It's a MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD World
Nick Meglin, one of MAD magazine's two co-editors, has been affiliated with America's longest running humor magazine since 1956. For 40-plus years he's lived under the Alfred E. Neuman creed: "What -- Me Worry?" So he ought to be one the calmest editors around.Still, in a phone interview last week, he sounded a tad desperate. "We're finding it very difficult to keep up with the government," he said. "I think our toughest competition in print form is the Congressional Record."Come to think of it, the MAD crew of artists and writers has long been known as "The Usual Gang of Idiots." Hmmm. Could it be that MAD is, in fact, a Congressional publication?Naah. We should only be so lucky.From the vantage of 1999, surrounded as we are by hostile political invective, over-the-top social satire and uninhibited gross-out humor, the early 1950s cultural climate that gave birth to MAD can seem unimaginably foreign. On the other hand, some aspects of the era are unsettling in their familiarity.When MAD was founded in 1952, Meglin recalled, "We were a pretty conservative society. There was Eisenhower in the White House, there was Joseph McCarthy using all sorts of scare tactics on everything and everyone. The freedom that we had enjoyed and fought for in the second world war was slowly giving way to repression. Movies and television were only giving fractions of real life. It was a time when married people on TV couldn't sleep in the same bed. There was no criticism of the government, no criticism of policies, and no criticism of individuals."At the same time, Meglin said, comic books, especially horror, science fiction and crime comics, were thriving. And Bill Gaines' line of Entertaining Comics (EC) was the most successful in the business. Gaines' father, Max Gaines, had literally invented the comic book in 1934 with a book called Famous Funnies, and over the years he had produced a long string of educational comics that included titles like Picture Stories from the Bible and Picture Stories from World History.When the elder Gaines died in an automobile crash, Bill Gaines took over the line. The company was struggling at the time, barely making ends meet. But "Bill had a vivid imagination," Meglin said. "He loved science fiction and twist endings. So Bill's comics had all those elements, and his comic book line became the most popular of all, with titles like Tales From the Crypt, which still has a running TV show, Crime SuspenStories and Weird Science and Weird Fantasy, which included adaptations of great science fiction writers of the day, like Ray Bradbury. They were beautifully drawn books produced by the best artists going." They also were incredibly popular titles that sold up to 400,000 copies per issue.In addition, Gaines began to issue a comic book that satirized his own titles. Initially, the new comic book was called Tales Calculated to Drive You MAD.Then along came "Seduction of the Innocent," the influential book by psychiatrist Dr. Frederic Wertham, excerpts of which appeared in popular magazines like Lady's Home Journal and Collier's."Wertham's whole premise," Meglin said, "was that juvenile delinquency would end, stop completely, if they did away with comics. It was comics that were the single source of the problems that were faced from the nation's youth. Not repression, not child abuse, not anything else. Just comics. It was the same as someone today claiming that 'South Park' or rap music was going to be the ruination of American society."From his home in Ojai, Calif., Sergio Aragones, whose tiny whimsical drawings have infiltrated MAD's margins since 1963 (and who, since 1983, has authored the popular comic book Groo the Wanderer), said the politics surrounding youth entertainment haven't changed much over the years."Parents, teachers and politicians always have to have a scapegoat," he said. "They always have to have something to blame it on. And comics have always been an easy prey. They don't have a union. They don't have a lobby. Comic books are an industry, but the companies are very separate from one another. Other media have stronger lobbies and lots of money."Wertham caught the attention of Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver, who a few years earlier had earned a measure of fame for conducting hearings on organized crime. Now, in 1954, Kefauver switched his focus from the Mafia to the pressing issue of how comic books fostered juvenile crime. Although Gaines, the American Civil Liberties Union and the comic book industry resisted Kefauver, under fierce public outcry comic book sales sagged.In response, comic book publishers joined and established the Comics Code Authority. Only comics bearing the seal of the CCA could be sold in drugstores and on newsstands. And the CCA code effectively put Gaines out of business: It banned the depiction of anything "lurid, unsavory, or gruesome;" it forbade the disrespectful depiction of policemen, judges and government officials; vampires, werewolves, zombies and ghouls were banned; the words "horror" and "terror" could not be used in comic book titles."In love stories," said Meglin, "you couldn't show anyone kissing. In war stories, you couldn't show bullets. Even wonderful lessons about the horrors of war were buried by this insistence on picayune things that really meant nothing."Faced with these restrictions, Gaines shut down his comic book line and transformed MAD from a 10-cent comic to a 25-cent magazine that would be exempt from the CCA code.Mark J. Cohen, 57, a Santa Rosa, Calif., comic historian and cartoonist's agent who sells original cartoons through his website (www.markomics.com), recalls the impact MAD had on him as a youth. "It was an era of blind patriotism, McCarthyism, an era when you just didn't question things. But MAD magazine did. It satirized other comics, it satirized advertising and politics. It even attacked McCarthy directly. For a lot of us, it was the first time we'd seen the institutions questioned. In heartland America, far from the urban counterculture centers, it was the first sign that something different was going on. It's not suprising that it became the darling of the intelligentsia."To put things in context, MAD was one of two major revolutionary societal factors of the '50s. MAD was one, Playboy was the other. MAD brought satire up to date; Playboy brought nudity and adult humor up to date. Both were classy publications that featured the best writers and artists around at the time. And it's impossible to overstate the ways MAD has affected everything since. We're surrounded by satire that's directly descended from MAD."And in fact we are. Meglin, the MAD co-editor, recalls attending a movie in Mel Gibson's "Lethal Weapon" series. "We were there to take notes for a parody, and there's a scene where a bureaucrat gives Gibson's character, Riggs, a hard time about one of his reports. She tells him it reads like something out of MAD magazine. Riggs gets indignant and says, 'What's wrong with MAD magazine? It's a great magazine! More people should read MAD.'"Now MAD has never had a public relations department; we don't do product placement; we were there to write a parody of the movie, which we did anyway, and here we were getting a million dollar plug."It wasn't the first time, nor the last. In the movie A Hard Day's Night, the Beatles are depicted reading MAD. In the sitcom "Murphy Brown", Brown's office walls are covered with assorted MAD covers with political themes. And apart from these obvious manifestations, MAD's influence crops up sometimes invisibly. Stan Hart, whose contributions to MAD include satires like "Top Gunk," earned two Emmy awards as a staff writer for the "Carol Burnett Show" in the early 1970s.Larry Siegel, a MAD writer since 1958, has received three Emmys for work on shows like "Bob Newhart" and "Mary Tyler Moore." Chevy Chase brags of once selling a story to MAD. The sketch comedy of "Saturday Night Live" and "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" were admittedly influenced by MAD. Even American radical politics have been affected. Paul Krassner, publisher of the magazine The Realist and, along with Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, founder of the Yippie movement in the late 1960s, was an early MAD contributor.MAD also has inspired generations of editorial cartoonists, both in the United States and abroad. "I tried to read MAD, but my mom wouldn't let me," said Nick Anderson, the editorial cartoonist for The Courier-Journal. "I don't know why, but she found it beyond the Pale. Still, I think the caricatures and artwork had some peripheral influence on my work."Daryl Cagle, a California cartoonist who is currently President of the National Cartoonist's Society, said, MAD "was the mainstream for those of us who became cartoonists. The demographics of editorial cartoonists are that they're a bunch of white baby boomers, males, who grew up on MAD magazine. We all tend to be about the same age, and it was a strong cultural influence on all of us. We grew up on it, and we have this cultural heritage in common. When you talk about counterculture, I think of the underground comics, Zap and so forth. There was a lot of that stuff going on, but it didn't really touch us when were 12, and what was special about MAD was that it came at the right time and the right place, and it touched a chord culturally."Over the years, MAD's influence has extended far beyond U.S. borders. By e-mail, Miel, cartoonist for the Singapore Straits Times wrote, "MAD was vital to my development as a cartoonist. It was deliciously irreverent, and had superb artwork." At first, Miel said, he was engaged by Sergio Aragones' wordless animations, but as he grew older he grew to appreciate the inside jokes and nuance of the more advanced satires.Martyn Turner, cartoonist for Dublin's Irish Times, e-mailed, "MAD was assuredly part of the recipe for the soup. I can vaguely remember covering schoolbooks with (MAD cartoonist) Don Martin's bendable feet from an early age. MAD did give people a different way of presenting ideas. The Dave Berg format (Berg has been writing a MAD feature called "The Lighter Side" for 43 years) is now commonplace in political cartooning."According to Meglin, the magazine's popularity, measured strictly in terms of sales, peaked in the late 1960s and early '70s, but the magazine still boasts millions of readers each month, in more than a dozen international editions. Bill Gaines died several years ago, but the magazine remains largely unchanged.Said Aragones: "If a former reader picks up a copy after several years, he may think MAD has changed, that it's inane. But, no, it hasn't changed, the reader has grown up. For young people, MAD is a primer in satire and humor from which they can graduate to more serious satire. And remember, MAD is produced by a group of authors. Even in the '60s, we had hawks, doves, left-wingers and right-wingers. There was nothing in the middle, because that would be boring, but what came out was a reflection of the range of American opinion. We didn't make fun of one side or the other; we made fun of the whole system."Annie Gaines, the late Bill Gaines' wife, said from her New York office, "I guess we've always wanted to be fair and attack everybody," and then laughed uproariously.Perhaps the key to MAD's independent spirit, and its most seditious act, was the decision made after the first few issues to accept no advertising, a policy that still stands after more than 40 years. "Gaines felt that if we accepted advertising from Pepsi, we wouldn't be able to satirize Coca-Cola," said Aragones."When you accept advertising," said Meglin, "you suddenly have a 'target audience' you're trying to reach. But our guiding principle has always been to write the magazine for ourselves, not for some specific audience. We've always wanted to retain our freedom. And not accepting ads has enabled us to take on some big powers long before anybody else."For example, the National Cancer Society and the National Heart Association for years and years sent us certificates for all the anti-smoking stuff we had done targeting cigarette advertising and the way they got young people hooked. We took on Joe Camel before anybody else, and long before the Surgeon General's report."We're still holding up a funhouse mirror to reality. We didn't invent Monica, Bill Clinton or Ken Starr, we just reflect what's going on in the world. As satirists, our biggest challenge is keeping up with the changes in culture. In music, for example, it was easy to parody Rodgers and Hammerstein, but now there are 4 million groups out there, and a lot of them don't have memorable structures we can parody."But, Aragones maintains: "What -- Me worry? Satire and irony don't change. Subject matter changes. Our readership is more diversified, fragmented and well-informed than ever before because of things like cable TV and the Internet. But that just means we have to work harder to make our humor sharper. There will always be a place for MAD magazine."LEOSidebar One: Totally MADThis week, Broderbund software releases Totally MAD, a seven CD-ROM set (unfortunately, for Windows platforms only) that includes every page of every issue of MAD from issue 1, in October 1952 through December 1998. The collection, which retails for $69.95, encompasses some 22,000 pages from 564 issues of the magazine, including special issues and cover variations. Every "Spy vs. Spy" is included; every edition of "Scenes We'd Like to See;" every movie, TV, and advertising parody; every Alfred E. Neuman cover; every example of "Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions." Even the unique MAD "Fold-Ins" that appear on the back cover of each issue are included (a simple point and click function morphs the Fold-In images).In addition, Totally MAD features a few dozen video clips of MAD editors, artists, and writers discussing the magazine's history. There are animated cartoons, and sound files from MAD's flexi-disc recordings. Screen rotation, crisp images, and zoom functions enable viewers to relish every upside-down joke and miniature nuance. A "panel" command enables a viewer to scan across and down a zoomed-in page without missing a square inch of humor.Given the scope of the product and the nature of MAD's approach to humor, the product's most impressive feature is a phenomenal search engine and extraordinarily detailed indexing of names and subjects. A search for "Presley," turned up every Elvis feature, of course, beginning with "Elvis Pelvis" from December 1956. But it also brought up pages with only minor passing references, such as a Reader's Digest satire in which Elvis's name is buried alongside names like Dr. Scholl and Yul Brynner (who were also indexed). Even wordless features are thoroughly indexed by topic: a search that combined "Spy Vs. Spy" with "boat" turned up more than a dozen matching hits.All in all, Totally MAD is a total success.