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? 


Donald Pittenger said...

Allow me to propose one wee little suggested correction, David.

You stated that the original MAD was for "children." But (should I add "alas!" ?) I was there at the time. About 9th or 10th grade, and my best buddy had a couple issues of the comic book (pre-magazine) MAD. We laughed ourselves sick because it was true satire: often comic book/strip characters being satirized in the same medium (think "Superduperman" in your posted images).

I think I still have the final comic book issue someplace along with the very first magazine issue: I was starting high school then, trying to keep from laughing myself sick while peeking at it during class.

So: not "children" but "adolescents" should be about the correct early MAD reader group.

MORAN said...

Mad was brilliant for a long time but it ended a dozen years ago.

kev ferrara said...

I remember feeling like Mad had ended when they allowed Duck Edwing's cartoons in. That's around when I ended my subscription. His work just tanked the entire issue in my view. (This is the reason illustrators are told that it is better to have less work in the portfolio, rather than include several subpar works... because even a whiff of stink breaks the swell smell spell.) Even though I was a kid, I felt that something sacred about the magazine, and EC in general, had been betrayed by Edwing's art; that commitment to excellent illustration that, I was just learning, still linked the magazine back to Haunt of Fear and Weird Science and the Fleagle gang.

Yet even though I no longer subscribed, I still checked in on it now and then because they still had so many of the heavy hitters, like Drucker, Martin, Davis, Cocker, Prohias, et al. But then with the advent of Sam Viviano, I felt the plot had been lost. And soon the covers looked like they were done in photoshop and Drucker and Davis retired.

When DC moved out of NYC for CA, that's when I felt the really deep undertow pulling the whole Mad world all out to the ocean for reclamation. This was not just Mad taking another step down toward the mediocrity of its imitators. This was seismic. An ending ending. Because Mad means nothing without that hardscrabble anything-for-a-laugh middle-finger-if-you-don't-like-it New York Jewish (and sometimes Italian) connection. Its soul was a Brooklyn, lower east side, wacky and acidic sensibility that informed and pervaded the publication from the start. I know this not just because I know the history of Mad and its contributors, but also because my father and uncle were lower east side jewish kids at the time who didn't just read the early Mad comics and then then the magazine. They kind of were Mad Magazine. They had lived the same lives and grew up with the same people that the creators of Mad had. I speak to my still-living uncle all the time, and its like having my own personal Mel Brooks. My father was more Sid Caesar. Neither of them could help being funny.

Which brings me to say; I think Mad also can't be separated from Sid Caesar's show, which also was so very, very Lower East Side Jewish in sensibility. I think that hit show, which started two years prior to Mad in 1950, is the big brother to Mad. And I don't think Mad would exist without Caesar.

Anyway, by my count, this is Mad's fourth or fifth death. That they will still be publishing one issue of new material a year means, I guess, there is still another death on the way. But, as has been pointed out about our formerly great newspapers, Mad has long been like the hermit crab that dies off and its shell gets re-inhabited. It looks a lot like the same lovable old crustacean on the surface. But on the inside, it just ain't the same crab.

The Seditionist said...

The first few decades of Mad were deliriously subversive in the best possible way.

Paul Sullivan said...

Thanks for a timely and well deserved post. I saw the first issue of MAD at Edith’s Sweet Shop. I was 12 years old, in the 8th grade and I marveled at the drawings. Like a lot of kids who thought they were young artists and cartoonists, I started making drawings from MAD at the dining room table.

It was obvious that these artists were some of the best around. As the comic book version became MAD magazine, the black and white drawings displayed the artists’ skills with pen and brush even more. I owe a lot to MAD and the craftsmanship in drawing and cartooning of its artists.

Tom said...