[ Editor’s note: Last year we told a coworker that the move to L.A. wouldn’t work — maybe the Dodgers and Giants could withstand relocation to that tainted lotus land that is California, but Mad magazine was just too much of a New Yorker to find harmony amid the perfected people. With the announcement that Mad will from now on feature mostly reprints, the postwar generations who had their bullshit detectors tripped for the first time by the magazine’s parodies of pop culture, politicians, priests, and other purveyors of dubious promises are left with only endless permutations of Alfred E. Neuman. The first painted portrait of the magazine’s gap-toothed mascot appeared on the cover of the December 1956 issue as a write-in candidate for president. Who knew that some six decades later we would need Alfred’s candidacy more than ever.
Here at the Voice archives we love old newsprint, and so have dug into our own yellowing volumes to seek a downtown take on that “usual gang of idiots” who once toiled away on MADison Avenue. In 1989, culture critic Geoffrey O’Brien reviewed a collection of the four-color Mad comic books, which were printed from 1952 until 1955. (Starting with issue #24, the publication was transformed into black-and-white magazine, a format change that proved wildly successful: By 1973 sales of individual issues had passed the 2,000,000-copy mark.)
The early Mad comic book was sui generis partly because, as O’Brien observes below, “In 1952 American culture was a parody waiting to happen.” That insight, from exactly three decades ago, sounds quaint in our own age, when the artists and writers of Mad can no longer compete with the madness of reality. —R.C. Baker, July 9, 2019]
Stark Raving ‘Mad’: Harvey Kurtzman’s Laugh Riot
By Geoffrey O’Brien
October 1, 1989
We live in strange days: within a floodlit mausoleum of show business, the hours are measured by the anniversaries of music festivals and movie premieres, by the birth of Mickey Mouse and the death of Elvis. All that was once disposable is frozen into monumentality — and in the age of mechanical reproduction that makes for more monuments than even the previous century had to contend with. One might well wonder how we got here. A major piece of the story can be found in The Complete Mad: itself a monument but a welcome one, 12 pounds of budding media awareness, a guided tour of early ’50s image glut conducted in a mood far removed from today’s mournful nostalgia.
Who would have imagined, when Mad began publication in October 1952, that 37 years later we would have its first 23 issues preserved for us in this boxed, hardbound, full-color facsimile, annotated with Talmudic devotion? Certainly not Mad’s creator, Harvey Kurtzman, or the extraordinary artists who helped realize his vision of American pop culture; it would have been an altogether different magazine if they had. “We were working by the seat of our pants,” Kurtzman remarks in an interview in The Complete Mad. “I didn’t really know what the hell I was doing. All I was doing was ‘funny.’ Funny. Gotta make it funny, gotta make me laugh, gotta tickle myself.” The out-of-control things that happened in the pages of the early Mad were of the sort that occur when people are not erecting monuments. “When you’re desperate to fill space, you think of outrageous things.”
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Mad was engaged in an elaborate practical joke at the expense of the available culture, covering billboards and movie posters and comic strip pages with graffiti that were more entertaining than what they defaced. Today’s Mad — the black-and-white magazine which has carefully replicated the same formulas for the past 30 years — is so much a part of the landscape that it is hard to re-create the impact of Kurtzman’s original color comic-book version. Without venturing into obscenity, blasphemy, or revolutionary sloganeering, it managed to anticipate all the assaults on public taste that were to follow. (Kurtzman himself left Mad in 1956, following a dispute over financial control, and was replaced by Al Feldstein; the magazine was never quite the same, and Kurtzman’s own later ventures, though often brilliant, never achieved such popularity.)
In this boxed form Mad stands revealed as a perfect postmodern epic, decentered, multi-referential, inextricable from the particulars of its place and time. To read it adequately we would in theory have to re-create its original circumstances, watch the same television shows, listen to the same jukeboxes (for a hundredth chorus of “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window”), scan the same comic strips. Intertextuality can go no further. Mad’s guiding principle was spillover: the TV programs on neighboring channels blended, the separate comic strips on a page began communicating among themselves. Everything got thrown into the soup. No figure was allowed to dominate a space for long: the foreground action was forever being upstaged by clusters of microscopic idiots grimacing or waving absurd placards, like bystanders grinning at the camera on TV news. It was an aesthetic of interruption and intrusion. Mad’s panels retained the classicism of traditional comics only to subject it to remorseless pummeling. The foursquare frame persisted, with Superduperman poised heroically in its center, but the walls and floors could be seen collapsing all around him.
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In 1952 American culture was a parody waiting to happen. It was an era of oddly unconscious abeyance and dereliction. Not long before, popular art had gone through a series of more or less concurrent Golden Ages: of the movies, of jazz and the big bands, of radio, of the pulps and the comics. But a slow unraveling had begun. The forms that had seen the country through depression and world war seemed to have lost the effortless confidence that had given them the air of a national religion, a precarious unity of spirit encompassing swing records, Jack Benny, and Terry and the Pirates.
The postwar period’s most brilliant manifestations — bebop, film noir — were already marginal. At center stage a warped stiffness seemed to have taken over. The Red Scare generated such movies as My Son John, I Was a Communist for the FBI, and Red Planet Mars, gibbering studies in deception and religiosity whose every frame seemed grotesquely off-key. The bestseller list alternated between billowing clouds of spiritual comfort (The Silver Chalice, The Gown of Glory, A Man Called Peter, The Power of Positive Thinking, This I Believe) and the sustained paranoid outbursts of Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me Deadly. Television was exemplified by variety and quiz shows of trancelike somnolence (The Arthur Murray Show, Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, I’ve Got a Secret, You Asked for It) and transplanted radio serials like Gangbusters and The Lone Ranger. As for Hollywood, it offered little beyond Martin and Lewis, Abbott and Costello, the desperate grandiosity of 3-D and Cinerama, and, for the Saturday afternoon crowd, cheapo adventure flicks like Son of Ali Baba and The Battle at Apache Pass. The comic strips, in the meantime, persisted without change, as Skeezix, Dick Tracy, and Orphan Annie lived on in a world where nobody ever got older.
In that strange era before the dawn of media self-consciousness, evidence of mental fatigue was everywhere. Humor consisted of Jack Benny and Bob Hope recycling their old routines or Donald O’Connor locked in conversation with a talking mule. The real humor, however, was in all the places it wasn’t supposed to be: in the lurid solemnity of movie posters, in the sanctimonious hucksterism of advertising, in the unquestioned formulas that governed comic-book plots. Plainly people had gotten so used to grinding the stuff out that it had been a while since anyone actually looked at it.
Mad was like the lone giggle that subverts a hitherto respectful audience into uncontrolled laughter. Well, not exactly lone. The Warner Brothers cartoonists had created a parodistic parallel world throughout the ’40s, and since 1950 Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca had been broadcasting Your Show of Shows, to be joined in 1952 by The Ernie Kovacs Show and Steve Allen on Tonight. More remotely, there was the lingering influence of the Marx Brothers and of S.J. Perelman’s fantasias on the themes of pulp fiction and advertising. Before long Stan Freberg would bring another medium into the picture with recorded parodies like St. George and the Dragonet and an echo-ridden Heartbreak Hotel. None of these could top Mad’s secret weapon: its explosive visual presence. You might not find it funny, but you couldn’t take your eyes off it; its graphics changed the tone of a room just by being there.
By adopting the form of a comic book, Mad had the advantage of surprise; like a sniper firing from an unsuspected position. Comic books until then had fed the same material over and over to an audience limited in age and influence, rarely reaching anyone outside that audience except for crusading congressmen, psychologists, and clergymen. No comics were more targeted than those of Mad’s parent company, EC (Educational Comics), creator of the most morbidly explicit horror tales, the most inventively apocalyptic science fiction, and the most harrowing and socially conscious crime stories, all of them written and edited by the brilliant and astonishingly prolific Al Feldstein. When Harvey Kurtzman joined EC, he had the advantage of working with a staff that had already mastered the sharp and savage tactics of The Vault of Horror and Shock SuspenStories.
Kurtzman, a Brooklyn-born journeyman gag cartoonist in his late twenties, was remarkable for his combined mastery of writing and drawing. A perfectionist in matters of detail, he habitually sketched out each story frame by frame, allowing artists small leeway in interpreting his layouts. Initially he edited a pair of war comics, Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat, notable for their sober restraint and morally serious tone in contrast to EC’s usual sardonic Grand Guignol. The Civil War issues (reprinted as part of Russ Cochran’s EC Classics series) demonstrate an eye obsessed with fusing swarms of historical detail into impeccably harmonious sequences of frames; if Kurtzman had not been a great humorist he could clearly have been a great propagandist. The distinctive styles of his artists (Wallace Wood, Will Elder, Jack Davis, John Severin) are, although still apparent, carefully held in check. Kurtzman’s directorial control of his comics’ overall look was unchallenged although sometimes resented.
Mad started routinely enough, with farcical variations on standard comic-book plots, hit its stride with the “Superduperman” and “Shadow” features in the fourth issue, and grew steadily more experimental as long as it was under Kurtzman’s editorship. In the meantime it became a success of cultlike intensity, trailed by a pack of imitations — including EC’s own Panic, which featured the same artists as Mad but under the guidance of Al Feldstein. Judging from the issues reprinted by Cochran, Panic had a rougher edge than Mad; the violence in its Mike Hammer and This Is Your Life takeoffs is almost on a par with one of Feldstein’s horror comics. There is not a trace, however, of Kurtzman’s flair for fantasy and pure nonsense, or of his capacity for bending the comic book form into unexpected shapes.
Kurtzman didn’t have to invent his humor, it was already there. “I was always surprised at how people living and working in different places around the city would be thinking the same thing. We were a product of our Jewish backgrounds in New York; we were in the same city living in different boroughs, yet we were having the same experiences. It was bizarre that at Music and Art in the lunch room we’d carry on and do our satire parodies… I remember specifically sitting around in the lunch room doing the ‘operating scene,’ or better still, doing the ‘airplane scene,’ the German ace going down in the Fokker in flames… You’d see a movie, and you’d make fun of it, and 20 other guys who saw the same movie, and who had the same kind of Jewish direction of thinking would come up with the same scene.”
However familiar its tone was on the streets of Manhattan or Brooklyn, for most of its readers Mad was a new noise: noise about noise, about the noise that had been going on in every form of public entertainment and information but had never been labeled, an encyclopedia of what had been bombarding people’s eyes and ears. Reading Mad was like watching a documentary about how it felt to be on the receiving end of everything that had not yet been named the media. To children growing up in the ’50s, Mad provided the reassurance that someone else was watching, someone else had seen what it looked like. The specific content of its satire was not as important as the simple acknowledgement that we were all soaked in mass-produced words and images.
Whether parodying comic strips (Prince Violent, Manduck the Magician), movies (From Eternity Back to Here, Under the Waterfront), or TV shows (The Lone Stranger, Howdy Dooit), Kurtzman reiterated a single point: just because this stuff was everywhere didn’t mean it was real or normal. He got off on the sheer oddness of, for instance, comic strip conventions: that Mickey Mouse wore white gloves or that the characters in Gasoline Alley aged at drastically different rates. For a ’50s child, who unlike Kurtzman and company had not been reading the same comics since the ’30s, the most anachronistic aspect of Mad was its loving assault on the funny papers. By 1954 who knew or cared about Smilin’ Jack, Gasoline Alley, Mandrake the Magician, or even Flash Gordon or Little Orphan Annie? For Mad’s makers, however, this was home base, the root of their aesthetic education.
Television was a more alien presence for them; it’s fascinating to see how they render the actual retinal impact of the TV image, complete with wavering horizontal lines, reception problems, and the test patterns that persisted before and after the shows. Mad’s TV parodies almost invariably ran in black-and-white, because that denoted television: TV was still visible as something other, a rackety and unsightly intrusion.
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When all else failed, Mad relied on a repertoire of instant laugh-getters. These included a select list of words (furshlugginer, potrzebie, halvah, blintzes); names (Melvin Coznowski, Alfred E. Neuman), expletives (of which “Hoo-hah!” and “Yech!” were early favorites), and a few standard syntactical ploys. Kurtzman relied heavily on the “but mainly” construction, as in: “We are giving special attention to T.V. because we believe it has become an integral part of living… a powerful influence in shaping the future… but mainly we are giving attention because we just got a new T.V. set,” or “Once more I go to fight for law and order… for justice… but mainly for adding the sadistic element that is such a vital part of comic books!” With slight variations the cadence was good for a thousand gags, as in Flesh Garden’s declaration: “That’s the trouble with us earthlings! We always assume that alien creatures are hostile! I refuse to kill said alien creature in the belief it is hostile! I will kill it just for fun!”
That this was Jewish humor was a well-kept secret; to most of Mad’s readers, judging from the letters pages, halvah and blintzes were nonsense words springing from nowhere. (The “bop talk” intervals and passing references to Charlie Parker must have been equally arcane to many.) As Kurtzman has noted, however, the in-jokes underwent a peculiar alchemy in their passage to the outside world:· “Of course these names come out of the artist’s, the author’s experience. But when they turn into things like furshlugginer or potrzebie they take on an air of mystery… These were personal real things to us that we were talking about, and private in a sense, and so they imparted a sense of intrigue; the audience would be touched by this mysterious arrangement of sounds.” A new in-group was forged, with furshlugginer and potrzebie as its shibboleths.
Kurtzman’s Mad had one underlying joke: What if the hero turned out to be a jerk? All the heroes, whether Superduperman or Flesh Garden or the Lone Stranger, were the same, lecherous, avaricious cowards, betraying every ideal to stay on top and most of the time losing. If they won, it was in demonic fashion: Bat Boy in Bat Boy and Rubin turned out to be a vampire bat, and Teddy of Teddy and the Pirates ended up operating an opium smuggling ring with his fellow pirates.
Although much has been made of Mad’s satirical bent, its jibes tended to be quite mild; Kurtzman’s takes on the hypocrisies of television, advertising, and the funny papers would not have stirred controversy if couched as essays in The Saturday Review. His rare forays into politics — notably the routine in which Senator McCarthy became a panelist on What’s My Shine? — were significant not so much for what they said as for raising the subject at all. Kurtzman’s humor was less satire than formalist delirium; much of the funniest stuff, the sendups of such items as picture puzzles or Ripley’s Believe It or Not, had no real point beyond a pleasure in their own gratuitousness. He loved particularly to parody print media; through his work small children unconsciously absorbed lessons in typography and layout, and beyond that the underlying lesson that format is content. The formats he played with included the Daily News, The Racing Form, movie ads, the posters for the Miss Rheingold contest, 3-D comics, fill-in-the dots and “What’s Wrong With This Picture?” puzzles, the ads in the back of comic books. The tiniest visual details were significant: changes in typeface, the spacing between letters, the relative size of different elements on the page.
Mad had an air of chaos just barely held at bay. Crazed as it might appear, there was always the implication that things might get much worse. In every frame the forces of coherence fought a losing battle against entropy. The jokes stepped on each other’s toes, one gag shoved another out of the way, voices drowned each other out in violently escalating shouting matches. In the final frames of the Julius Caesar lampoon — intended as a self-referential commentary on Mad’s own methods — Marlon Brando as Mark Antony and James Mason as Brutus metamorphose rapidly into Dick Tracy, Fearless Fosdick, and Rip Kirby, while Marilyn Monroe rips apart the frame to reveal Donald Duck and Goofy underneath (“Here everyone whips off rubber masks and you find out the hero really isn’t the hero… the villain really isn’t the villain… I’m not really your MAD writer… matter of fact, this MAD comic book isn’t really a MAD comic book…”). In “3-Dimensions!,” a dazzling exploration of the double vision and general disorientation produced by 3-D comics leads into more basic questions of perspective and reality. Holes are ripped in the frame, one page collapses onto another, and the last page of all is an empty white space.
No two people will agree on just how funny Mad was, but it always hummed with energy and it always looked great. The Complete Mad presents the splendors of Elder, Wood, Davis, and company as they have never been seen before, to such effect that the humor is almost swamped by the magnificence of the drawing. (In particular, the love-it-or-hate-it all-out ugliness of Basil Wolverton’s monstrous candidates for Miss Potgold take on terrifying proportions.) While Wallace Wood and Jack Davis executed Kurtzman’s ideas with wonderful fluency and humor, Will Elder was Mad’s other guiding genius. Eider’s eerie ability to appropriate the style of other cartoonists is amply displayed in his parodies of Gasoline Alley, Bringing Up Father, The Katzenjammer Kids, and Archie, but beyond mere mimicry there’s a blast of wildly destructive humor. If Kurtzman was the satirist, Elder was the anarchist: “I always wanted to shock people… I was the Manson of the zanies.” Elder’s vision of Archie and Jughead as sullen juvenile delinquents becomes genuinely ominous, while his transformation of Mickey Mouse into the vengeful, stubble-faced Mickey Rodent cut too close for the “Walt Dizzy” people, who threatened legal action.
The Kurtzman-Elder collaboration can be seen at its best in Howdy Dooit, with its commercials for Bupgoo (“Bupgoo makes a glass of milk look exactly like a glass of beer!”) and Skwushy’s Sliced White-Bread (“If it’s good bread — it’s a wonder!”) and its maniacal contingent of children in the “Peewee Gallery,” an underage mob ready to overwhelm the repellent “Buffalo Bill.” When Buffalo Bill asks one sinister-looking youngster what he wants to be when he grows up (“A police chief? A fireman? A Indian? Or, [hot-dog], maybe a jet-fighter pilot? Huh?”) the boy replies: “Please, Buffalo Bill, don’t be juvenile!… If one had the choice, it would probably be soundest to get into a white-collar occupation such as an investment broker or some-such! Of course… advertising and entertainment are lucrative fields if one hits the top brackets… much like Howdy Dooit has! In other words… what I want to do when I grow up, is to be a hustler like Howdy Dooit!” To which Bill replies: “But child… Howdy Dooit is no hustler!… Howdy Dooit is a happy wooden marionette, manipulated by strings! Howdy Dooit, child, is no mercenary, money grubbing hustler… I, Buffalo Bill, am the mercenary, money grubbing hustler!” Seizing a pair of scissors, the child cuts Buffalo Bill’s invisible strings. As Bill falls limp and vacant-eyed to the studio floor, a raging Howdy Dooit screams for the cameras to cut.
The humor to a large degree was about the uncanny skill of the artists. Their ability to summon up the “real” figures of television, movies, and comic’ strips and force them to do outrageous things provoked a manic glee. It was the revenge of the cartoonists, and every reader got a jolt of subversive satisfaction from it. That Mickey Mouse and Archie were not really the targets even a child could begin to grasp. Mad made it clear that all the images and characters were made by people — and that what was made could also be unmade. They took them apart before our eyes, put mustaches on them, made them speak Yiddish or pig latin.
The world Mad caricatured no longer exists, but the Mad of the ’50s still seems remarkably current. After all, the Age of Parody that it helped kick off — the age that extended through Lenny Bruce, The Realist, Zap Comix, Blazing Saddles, and Saturday Night Live — ended only recently. It ended when the potential targets of parody, from Ronald Reagan and Joe Isuzu on down, finally worked out how to short-circuit the process by deliberately making themselves parodies in advance: pre-caricatured, as jeans are preshunk. Presumably some future Kurtzman is working on the problem right now.
The problem of distinguishing parodies from the real world had been broached from the beginning in the pages of Mad. It was another unusual, perhaps unintended dimension of that reading experience. For me, as for many of Mad’s youngest readers, the objects of parody were altogether unknown. Although I could follow them when it came to Captain Video, The Lone Ranger, and Howdy Doody, I was at sea on everything else and besides no one had explained what a parody was. Slowly, by a painstaking archaeological process, I divined that something else was being referred to, but it was no easy matter to reconstruct the unknown referent, to re-create, say, Little Orphan Annie from “Little Orphan Melvin” or the McCarthy hearings from Mad’s conversion of them into the quiz show What’s My Shine? It was a peculiar education, learning about the world from the image it cast in Mad’s deforming mirrors. It was also an education from which one never quite recovered, for by the time those original models were at last revealed, they had acquired in the uncovering a haunting and perpetual aura of incongruity.
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The Complete Mad. Notes and Comments Edited by John Benson and Written by John Benson, Bill Mason, and Bhob Stewart. Published by Russ Cochran (P.O. Box 469, West Plains, MO 65775), $30 each; $130 for boxed, four-volume set. Previous generations had the Harvard Classics and the Encyclopaedia Britannica to adorn their sitting rooms; we have this luxurious full-color reproduction of the entire 23-issue run of Mad in its original comic-book format. Mad was America’s secret weapon against the stultifying cultural climate of the early ’50s, a high-intensity mix of warped takeoffs, eye-popping graphics, and just plain rowdiness. One can wander around for days in this fun house, happily mingling with Melvin of the Apes, Starchie, G.I. Shmoe, and a cast of thousands. Russ Cochran, who has previously issued black-and-white reprints of the complete EC comics line, caps the series with this magnificent set, cheap at the price.
Two-Fisted Tales (EC Classics #3). Published by Russ Cochran, $4.95 paper. Kurtzman’s war comics, carefully researched and often somber, were designed to counteract the gung-ho unreality that prevailed (and prevails) in the genre. This reprint assembles the pieces of an uncompleted Civil War project which for commercial reasons stopped short at the fall of Fort Donelson. The vigorously orchestrated graphics by Jack Davis, Wallace Wood, and the rest of the future Mad crew inject life into the irreproachably “educational” material.
Panic (EC Classics # 10). Published by Russ Cochran, $4.95 paper. EC’s homegrown imitation Mad almost looks like the original — not surprisingly, since it used virtually the same artists. On closer examination, however, the layouts are more predictable and the humor more bludgeoning, with a predilection for editor Al Feldstein’s brand of horror. This edition reprints the first two issues complete, focusing on Mickey Spillane, This Is Your Life, The African Queen, and Broadway realism (a rather philistinish dig at Williams, Miller, and Inge); best of the bunch is Will Elder’s free-form rewrite of The Lady or the Tiger?
Flash Gordon: The Complete Daily Strips, 1951–1953. By Dan Barry and Harvey Kurtzman, with Frank Frazetta and Jack Davis. Kitchen Sink Press, $13.95. Kurtzman explores his comic strip roots in a revived Flash Gordon strip he wrote shortly before the inception of Mad. Includes an interview with Kurtzman and samples of his rough sketches.
Harvey Kurtzman’s Jungle Book. By Harvey Kurtzman. Kitchen Sink Press, $29.95; $14.95 paper. This reprint of a scarce 1959 Ballantine paperback is highly recommended for a taste of Kurtzman on his own and at his sharpest. The standouts in this set of four extended fables are “The Organization Man in the Grey Flannel Executive Suite” (a bitter firsthand report on lechery, penny-pinching, and general mean-spiritedness in the lower reaches of the publishing world) and “Decadence Degenerated” (a caricature of the Old South based on Kurtzman’s wartime experiences in Paris, Texas).
Goodman Beaver. By Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder. Kitchen Sink Press, $9.95. The naive go-getter who made his first appearance in Jungle Book continues his pilgrim’s progress through contemporary chicanery. The strip ran regularly in Kurtzman’s magazine Help!, a failed ’60s bid to recreate the success of Mad. After that, Kurtzman and Elder went over to Playboy with the long-running but disappointingly low-energy “Little Orphan Fannie” feature.
My Life As a Cartoonist. By Harvey Kurtzman. Pocket Books, $2.50 paper. Don’t expect too much revelation from this slim paperback, aimed at younger readers; Kurtzman’s interviews in The Complete Mad are a lot more revealing about the magazine’s origins. The book does at least offer a short course in cartooning, including advice on brushes and inks. — G.O’B.