Saturday, July 13, 2019


Better than my words could ever convey, this illustration from today's New York Times demonstrates the significance of the passing of the era of MAD:

After a week of looking at the beautiful, elegant craftsmanship of the MAD artists, this lame drawing is like a nutmeg grater on the eyes.

The fact that it was selected by the New York Times to illustrate the end of MAD reveals more perhaps than the newspaper intended.  MAD was subversive, yet it had high standards. The "usual gang of idiots" was never the "gang of lazy slobs."  They cared about quality in presentation, they had great taste and they worked their asses off to be good. 

If MAD must depart, perhaps it is partially because there's not much of a market left for such art in a culture of artistic Lilliputians.

Friday, July 12, 2019


For my final gallery of art from the late beloved MAD Magazine, I've chosen the brilliant Mort Drucker.

Drucker's talent graced the pages of MAD for 50 years. Looking back, his long legacy seems almost supernatural.  

The Godfather
The Godfather

The Godfather
Drucker always said he loved his job.  There's no other way to explain the overflowing generosity of his drawing or his sustained high standards.

Most other cartoonists would draw this next panel with just the two heads of the speakers.  Drucker added twelve additional figures and a complex background, just for kicks.

Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice.  Unlike other caricaturists, Drucker had to draw multiple likenesses of each face with expressions that matched whatever was happening in the scripts he was given.

Beverly Hills Cops

Patton: even the tanks are drawn at a jaunty angle

MAD Magazine will be forever enshrined in the annals of great and important American magazines.  As we've seen, many excellent artists contributed to that reputation.  But in my opinion, no one contributed more than the great Mort Drucker.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019


Jack Davis was a star in the MAD Magazine firmament from the very first issue.  Davis was 25 years old, with a fearless ink brush and a precocious talent for converting a human being into a splat.  (This was an important skill for the infant magazine).

Davis could work simultaneously for MAD and several other comics because he was fast as lightning.  Bill Gaines and Harvey Kurtzman recalled Davis penciling and inking three or more entire pages in a day.

Here for your enjoyment is a selection of lovely drawings by Davis spread across many years of MAD:

In later years, Davis simplified and streamlined his work for MAD.  He applied tones through loose washes rather than tight cross hatching.

Yet, the pictures usually retained Davis' underlying quality.

Another brilliant artist selected for the formidable MAD talent pool.

Tuesday, July 09, 2019


Paul Coker's art was not as broad or slapstick as the art of most other MAD artists, but in his own quiet way he was every bit as brilliant. 

Look at this lovely little drawing of a boy standing. He's not being carried off by a gorilla or balancing a ball on his nose.  Yet, Coker keeps his subject from being dull and symmetrical by adding a dozen charming touches: notice the unusual shape of the bottom of his sweat shirt, or the interesting shape of his collar, how only one pant leg is rolled up and the other has a patch.  Notice the confidence of Coker's folds over the boy's stomach or at his elbow.  

In an era when the New Yorker features a bevy of untalented cover artists who use lifeless mechanical circles for heads, look at how much sensitivity Coker puts into this "almost' circle head-- the subtlety of that chin, those little boy cheeks, the treatment of that vacant ear, the shape of that hat-- all before you even get to that marvelous facial expression described in so few lines.  In my opinion, Coker's better than all of them.

Another splendid drawing now shows the boy in motion.  Notice how beautifully Coker captures the running figure, with those over-sized shoes kicking up pebbles.

You won't find the silhouette of that leg and disjointed ankle in any anatomy book.
If you have any question about how many of the subtle touches in that figure are intentional, look at the way Coker used white paint to trim back that shoe on the left.  He felt that 1/64 of an inch made enough difference that it was worth going back to tweak.  Clearly Coker is performing micro-surgery in these drawings.

It's to MAD's credit that, amidst all the clang and clatter of the Don Martin and Al Jaffee and Prohias, it appreciated the quiet brilliance of Coker.

Here's a gallery of other Coker drawings, enlarged so you can better see what he was up to.

Note how Coker handles the small boy clinging to his mother's leg: no eyes, just nostrils and a very unusually shaped mouth.  There are great powers of observation and great artistic courage in these small choices.

The father's eyes might be a predictable facial expression, but his nervous smile is quite an innovative design. 
And dig those shoes!

Sunday, July 07, 2019


Wally Wood's art is guilty of some of the same flaws I've criticized in other artists.  His figure drawings retain some stiffness and anatomical awkwardness; there can be an excess of detail and a lack of prioritization; particularly in later years he could draw with a heavy hand and recycle gimmicks.

Yet, Wood's redeeming talents are so original and weird and bountiful, they more than offset any mere technical inadequacies.  Wood did some of his best work for MAD.  In honor of the late great MAD Magazine, let's revisit some examples of Wood's humorous art:

Here are some examples of preliminary sketches contrasted with final art for Wood's wonderful story, "What Do You Do For A Living, Daddy?"

Who could draw children like Wood?

Some of Wood's best works for MAD portrayed the annoyances and micro-aggressions of middle class existence in the 1950s.  He would frequently pack his backgrounds full of strange goings on:

A day at the beach

Relatives come to dine.  Note Frankenstein and the Wolf Man

Often these background drawings were published in a size too small for MAD readers to understand and appreciate.  I'm reproducing them here in a size that I hope will allow you to enjoy Wood's stream of consciousness drawing.

Wood also did a great job depicting the Madison Ave. executives of the 1950s and 60s who would later be depicted on the show,  Mad Men.

Finally, here are a few more examples of Wood's characters:

Friday, July 05, 2019


Starting as a ten cent comic book for children in the straight-laced 1950s, MAD Magazine faced a hundred obstacles.  Surprisingly, those obstacles are what helped make MAD great.

The limitations of its medium (stationary drawings poorly reproduced on cheap paper and distributed through local newsstands between four and seven times a year) and the repressions of its society (newsstands would not carry or sell controversial material to kids) elicited the most extraordinary creativity from the writers and artists of MAD.  Today the children who were once an audience for MAD are able to create their own advanced computer animation and give it instant global distribution.

The creators of MAD were constantly breaking the fourth wall of its limited medium using imagination rather than technology.

Of course the male staff of MAD obsessed about women within the limitations imposed by a 1950s comic book for children: 


A day would come, years later, when all societal constraints would be banished and MAD artist Wally Wood could freely publish hard core pornographic drawings.  Unleashed to show every orifice from nostril to haunch, Wood produced drawings that were far less sexy or interesting than his early drawings of women for MAD.  

In a culture where anything goes, robbed of the resistance provided by a "creeping meatball" society, it became more and more difficult for MAD to preserve its initial qualities and it became more difficult to find a substantial readership with the cultural literacy that MAD readers once had.  
"To have limits, to need limits, to choose our limits, to be defined by those limits, and to learn to love them."                  -- Michael Downing

All this week I will be paying tribute to the brilliant artists of MAD who I admire so much.  They filled their moment in time with excellence, and who could ask more from an artist? 

Monday, July 01, 2019


The writer Arthur Koestler fought fascism in the early 1930s.  He courageously wrote against Nazism in Germany and was imprisoned on death row for his stand against fascism in Spain.  Communists hailed him as a hero.

A few years later, Koestler spoke out against communist oppression, exposing Stalin's show trials to the world.  Now the communists too hated Koestler and burned his books.

German political poster from the 1950s showing Koestler being hated equally by book-burners on the left and the right.
Koestler reflected, "To be burned twice in one's lifetime is, after all, a rare distinction."

The illustrator Arthur Szyk was also burned twice.  Szyk's scathing pictures attacking Nazis during World War II were powerful tools for fundraising for US war bonds, training soldiers and rousing awareness.  Eleanor Roosevelt called Szyk a "one man army" for America.  Hitler put a price on his head.

After the war was over, members of the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee began to wonder if Szyk was sufficiently anti-communist.  Despite his obvious patriotism, the Committee suspected Szyk of once belonging to an organization that served as a "Communist front."  Besides, he had drawn cartoons about civil rights for negroes,  and wasn't that kind of communist? 

White soldier: "What would you do with Hitler?"
African-American soldier:  "I would have made him a negro and dropped him somewhere in the USA." 
The distraught Szyk protested that he wasn't connected with any Communist organization, but a few months after the investigation began he died of a heart attack at age 57.

Szyk had been burned once by America's enemies and then again by jerks purporting to be America's "friends."

Which bring us to Victor Arnautoff, another artist interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s because it didn't approve of his left wing views.  Arnautoff had drawn an unflattering picture of Richard Nixon.  He also painted prominent historical murals in the San Francisco area, some of which were critical of slavery, genocide and colonization.

Arnautoff's art survived his right wing inquisition.  Today the question is whether it will survive his left wing inquisition.

Last week, the school board in San Francisco voted to destroy Arnautoff's 1936 mural about the life of George Washington because the murals included images of African-American slaves and a dead Native American, which might traumatize high school students.

Note the slaves working the fields in the background.

Washington High School convened a  "Reflection and Action Group" to consider the issue. That group ruled that the mural “glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, manifest destiny, white supremacy [and] oppression"-- a grossly ignorant mischaracterization of Arnautoff's work.

Speaking of ignorant, School Commissioner Faauuga Moliga defended the destruction, saying his concern was that "kids are mentally and emotionally feeling safe at their schools."  The school board's vice president declared that destroying the mural counted as "reparations."

Koestler wrote that having your work burned by extremists on both sides is comparable to "a professional diploma, certifying that its owner has passed his examination and is entitled to exercise his craft." It seems that Arnautoff has passed that test.

It's ironic that extremists fail to recognize themselves in their opposite extremes.  There are legitimate questions about dealing with art that glorifies abhorrent content, but no meaningful answer can result from such blatant ignorance.  As the great Seneca wrote, "If you would judge, investigate."