Wednesday, December 26, 2012


Fifty years ago, some comic strips presumed readers had a level of literacy, as well as a patience for drawings, that today's readers lack.

You won't find anything on today's comic pages today to resemble this Sunday strip by the great Leonard Starr.  Here, a journalist is smuggling a Chinese defector out through the jungles of Vietnam.  The two have begun to get on each other's nerves.  Starr's smart dialogue combines politics, human nature and humor.  

Note Starr's cinematography,  his facial expressions, his understanding of anatomy and design.  Readers today don't linger over the comic page long enough to appreciate such characteristics.  

I love the elegance of Starr's lines, both written and drawn.

Around the same time, MAD Magazine was producing satires that assumed even children knew the words and music to Gilbert & Sullivan songs.  MAD writers and artists even thought their young subscribers would get jokes about rivalry between Nelson Rockefeller, Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater.

Here the great Mort Drucker conjured up a crowd scene with caricatures of the extended Kennedy dynasty, in a scene that relies on your knowledge of the wealth and influence of the Kennedy family patriarch, the family's love of football, and the roles of the other celebrities in the family.

Today MAD Magazine has been dumbed down to appeal to a less literate audience, and streamlined for bright readers who process large quantities of information on an accelerated basis.

Karrie Jacobs wrote that in our information era, we have been "seduced into thinking about ideas-- the intangible stuff that comprises our cutlture, our mental universe, our homegrown organic realities-- as information."  This, she objects, is misguided: "information should be our raw material, not our end product.... Point and click is not a satisfying form of interaction.... With information technology our reach is infinite but our grasp is weak."

It is exhilarating to live in the information era but it is important to maintain enough self-control so that we don't let it ruin our attention span for the kind of art that needs to be savored. Some images are best experienced abruptly, but others (such as the drawings of Starr and Drucker above) need to be approached with a level of literacy and patience that unfortunately seems to be waning in popular audiences.

There is a benefit to surrounding ourselves with objects of craftsmanship and beauty, even in morning newspapers and cheap magazines.  In the long run, it helps to shape our reaction to the world around us.  So I offer you these lovely drawings at the end of 2012, as something to consider as you set your pace for 2013.  


MORAN said...

Every comic strip artist in the 1960s wanted to simplify like Peanuts. Instead they ended up simplifying like Henry.

Smurfswacker said...

This certainly is elegant work. Amazing that anyone would put so much effort into something that (even then) was read and discarded in 90 seconds.

While reading interviews with (and occasionally talking to) comic artists and illustrators of the 40s and 50s, I'm struck by how many saw their job as a slog. Certainly they took pride in their work, but the main reason they did that beautiful stuff was because it was their job. My generation was arguably the first "instant gratification" generation. Did less elaborate art styles develop partly because we never learned to slog?

Reading "Mad" as a kid I understood references like Gilbert & Sullivan because of my parents' LP's and TV shows. I enjoyed such things but they definitely belonged to my folks. The "Mad" writers back then seemed to write from the frame of reference of middle-aged men a generation removed from the kids reading their magazine. Hence the withering "National Lampoon" parody: "You Know You're Too Old for Mad When: You realize 'Now' in 'Then and Now' is 1958." Sampling a few issues of today's "Mad" I get the impression they're trying harder to speak to the kids on their own level. Wonder if it's working.

Anonymous said...

I stopped buying Mad when I saw the back cover about popping zits and drowning in your pus. I knew Mad had fallen so far there was no use to check it out again.


Bats-Man said...

Yeah, that zit cartoon was gross and over the line, and shows how far the magazine has fallen. Why can't MAD do the kind of smart, classy, high culture comedy that they used to, back when the magazine was good... such as a woman's clipped toenail shooting across the room into a man's beer can (Don Martin), or a 5-page article about disposing of dog poop (Al Jaffee), or a sequence showing the arch-villain "Mole," naked and digging a tunnel with one of his nose hairs (Kurtzman/Elder)?

Anyone who thinks MAD has been dumbed down to appeal to cultural illiterates is either flattering themselves, or hasn't read a new copy in 10 to 40 years. The issue that just went on sale this month includes a Norman Rockwell parody, because there's nobody hotter and hipper with today's kids than Norman Rockwell.

ScottLoar said...

"Fifty years ago, some comic strips presumed readers had a level of literacy, as well as a patience for drawings, that today's readers lack."

See Pogo as example.

Jesse Hamm said...

I like Roy Crane's take.

अर्जुन said...

""There is a benefit to surrounding ourselves with objects of craftsmanship and beauty, …In the long run, it helps to shape our reaction to the world around us.""

…and speaking of standards and Peter Lawford (& Sammy Davis Jr.) ~ 'Salt & Pepper' Who else loves it?

Harry Potrzebie said...

While Gilbert & Sullivan is upscale source material, the jokes from those excerpted MAD Magazine panels are:

*None, really. Unless politicians vying for the same office is a stinging observation;
*The Kennedys are rich, and there are a lot of them;
*The Kennedys play touch football;
*Ha, ha, the girls beat the boys. Bonus joke: Eisenhower played golf.

In MAD's last decade or two, there have been too many examples of sharp, sophisticated political humor to list here, including some musical ones. Drucker's caricatures are gorgeous, natch, but MAD was also publishing gorgeous Drucker art in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. It ain't Mort's fault that the bulk of MAD's readership has a tendency to cycle off and drop away, thereby missing any later gems. That's something that's happened again and again for decades, even in the magazine's so-called "glory years."

It's funny to hear about MAD's supposed decline as part of a complaint that the public no longer has the patience to appreciate good work. There isn't a five-year period anyplace in MAD's 60-year history that doesn't include some stellar writing and some great art. It's there, as always, for those who take the time to find or notice it.

Unknown said...

Those MAD Magazine articles actually have me interested in learning the songs and works of Cole Porter, Gilbert & Sullivan, and the like. Also makes me want to read poetry, based on the poetry parodies they did.

These pages are absolutely gorgeous. Leonard Starr is a true master of the drama strip. Thank you for sharing these gems with us.

Anonymous said...

All of On Stage is being reprinted by Classic Comics press. 9 volumes of brilliant Leonard Starr work.


David Apatoff said...

MORAN-- That's not far from the truth. Peanuts, Miss Peach and a few other comic strips in the 1950s gave comic strips permission to simplify, but simplification turned out to be harder than it looked.

Smurfswacker-- I'm sure these artists did view the production of these strips as a slog, and many later turned to streamlined strips (Stan drake taking over Blondie and Leonard Starr taking over Annie, where he observed that he wouldn't have to draw fingernails anymore). I'm sure Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon was a slog and Winsor McCay's Little Nemo as well. But looking over their shoulder those artists sure had a lot to be proud of. I met Leonard Starr and asked him if he didn't make a lot of extra work for himself, writing and drawing On Stage. He answered, "The work only becomes a burden if you don't care about the outcome."

I love your quote about "Now" being 1958 for MAD.

David Apatoff said...

Bats-Man, Harry Potrzebie and JSL-- I did not mean to lay the collapse of western civilization solely at the feet of MAD Magazine. If you compare any popular magazine today with issues from 50 years ago, it is hard to escape the conclusion that we have become far less literate as a culture. News Magazines such as Time and Newsweek got thinner and thinner, their articles got shorter, and their vocabulary became more rudimentary. Take a look at old issues of LIFE Magazine and you'll find there was more text on a single page than there is in an entire issue of People. 50 years ago LIFE was running long articles on Andre Malraux, the French philosopher and Minister of Culture. You certainly won't see anything like that in a publication for popular audiences today. If you compare tapes of the presidential debates in the 1960s with presidential debates today, you'll see that candidates formerly spoke in complex paragraphs, while today they repeat short sound bites laden with statistics. Perhaps this is a natural adaptation to TV and the internet. Maybe it's better, maybe not.

As for MAD Magazine, my hat is off to anyone who can remember that Melvin Mole dug a tunnel with one of his nose hairs. A classic. But I do think that, in keeping with its changing audience, MAD has become less literate and more crass. The current issue talks about the porn debut of the Octo-mom, and questions who would pay to see her "dilapidated, depressed exit tunnel that 14 kids plopped out of." (Bonus points for using the word dilapidated are subtracted for ending a sentence with a preposition.) I just can't see Kurtzman or Feldstein needing to reach to that place for humor, or even thinking it was funny. I know of two artists who once worked for MAD who chose to stop doing so because they didn't like that turn in MAD's content.

But most relevant to my post, I don't see art in the current MAD to rival Mort Drucker or Paul Coker Jr. or Jack Davis or Wally Wood or Will Elder or even Don Martin. (To be fair, I would say the artists doing their movie parodies are in the same league as Angelo Torres). As a matter of personal taste, I am not as interested in the "photo-illustrations" that have become ubiquitous in MAD and elsewhere, and I think the currently fashionable simplified drawings with the monotonous line lack the variety and depth that once kept me interested. (See discussion above about Charles Schulz).

If it's of any interest, there has been a lot of discussion about the alleged downturn in MAD:

David Apatoff said...

ScottLoar-- Ahhh, Pogo-- a strip for true intellectuals that was also truly hilarious. A rare and difficult balance.

Jesse Hamm-- very good (although hardly politically correct).

अर्जुन-- How could I have missed Salt & Pepper, and how did you find them?

Eric Noble-- Thanks for writing. I certainly agree with you about Leonard Starr.

kev ferrara said...

Funny is in the bones, and a funny artist can’t help but draw funny, just like a funny person can’t help being funny. Funny is in the DNA, or in the handwriting. There’s a certain deftness of touch that conveys the light spirit of the comical, something Mad had in spades during its heyday. (Drucker, Martin, Davis, Coker, Prohias, Mingo, Aragones). Those Druckers you just posted are unbeatable in this regard. At some point, I felt things were getting a bit sloppier (Duck Edwing), a bit clunkier (Sam Viviano) and a bit lacking in comic spirit (Richard Williams’ covers.) At some point afterward the covers began to be rendered in a hyper-realistic style... the least deft manner available. And then funny was altogether out of the bones.

MORAN said...

This is a depressing topic.

Kev got it right about Mad. I never would have put it like he did but their lines are not as funny. It's not that they aren't smart.

Bats-Man said...

Mr. Apatoff-- I agree that the Octomom page was weak, though I object more on humor grounds than on raunchiness. But as it relates to this topic, it should be noted that the parody image plays off Botticelli's "Birth of Venus" painting -- not the best example of MAD dumbing itself down to meet the low expectations of its changing readership.

I'd also point out that Coker and Jaffee and Aragones are still regulars who produce new art for the magazine; the latter two have each missed just a single issue since the 1960s. As for the rest of the "Gang," I can’t go along with the people who think Tom Bunk or Evan Dorkin don’t have "funny" in their genetics, or that Hermann Mejia's art is missing depth and interest, or that Mark Fredrickson's cover art is lacking in comic spirit, or that Drew Friedman or Tom Richmond couldn't have been slotted into an issue of MAD in 1960 or 1975 and fit right in. (Sorry for ending yet another sentence with a preposition.) Meanwhile, the writing makes more demands on its readers than it used to do, not less, certainly in terms of the pre-knowledge and awareness of context it expects its readers to bring to the table. Some of the older MAD articles could get over-expository.

As for the magazine getting more crass, well, yeah, sometimes it does. Then again, so does MAD’s subject matter: the world and culture around us. In the past few months, MAD has done multiple pieces about the Republicans’ positions on rape, contraception and mandatory ultrasounds. It’s ruder than touch football, true. But on the plus side, it’s not about touch football. That Kennedy Family comedy was blander than Vaughn Meader's material The article could have greatly benefited from the kinds of knowing JFK sex jokes they'd write today.

And lest we forget, MAD is the magazine that published a "middle finger" F.U. cover in 1974, ran its first Fold-In in 1964 (on Elizabeth Taylor’s sexual infidelities), and had Superduperman using his X-ray vision to watch women go to the bathroom in 1953. So let’s not expend too much emotion on the sad passing of civility and tastefulness in today's MAD Magazine.

Good discussion here! Always love talking MAD.

अर्जुन said...

""how did you find them?"" ~ as per the gist of your post I keep my eyes and ears open.

kev ferrara said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
kev ferrara said...


Your powers of discrimination are completely untrustworthy. Appears you couldn’t see the difference between a five dollar caricature at the county fair and a T. S. Sullivant. Nor do you seem understand the difference between pushing the bounds of free speech versus just being ugly and vulgar because its artistically cheap.

After looking into your list, I think David is right, that what's missing is more elegance than anything else. Its not just about the level of the jokes, its about the refining of the presentation into an aesthetic form. Don Martin, Antonio Prohias, and Basil Wolverton found beauty of their own unique kind, regardless of how bizarre their work. All of the old guys could compose a visual joke. (Man could they compose!)

These later guys don't seem to know a thing about storytelling. (Maybe because they never had Norman Rockwell and Albert Dorne coming into their homes all the time to show them the way? Or Sickles and Crane?) They’re just awkwardly babbling in the empty spaces, mistaking quantity for quality. There’s no framing, no setups, no follow through, neither genuine wackiness nor deadpan. It’s just... it’s like mental graffiti.

And the drawing.. They don’t even grasp the necessity of readable silhouette. The anatomy isn’t exaggerated, its not even there. It’s all hand-me down cartoon symbols, ripped from better artists. Nothing is alive in the mind of artist as a reality. Nothing is understood. Every opportunity to bring real character to anything is avoided. (Except for Drew Friedman, who could well have been a contributer in good standing in the good days, imo.)

Unbelievably depressing work. Confirms my worst fear; that aesthetic beauty and drawing ability are retreating into history like a dead religion.

Reminds me of that famous John Kricfalusi line;

From 20 years of experience hiring artists out of the schools, I know-they get worse every year. They're absolutely ridiculously retarded now.

David Apatoff said...

Bats-Man and Kev Ferrara-- I view MAD as one of the best, most culturally significant publications of the 20th century, with high and low points along the way. I am always pleased to discuss it with such knowledgeable people.

In the wiki article I cited, Aragones and Viviano defend MAD from the common criticism that it has gone downhill. Aragones is quoted as saying, "many people say 'I used to read Mad, but Mad has changed a lot.' Excuse me—you grew up! You have new interests. ... The change doesn't come from the magazine, it comes from the people who grow or don't grow." Viviano is quoted as saying that Mad was at its best "whenever you first started reading it."

It's quite possible that my disappointment with the current incarnation of MAD is a result of that same syndrome, but let me take a crack at another explanation:

My interest in MAD began to wane in the 1990s when some of its old time talent began slowing down, losing their enthusiasm for the "chicken fat" that Elder injected into each panel. The new generation of artists used computers and felt tip pens that-- for me-- lacked the personality and variety of a brush or dip pen. I won't name specific artists but I thought several of the new group were competent but uninspired. To me, they often laid out visual information in a perfunctory, formulaic way. "Funny" seemed to mean the same big noses and big feet, rendered with a constant line and lacking the editorial commentary, vivid imagination and personal eccentricity that I enjoyed so much from the previous group. Even when artists did employ a distinctive, eccentric style (such as Peter Kuper's take on Spy vs. Spy) it seemed detached from-- and almost antagonistic to-- the story.

Perhaps younger readers no longer cared about such things. Perhaps corporate management kept the artists' visual editorializing on a shorter leash. Perhaps the fashion of the '90's was a cleaner, less cluttered style than the overworked style of the '50's. (After all, even some of the old pros like Berg, Coker and ultimately Drucker began drawing in a simpler, more perfunctory manner.) Mostly, I was unimpressed with the digital coloring and the photo-illustrations. Perhaps efficiency and economics left less time for creative dawdling (like John Henry racing against the steam drill to draw comic pages) although the new team seems to have unlimited time to render excrement in loving, photo-realistic detail (such as the product of the Taco Bell chihuahua).

Bats-Man, you are right (and I was wrong) that the Octo-Mom reference to Botticelli's "Birth of Venus" painting is hardly a lowbrow reference. I still think the art was pretty bad, that the visual joke was lame, and the raunchiness was unwarranted. For me, the sarcasm of the old MAD was helped, not hindered, by a sense of humanity. Perhaps it was that lingering echo of 1958 Jewish writers. I have nothing against explicit art, but the new MAD seems to find grossness far more hilarious than the old MAD did.

MORAN said...

Have to agree with Kev on this one.

Bats-Man said...

Mr. Ferrara,
If you think this Hermann Mejia illustration qualifies as a five-dollar caricature at the county fair...

...or this assortment of faces and bodies...

...or this spread...

...or this Donald Rumsfeld chess piece that Mejia physically sculpted for the magazine...

...then all I can say is they must run a HELL of a county fair wherever you live.

Regarding the new MAD’s weakness for loving depictions of yecchy bodily functions, I give you Al Jaffee's "a jackal retching," from 1966:

I agree with many of the individual observations. Despite its Botticelli provenance, the Octomom parody offered nothing beyond “Hey, get a load of Octomom and that time she did porn.” No need to apologize for criticizing it. And none of the subsequent “Spy vs Spy” artists have matched, let alone supplanted Antonio Prohias’ evocative style. And storytelling flow is almost always choppier than it was in the days of “Mickey Rodent” and “Starchie” (however, this includes most Mort Drucker movie parodies, which also jumped across missing scenes and set-ups).

But the overall, not-uncommon idea that MAD once delivered impregnable wall-to-wall quality, and now it’s a wasteland? That’s nostalgia masquerading as a standard. There were visual (and comedic) duds in the golden age, and there’s wonderful stuff today... along with more duds! No institution can compete against the sum total of every terrific thing it’s ever done, and MAD is no exception.

kev ferrara said...


I grant you that these selections deserve more respect than those I encountered on a quick search. But that is not granting much. They are slightly better only because they show more hard work. But evidence of hard work rarely makes me, or anyone else smile. Let alone laugh. (Which is the point.) Each complex piece exhibits all the same problems as the small ones. Plus problems that stem from composition failings. I’m not going to dive into a long exposition as to why Jack Davis understands how to compose and these guys don’t, but I’ll bounce through a few remarks...

1. Well done faces, no doubt. Is it in the least funny, or "up" in a comic vein? Nope. Is it well composed. Nope. (Look at how obama's left flank, under his arm seems attached to the figures behind it. Notice the imbalance in the piece?) Is it a strong gag? Nope. Its depressing. Nothing about it is fun. It lacks the looseness it tries to achieve through watercoloring, (see Jack Davis for how its done) and the color statement is mud. The value statement is mud too. All in all, there is simply no reason that a zombie picture can’t be smartly composed, harmoniously colored, and funny.

2. Nice idea for a gag. But Captain America is disappearing into the blue background. Again, that's bad value design, pure and simple. And its ruining whatever comic effect the picture may have had. With all the new mad stuff, bad value statements happen all over the place and nobody seems aware enough of illustration principles to correct the issue. Along with the bad value statement, the color scheme is mud, ruining the comic effect that way too. It looks like it is taking place undersea, for one thing. On the other hand the colors aren't harmonized. And can't you tell that this piece only works here and there? That it's disunified for some reason? I don't know whether the elements were done piecemeal and then photoshopped together... or whether some of the reference is from Drucker’s caricatures and some not or something.... Can't you sense that the fun isn't there?

3. Walking dead splash. Just awful. Ugly, unfunny, unfinished, muddy form, muddy color... badly faked buildings, figures floating in space, a cheap fade up of the blood color, bad perspective (Is blood the ground plane? Or is it just floating? Where’s the horizon line?) ) lighting coming from all over the place. awful. Can't you see? (That you can’t see it is equally depressing.)

4. Enjoyed the Rumsfeld bust. But Mad isn't illustrated out of clay, or in busts. (Although it should consider the switch.)

This is not to say that the artists whose work you linked are not talented. The real issue, the grave problem, is that they lack a supportive culture that has the technical and aesthetic information and professional opportunities that could have nurtured them toward their best artistic selves. (This is a whole other discussion, which I’ll leave here.)

On your last point... I have nearly the entire run of mad from ‘58 to ‘85 and some of the original comics, and all the reprints of the original comics. (When I was a kid, the garage sales in Queens, NY were stocked with old mads at 10 cents apiece.) At least half the issues in that entire run have good-to-great illustration wall to wall. There were only a few regulars who I just didn't find funny, but at least they did deft, professional work. The idea that at any point in its run Mad was as drearily drawn as it has been in the modern era, is obviously false to anybody who really appreciated Elder, Wood, Kurtzman, Davis, Severin, Wolverton, Drucker, Freas, Prohias, Aragones, Martin, Mingo, Jaffee, and Coker, (the usual gang of geniuses.)

Jesse Hamm said...

Gotta side with Bats here. Mejia's a fantastic artist, easily in the same class as the Usual Gang. Kev's crits are hard to take seriously given that he's apparently neither heard of Mejia (a Mad regular for years) nor noticed that all of those stylistically identical pieces were Mejia's.

We can nitpick Mejia's composition and such, but the same is true of all Mad's greats. Look at Drucker's pieces in this very post: the attention-sucking blank area beside Pa Kennedy's head, the inscrutable clutter of the football pile-up (which should LOOK cluttered, not BE cluttered), JFK recognizing/addressing Ike while looking in the opposite direction (poor staging), the odd disappearance of Ike's feet (is that a hill?)... and, more generally, there's Jaffee's weak coloring, Elder's overbearing clutter, Davis's weak likenesses, Drucker's own perspective cheats, etc.

Thankfully, the measure of an artist isn't his failures but his successes, and Mejia's sharp likenesses and playful planes and proportions succeed in spades. Check out that Andrew Lincoln (Sheriff) caricature in the Walking Dead piece Bats linked. Pure fun.

Muddy Water(color)s said...

It should also be pointed out that the "badly faked buildings" and "floating ground plane" in the Walking Dead splash were not just intentional, but necessary, since the title and the word balloons are going to cover up 90% of it. Overly intricate detail work would create distracting clutter in the narrow visible space between the white boxes. Similarly, if you ever see the later pages for these longform parodies, be they Drucker's or Mejia's, you're going to spot a lot of dead space at the tops of panels. It's not because their drawing hands got tired.

Go check out the opening spreads for "Hello, Lyndon" or "American Confetti," or "Saturday Night Feeble" among many other great Drucker jobs, and you'll see big vacant swaths of gray, perspective "screw-ups" and slapdash architecture. This could be because both artists are inept in the same ways, or there could be an explanation. Either way, your specs are never going to be totally met until MAD starts doing its TV and movie parodies in mime.

If you can stand half an hour more of Hermann Mejia's muddy, unharmonious coloring, weak body language and figure placement, disunified composition and just plain un-fun art, here he is disappointing the International Society of Caricature Artists with his dreary work. All the questions about how he achieves his watercolor effects are no doubt so the attendees can learn what not to do:

kev ferrara said...

Is there some kind of marketing campaign going on at this blog by Warner Brothers?

What a bunch of jive in the last two posts. Two full posts where non-sequitors are thought to be arguments? Beauties: Incorrect perspective planes are necessary to fit the word balloons... eye roll. Oh, you didn't hear of Mejia... well then your opinion mustn't be well considered. (yeah, I just fell off a turnip truck.) Value and color schemes are muddy - well he won an award, so you must be wrong! You don't like his full page illustrations, well then I'll compare them to single panels. You say you don't like Mejia's composition, then I'll say I don't think Drucker's compositions are good. (Go back through david's posts of Drucker's work, fer crissakes, to see the greatness.)

Whatever. If you like it, you eat it.

Spa Fon said...

Whenever your eyes roll back to their natural position, perhaps they can alight on the same alleged "problems" that exist in many great MAD pieces, by many of its all-time best illustrators.

Where's the perspective plane in this splash? Where are the unfaked buildings? Oh, the humanity!

kev ferrara said...

You don't understand my arguments, you lop off pieces of what I say and argue against portions of what I write, and your arguments are doggerel. How old are you anyhow? I'm guessing 22 or 23.

When I said there were problems of perspective, I think I explained the issue. It is not that the artist didn't have a ruler. I could care less about classical perspective (which is a fudge anyhow). Great cartoonists warp perspective all the time. And it comes out great.

The issue is making the space understandable and blocking the figures within that understandable space. Its about storytelling, not accuracy. This requires mapping some kind of plane in some kind of way, so the reality is as convincing as it needs to be. Wally maps a plane just fine in the downshot in that splash by using the circle of feet at back and heads in front. This circle clears out some space to frame batboy and rubin, and then, as a further joke about comics, the plane is made yellow. There are absurdities of space defying conventions all over the place in the picture. This adds a whole other level to the work. It is not done out of sloppiness, but out of silliness. There's a big difference between the two.

Secondarily, I did not say the buildings were faked, I said they were badly faked. And they are. No distinction is given to them, no anatomy... they are just cheap, overgeneralized rectangles.... and they call attention to themselves because they are so prominent and so generalized. Its just bad in so many ways, and that Wood pictures is good in so many ways, it defies comparison.

If you don't have a sensitivity for what makes drawing weak or strong, then bad cartooning and good cartooning will be indistinguishable to you. This seems to be the case. And there's nothing I can say to make you see it. And there's nothing you can say that can make me blind to it.


Tom said...

Great pictures David and well said.  When I was little I bought Mad magazine just for Drucker's drawings,I did not even bother reading the text, it seemed so insignificant.

The Starr's panels are great too, just like cinematography stills, lots of elegance in each panel.

Nixon, Rockfellar and Goldwater is incredible.  There is no sense of trying in the work like rain falling from the sky.  The noses are remarkable.

I don't agree with Jesse.  I knew Eisenhower  was on the other side of a small rounded slope.  Would  we know that it is Kennedy if Drucker's had turned his head away from the viewers?  

The architecture of the white house looks pretty spot on, even the curve of columns and entablature. No sense of doubt in the spatial ordering from front to back.

I think you are right, information is not processing what we take in. In art, comprehension of what you are doing/saying is what makes for good drawing and the appearance of effortless.

In a way  lots of things that where dependent on  drawing have suffered the same fate, fashion and architecture are two things that come to my mind.

David Apatoff said...

Before I get into trouble by wading into a debate with my betters on a subject larger than the one I originally intended, let me offer a caveat:

My original focus in this post was on the "elegance" of MAD and On Stage compared to much of what is being done today. If we think of elegant linework as sensitive, descriptive lines, lines with variety applied by a wise and subtle hand to convey more information than a straight rapidograph line might, lines that contribute to the overall design of the image-- well, I still think the old MAD has the new MAD beat. I do agree with Bats-Man that "There were visual (and comedic) duds in the golden age, and there’s wonderful stuff today... along with more duds! No institution can compete against the sum total of every terrific thing it’s ever done, and MAD is no exception." I would also concede that "elegant lines" aren't the only criterion of excellence or humor in drawing. There may be several explanations for this difference (perhaps primarily that elegance means nothing to MAD's target audience today, they wouldn't recognize it if they saw it).

But I think it's worth talking about the relative quality of the two MADs because I believe in giving credit on those very rare occasions where credit is truly due. It was a rare moment in history when the greatest thinkers in the world at that time happened to assemble in Athens for the golden age of Greece. It was a rare moment when the political geniuses who became the founding fathers of the US happened to come together in the colonies. It was a rare moment when John, Paul, George and Ringo stumbled across each other in Liverpool. And damnit, it was a rare moment when the talent that made up MAD through the early 80s came together. They had very high standards, indeed, and paid the price for them. (Al Feldstein rejected Wood's work in 1964 when Wood's personal problems began to affect his quality.) Despite the individual anomalies noted by Bats-Man over the history of MAD, my personal view is that the aggregate quality of MAD today does not match that rare alignment of the stars and planets that was the MAD of the past. I'm happy to talk about specifics, although again, I don't want to get into trashing any individual current artists.

Bats Man, I think that Mejia Rumsfeld chess piece is terrific, and fully worthy of the peak era of MAD. I also think Mark Fredrickson is excellent, easily the equal of Freas or Mingo (although I don't think many of his MAD covers are his best work, perhaps because of some of the concepts behind them). Friedman is another artist who could have flourished under the exacting standards of the old MAD, imo.

On the other side of the ledger, Al Jaffee (always the fastest of the old team to resort to poop jokes) has never been a favorite. I do note that his "jackal retching" was less to titillate readers than to appall them with the kind of trash printed by the tabloid press. (My, how the world has changed...) Re Wally Wood, on this very blog I created a lynch mob by suggesting that, although I love Wood's work, he was not a great draftsman:

One other point that has not been mentioned yet is that during its peak years, MAD seemed to benefit from a strong , centralized hand from the art director. Despite all of the thousand of things going on, and the variety of styles by the artists, and Aragones jumping around in the margins, there seemed to be a cohesion to the design of the Magazine that I don't see today. Just as information has overwhelmed design on our computer monitors and TV screens, with pop ups and bugs and crawls ( it seems to fragment the current MAD. This too seems common for magazines today; we lack the taste to bind all the data in an aesthetically cohesive form.

Smurfswacker said...

This is depressing. What we have here is a classic irreconcilable difference of opinion about what makes good art. Everyone will cling staunchly to his/her own position and disagree with the other guy. However the name-calling seems to support David's thesis that a certain "level of literacy and patience... unfortunately seems to be waning."

David Apatoff said...

Jesse Hamm and Muddy Water(color)s-- I have to defend Drucker on one point: that "attention-sucking blank area beside Pa Kennedy's head" is my fault. In scanning the original, I thought it would be fun to include the extra material that bled off the page, but if you look carefully you can see the pencil lines where the printed version was cropped, and that blank area disappears.

I do agree that late in his career Drucker began having what Muddy water(color)s calls "big vacant swaths of gray," but I don't recall seeing anything troubling until his parody of "The Sopranos" in 2000. I remember being surprised at the time.

One of the things I admire most about Drucker is that no matter how overly detailed and overdone his pictures became (and he was certainly susceptible to that) they generally did NOT "create distracting clutter"
with "Overly intricate detail work" precisely because he was such a master at keeping control of his pictures.

For me, Frazetta's famous cover to Weird Science Fantasy #29 is a classic example of an artist's "overly intricate detail work" running away with a picture. For me, Drucker at his peak was better at composing a drawing. He held his pictures together and directed the viewer's eye with bolder lines or gray accents or compositions that worked, even in the face of an excess of scritchy lines.

I don't tend to see much architectural "cheating" in Drucker, at least of the unintentional kind that results from poor compositions or drawing skills. Note the structural soundness of even gratuitous background buildings in Popeye:

kev ferrara said...


Do you want congratulations for being above it all and standing for nothing? Because, man oh man, we're all waiting in line to shake your hand on that count. It must be awesome to have no thoughts worth defending.

David, your disinclination toward criticizing living artists seems to come and go, don't it? ;)But who will fail to notice that you praised that Rumsfeld chess piece alone, same as I? (Don't let them catch you being clever.)

I do want to share in your enthusiasm for Frederickson. I should have singled him out during the gunfire. I also should have said up front that I thought that Mejia was the best of the lot of names plugged earlier.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "David, your disinclination toward criticizing living artists seems to come and go, don't it?"

Kev, here is my philosophy on that: I have no problem criticizing terrible artists such as Gary Panter or Jeff Koons or Tracey Emin because they are widely lauded by the tasteless cognoscenti. They already have big deluxe coffee table books out about their work and are doing just fine. I also criticize the fans of artists such as Chris Ware, who I acknowledge is hard working and well intentioned, because I think ignorant critics in positions of power persistently lionize him in silly and reckless ways. ("Ware is capable of creating beauty anywhere and always. Ware's work, in this way, is also quite like Bach's." Hah hah hah hah hah!)

There are a lot of far more talented artists out there who are overlooked due to snobbery and narrow mindedness. It is the mission of this blog to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted." It is not my intention to pick on the hard working, less talented artists who are simply trying to earn a buck in a very difficult market. There are too many smug, arrogant, wealthy, untalented artists out there crying out for attention.

Muddy Water(color)s said...

You'll see "big vacant swaths of gray" in Mort Drucker's art decades before the Sopranos parody (which Mr. Apatoff and I agree was a subpar job).

To be clear, in no way am I impugning Drucker. His sense of design and weight was excellent. And when he under-rendered a background, or a building, to my eye it was a deliberate choice for the larger good of the layout, not to mention the mechanics of publication.

Here's Drucker's "American Confetti" from 1974:

Take his large splash panel, and note how much uneven, muddy gray there is sloshing up top. Look at the broadly sketched suggestion of a building. What's holding up those floating arrows on the right? And if you said these choices detract from the drawing, let alone ruin it, I'd call you crazy.

My point was to rebut some of the criticism being aimed at a "new guy" like Hermann Mejia. If identical complaints can be as easily and accurately applied to someone whose artistic choices we all agree were top shelf -- Drucker -- then maybe it's not the most applicable criticism.

kev ferrara said...

Muddy W/C

You really haven't put the time in to become an aficionado of the forms you are arguing about. So you keep making inapt comparisons, and assertions that aren't so. Stop trying so hard to defend and spend more time looking at art.

"Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted."


Be careful what you wish for because someday some righteous moral crusader might come after your comforts. If that happens, then you'll recognize that buzzphrase as the morally reprehensible position that it is. (I don't think you really believe it anyhow.)

Anonymous said...

Whatever you do, Kev, don’t turn and look behind you. You’re condescending from such a great height, there’s going to be nothing but a shapeless gray wash filling the space up there.

David Apatoff said...

Muddy water(color)s-- I now have a better understanding of your point about the vacant gray space in Drucker's work, and I agree with you; I think the gray space and the indications of background architecture in American Confetti are important to maintain the balance and function of some beautifully designed pages (as contrasted with the gray space in the Sopranos which I found quite... unfortunate).

Kev Ferrara-- if an LA Museum of Contemporary Art catalog ever said about me (as it said about Chris Ware), "I don't think anyone in any visual medium is making art that is more elevating.... His use of the page is unparalleled." I hope I would have the dignity and self respect not to take comfort from such drivel. But if I did, I would be grateful to any stranger who came along and discomforted me by smacking me upside the head to snap me out of it.

MAD/Ware said...

As long as MAD Magazine and Chris Ware are sharing discussion space, why not post a link to MAD's parody of Chris Ware from a few years ago? It's by writer Devlin and artist Smallwood (MAD used to list communal bylines in its potpourri section of mini-articles).

David Apatoff said...

MAD/Ware-- I hadn't seen this. Perhaps I was a little hasty in downgrading MAD...

kev ferrara said...

I agree that Ware parody was pretty good. Thanks for the link. The strip it is taking dead aim at, which, I believe, appeared in the NYT magazine, was a very rich vein of targets. I think they nailed a lot of them, but only a few of the nails went all the way into the board. (Although, in fairness, it might have made for too boring a parody to really nail it. In that sense it was beyond parody.)

David, oh I think its fine to go after Ware, and the stuffed shirts who puff him up. And other situation like it (Koons, et al) I guess I reacted to that slogan, about afflicting people, its just one of my pet peeves that relates to my antipathy toward news media. (As you know its a news media slogan.) Or maybe it was the guafenisen.

Whatever you do, Kev, don’t turn and look behind you. You're being con-duh-sending and now I reference the gray wash and use anonymity, hah I got him now

Man, you will try anything to try to win hearts and minds in this argument, won't you? Every schoolyard tactic. Anything except making an actual argument or using your actual name. You really shouldn't take things so seriously. Its the internet.

Anonymous said...

Chris Ware... Max Fleischer... Lars von Trier... it's just sad, the way MAD has dumbed itself down.

Anonymous said...

Here's to elegant comics from a bygone era.

kev ferrara said...

Nice! That room was one of my favorite issues of that particular magazine.

Tom said...

But they always told the same old story.

Bill said...

Fantastic post! Only slightly off topic (I hope) but I spent quite a bit of time yesterday going through your archives looking for a post that I could've sworn was from your site. It was about an obscure artist who did some pen and ink technical illustrations, mostly of an automotive nature as I recall, and it talked about the care and craftsmanship that he brought that far-exceeded the requirements of the job.

Does that ring a bell? I loved that post and have often thought of it but foolishly never bookmarked it. I think I went through the entire archive and couldn't find it and now I'm wondering if it wasn't somewhere else but it sure seemed like it was here. Thanks in advance if you can help.

David Apatoff said...

Bill-- Is it possible you meant my ancient post about Ben Jaroslaw? (

If not, I don't know the answer but thanks for reading anyway!

Bill said...

I found it! It was actually on Today's Inspiration (which I ironically found through your site and which ironically had a post on Ben Jaroslaw on the same page).

It's here:

David Apatoff said...

Bill-- I'm always flattered to be mistaken for Leif Peng's Today's Inspiration.

Vanderwolff said...

David, your blog should form part of the curriculum of any worthwhile university course dealing with (choose whatever applies to your interest):
1. The History of Modern American Art
2. Popular Culture of the Past 100 years
3. The Aesthetics of Post-WWII Media
4. The Erosion of Representational Art
5. Symbology in Communications

I learn more in half-an-hour of perusing your blog than I did in most of the college courses I took claiming to cover the above. Please keep up your amazing work!

Bill said...

I agree with Vanderwolff. 'Today's Inspiration' has got nothing on you. You're a treasure. I pre-ordered the Albert Dorne book and didn't even realize you had written it! Now I'll actually read it instead of just looking at the pictures.