‘Mad’ Rose From a Dark Place To Shed Lots of Light. It Deserves Our Thanks.
The news that Mad magazine is about to die may be less surprising to most people than the fact it was until now still alive.
The official announcement that Mad is terminating its print edition in August and as of October will stop creating almost all original content still calls for a figurative moment of silence among those of us who once loved Mad. And while we’re at it, we can take solace and pride in the story of how Mad began, some 67 years ago.
No memory of Mad’s clever conceits and catchphrases is more important, or uplifting, than its origin as a brilliant end run around forces that wanted to bludgeon the creativity, i.e. the life, out of popular culture.
The current Mad, for the record, remains a solid magazine, with a sharp and not unaffectionate eye for the world. It has simply come to the end, a victim of at least two things few cultural institutions can counter: the mass move of audiences away from print publications and the insistence by each new generation on finding its own voices.
Mad’s demise won’t have much impact on contemporary satire, which thanks to this Internet thing can be found in approximately 2,840,351 places. The fact Mad remains better than almost all of them doesn’t matter. Or doesn’t matter enough.
To keep our genealogy straight, Mad served as a foundation breed for maybe 75% of today’s satirists, from The Onion to Stan Lee’s Marvel Comics Universe. At its best, which wasn’t all the time but was a lot of the time, its inspired mix of zany and droll deflated anything in its path.
Mad didn’t invent satire. Mad just yanked it into 1950s and 1960s America, dissecting the crazy and the serious issues of those years so skillfully that many readers didn’t realize they were witnessing surgery.
Readers like me — and I was a faithful customer, buying every issue as soon as it arrived at Dougherty Drug Store — thought we were just being entertained and amused. What else could you say about a magazine that issued a 33 1/3 rpm record of the Dellwoods singing “She Got a Nose Job”?
Ah, pop culture.
Another part I didn’t fully grasp back in those days was the Mad backstory.
Once upon a time, in the late 1940s, William Gaines took over a company called E.C. Comics (which stood, redundantly, for Entertaining Comics Comics) upon the tragic death of his father Max in a boating accident.
Young William moved the company away from Bible-based family stories into horror, suspense, sci-fi and military titles like Vault of Horror, Crypt of Terror, Two-Fisted Tales, Frontline Combat, Shock SuspenStories and Weird Science.
He hired what would become the 1927 Yankees of writers and illustrators, a remarkable crew too large to credit the full roll call here, but which included Jack Davis, Joe Orlando, Graham Ingels, Johnny Craig and Reed Crandall.
E.C. Comics, well, they got your attention. The art was bold, often as arresting and innovative as the best graphic novels today.
But it was the stories that set E.C. apart.
They were character-driven, as we say now, with good guys and bad guys in life-or-death situations. They just weren’t the stories you found in other comics like Sgt. Rock and the Combat-Happy Joes of Easy Company, where the dedicated Americans won World War II by heroically defeating the devious Japanese and machine-like Germans.
Nothing against Sgt. Rock. I read him, too. But a war story in E.C. was just as likely to focus on the death of a single soldier who in his final moments thinks about how, if he hadn’t taken that one random step to the left, he wouldn’t have been hit by the fatal bullet.
War generated little glory for E.C., and if most real-life soldiers would agree, that was a fresh perspective for young boys in the reading audience.
A willingness to tackle subjects that were often left unspoken in the 1950s, like discrimination, racism, violence against women, law enforcement corruption and environmental degradation, set E.C. apart.
It should be stressed that E.C. wasn’t a political publication. Its artists were not looking to overthrow America or torch its culture. While E.C. stories were marked by graphic and scary premises, they almost all ended with the better people defeating the less good people. Bad behavior in E.C. stories routinely led to justice, and not always through the legal system.
Still, E.C. came to be seen as an inflammatory and even dangerous voice in a country where flames of fear were being fanned by Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his anti-communist crusade.
Jangling American nerves further was the simmering youth culture, whose ripples of rebellion were embodied in bold new music and unsettling characters played by the likes of Marlon Brando and James Dean.
Fans of all this, it was widely feared, were abandoning “traditional” American values and plunging into dangerous amoral purgatory.
In a couple of years, rock ’n’ roll would become the lightning rod for that misguided argument. Until then, the moralists wagged their fingers at things like E.C. comics.
Pushed by anti-comics crusader Dr. Frederick Wertham, whose books warned that graphic comics warped impressionable young minds, Congress convened hearings on “juvenile delinquency.” Wertham, and others, blamed comic books for fueling some significant part of the younger generation’s shocking rebellion.
Distributors and outlets, either agreeing with that conclusion or fearing public backlash, stopped carrying comics like E.C.
Sales dropped and several publishers went out of business, leading the survivors to create the Comics Code Authority (CCA), an attempt to reassure Congress and America that the industry could regulate itself.
Under the CCA, all comics had to be pre-approved for publication by adhering to strict content guidelines.
Since this included provisions like not using the words “weird” or “horror” in the titles, the CCA clearly didn’t have E.C.’s back. You can imagine what Code Administrator Judge Charles Murphy thought of E.C. content.
It all came to an end in February 1956, when Murphy told E.C. that the central character in an Incredible Science Fiction story called “Judgment Day” could not be black.
Gaines published the story anyway, in what turned out to be the last issue of Incredible Science Fiction. At the same time, Gaines’s other remaining titles were coming under similar fire, and while he was willing to publish without the CCA seal of approval, stores were afraid to sell them without that seal.
Rather than eviscerate the whole point of E.C. stories, Gaines folded everything.
Everything except one. Four years earlier, perhaps sensing what was being done to his comics line, Gaines went in with Harvey Kurtzman on a satire publication called Mad. Technically, Mad was a comic book. It soon morphed into a magazine
Because its thrust was different, its material more bemused than graphic, Mad didn’t bother the CCA nearly as other E.C. material. In fact, the CCA probably didn’t understand Mad much more than my friends and I did.
By 1956 Mad had inherited much of the E.C. artists stable, and they were soon tackling many of the same issues, only this time with a joking tone. “Humor in a jugular vein,” the slogan went.
Make ’em laugh.
From 1956 on, with Feldstein replacing Kurtzman as editor, Mad became the E.C. flagship and its most popular title ever.
Sixty-three years later, Alfred E. Neuman and his gap-toothed “What me worry” tagline seem pretty bland. They were. No “Spy vs. Spy” story sent readers to the barricades. No spoof of Bonanza or goofy Don Martin character heralded the revolution.
Collectively, though, Mad caught the wave of what was coming in America. With a grin and a joke, it told us kids that things weren’t always as they seemed, that sometimes what we were told by our parents, teachers and Time magazine wasn’t the whole story.
Mad was irreverent, and if that sounds tame and harmless in our age of bluster and swagger, it’s a tone and attitude whose impact should not be underestimated. The decades when Mad mattered most were the decades when we started to rethink bedrock traditional assumptions about matters like the “place” of colored folks, the role of women, the humanity of the LGBTQ community and the invincibility of technology.
The best satire remains irreverent today, though irreverence alone is rarely enough. Where Mad’s work consistently led to a point, Saturday Night Live way too often seizes on a funny idea and has no idea where to go with it.
Then again, satire has a long tradition of being ragged and imperfect. That’s how creativity works and why at its best it produces brilliance. While Mad may have decided to take itself off life support, it lives on in a landscape it helped to shape.