the quality of the product—pay artists more, add color features, and so on. But Gaines couldn't afford it. Al Feldstein took the editorial reins and held them for nearly thirty years. Kurtzman went on to other things—most of them, attempts to repeat his success with MAD. Each of these attempts was bril-liant in its own way; all were innovative. None were financially viable. Playboy's Hugh Hefner sponsored Trump, a truly luxurious magazine of satire and parody; it lasted two glorious issues in early 1957 before Hef's money ran out. Kurtzman next did a smaller, infinitely cheaper magazine called Humbug, which lasted eleven issues (until August 1958). Then came Help!—twenty-six issues over five years, ending September 1965. Meanwhile, in 1962, with his old classmate Will Elder at his elbow, he settled in at Playboy to produce the most lavish color comic strip of all time, Little Annie Fanny, a satire of hip society and sexual mores. It, like almost all of Kurtzman's endeavors, was a masterpiece. But Kurtzman will be more remembered for MAD than for any of his other work.
The manic, often adolescent, irreverence that Kurtzman fostered in the pages of the first two dozen issues of MAD determined the attitude and direction of the magazine for the next three decades. And MAD was not the only beneficiary of Kurtzman's inspiration. Writing in the New Yorker at the time of Kurtzman's death, Adam Gopnik counted the blessings:
Kurtzman's MAD was the first comic enterprise that got its effects almost entirely from parodying other kinds of popular entertainment. Like Lenny Bruce, whom he influenced, Kurtzman saw that the conventions of pop culture ran so deep in the imagination of his audience—and already stood at so great a remove from real experience—that you could create a new kind of satire just by inventorying them. To say that this became an influential manner in American comedy is to understate the case. Almost all American satire today follows a formula that Harvey Kurtzman thought up.16
Through all the years of MAD, Kurtzman's influence on the American public was incalculable. For generation after generation, the young, at a particular age, read MAD. Reading MAD breeds a certain cynicism about the icons of American popular culture as well as the functioning of its institutions. Who can say whether the Vietnam War protest among American youth was not in some way inspired by the satire in MAD (if not, even more indirectly, by the realism in Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat)? In the closing years of the twentieth century, it would be difficult to imagine an American under the age of fifty-five who does not look at the world a little askance, thanks in large measure to Harvey Kurtzman and his MAD legacy …
1. "An Interview with the Man behind E.C.," by Dwight Decker and Gary Groth, Comics Journal, no. 81 (May 1983): 56.
2. "Shop Talk with Jack Davis [and Harvey Kurtzman]," interview by Will Eisner, Will Eisner's Quarterly, no. 6 (September 1985): 42.
3. E.C.'s bafflingly eccentric numbering system can be explained in purely financial terms. The post office required a publisher to pay $2,000 for a second-class mailing permit whenever a new title was introduced. At first, Gaines sought to avoid the charge by trying to make it seem that every new magazine he concocted was actually just an existing publication with a slightly modified title. Thus, Moon Girl and the Prince, a space adventure comic book, became Moon Girl (space adventures still), and then Moon Girl Fights Crime (crime in space), and then A Moon, A Girl—Romance (love stories). As time went on, however, Gaines discarded such semantic niceties and simply renamed his magazines. But he kept the same numbering sequence, hoping the post office would assume the new magazines were merely another manifestation of a continuing publication.
4. "The War Panel," transcript of taped proceedings, Squa Tront #8 (New York: John Benson, 1978), p. 33.
5. Quoted in Two-Fisted Tales, vol. 1 (West Plains, Mo.: Russ Cochran, 1980), the editorial notes and interview by John Benson appear at the end of #23.
6. "Shop Talk with Harvey Kurtzman," interview by Will Eisner, Will Eisner's The Spirit, no. 31 (October 1981): 22.
7. "An Interview with the Man Who Brought Truth to the Comics," by Kim Thompson and Gary Groth, Comics Journal, no. 67 (October 1981): 80; Harvey Kurtzman with Howard Zimmerman, My Life as a Cartoonist (New York: Pocket Books, 1988), p. 64.
8. Eisner, "Shop Talk with Harvey Kurtzman," p. 22.
9. Ibid., p. 27.
10. Harvey Kurtzman with Michael Barrier, From Aargh! to Zap!—Harvey Kurtzman's Visual History of the Comics (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1991), p. 22.
11. Thompson and Groth, "An Interview with the Man Who Brought Truth to the Comics," p. 81.
12. Decker and Groth, "An Interview with the Man behind E.C.," p. 79.
13. Kurtzman, From Aargh! to Zap! p. 41.
14. Mark James Estren, A History of Underground Comics (San Francisco: Straight Arrow Books, 1974), p. 38.
15. The "What? Me Worry?" kid actually appeared first as one of dozens of tiny illustrations that parodied a page of the Sears catalogue on the cover to MAD No. 21 (cover-dated March 1955), but he was scarcely a featured player at that time. But with issue No. 24, he became a focal point on the decorative border of the cover and, hence, gained the chief symbol of the magazine's antic attitude.
16. Adam Gopnik, New Yorker, March 29, 1993, p. 75.
Goulart, Ron. Over 50 Years of American Comic Books. Lincolnwood, Ill.: Mallard Press, 1991.
Harvey, R. C. "Cartooning, Comix, Comics, the Classics, and the Kitchen Sink." Cartoonist PROfiles, no. 97 (March 1993): 74-81.
Jacobs, Frank. The MAD World of William M. Gaines. New York: Bantam, 1973.
Print, November-December 1988, a special issue on comics; see especially, Paul Gravett, "Euro-Comics: A Dazzling Respectability," pp. 74-87, 204, 206; Gary Groth, "Grown-Up Comics: Breakout from the Underground," pp. 98-111; and Arlen Schumer, "The New Superheroes: A Graphic Transformation," pp. 112-31.
T. J. Ross (essay date autumn 1961)
SOURCE: Ross, T. J. "The Conventions of the MAD." Dissent 8, no. 4 (autumn 1961): 502-06.
[In the following essay, Ross argues that MAD Magazine fails to present an intelligent satirical voice and instead demonstrates a marked similarity in style and composition to the very aspects of popular culture it attempts to mock.]
… a body that don't get started right when he's little ain't got no show—when the pinch comes there ain't nothing to back him up and keep him to his work and so he gets beat.
"… it can't be like this. What have we done, all of us? What has happened? …"
"Don't think about it…. If you do you'll go mad."
—Sagan, Those without Shadows
The letters column of the July '61 number of MAD comics under the banner, "A MAD State of Affairs," features a photograph of the daughter of the governor of North Carolina smilingly enthroned in bed with a batch of MADs. "Thought you might like to know," writes the fan who'd sent in the item, "that MAD has even reached the Governor's mansion." MAD's cup runneth over.
Other tributes come regularly from high school and college teachers and from college-bred mothers concerned with finding a synthetic antidote to the influence of pop culture on their children's minds. Yet in its comic book format MAD is exactly like what it is supposed to be panning, and its drawing is even more crass than that of the ordinary "funnies." The cartoon strip—in the rhythm of its potted "plotting," in its simplistic reduction of materials to a one-dimensional, escalator-like descent to an anticipated "surprise"— shares the basic pattern of all kitsch. It is impossible to use this form without dependence on its stereotypes—stereotypes already fixed in the public imagination, like the Gaunt Thinlipped Hero (Dick Tracy or Gregory Peck), the Defeated Dad, or the Sweet Young Know-nothing. In assuming this form whole-hog, MAD must, in fact, adhere to its assumptions. Like the recent corrupt Hitchcock films, MAD is a "sophisticated" example of kitsch feeding on itself— even its show of frenzy is a pretense as, with a Hoo-Ha here and a Hoo-Ha there, it throws up such spoofs on pop as Prince Violent, Melvin of the Apes, Flesh Garden, Perry Masonmint, the Katherine Money Party, and Tennessee Williamsburg.
Good for a laugh now and then, if you know pop, MAD's message is defensiveness and gamesmanship rather than resistance, criticism or wit. Thus, some gagging about pop violence will be followed by the "MAD Shakespeare Primer" to remind its readers that Hamlet, which contains "two knifings, three fatal duels," etc., is "… a good play for children. It is much better than watching violent TV programs … because it is more violent than TV and comic books put together!" Rather than voicing resistance to the oppressiveness of official culture, MAD expresses a savage acquiescence to it. It invites its fans to wallow inside the whale, then come out one-up.
Like the sick comedians, MAD likes to cover the news once-over-snottily, and, like them, it casts a discreetly universal net, in the name of know-how. "If the nations were smart," MAD points out in its number for July '59, "they'd take their cue from Big Business, hire an Advertising Agency" … and go in for this sort of thing:
Why Be Lonely? Is the fast-moving Arab World passing you by? Join Nasser's Friendship Club.
You're in Good Hands with Red Star. "Red Star Five-Year Plan" has already protected such countries as Poland, Hungary … from warmongering Imperialists! It can do the same for you.
Your Premier Problems Are Over: The DeGaulle Employment Agency. "Premiers Are Our Specialty."
Save! Save! Save! … We have countless old flags, old maps, old Colonels … Watch for the Cyprus Surplus Lists: Mac's Empire Surplus Stores, Ltd.
Visit Exotic Formosa: Mao's Guided Asian Tours: Armed Escorts! Planned Plunder!
The round-up is edgy and abstract, a kind of pointless flailing. Notice that if you juggle the above into free verse you have the lukewarm makings of a Beat vision. In keeping, however, with its cackling conformism, MAD avoids Beat extremism as much as it does any hint of intellectual skirmishing. One near-critical skit considers Hollywood's handling of the German and Japanese soldier in films made during the war, and after:
During: The Japanese Officer is sadistic … screams in pidgin English … looks like a monkey.
After: The same officer is kind but misunderstood … talks impeccable English … looks like Keye Luke.
During: The German Officer is evil … shouts shvienhundt … wears monocle … keeps vowing to destroy decadent American democracy.
After: The German Officer is honest and sincere, but confused. He says things like "Vere haf ve failed as human beinks?" He keeps vowing to destroy decadent Hitler-type Fascism.
During: French patriot faces firing squad (sketched as Jean-Pierre Aumont) and says: You may keel me, Herr Hitler, but … another Frenchman will rise … you Nazi pigs will nevaire …
After: The patriot who faces the firing squad is now Maurice Chevalier: "… I cannot blame you for my death, Herr Hitler. Zere are good Germans and zere are bad Germans … you are merely carrying out ze orders …
And so on to a look at war films of the future in which Tab Hunter will play the Japanese Officer, as an ally, while Perry Como plays a kindly bird-loving Gestapo officer whose purpose is "to help minorities rebuild their churches and synagogues."
Hovering, however grossly, on the edge of an impolite critical perspective, MAD flattens the point in the moral vacuum of know-howism: read MAD and learn how to make movies properly adjusted to propaganda temperature.
In the savagery of its acquiescence, MAD shows its consumers how to be bastards à la mode. An actual ad which has been running in the Sunday supplements concerns the Phoenix Mutual Retirement Plan. The ad's attention-getter is a photo of a clean-cut fiftyish couple smiling at You. He, arched sideways as if about to say something sincere, wears a breezy sports shirt and holds pipe in hand; she, in manner and complexion nattily menopausal, sits erect, eyes on You, knitting as she grins. The caption reads: How We Retired in Fifteen Years with Three Hundred Dollars a Month. The come-on follows:
Want to know something? Liza and I have been sitting here in the sunshine for practically a whole week. Just talking, watching TV, reading and plain loafing…. You see, we've just retired …
Funny, but this great new happiness of ours had its start back in an unhappy time. It was fifteen years ago that I injured my leg …
And so on to how the happiness-finder found a Phoenix ad in a magazine and urges you too to send the coupon … today….
In going after this sort of thing, MAD matches its straw-man original with a literalist frenzy (which is in keeping with the psychology of the feeble-minded, as well as with its own tone of premeditated idiocy). MAD's attention-getter is a sketch of a couple of brats in hammocks, wildly blue-eyed, contained, and sneering at Us. He waves an enormous sundae in the air, while she juggles a soda in one hand and cake in the other. The caption reads: How We Retired at the Age of Eleven with 800 Dollars a Month, and is followed by:
Like many other 11-year-olds, my twin sister Rhoda and I had been dreaming of retiring for a long time. After all, we weren't getting any younger … very often when jumping off our front porch, we got like drawing pains in our ankles …
And so on to how the team discovered an "exciting and unusual loophole" in the exciting and unusual Phonyex Mutual Plan whereby they manage to blackmail the company into guaranteeing their future.
MAD's archetypal smiler and cover boy is dubbed Alfred E. Neuman (no man; new man; nu, man?). Wider, flatter and less cocky than that of Bergen's Charlie McCarthy, his renowned smile expresses neither satisfaction nor awareness nor challenge but a sense of defeat so total as to assume that whoever is being smiled at will be done for next. It is, in the precise meaning of that all-American phrase, "a shit-eating smile," borne by the combat-fatigued veteran of Dad's ad culture. For Alfred E. "opting out" is neither retreat nor strategy but a way of being one-up on squaresville in the square's own terms; nor does this mean a sort of dandyism but, American-style, a self-contained slobbism, or, as I have said, savage acquiescence.
The pre-election issue of MAD appeared with two front covers: one showed Nixon, grinning madly with Al E. by his side sporting an "I Like Dick" button; the other showed Kennedy, likewise, with Al E. standing by with an "I Like Jack" button. Needless to say, MAD's paragon is not alone in not having felt any difference in "greatness" between the candidates, but, again, the imperative is to go along smirkingly with the prevailing drift.
That MAD, like TV, never mixes situations so that a hint of real conflict might come into the joke, may be seen in how it spoofs the Society Page. The usual society page, as MAD has it, runs to a power-elitist homogeneity and extravagance of this sort: "Stephanie Duprey and Napolean VII Wed in Grand Canyon" or "In a palace near the statue of Zeus on Mt. Olympus, Miss … daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Oscar Sessingfors … owners of the Caspian Sea and Rocky Mountains became the bride of Major General Nottingham, owner of the 17th Infantry Division … he is a distant descendant of Adam." But a page devoted "to the slobs who constitute 98% of our population" would go, MAD-wise like this: "Miss Zelda Zyttzger Wed in Bayonne to Weight Guesser"—one Sparky Gahagan who is shown wearing a straw hat, jacket and T-shirt, and striped pants. Both bride and groom are buck-toothed. The notice on Sadie Dooley and Blubber Knerd raises shades of Beckett and Lenny Bruce:
Ferdie's Flophouse … was the setting … for the marriage of Miss Sadie Dooley, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. "Two Ton" Dooley who reside in the doorway of 76 Houston St., to Blubber Knerd. He is the son of Mr. and Mrs. Knerd of Bench 3, 74th St. and Central Park West … Miss Ducky Dooley, sister of the bride was maid of honor and owing to her well-muscled physique also served as best man.
Television, with programs like Life with Riley or I Love Lassie, does honor to the condition of its public by upholding, in its inimitable deadpan fashion, a kitchen-bound cretinism as the ideal of the Good Normal Life. MAD, on the other hand, revels in apprehending that life as one of sodden desperation. But both agree on the same line of demarcation: there are the 2% that we all read about; and the 98% that we all know about.
The MAD issue for Dec. '60, featured a section on "How to Deal with Parents from Ages 21 to 60." Here is the one subject on which MAD really lets go: the Parent. In one place, Grant Wood's Gothic couple are shown in front of a depot marked Westport, holding stacks of bills. In another, a framed portrait of an ape labelled "Mother" hangs in the hut of Melvin of the Apes. Or mother will be shown exhorting her son to marry that fine girl, Zelda; as mother leaves the room, son with Zelda, both yawning, peer over the edge of the couch on which they've been loving. In every case the parent is drawn as an unaware, physically repulsive dolt. Consistently, and perhaps unwittingly, MAD depicts parents as apes and family life as apish, without any upbeat compromise. One issue shows Dad Lester Cowsnofski in his Rocket Testing Chamber locked away in bliss from "his familiar way of life on Earth." Dad's motto is: "I'd be crazy to go back to them things I hadda leave behind." The children's attitudes to the familial are even fiercer. Once the abundant falsities of Dad's world of ads and "squares who care" has been described, it is but a step to physical recoil. So, parents in the world of MAD don't look good.
MAD here touches on an issue which crops up in the classroom whenever a book like Brave New World is discussed. Granting what one may have to say about the dire myths of progress, scientism, standardization, the collapse of romantic values, and the rest, the brighter students (whether married or single) will gleefully unlimber arguments which are (a) anti-familial and (b) pro-"benevolent despotism." Huxley's vision doesn't abash them in the least. They already see family life from the MAD point of view.
The first MAD Reader (Nov. '54) was introduced with a "vital message" from Roger Price (a TV entertainer and M.C. of the squarest category). His purpose was to present MAD in a light that would reflect innocuousness and "service" for, like all pop, MAD does not presume to be self-justifying, but rather finds its excuse in filling a sociological "need." Here's how it's done:
MAD achieves what on the surface would seem to be impossible. It is even sillier than the things it lampoons. It takes broad, sometimes crude—but never vicious—swings at aspects of our culture that are foolish, sentimental, venal, stuffy, or just plain corny. In other words, it Gilds the Lily, it carries carbohydrates to Farouk.
It does, indeed; it gives Farouk what he's already overstuffed with and, like what it reflects, it assumes equality in inferiority. Yet Mr. Price claims for MAD the distinction of being "the first successful humor magazine to be started in this country since the New Yorker…. People want something new. They will buy a magazine that sounds like it knows something." There it is: "sound" like you know something but keep feeding them the same old carbohydrates. That this is as pat a description of the New Yorker formula and tradition as one could hope for, does no honor to the state of MAD.
Vernard Eller (essay date 27 December 1967)
SOURCE: Eller, Vernard. "The MAD Morality: An Exposé." Christian Century 84, no. 52 (27 December 1967): 1647-49.
[In the following essay, Eller presents the definition of, what he refers to as, the "MAD Morality," the message behind MAD Magazine—humorously and subversively in-stilled—which contains a curiously strong moral fiber that denounces drugs, alcohol, deceit, and hypocrisy.]
The Caesars of contextual ethics have told us that morality, like all gall, is divided into three parts: (1) the authoritarian legalists take the high road (too high); (2) the lawless libertarians take the low (too low); and (3) in between, on the smogless plain, the New Morality moves purposefully back and forth.
Obviously there is something wrong with this typology. It is clear that the ethical theory regnant in respectable circles even before the New Morality put in its appearance could hardly have been classified under either (1) or (2). Neither the Niebuhr brothers nor Paul Ramsey could have been called legalists or libertarians, so they must have been New Moralists; yet it is also clear that the New Morality was intended to be something actually new and different from theirs. There just must be more than the three simple options.
TRIED CONTENT, VENTURESOME MEANS
My purpose is to present one: the MAD Morality. Now because the very fact that the present company is reading The Christian Century is proof enough that they aren't quite "with it," I must explain that MAD denotes a magazine. It is a periodical of about the same size and heft as the Century and printed on the same sort of shoddy paper. Both sell for 30 cents—although MAD's is 30 cents cheap and the Century's is a donation to a nonprofit foundation. The important difference, however, is that MAD has pictures and is funny. Granted, the Century rates as high as the next one in being a funny magazine, but in its case the word has a slightly different connotation.
Whether the MAD Morality should be described as an Old Morality or a New Morality is rather hard to say; essentially it is old morality in a new form—old-fashioned morality but without moralism. A distinction must be made between "morality" and "moralism." A "morality" refers to the content of ethical teaching, what it affirms as being right and condemns as being wrong; "moralism" denotes a means, a style, by which morality is taught and enforced: a handing down of edicts in an arbitrary, authoritarian, no-nonsense sort of way—regardless of whether the edicts be right or wrong, good or bad.
Evident though it is that modern society is in a moral crisis, the trouble has come not so much because of the old moral standards as because of the moralistic way those standards have been presented. The New Morality has reacted against this moralism by striving to adapt and modify the moral standard itself—a case of not throwing the baby out with her bath … if she is old enough to make the gatefold of Playboy magazine. But the New Morality is no answer, pre-mised as it is upon a too flattering, unrealistic anthropology which assumes that average people (even the kids—who are anything but "average") are smart enough, informed enough, good enough and well intentioned enough that the simple admonition, "Always respect the personality of your brother (or sister)," is sufficient to bring one through even the glandular crisis of a parked car.
WHO WANTS TO BE STUPID?
The MAD Morality is of a vastly different stripe. The moral code reflected in the pages of MAD is straitlaced enough to put to shame any Sunday school paper in the land. MAD takes out after alcohol, tobacco, drugs, licentiousness, deceit, hypocrisy, et al., with a brash and blatant zeal that in comparison makes Billy Sunday sound as tolerant as Joseph Fletcher if not Hugh Hefner. Nor does it overlook the issues of social morality. Judged strictly by the evils it speaks out against, MAD represents as old-fashioned a morality as is currently in circulation.
Besides, the MAD Morality is based on the old, realistic, biblical anthropology. In fact, the magazine is dedicated to the proposition that the human animal is at base a rather stupid and hypocritical clod. Although Christ may be the model of what we are to become, MAD knows that the type of what we are is Alfred E. Neuman, that we are not the little Jesuses the New Morality takes us for. Not even our dear young people. Whereas the Christian world tends to read the hippies and their brethren as embodying the righteous protest of the innocent against the moral hypocrisy of their perverted elders, MAD, though not for a moment denying the justice of such a protest, has been particularly effective in making the point that in their way the protesters are just as hypocritical as the aged establishment is in its. Thus, like those presentations of the New Morality which inevitably close with the benediction, "God bless all you lovely people in your lovely efforts at finding new and astonishing ways of expressing luv," the benediction closing each feature in MAD is "How stupid can you get?" And yet … and yet, especially with kids, MAD is much more popular than the New Morality.
How can this be? It is here that the plot behind the magazine must be exposed. MAD is teaching an old, a real old morality—but without moralism. The shift was neat but actually very easy: where the old moralism said "WRONG," MAD simply reads "STUPID." And though actually "wrong" and "stupid" are morally synonymous (an action is morally "wrong," and ethics rules against it, when its tendency is to destroy and harm persons; but it comes to the same thing to say that it is stupid for persons to harm and destroy one another), that little switch makes all the difference. In both cases it is the same old morality, but where the old moralism said, "We tell you this is wrong, so don't do it!" MAD says ("We can show you that this is stupid, so decide whether you want to be a stupe or not!" And moralism the kids rebel against; MAD they eat up.
THE PLACE TO FIND OUT
The full truth about the MAD Morality came to me in a discussion with a small group of high school kids. It was at a church camp, and it needs to be said that these young people belong to the Church of the Brethren. By tradition the Brethren have taught and held to a rather high and stringent morality (I have not said "moralism" at this point). For instance, the church used to advertise itself as being "the oldest temperance society in America"—a line not heard too often nowadays. In any case, the historical evidence indicates that the 18th century Brethren founders maintained a quite exalted moral standard— without any particular taint of moralism. But in the 19th century the balance slipped, and the Brethren went through an orgy of oppressive and petrifying legalism. Then, during the past 50 years or so, the move has been gradually but decisively away from the authoritarianism of a strict code-ethic. But because the memory of it has rankled, in at least some circles of the church the New Morality is being taken to with considerable spontaneous enthusiasm.
I opened the discussion at camp by asking the kids what they felt about the teaching they had received from the church regarding personal morality—smoking, drinking, sex, etc. The immediate reply was that they hated it, resented being preached to and told what to do and what not to do. A girl named Cheryl said she was sure it would be better if the church would just keep quiet about such things.
I expressed some surprise at the vehemence of this response and said that in my view the church was doing a pretty good job of keeping quiet already. I was familiar with the youth curriculum (having written part of it myself) and knew very well that matters of personal habit barely get mentioned there, and then in a way to which the Newest Moralist hardly could object. The youth paper distributed by the Brethren, the same as that used by the Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ, is such that not even a hippy could fault it on this score.
"Well, then," they responded, "this moralism in the church [although by this time they weren't quite sure whether they actually had experienced it or whether they were simply repeating clichés which young people are expected to repeat about the church] must come from the Sunday school teachers themselves rather than from the printed materials."
BLUNT, YES—BUT WHY NOT?
"In any case," I said, "it strikes me as really funny that you blow up if the church so much as mentions these things; yet when MAD opens up on them in a way that no Sunday school teacher would think of doing, you take it and like it."
That stopped them.
Carole was the first to recover; she decided to take the line that "there is nothing serious in MAD; it's all just for laughs."
I challenged her and dashed back to the cabin to get my copies. MAD I carry with me; the Century I read in the library.
We started through, page by page. An antismoking ad. An antiliquor ad. A telling demonstration that the new TV shows which the networks bill as being so great we honestly know to be garbage. A satire making the point that most advertising is pure hogwash if not worse. A caustic commentary about the petty falsifying that goes on in our everyday business transactions. A slam against anti-Semitism. A most effective whack at the John Birch Society. One number of MAD deals with more moral issues—and takes stronger stands on them—than does a year's total output by most church publishers.
Then we came to a parody of the surfing movies that are now the rage. I quoted to the group the part where She says to Him: "You know why these beach pictures are so popular, Go-Go? Because teenagers in the audience like to identify with us and all our dancing and making-out!" To which He answers Her: "That's right! It takes their minds off the humdrum things in their own lives … like dancing and making-out!"
I put it to the kids: "Now isn't that a pretty blunt way of saying that if life is to be at all meaningful it's got to consist of something more than just dancing and making-out?" To which Carole (the same Carole who not ten minutes before had insisted that there is nothing serious in MAD) responded: "Yes, but the church never would be that serious and honest with us."
I for one do not believe that young people really accept or want to hear the flattering view of themselves that underlies the New Morality. Down deep they know that MAD presents a more accurate picture of their own moral character, competence and concern. The church would do well to take a lesson in honesty from MAD rather than to keep on trying to sweet-talk its young people into being good.
"But why," I pressed, "are you so willing and happy to take all this moralizing from MAD and yet so resentful if the church tries to say even a word?"
Cheryl came back: "It's because the church always tells you, but MAD lets you draw your own conclusion!"
Cheryl was only half right, but in that half lies the secret of the MAD Morality, the secret that enables MAD magazine to get away with teaching a 13th century ethic to 20th century young people (13th century B.C., that is—like, say, the Ten Commandments). MAD lets the kids think they are drawing their own conclusion, although the truth is that it already has drawn the picture in such a way that the conclusion is a foregone matter. Actually, MAD is every bit as preachy as that old codifier Moses. Beneath the pile of garbage that is MAD there beats, I suspect, the heart of a rabbi.
DANGER FROM EXPOSURE?
It has been only with deep reluctance that I have brought myself to write this public exposé. The revelation may put an end to the whole crafty game and break up the good thing MAD has going. This would be particularly true if word ever got out that a magazine named The Christian Century (how stuffy and pretentious can a title get?) was interested in MAD. My consolation comes from the knowledge that there aren't all that many influential people (influential with teenagers, that is) reading the Century. And if it should turn out that my little piece excites a few old fuddy-duddies to rush to the nearest newsstand (libraries don't carry MAD—so much the worse for libraries) and buy a copy in order to check it out, perhaps the MAD men will forgive me (they aren't careful about whom they sell to).
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Nathan Abrams (essay date December 2003)
SOURCE: Abrams, Nathan. "From Madness to Dysentery: MAD's Other New York Intellectuals."1Journal of American Studies 37, no. 3 (December 2003): 435-51.
[In the following essay, Abrams argues that the writers of MAD Magazine, through a potent combination of political activism and intellectualism, acted as a powerful influence on the counter-culture of the 1960s.]
One of the most curiously overlooked publishing phenomena of the 1950s was the appearance of the comic book MAD in October 1952 which "burst forth full blown from nowhere on an unsuspecting comic book reading public" into the midst of the domestic Cold War.2 In 1959 Newsweek observed that "MAD each month sticks a sharp-pronged fork into some part of the social anatomy"3 while Gloria Steinem recalled: "There was a spirit of satire and irreverence in MAD that was very important, and it was the only place you could find it in the '50s."4 And even Marshall McLuhan considered MAD worthy of mention in his influential study, Understanding Media. Noting its "sudden eminence," he attributed this to its "ludicrous and cool replay of the forms of the hot media of photo, radio, and film."5 Surprisingly, very little attention has been paid towards MAD beyond its own retrospective publications, one book, and several short articles. This is unfortunate since the comic provides a sharply satiric, yet extremely perceptive insight into many aspects of Cold War America during the 1950s. Furthermore, as I shall argue, those who wrote and drew for MAD formed an alternative New York intellectual circle to that which is commonly written about. MAD's critique of America was far more effective and devastating than their better-known counterparts and consequently, MAD deserves credit as one of the sources of the counterculture of the 1960s.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF COMICS
Comic books date back to mid-1930s when they escaped the confines of newspapers and advertisers, but it was not until the last three years of World War II that their mass appeal really set in, by which point they were selling at the rate of ten million copies per month. By 1947, the rate was sixty million per month. Both children and adults read comic books regularly, that is, six per month or more. Forty-four percent of men in army training camps during World War II read comics regularly and 13 percent occasionally; 41 percent of the civilian male adult population and 28 percent of female adult population were regular readers; 25 percent of adult elementary school graduates, 27 percent of adult high-school graduates, 16 percent of adult college graduates, and 12 percent of schoolteachers read them regularly. Within the eighteen to thirty-four age group, almost three times as many people read comics, as did those of an older age. Between the ages of six and eleven, 95 percent of boys and 91 percent of girls read an average of fifteen comic books per month and within the twelve to eighteen age range, more than 80 percent read at least twelve per month.6
THE BIRTH OF MAD
William Gaines' Educational Comics (E.C.), which had a reputation for "quality artwork and innovative editorial direction," and was known for Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, The Haunt of Fear, Weird Fantasy, The Crypt of Terror, and Weird Science, published MAD.7 The first issue, the full title of which was Tales Calculated to Drive You MAD—Humor in a Jugular Vein, was thirty-two pages long, cost 10 cents, and contained four stories that each parodied a different E.C. comic. The comic was primarily targeted at the teenage market. It was initially written and edited by Harvey Kurtzman until September 1956 when he was lured away from MAD by Hugh Hefner to work on his new publication Playboy. Al Feldstein then took over as editor. Originally published in colour, in 1955 Gaines transformed MAD into a 25-cent, black-and-white, bimonthly magazine renaming it MAD Magazine in the process. It was at this point that Time somewhat mistakenly referred to MAD as "a short-lived satirical pulp …"8 Less than two years later Time would eat its own words: "Through such zany mockery of the solemn, the pretentious and the inane, the bimonthly MAD is compiling a growth chart that is no laughing matter."9 By the late 1950s, the magazine was second in popularity among high-school students to Life magazine.10 By the end of the last century, not only had Time eaten its words, but also its corporate empire Time Warner had swallowed up the magazine through its acquisition of MAD's owner, DC Comics.
MAD Magazine was born in an anti-comic era. In 1954 Dr. Frederic Wertham had published his Seduction of the Innocent—a vehement condemnation of crime and horror comic books—and which has been seen as a personal "vendetta" against the medium.11 Wertham attributed the growth of juvenile delinquency and homosexuality to comic books leading to news stand boycotts and comic-book burnings.12 Dr. Wertham was not the only person decrying comic books at that time. Writing in Commentary magazine, Norbert Muhlen described them as "Penny dreadfuls" (as they were called in England, where they were also known as "Yank Mags"), "dehumanized, concentrated, and repetitious showing of death and destruction." George Orwell wrote: "In the Yank Mags you get real blood-lust, really gory descriptions of the all-in, jump-on-the-testicles style of fighting, written in a jargon that has been perfected by people who brood endlessly on violence. A paper like Fight Stories [incidentally, one of the most popular comic books in America at that time], for instance, would have very little appeal except to sadists and masochists." Muhlen concluded that comics provided an "education to violence" and thus "may be helping to educate a whole generation for an authoritarian rather than a democratic society."13 Eventually, the Senate Judiciary Committee heeded the public outcry and conducted hearings investigating the need for legislation to ban certain comic books.
In order to avoid government censorship, Gaines together with his business manager Lyle Stuart created a self-regulatory agency in 1954—the Comics Magazines Association of America. Modelled on the Production Code of the motion-picture industry, the Association discharged a code of conduct, administered by a review body called the Comics Code Authority (CCA) established 16 September 1954. Like its movie predecessor, the code was composed of a series of prohibitions outlawing allusions to sex, excessive violence, and challenges to authority.14 The CCA required a stamp of approval on the cover of every comic book, guaranteeing that the contents were "wholesome, entertaining and educational." Without such approval the comic was not distributed. Rather than risk the loss of distribution, publishers toned down their material to meet the Association's standards.15 Nevertheless, Wertham's attacks succeeded in decimating the comic book industry and the number of titles appearing on news stands fell from roughly 650 in 1953/54 to nearly 250 in 1956.16
MAD, however, refused to dilute its characteristic disrespect for American institutions to meet the CCA's criteria. As Kurtzman put it: "Of course, we had the big problem: could we ever live under the censorship of the Comics Code? We decided, absolutely no. We could not go on as a comic book."17 Indeed, as a comic book, MAD was "doomed" suggested Kurtzman.18 So in 1955 MAD was transformed into a magazine. MAD's shift from "comic" to "magazine" was accompanied by a change from hand lettering to set type thus lending it the appearance of class.19 Whether this was an intuitive marketing ploy or a ruse to circumvent the newly established CCA is not clear, but MAD Magazine as we know it was born. Robert Lovejoy saw the impact of MAD (and the later underground comics) resulting from the reputation of the comic book as a medium. "Newspapers are bought by adults, thus the comic strips are designed and expected to appeal to adult buyers. Comic books were and are considered a medium for kids, thus the attack on the E.C. books ignored the quality of the writing in favor of attacking adult content in a kids' medium. When MAD became a magazine, it did not cease to attack the same targets it had as a comic book, but it had metaphorically turned in its short pants for trousers when it changed formats."20 Years later MAD got its revenge on Wertham when it published a spoof article by Frederick Werthless, MD that attributed juvenile delinquency to prolonged exposure to baseball.21
THE ALTERNATIVE NEW YORK INTELLECTUALS
In many ways MAD represented a group of alternative New York Jewish intellectuals. Like their intellectual co-religionists, many of MAD's staff were Jewish, either native New Yorkers or émigrés from Europe, a high proportion of them survivors of Nazi Germany. Like the New York intellectual milieu, many of them had come to political awareness during the Depression.22 Similarly, the religious background of MAD's editors had a direct and important influence. Stanley Rothman and S. Robert Lichter state: "From the beginning MAD's editors have been Jewish and, as they themselves would agree, hostile to the American civic myth."23MAD was very much humour in a Jewish vein, not least because it employed a whole lexicon of Yiddish phrases, both real and imaginary: "borscht," "ganef," "bveebleftzer," "farshimmelt" and "halavah." Readers often wrote in and complained of such strange and exotic-sounding words that saturated the text of the magazine. In some senses, Leo Rosten's The Joys of Yiddish (1968) was a required companion text. But MAD was "Jewish" in more ways than its choice of language. In 1967, theologian Vernard Eller detected an Old Testament morality lying beneath the magazine's surface: "MAD is every bit as preachy as that old codifier Moses. Beneath the pile of garbage that is MAD, there beats, I suspect, the heart of a rabbi." He noted that MADoften railed against alcohol, drugs, tobacco, licentiousness, deceit, and hypocrisy. Overall, he concluded that "MAD is teaching an old, a real old morality."24
But unlike the New York intellectuals, as I shall argue, MAD's staff was a group that was unafraid to criticise or dissent from aspects of Cold War America. MAD actually appeared to fulfil the function of the critic more often than did the organs of the New York intellectuals such as Commentary, Dissent, Partisan Review, and The New Leader.25Dissent was purportedly established to provide that type of social and political criticism that MAD pioneered in the 1950s and which other New York intellectual journals had so conspicuously failed to do at that time. It was Dissent's aim "to dissent from the bleak atmosphere of conformism that pervades the political and intellectual life of the US; to dissent from the support of the status quo now so noticeable on the part of many former radicals and socialists."26Dissent was designed to provide an opposing viewpoint to that of magazines like Commentary, which, in Dissent's opinion, had become so affirmative that it was felt that it had lost its critical perspective.27 In contrast, I contend that MAD fulfilled this critical function far more effectively than its more "serious" counterparts did, deservedly building up a reputation for satire and social commentary. Furthermore, MAD consistently refused to take any political position: MAD's publisher, William Gaines, stated that "we like to say that MAD has no politics and that we take no point of view."28 It may have been abusive of Cold War America, but it never sympathised with the New Left revolt against it. Indeed, student radicalism also became its eventual target. This consistent inconsistency ran counter to the dynamics that formed the New York intellectual community, which were clearly aligned on ideological and political grounds. Neither did MAD offer any affirmations or alternatives to the American way of life that it held in such contempt. Thus, in its failure to affirm or support anything, MAD possibly deserved the title of "dissent" more than Dissent magazine itself.
"NOT EATING THE PREVAILING BULLSHIT ": MAD's CRITIQUE OF 1950s AMERICA 29
Kurtzman developed a style for MAD that was so influential it "revolutionized" the field of comic-book satire.30 Under its rowdy surface, MAD was "necessarily thoughtful," accurately targeting its subject by revealing its fundamental flaws or untruths. Kurtzman sought not merely to entertain, but to remind his audience "of what the real world is like."31 "Kurtzman introduced a host of innovations to comics; he was the first to use mainstream humorists as writers; he parodied many aspects of life, including movies, television, magazines, and advertising. In the MAD comics he pushed the boundaries of what a comic was supposed to look like, incorporating photographs, fine art, and pop iconography."32
Perhaps one of the most conspicuous features of the magazine during the 1950s was its lack of advertising. In the consumer-driven boom of the time, advertising played a key role in selling new products to the American public dominating the pages of many magazines; product advertising even appeared on the pages of highbrow intellectual magazines, such as Commentary. Although, somewhat ironically, the magazine's offices were located in the heart of American corporate advertising, Madison Avenue, MAD did not succumb to contemporary pressures. This lack of advertising gave the magazine a freedom that other publications and media of the time possibly did not possess. Furthermore, its lack of corporate control freed it from strict processes of regulation. Having neither advertising nor strict regulation MAD could target almost anything that it wished and indeed the major icons and iconography of 1950s America came into its sights.
Initially, MAD sent up other comics as a comic book parody. It "cannibalised" its rivals, "dismembering" them, and sending up anything which seemed "traditional" or "innocent" about them.33 In "Starchie" the innocent teenagers Archie and Jughead became chainsmoking juvenile delinquents; the western hero, "The Lone Stranger" is transformed into a schlemiel (a simpleton); in "Superduper Man!" the triumphant superhero (also the creation of American Jews) is turned into a shlmazel (a loser). Immediately, National Periodicals, the owners of Superman, threatened a lawsuit.34 Sinisterly, Superman's feminine counterpart, Wonder Woman, became "Woman Wonder," locked into permanent battle against her boyfriend's alter ego Steve Adore. In particular, MAD turned its sights on the Disney Corporation, lampooning its central icon Mickey Mouse. A grizzled, rat-faced, thug vermin renamed "Mickey Rodent" replaced the wholesome androgyny of Mickey Mouse. In an impressively close repetition of the Disney style, MAD not only sent up all of Disney's peculiarities, but also embellished them with a variety of visual jokes: Mickey's fingers and tails are caught in mouse traps while another character has a pet human on a lead. The introductory statement reads: "though we are repelled at the sight of man turned beast … we revel to see beast turn man!"35 The whole strip came together to form what Maria Reidelbach called a "biting parody," assailing one of America's most respected institutions during the fifties.36
When it had exhausted other comic books MAD branched out into other media. It was not afraid of directing its satirical talents at any target, including movie stars, pop singers, politicians, and even the British royal family. For some time E.C. Comics had "delivered devastating critiques" and MAD's second editor, Al Feldstein had been practising the art of social commentary in such comic books as Crime Suspenstories and Shock Suspenstories, which, according to comic-book historian, William W. Savage, had "laid waste to the American family in a variety of ways."37MAD not only continued this trend but took if a step further. Significantly, key American icons were often the subjects of its humour. Even the "Father of Our Country," George Washington was not safe. Media, promotions, television, movies, and advertising were favourite topics of the magazine and all became subjects for parody. MAD turned its "mocking voice" on the "artifacts and cultural forms of the good life" of the 1950s "and began to devour them with unparalleled comic relish."38MAD's grotesque exaggerations and eccentricities provided much-copied material for other comic book authors and satirists. Reitberger and Fuchs point out how: "By satirical exaggeration MAD shows what a humbug most of what the media produce is. Besides the media it also exposes and attacks the leisure and consumer habits of the American citizen."39 From the very heart of the American advertising industry—Madison Avenue—MAD battered the companies that surrounded it.
MAD consistently refused to include advertisements; in their place a series of spoof ads appeared. In March 1955 the cover imitated a mail order catalogue, filled with small black-and white illustrations and fine type. Inside bogus products such as "Ded Ryder Cowboy Carbine" rifles and "Shmeer's Rubber Bubble Gum" were advertised. Thereafter each issue contained at least two full-page cartoons that were very familiar to its readership. Much of the artwork used in these fake adverts was directly copied from the originals themselves.40 In a remarkable simulacrum of the series of Norman Rockwell covers that adorned the Saturday Evening Post magazine, MAD advertised "Crust" toothpaste that not only prevented against tooth decay, but also played upon the 1950s fears of teenage delinquency that had been raised several years earlier by Wertham's critique of comic books. Advertising parodies had become a regular feature in MAD, and in the fifth anniversary issue in 1957 this trend was celebrated on the cover, which depicted Alfred E. Neuman's birthday party, including one hundred product logo icons such as Betty Crocker, Uncle Ben, the Smith Brothers, and Bossie and Elmer. In 1958 Time magazine noted with admiration that, "In fact, the essence of MAD's success is its nimble spoofing of promotions of all kinds." The article continued: "In its parodies of advertisements and travel stickers, vending machines and lovelorn columnists, MAD is a refreshingly impudent reaction against all the slick stock in trade of twentieth-century hucksterism, its hopped up sensationalism, its visible and hidden persuaders."41
MAD's writers went to great lengths to achieve a significant level of satire for their mock advertising. According to Sabin, "This kind of iconoclasm was unusual enough, but MAD was also notable for the quality of its artwork."42 In the new magazine format, Kurtzman was able to reproduce drawings in much greater detail and subtlety. Feldstein adopted Kurtzman's style and sharpened it, exploiting the extended thematic campaigns in vogue during the 1950s by focusing on a single image, idea, or gimmick and inflating it to ridiculous proportions.43 Feldstein went even further by using photographs rather than drawings to make the parodies appear more authentic. In this way, MAD's cannibalisation of a range of media (drawings, art, films, television, comics, newspapers photography, and advertising) prefigured the postmodern pastiche, as well as anticipating pop art's privileging of product commodification as the central focus for reproduction.44 Indeed, MAD possibly both preempted and provided the platform for pop art to emerge in the 1960s. Like pop art MAD was rooted in pop culture, drawing upon it for its satire. It too sought to break down the barriers between "high" and "low" art by favouring the mundane and the everyday as a valid subject for artistic representation, and it always sought to demonstrate the vacuity of the contemporary consumer culture. A great deal of the magazine's humour was based on the ability of MAD's artists to mimic the style of the original artwork. Such "authenticity" was at the heart of the magazine's satiric edge.
According to Marshall McLuhan, MAD had "simply transferred the world of ads into the world of the comic book, and it did this just when the TV image was beginning to eliminate the comic book by direct rivalry."45 It is, then, probably no accident that MAD Magazine appeared exactly at the point that TV was becoming widespread in America.46 Accordingly, MAD turned its attention to product placement within film and television. MAD began to spot the unexpected and unannounced close-ups of consumer products. Not long after MAD ran an exposé of the racket the Federal Communications Commission began to scrutinise the practice and a subsequent congressional investigation pressured the networks to reduce such plugging.47 Thus, McLuhan concluded: "MAD is a kind of newspaper mosaic of the ad as entertainment, and entertainment as a form of madness."48
MAD was not afraid to depict life as it was thereby undermining the fantasised domestic containment of the fifties. According to Reidelbach, "Fathers sometimes came home drunk, mothers were lousy cooks, and sullen teenagers hung out on street corners looking for trouble"; and further, "By not only mentioning these unspeakable events, but chortling, guffawing, and belly-laughing at them, MAD helped alleviate the stresses of modern living."49 But MAD's satire went further than Reidelbach suggested doing more than simply alleviating the stresses the modern living. MAD contemporaneously and contemptuously began to unpick the very threads that upheld domestic US society during the Cold War years, while those very strands were being woven. As Gitlin observed the "grinning caricature" of Alfred E. Neuman contained both the "nihilism of the late Fifties—and its refutation."50 The "experts" of the 1950s, whose advice ensured the careful prescription of gender roles, were taken on by MAD magazine. Their "extreme claims," wrote Reidelbach, "were like rocket fuel for the MAD satirists, mostly middle-class men who were facing the same pressures themselves. The Madmen not only satirized the mores of the times, but also offered alternatives that were as ridiculous as their inspirations."51 In "How to be Smart" MAD posits the importance of image over substance: "Odd clothing, a strange textured jacket, cleverly fastened drop seat, create smart impressions." As Reidelbach observed: "'How to be Smart' pokes fun at self-styled intellectuals, but in fact, the quest of the middle-class throughout the 1950s and early 1960s was to be 'normal,' and MAD contained a plethora of articles providing antidotes to the images of perfect normality espoused in the mass media."52
Soon MAD's creators turned their attention to politics. Despite the hesitance of MAD's editors to acknowledge the magazine's involvement in political satire (MAD's publisher, William M. Gaines, always maintained that "we like to say that MAD has no politics and that we take no point of view,"53) MAD was not afraid to tackle political issues. Indeed, a high level of political content was a distinctive feature of the magazine, which was particularly significant since it was usually assumed that comics were targeted at youth. Perhaps its most important and potentially far-reaching contribution to this was its 1954 attack on Senator Joseph McCarthy entitled, "What's My Shine!" The strip was a combination of the long-running game show What's My Line and the series of daily live broadcasts of the Army-McCarthy hearings that had occupied America for most of the summer. The title was a suitable pun on not only the game show, but also one of McCarthy's closest aides, David Schine. MAD focused upon McCarthy's sensationalism and use of the media, particularly television: "And so, as Mr. Smurdly is gently propelled from the studio, we switch to #2 camera … and procede [sic] with the proceedings!" Using the game-show format, Kurtzman and Davis parodied McCarthy's ("McCartaway") endless points of order ("One ham on rye … no lettuce or butter! … container of milk and a Danish! … tell the boy to bring a couple of straws"); Roy Cohn constantly whispering in his ear; and the adoration with which the assembled journalists hung onto his every word. MAD even satirised McCarthy's infamously doctored photograph of Army Secretary Robert T. Stevens.54
Although Kurtzman sought to downplay the significance of the satire ("McCarthy was a special case. He was so obvious. And so evil. It was like doing a satire on Hitler,"55) MAD was one of the few publications to dare to criticise McCarthy at a point when he had not yet been censured by the Senate. McCarthyism may have been nearing its zenith in 1954, but other elements of the US press were still some way from publicly condemning the Senator. MAD's ability to escape rebuke in this instance indicates a unique and privileged position as a social commentator, facilitated by its lack of advertising, with the result it did not have to answer to anyone. It also indicated how the magazine could accurately anticipate the public mood.
Since it was born during the height of the domestic Cold War in America, MAD did not fail to ignore the political context in which it operated. Indeed, its very title anticipated and played upon apocalyptic fears of nuclear Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). In 1959 it provided a phrasebook for American tourists travelling in the Soviet Union, possibly prompted by Nixon's visit to Moscow. The phrase book parodied the contemporary American view of the USSR as a repressive totalitarian regime, as demonstrated by the following "handy phrases":
When will I get my camera back? / Has the chambermaid finished searching my luggage? / Which corner of the room is mine? / What time is the ex-Commissar's funeral? / What time is the new Commissar's funeral? / Our guide is very friendly? / Why was our guide liquidated? / Waiter, there's a dictaphone in my borscht! / The handcuffs are chafing my wrists / Do you have a cell with a view? / Will I need my galoshes in Siberia? / Is this how you treated Adlai Stevenson? / I demand to see the American consul!56
While some people may have felt that these phrases accurately depicted the political situation in the Soviet Union, that MAD was actually upholding the US view of Soviet society rather than undermining it, and further that this was no subject for satire, MAD dismissed such notions with its hilarious transliterations. "Vhat ar lit-teel gowrls may-de huv?" / "Vhat ist diss tzing corld luff?" MAD's spoof simultaneously upheld and undermined American attitudes towards the USSR. The inclusion of such absurd transliterations ridiculed Cold War fears of communism and reduced them to a set of banal clichés. Elsewhere, MAD humoured the Cold War linkage of communism, disease, and advertising. As Todd Gitlin has pointed out, "If official America radiated health, MAD insisted on the importance of the 'sick.'"57 Where one serious advert asked, "Is Your Bathroom Breeding Bolsheviks?" MAD advertised "Mr. Mean: All-Commie Brainwasher." Beneath a picture of a stern-looking Khrushchev, the text stated: "better watch him closely or he'll clean us out of our homes, cars, offices, factories, schools, everything!"
While MAD parodied America's fears of the Soviet Union, it was not afraid to deconstruct the ideas that lay behind such fears. MAD introspectively assailed the core values behind the construction of American identity during the Cold War years. In "The Night People vs. 'Creeping Meatballism,'" Jean Shepherd interrogated the underlying individualism that had informed post-war American domestic and foreign policy, not least being articulated in key policy documents such as the Truman Doctrine and National Security Council Directive 68. Shepherd wrote: "The American brags about being a great individualist, when actually he's the world's least individual person."58 This directly attacked the privileging of individualism within Cold War discourse that simultaneously posited the differences that upheld American society and the conformity that characterised that of the USSR. As Mark Jancovich has pointed out, "the discourse of conformity was central to the cultural politics of the period." Indeed, the search for "nonconformity," he argues, united Americans during the 1950s.59 Accordingly, MAD sought to assist its readers in this struggle to be different. Not only did MAD advise on how to be different, it even gave various categories for non-conformity—"ordinary" and "mad."60
Furthermore, advertising had even entered the political realm during the 1950s. At that time, the Eisenhower Administration adopted the use of advertising as a key tactic in fighting the Cultural Cold War. Eisenhower and his advisers contrived ways to promote American culture through free trade and consumer goods. The most effective method of achieving this they felt was through advertising and displaying a whole range of the most up-to-date products available to the American consumer.61 Not only did MAD parody advertising strategies, it also parodied this use of advertising in the international arena as a device for fighting the Cultural Cold War. Under the auspices of the Globaloney Department, Frank Jacobs advised:
The whole trouble with the world today is that nations have a hard time communicating with each other. That's because they keep trying the same old methods, like speeches, letters, conferences, ambassadors, war. The shape the world is in proves that none of these old approaches really work. If nations were smart, they'd take their cue from Big Business … hire an Advertising Agency, and try … INTERNATIONAL ADVERTISING.62
The spoof juxtaposed two contrasting adverts for "Uncle Sam's Country-Building Course" and "Red Star Insurance Company." Alongside a picture of a pathetic, weedy-looking foreigner who is having sand kicked in his face and losing his girlfriend to another man, a muscle-bound Uncle Sam declared: "Let me build you up … Free! Develop your industries! Build up your defenses!" The ad also usefully (and remarkably presciently in some ways) supplied a detachable application form for convenience. In contrast, a shackled Indian is told: "You're in good hands with 'Red Star!'" The text of the ad further informed the reader that, "The 'Red Star Five-Year Plan' has already protected such happy countries as Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia from War-Mongering Imperialists!" Thus, MAD demonstrated an astute awareness of international affairs and the diplomatic manoeuvrings of the American government, while si-multaneously deploying a high level of political satire that was not afraid to critique either side in the Cold War struggle.
MAD, for example, even took repeated swipes at the current intellectual fad for psychoanalysis that had to all intents and purposes replaced Marxism by the 1950s as the primary focus of intellectual allegiance. In "The MAD Psychoanalysis Primer," Stan Hart advised: "If you are in group therapy, it is important to attend every session. Because if you are absent, guess who the others talk about!" Tom Koch offered "Psychoanalysis by Mail" for those either too shy or underprivileged to visit an analyst. He offered advice such as: "Are you humiliated beyond all reason because the ink blot above looks like nothing more than an ink blot to you, while you think that we think that you should think it looks like sex?"63 And yet again, the Psychology Department offered its own "Ink Blot Test" "as a service to those of you who have stopped suddenly in the middle of flapping the lower lip and wondered, MAD saves you money, eliminates the middle-man, and allows you, in the privacy of your own home, to find out once and for all if you're crazy. So don't be chicken. Go ahead."64
MAD's refusal to conform led to attacks from its rivals in the New York Intellectual family. Notable critic Dwight Macdonald wrote in The New Yorker
MAD expresses the teenagers' cynicism about the world of mass media that their elders have created—so full of hypocrisy and pretense governed by formulas. But MAD itself has a formula. It speaks the same language, aesthetically and morally, as the media it satirizes; it is as tasteless as they are, and even more violent.65
Ironically, MAD targeted the very same products of mass culture that Macdonald had spent his career up to that point railing against. Perhaps his distaste for the magazine was due to its simultaneous occupation of the same critical territory as him. Macdonald's criticisms were echoed in a short piece in Dissent magazine, in which T. J. Ross tore MAD apart. He asserted that: "in its comic book format MAD is exactly like what it is supposed to be panning." Later he added: "Rather than voicing resistance to the oppressiveness of official culture, MAD expresses a savage acquiescence to it." And further: "Consistently, and perhaps unwittingly, MAD depicts parents as apes and family life as apish, without any upbeat compromise."66 Such attacks helped to confirm MAD as a source of an alternative critique within the intellectual milieu of New York.
CONCLUSION: CONSTRUCTING THE COUNTER-CULTURE
Unsurprisingly, MAD's iconoclasm made a significant impact on American cultural life during the 1950s. Looking back Theodore Roszak described MAD as a "landmark of the spirit" alongside Allen Ginsberg's Howl, noting that its appearance was a "significant" phenomenon. He reflected that "the nasty cynicism MAD began applying to the American way of life—politics, advertising, mass media, education—has had its effect. MAD brought into the malt shops the same angry abuse of middle-class America which comics like Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce were to begin bringing into the night clubs of the midfifties."67 Although Gitlin felt that MAD did not deserve credit as a subversive force per se, he acknowledged that it "pried open a cultural territory which became available for radical transmutation": "In a world that adult ideologies had defined as black and white—America versus totalitarianism, respectability versus crime, obedience versus delinquency, affluence versus barbarism, suburbia versus degradation and filth—they did help establish the possibility of gray."68 Rothman and Lichter added that MAD "helped create the climate in which student protest flourished," while Marie Winn pointed out that it played a significant role in "the move toward free expression among children."69MAD certainly preempted or paved the way for the satires of the 1960s that are usually credited with helping to undermine the conformity of the Eisenhower years: Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, Joseph Heller's Catch 22, and Robert Altman's M∗A∗S∗H. Turning its zany gaze on every aspect of American life in the 1950s and 1960s, MAD fulfilled a pivotal role, giving teenagers a political education over their breakfast cornflakes. MAD fermented the underground commix movement of the 1960s, from which emerged the original talents of Robert (R.) Crumb, Bill Griffith, Harvey Pekar, and Art Spiegelman, which in turn inspired the book-length comic narratives known as graphic novels.70
MAD also helped to change the nature of comedy by redrawing the boundaries of orthodoxies of taste. Earlier Jewish humour had been dominated by the "Borscht Belt" comedians, those Jews who played the kosher resort hotels in the Catskills like Grossinger's and Concord, and who gently poked fun at Jewish life for Jewish audiences. "Black humour" in which worst-case scenarios were considered and "sick humour" became fashionable, paving the way for iconoclastic comics like those I have mentioned above, Sahl and Bruce, as well as Ernie Kovacs and Stan Freberg. Like MAD, through aggressive, Yiddish-punctuated, and often foul-mouthed satire, they articulated what Alex Gordon has called a "brash urban Jewishness" and a deliberate outsider status, while challenging the status quo, highlighting its hypocrisy, and revelling in the absurdities of everyday life. They couldn't be further disconnected from the propriety of the Borscht Belters.71
Although still around today, MAD's satire has become diluted. Perhaps the endless copying of the magazine has diminished its impact. Located at the margins during its early years, MAD's arrival at, and acceptance into, the mainstream was signalled by its absorption into Time-Warner. The very institution that had once described MAD as a "short-lived satirical pulp," and was the target of its parodies, now owns it. And, MAD has succumbed to economic pressures and eventually accepted advertising within its covers. Nonetheless, the familiar face of Alfred E. Neuman still continues to stare out from the front page, its toothy grin a reminder of its mordant history.
1. Of course, my title refers to Woody Allen's quip in his Annie Hall (1977), "I heard that Commentary and Dissent had merged and formed Dysentery." I would like to thank Robert Lovejoy and Chris O'Brien for their invaluable assistance and comments on earlier drafts of this article.
2. John Benson, quoted in MAD, ed., John Benson (West Plains, Mo.: Ross Cochran, 1986).
3. Newsweek, 31 August 1959, 57.
4. Gloria Steinem, quoted in Maria Reidelbach, Completely MAD: A History of the Comic Book and Magazine (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1991), 132.
5. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (London: Abacus, 1974), 177.
6. These figures are from surveys conducted by the Market Research Corporation of America, Paul H. Stewart and Associates, and by other commercial market and media research organizations and are cited in Norbert Muhlen, "Comic Books and Other Horrors: Prep School for Totalitarian Society?" Commentary, 7:1 (January 1949), 80-87. See also Colton Waugh, The Comics (New York, 1947).
7. William W. Savage, Jr., Comic Books and America, 1945-1954 (Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990), 98.
8. "Sassy Newcomer," Time (24 September 1956), 31.
9. "MADdiction," Time (7 July 1958), 53. Ironically, Time more than ate its own words; it now owns MAD Magazine. MAD writer Dick Be-Bartolo recalled that in reaction to Time's slight, "To get even, every Friday night, each MAD staff member steals six Time magazine legal pads from the supply closet. Sooner, or later, they'll feel the pinch!" See his Good Days and MAD: A Hysterical Tour behind the Scenes at MAD Magazine (New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1995), 286.
10. Paul Goodman, Utopian Essays and Practical Proposals (New York: Vintage, 1964), 278.
11. Reidelbach, Completely MAD, 117.
12. Roger Sabin, Comics, Comix, and Graphic Novels: A History of Comic Art (London: Phaidon Press Ltd., 1996), 68; for further detail see J. A. Gilbert, Cycle of Outrage: America's Reaction to the Juvenile Delinquent in the 1950s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986) and Savage, Comic Books and America, esp. Chap. 7, 'Blaming Comic Books: The Wertham Assault', 95-103.
13. See Muhlen, "Comic Books and Other Horrors," 80-87.
14. Sabin, Comics, Comix, and Graphic Novels, 68.
15. Paul Krassner, Los Angeles Times, 7 December 1997, 21; James Barron, New York Times, 4 June 1992, B, 11.
16. Savage, Comic Books and America, 100.
17. Harvey Kurtzman, interviewed by Kim Thompson and Gary Groth, "An Interview with the Man Who Brought Truth to the Comics: Harvey Kurtzman," The Comics Journal, 67 (October 1981), 81.
18. Harvey Kurtzman interviewed by J. P. C. James, "Harvey Kurtzman Interview: 1965," The Comics Journal, 153 (October 1992), 52.
19. Reidelbach, Completely MAD, 32.
20. Robert Lovejoy, email to author, 10 October 2002.
21. "Baseball Is Ruining Our Children," in MAD Forever: A New Collection of the Best from MAD Magazine (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1959), 22-23.
22. Al Feldstein, Kurtzman's successor as editor of MAD recalled: "I was an ultra-liberal when I was young, and a socially conscious person, having grown up in the Depression and seeing my parents lose their home, etc., etc." Al Feldstein, interviewed by S. C. Ringgenberg, "Jolting Words with Al Feldstein in the E.C. Tradition!," The Comics Journal, 177 (May 1995), 82.
24. Vernard Eller, "The MAD Morality: An Exposé," The Christian Century, 27 December 1967, 1647-49.
25. In some senses MAD operated under greater editorial freedom than say, Commentary. Where Commentary was subject to indirect pressures from its sponsoring organization, the American Jewish Committee, MAD was pretty much left alone by its publisher. William Gaines unequivocally stated: "MAD should not be political and I certainly shouldn't impose my political beliefs on the magazine." Gaines, in William M. Gaines in Dwight R. Decker and Gary Groth, "An Interview with the Man behind E.C.," The Comics Journal, 81 (May 1983), 83. Feldstein added: "When the magazine went to press, he would get the dummy, the mechanicals, and he would read it for the first time. He had no idea what was going to be in it or anything like that. He rarely instituted any kind of censorship except where I might have over-stepped the legal bounds, or he thought he might get sued for copyright or something like that. But aside from that, he never said a word. We were at different poles politically, and some of the things he didn't agree with politically, but he still let it go because it was a cultural, social comment magazine and he knew it had to cover all bases." Feldstein, interviewed by Ringgenberg, "Jolting Words with Al Feldstein," 88. One of MAD's chief artists, Will Elder, thrived under "this complete freedom." Will Elder, "An Interview with Will Elder conducted by Rob Veri," The Comics Journal, 177 (May 1995), 110. This compares very favourably with the situation under which Commentary operated. For further detail see my unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, "Struggling for Freedom: Arthur Miller, the Commentary Community, and the Cultural Cold War" (University of Birmingham, 1998), esp. chap. 2.
26. "A Word to Our Readers" (editorial), Dissent, 1 (1954), 3.
27. Irving Howe, "Does It Hurt When You Laugh?" Dissent, 1 (1954), 6, 7.
28. Gaines in Decker and Groth, "William Gaines," 83. Despite this denial of political bias, Gaines goes on to say, "I think the magazine is more liberal than not liberal, it certainly is not left like the Lampoon."
29. Playboy (January 1979). The full quote reads, "Playboy came out of aspects of the same energy that created the beat crowd, the first rock-'n'-rollers, Holden Caulfield, James Dean, MAD Magazine—and anything else that was interesting by virtue of not eating the prevailing bullshit and being therefore slightly dangerous."
30. Roger Sabin, Comics, Comix, and Graphic Novels, 38.
31. Harvey Kurtzman, From Aargh! to Zap! (New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1991), 41.
32. Reidelbach, Completely MAD, 22.
33. Ibid., 139.
34. Ibid., 23.
35. "Mickey Rodent," MAD, 19.
36. Reidelbach, Completely MAD, 29.
37. Savage, Comic Books and America, 98, 80.
38. Tom Engelhardt, The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation (New York: Basic Books, 1995), 139.
39. Reinhold Reitberger and Wolfgang Fuchs, Comics: Anatomy of a Mass Medium (London: Studio Vista, 1972), 216-17.
40. Reidelbach, Completely MAD, 50.
41. 'MADdiction', Time (7 July 1958), 53.
42. Sabin, Comics, Comix, and Graphic Novels, 38.
43. Reidelbach, Completely MAD, 50-53.
44. Richard Leslie, who notes that the Chicago school of pop art was "more MAD Magazine," acknowledges this debt to MAD (although in a limited fashion). See his Pop Art: A New Gen-eration of Style (London: Tiger Books International, 1997), 81. In other artistic fields, Stephen Whitfield believes that Art Spiegelman's Maus "was a product of the detritus of the graphic arts and other bits of vernacular culture" such as MAD. See his In Search of American Jewish Culture (Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 1999), 185-86.
45. McLuhan, Understanding Media, 178.
46. Tony Hiss and Jeff Lewis, "The MAD Generation," The New York Times magazine (31 July 1977), 14-20.
47. Reidelbach, Completely MAD, 80.
48. Ibid., 181.
49. Ibid., 102.
50. Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York: Bantam, 1987), 36.
51. Reidelbach, Completely MAD, 102.
53. Gaines in Decker and Groth, "William Gaines," The Comics Journal, 81 (May 1983), 83.
54. MAD, 17 (October 1954).
55. Kurtzman, quoted in Reidelbach, Completely MAD, 120.
56. "MAD's Modern Handy Phrase Book for the American Tourist," MAD, 46 (April 1959), 41-43.
57. Gitlin, The Sixties, 35. He cites this example as evidence: '"Mrs. Anderson, can Joey come out and play?" "But you know he has no arms and legs." "Yeah but we need a second base.'"
58. Jean Shepherd, "The Night People vs. 'Creeping Meatballism,'" MAD, 32 (April 1957).
59. Marc Jancovich, "Othering Conformity in Post-War America: Intellectuals, the New Middle Classes and the Problem of Cultural Distinctions," in Containing America: Cultural Production and Consumption in Fifties America, ed., Nathan Abrams and Julie Hughes (Birmingham: Birmingham University Press, 2000), 13.
60. "How to be a MAD Non-Conformist," MAD, 47 (June 1959).
61. Robert H. Haddow, Pavilions of Plenty: Exhibiting American Culture Abroad in the 1950s (Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997).
62. "International Advertising," MAD, 44 (January 1959), 8-9.
63. MAD, 82 (October 1963), 112.
64. "MAD's Ink Blot Test," MAD, 31 (February 1957), 30-31.
65. Dwight Macdonald, "Profiles: A Caste, A Culture, A Market—II," The New Yorker, 29 November 1958, 76.
66. T. J. Ross, "The Conventions of the MAD," Dissent, 8:4 (1961), 502-06.
67. Theodore Roszak, The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and its Youthful Opposition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 24.
68. Gitlin, The Sixties, 36.
69. Stanley Rothman and S. Robert Lichter, Roots of Radicalism: Jews, Christians, and the New Left (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 108; Marie Winn, "What Became of Childhood Innocence?" New York Times Magazine, 25 January 1981, 44.
70. M. Thomas Inge, "Comic Strips and Comic Books," Encyclopedia of American Studies (New York: Grolier, 2001), 366.
71. Alex Gordon, "Jewish American Folklore and Humor," Encyclopedia of American Studies, 413.
Constance L. Hays (essay date 30 June 1997)
SOURCE: Hays, Constance L. "'What? Me Worry?': MAD's Humor Is Racier, Its Readers Elusive." New York Times (30 June 1997): D10.
[In the following essay, Hays examines how the changing role of social parody has forced MAD Magazine to accept advertising and alter its content—for the first time since it was founded—in the face of the magazine's declining readership, influence, and profits.]
After 45 years of poking fun at America, from its politics to its pop culture, MAD Magazine finds itself in a strange position these days.
Not so long ago, there were movies like Airport to lampoon, television series like Bonanza to rename Bananaz and songs to rewrite, like Irving Berlin's "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody," which in MAD's hands became "Louella Schwartz Describes Her Malady" and prompted an unsuccessful copyright infringement lawsuit. The way the people at MAD remember it, the judge ended up scolding Berlin for not being willing to share worldwide rights to iambic pentameter.
But now, much of parody's power has been leached away by the built-in irony of modern society, in which television and movies, especially, but also real life are frequently so self-mocking that there is little left to make fun of. Airport transmogrified into Airplane. People like Joey Buttafuoco burst into the headlines. And then there's the latest Disney movie.
"Not only does Hercules not take itself seriously, it's very self-referential," said John Ficarra, one of two co-editors at MAD, who viewed it recently. "They talk about Hercules action figures and merchandising right in the film."
The mainstream, it seems, has become more like MAD than even MAD might have liked, and that has left MAD scrambling for a fresh identity. "We're really a victim of our own success," Mr. Ficarra said in a recent interview amid the Alfred E. Neuman memorabilia in his office. "All these people who grew up reading MAD now have a MAD sensibility, and they're bringing that to their professions. I guess we'll all burn in hell for that."
Meanwhile, circulation has dropped to about 400,000, compared with its peak of 2.7 million back in 1972. In those days, the magazine sold for less than a dollar, while the cover price is now $2.50. There are also television, electronic media and other forms of comedy competing for the attention of MAD's target audience, a combination of people 16 to 20 and diehard fans in their 30's, 40's, and even 50's.
And so, with some prodding from its corporate parent, DC Comics, a division of Time Warner Inc., MAD magazine was reintroduced in April with a different look, some new characters and an emphasis on humor that is decidedly more off-color than what had gone into its pages before.
New features include the first regularly scheduled African-American characters, a pair called Melvin and Jenkins. Despite the end of the cold war, the reintroduction also props up an old standby, Spy vs. Spy, by turning it over to a young cartoonist, Peter Kuper. Favorite targets include not the political establishment, but corporate behemoths like Microsoft.
And the cover has been redrawn, adding a bright yellow border crowded with tiny line drawings. "We were hoping readers would mistake us for National Geographic," said the other co-editor, Nick Meglin, who has been at the magazine since the 1960's.
In terms of its humor, the magazine wants to be "a little coarser, a little edgier," as Mr. Ficarra put it. There is more locker-room humor now and less of the deft satire that had been MAD's specialty. That has prompted more than a few angry letters from parents, complaining that they can no longer let their children read MAD.
"We knew that we didn't want to inflame the hardcore readership that is used to the classic MAD," Mr. Ficarra said. "We had to keep Spy vs. Spy and Dave Berg." At the same time, he and Mr. Meglin felt a need to appeal to new readers as well.
"It was a reaction in part to what's going on out there," Mr. Ficarra said, comparing MAD to a funhouse mirror. "Across the board, comedy is much coarser, more in-your-face. Look at Howard Stern, Seinfeld, the people on Friends. MAD is just reflecting what's going on in that domain."
But have they sold out? Annie Gaines, the widow of the magazine's founder, thinks her husband might not have been so thrilled. "He liked having little kids as fans, so he probably wouldn't have liked some of the more sexy stuff," Mrs. Gaines said. She still works at MAD, where she is the managing editor, in one of the more colorfully cluttered offices that were moved from the magazine's longtime headquarters on Madison Avenue (a locale they chose because of the name) to a sleeker building at 1700 Broadway, overlooking the studio where David Letterman holds forth on weeknights.
"But you know, the world is getting more outrageous every day and we just had to change to keep up with it," she continued. "We do what we have to do. We've got some good new stuff."
Still, even Mr. Meglin, a jolly, bearded fellow decked out in the company uniform (polo shirt and jeans), seems to have some misgivings. His children are grown, but when they were young, he used to bring the magazine home to show them what he did all day. "If my kids were that age now," he said, "I wouldn't leave it out."
Putting more ethnically diverse characters, as well as women, in the pages of MAD was a priority, said Jenette Kahn, the president and editor in chief of DC Comics. "To be contemporary, MAD had to be more diverse and more inclusive," she said. "I would love to see more people read MAD. The more we have humor that includes women and diversity, the more people will respond to the magazine."
Humor magazines in general have not had a smooth course in the United States, Martin Walker, a magazine consultant, said. "MAD in many ways was the exception for a long time," he said. "Somehow humor is such a personal, private thing, it's hard to put it in print."
Mr. Ficarra argues, however, that being in print is MAD's great strength. "Because we are print, people can save us and linger over us a little bit," he said.
The magazine comes out 12 times a year now, compared with 8 in the past, something that has kept the editors and freelancers who put it together much busier. (There is no time for the MAD trips, in which Mr. Gaines used to take 25 staffers and freelancers to some distant point on the globe with him.) There are also 11 special issues annually, and sites on the World Wide Web and America Online to keep up to date.
With or without its most recent approach, MAD is unlikely to make any kind of a dent in Time Warner's bottom line, analysts say.
"It's very insignificant," said Mark Boyar, publisher of Asset Analysis Focus, which follows the company. Still, there is more the parent company could do to push MAD into the public eye, according to another analyst, Jill Krutick of Smith Barney. "It's clearly a brand franchise that the company could breathe more life into," she said. "It has a definitely different identity than the superheroes."
MAD still comes across as a trifle dated. To many people, the title is more likely to conjure up the grimmer specter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving than the grinning portrait of Alfred E. Neuman. On the cover, the statement "Our Price $2.50 Cheap!" becomes an ironic one, whereas it was more hilarious in 1974, when the price was 40 cents.
The contents of the July issue range from the gently funny (Dave Berg's "Berg's-Eye View") to the questionable ("Condom Buying for Dummies," by John Caldwell). The cover features a portrait of Alfred E. Neuman as Batman, who is satirized as "Buttman" elsewhere in the magazine. A parody of a Citibank ad that shows surgeons hard at work and queries "Did he need the triple bypass, or was it the miles?" is one of the funnier things in the issue.
"We still haven't crossed my personal threshold of, 'Oh my God, I'm ashamed to be doing this,'" said Mr. Ficarra, who is 42.
A coming cover possibility shows, though, just how much further MAD is both willing and able to go. It shows a pixilated image of a hand, the middle finger raised. When the same image was printed on the cover a few years ago, the magazine's distributor refused to carry it and the issue never made it to the newsstands.
Chris Hedges (essay date 28 March 2001)
SOURCE: Hedges, Chris. "Struggling for Relevance in Sarcastic World." New York Times (28 March 2001): B1.
[In the following essay, Hedges contrasts the gently subversive content of MAD Magazine with the edgier, more adult-oriented elements of modern satire.]
MAD Magazine's irreverent parodies of movies and television shows, takedowns of political figures and gross, stupid humor nurtured a generation of budding iconoclasts. But while MAD has changed little—you can still read Spy vs. Spy, 'Dave Berg's Lighter Side of …' and the end-page fold-ins—the culture that MAD ridiculed has altered irrevocably.
Parody is the way many television viewers get the news, irony has become the language of sincerity and those that were once the butt of MAD's humor, the big corporations and political leaders, have adopted MAD's approach to sell themselves.
The magazine's circulation, which at its height in 1973 was 2.8 million, has plunged to 250,000. MAD, which is owned by DC Comics, a unit of AOL Time Warner, is hard to find on magazine racks, and distributors in some states do not carry it. The tremendous clout it wielded among its young readers has dwindled with the advent of graphic video and computer games, as well as trash talk shows that outdo anything MAD's founder, William M. Gaines, had ever dared to exploit.
"MAD has become mainstream," said John Ficarra, a co-editor. "Either that or society has sunk to our level."
MAD burst on the scene in the early 1950's with a series of comic books written by Harvey Kurtzman, considered by many the godfather of underground comics. Cartoonists like Art Spiegelman and Joe Sacco speak with reverence of Mr. Kurtzman, whose first comic book, in 1952, was called Tales to Drive You MAD: Humor in a Jugular Vein.
"When you look at the MAD comic book under the direction of Harvey Kurtzman, it blows your mind," Mr. Sacco said. "It opened cartoonists up to what the possibilities of the medium were. It showed how zany comics could be. It had a profound influence on every great underground cartoonist, from Robert Crumb to S. Clay Wilson."
And the influence, these cartoonists said, extended into American society. The hundreds of thousands of young boys (80 percent of the readership is male) who religiously read the magazine were taught how to thumb their noses at authority.
"MAD was more important than pot and LSD in shaping the generation that protested the Vietnam War," said Mr. Spiegelman, a staff writer and cartoonist for The New Yorker. "MAD was an urban junk collage that said, 'Pay attention, the media are lying to you—including this comic book.'"
But decades later, with The Onion, Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons, David Letterman and legions of imitators, MAD no longer dominates cultural and political satire. More important, those who grew up reading MAD now push the levers of power and run the entertainment industry. Corporations, once the butt of MAD jokes, use MAD's irreverence to sell products—look at Joe Isuzu. MAD's brashness and flippancy have become part of a strident chorus, from Howard Stern to Jay Leno, that defines the national discourse.
"Over the last 50 years, that voice has become pervasive to a fault," Mr. Spiegelman said. "The irony in MAD was a useful device to screen and protect oneself from a deadening mass culture. Now the deadening mass culture uses the weapons of satire and irony to immobilize us. We live inside the ironic spin room watching ourselves get shafted by our politicians, who use the same techniques once effective as a distancing device. They make us feel we are in on the joke, but in the end they are laughing at us. After all, Alfred E. Neuman has become president."
The quandary has left the editors of MAD scrambling. Two months ago, the magazine began accepting advertisements, something many see as symptomatic of its current struggles. (The black and white characters from Spy vs. Spy now endorse Altoids mints on the back cover.) Publishing analysts said the decision to accept ads was a sign that MAD needed new sources of revenue.
The magazine has begun to include sexually explicit content and runs Monroe, a strip about a dysfunctional family in which the father is a drunk, the mother a floozy and the son a dejected and alienated boy. Monroe has drunk bong water. He was forced into the car of a pedophile by his father, who wanted him to sell more school chocolates. His mother, who has a pornography site on the Internet, has slept with numerous characters, from her Tae-Bo teacher to Steve the lawn boy. His grandfather is a shellshocked World War II veteran who parades around the house in Nazi uniforms he stripped from German bodies.
"It puts the fun back into dysfunctional," said Tony Barbiera, who writes the strip and is also a writer for the That's My Bush! show on Comedy Central. "This is something kids can relate to. Childhood has always been hell. High school is not that far from prison. It isn't good times. My parents are divorced, so I have to thank them for providing me with so many great gags."
In a December spoof of the children's book Goodnight Moon, the main character was transformed into Bill Clinton. Not only was it in color, a new feature for inside pages, but MAD worked to capture the rhythm of the original poem.
And as he turned out the light Bill said goodnight
To his health plan that flopped
And the bombs his planes dropped
And to "don't ask, don't tell"
And pants that fell
But the magazine, still run by many of those who started out with Mr. Gaines, who died in 1992, remains wedded, for the most part, to familiar formulas.
Mr. Spiegelman said it now has an "air of desperation and tiredness."
Recently, Mr. Ficarra and Nick Meglin, MAD's other co-editor, who has spent 40 years there, sat in a room in their office at 1700 Broadway playing off of each other like partners in a vaudeville team who had long ago learned to anticipate each other's lines. When one cracked a good joke, Mr. Ficarra banged out a quick response on a drum set by his desk. A bad joke meant a dollar stuffed into a cardboard coffee cup.
The editors insisted that the magazine, as it always has, mirrored American society. The explicit sexual jokes and the rawness of the humor were part of what it is to be a young person, they said.
"MAD has always been a reflecting pond," Mr. Meglin said. "We help society look at itself. We don't create, we respond to."
In the next room, a busty model in a black brassiere was being photographed by Irving Schild, who has worked at MAD for 35 years, for a phony ad by "The Garish Institute for Impulsive Plastic Surgery." The model, Heather Spore, would be shown with three breasts, one superimposed, in a "Special Three for the Price of Two Sale."
But the magazine's parodies, which used to expose popular culture or give it a new slant, now often seem to echo society's divisiveness.
"It was a gentler magazine," said Mr. Sacco, the cartoonist. "It divested young boys of innocence, but in an easy way. The magazine I see now slams you over the head with much more prurient material. It is harder core. It is for worldly, deeply cynical kids, but maybe those are the only kids out there."
Barrier, Michael. "About E.C." In A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics, edited by Michael Barrier and Martin Williams, pp. 295-98. New York, N.Y.: Smithsonian Institute Press and Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1981.
Details the origins of E.C. Comics—the publisher of MAD Magazine—while spotlighting the efforts of Harvey Kurtzman and William M. Gaines in MAD's creation.
DeBartolo, Dick. "A Brief, But Short, History of MAD Magazine." In Good Days and MAD: A Hysterical Tour behind the Scenes at MAD Magazine, pp. 78-81. New York, N.Y.: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1994.
Overview of the publishing history of MAD and E.C. Comics.
Evanier, Mark. "The 'Usual Gang of Idiots.'" In MAD Art: A Visual Celebration of the Art of MAD Magazine and the Idiots Who Create It, pp. 15-21. New York, N.Y.: Watson-Guptill Publications, 2002.
Offers an account of the early days of MAD Magazine.
―――――――. "About the Artist Dept.: Sergio Aragonés." In MAD Art: A Visual Celebration of the Art of MAD Magazine and the Idiots Who Create It, pp. 127-29. New York, N.Y.: Watson-Guptill Publications, 2002.
Presents a profile of frequent MAD contributor Sergio Aragonés, noting the artist's prodigious output and spontaneous artistic style.
Geissman, Grant. "Introduction." In Spy vs. Spy: The Complete Casebook by Antonio Prohias, pp. 6-11. New York, N.Y.: Watson-Guptill Publications, 2001.
Critical biography of artist Antonio Prohias, which traces his artistic legacy from his days as a Cuban political cartoonist to his enduring popularity as the creator of MAD's recurring "Spy vs. Spy" comic strip.
Gopnik, Adam. "Kurtzman's MAD World." New Yorker 69, no. 6 (29 March 1993): 74.
Examination of the legacy of Harvey Kurtzman, the primary force behind MAD's creation.
Morton, Charles W. "The Case for MAD." Atlantic Monthly 212, no. 3 (September 1963): 100.
Argues that, despite its underground popularity, MAD is a professional satirical work that presents significant and relevant social commentary.
Norris, Vincent P. "MAD Economics: An Analysis of an Adless Magazine." Journal of Communication 34, no. 1 (winter 1984): 44-61.
Explores how MAD Magazine was able to maintain its economic model of not accepting advertising, a rarity in the publishing world.
Reidelbach, Maria. "Sheer MADness." In Completely MAD: A History of the Comic Book and Magazine, pp. 179-97. Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown, and Company, 1991.
Reflects upon how MAD encouraged its fan base to question authority and consider the role of the outsider, particularly during the social upheaval that swept American culture in the 1960s.
Rothenberg, Randall. "Culture Force? Consider MAD and its Influence on Our World." Advertising Age 71, no. 47 (13 November 2000): 50.
Considers the influence of MAD Magazine on the world of contemporary advertising.
Skow, Jack. "MAD: Wild Oracle of the Teenage Underground." Saturday Evening Post 236, no. 45 (21 December 1963): 62-5.
Humorously reflects upon the style and influence of MAD Magazine during its early heyday.
Warshow, Robert. "Paul, the Horror Comics, and Dr. Wertham." In The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre and Other Aspects of Popular Culture, pp. 53-74. Boston, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001.
Respected popular culture critic Warshow examines his mixed feelings about the broad humor of MAD Magazine from both his uneasy perspective as a father and as a firm believer in the freedom of self-determination.