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Taking the Stage with Alfred E. Neuman

Before she won six Tony awards, between 1970 and 2012, and prior to her 1979 Emmy for her lead role in the TV show Alice, Linda Lavin appeared on stage in The Mad Show, singing Stephen Sondheim’s (uncredited) “The Boy From …,” a breathy parody of “The Girl from Ipanema,” which includes such lines as “When I tell him I think he’s the end / He giggles a lot with his friend.” In this case, girl does not get boy.

And before she became a household name on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, Jo Anne Worley trod the boards alongside Lavin to bring the satirical magazine’s gags to life in a 1966 production at the New Theatre on East 54th Street.

The first hint Village Voice readers had of this hybrid of the printed page and live theater was an ad in the December 23, 1965, issue announcing “A New Musical Revue Based on MAD Magazine,” to which Alfred E. Neuman declaims, “ECCH!”

Two weeks later the paper included a publicity photo of three mugging cast members.

At the bottom of that same page, the magazine’s mascot’s mug appears again, blasé about the show’s opening date, Sunday, January 9, 1966.

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The following week there is no word from Voice critics, but others have weighed in. In the ad, the clip art of Alfred remains stoic.

Come January 20 and the Voice passes judgement in the Theatre Journal column. This time, the production department took pains to keep the ad on page 19, separate from the editorial critique on page 20.

Critic Michael Smith liked the show, but lamented the omission of the magazine’s “threat of savagery in its satiric bite”:

“The Mad Show” is a speedy and consistently funny musical revue. Its five performers are likable and highly skilled, Steven Vinaver’s direction leaves barely a moment unoccupied, Mary Rodgers’s music is energetic and versatile, and the sum is thoroughly diverting. It’s difficult to break the show down into its parts, since it moves at an almost blurring velocity. Linda Lavin is absolutely bewitching in “The Boy From,” and Paul Sand’s “The Real Thing” is a flawlessly performed miniature. MacIntyre Dixon and Dick Libertini, previously familiar as the Stewed Prunes, are as unpredictably zany as ever, and Jo Anne Worley has comic expertise to spare. Together and separately, they look like the ideal revue cast.

“The Mad Show” is based on Mad magazine. It shares the comic book’s irreverence, sometimes mimics its mating of the far-fetched with the dead-pan, but omits its air of tenuous control, the threat of savagery in its satiric bite. Much of the time the source is not visible, and I would have preferred to see more risks taken, more point of view, more precision in choosing targets for satire. I prefer theatre to be less innocuous; despite its shambling exterior, “The Mad Show” would not be outré in a chic midtown boîte. (But when would you find time to drink your drink?)

In other words, if you like this sort of thing, this is an excellent example of it. Aesthetic commitments ablush, I report it readily recommendable.

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MAD Magazine: Eclipsed by Madness?

[ 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 NewsThe 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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MAD MATTER

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.

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MAD GENIUS

If you’ve laughed anytime in the past 50 years, you owe Harvey Kurtzman some thanks. Triple-threat Kurtzman (writer, editor, cartoonist) and publisher William Gaines created Mad magazine in 1952, and Kurtzman’s bloody-knuckle satire inspired everyone from R. Crumb to Terry Gilliam to Jon Stewart. Combine that with his evocative and deglamorized depictions of war in Two-Fisted Tales, his mentoring underground cartoonists in HELP! magazine, and the creation of Little Annie Fanny for Playboy, and it’s easy to see why the Society of Illustrators is toasting Kurtzman 
tonight, kicking off a retrospective that runs into May.

Tuesdays-Fridays, 10 a.m.; Saturdays, noon. Starts: March 8. Continues through May 11, 2013

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Cartoonerus Hilarious: ‘Chuck Amuck’ at BAM

An entire modernist canon encompassing Eliot and Beckett might be grouped under the heading “The Art of Futility,” but where does this art find more eloquent, succinct expression than in 1955 Looney Tune One Froggy Evening? A seven-minute cartoon squib containing the quintessence of frustration and despair, Froggy features a construction worker whose sanity begins to unravel when he discovers an ebullient performing frog that he might make a fortune from—if it didn’t turn taciturn and morose the moment anyone else is watching.

The author of One Froggy Evening, Charles M. “Chuck” Jones, is the subject of a four-day BAMcinématek tribute occasioned by the centennial of his birth. Born in Washington State, an ambitious young draftsman Jones worked straightaways through the ranks of the cartooning industry, eventually joining Leon Schlesinger Productions, the home of Looney Tunes.

The majority of BAM’s three shorts programs is drawn from Jones’s 1950s output, for his creative peak was hitched to Eisenhower and Rocket Age futurism. This is most evident in Jones’s signature Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner shorts—the art of futility, again! Chains of breakneck blackout sketches with proto-rockabilly titles (Stop! Look! Hasten! and Ready, Set, Zoom!), they made comedy through defying everything that kids were learning in physics classes. Like Al Jaffee at Mad magazine, Jones and his worthless Acme products lambasted the needless complexity of much-fetishized innovation.

The subversion doesn’t stop there: 1957’s What’s Opera, Doc? declared open season on the contemporary middle-class rage for classical music while continuing the sexual anarchy of cross-dressing Bugs Bunny’s serial seduction of Elmer Fudd. A Bear for Punishment (1951) revisits the Three Bears’ cave as a vision of the nuclear family as hell. And speaking of nuclear: 1953’s space-race romp Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century contains the finest visualization of mutually assured destruction set to film—and all of these shorts, it should be noted, will be screening in actual 35mm.

BAM’s three shorts programs are supplemented with a selection of features displaying Jones’s influence, obviously and less so. Onetime Godard affiliate Jean-Pierre Gorin’s delightful 1986 Routine Pleasures, dedicated to Jones, visits with the Pacific Beach and Western club of model-train enthusiasts and critic/painter Manny Farber—obsessive creators of imagined landscapes that owe much to Jones’s deserts. A curious mix of knockabout comedy and Robert Towne conspiracy—”Forget it, Jake, it’s Toontown”—Robert Zemeckis’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit homages the “duck season! rabbit season!” routine from Jones’s Daffy and Bugs shorts, among much else. It made a star of Kathleen Turner–voiced Jessica Rabbit, with Cyd Charisse legs, Veronica Lake peekaboo hair, and a bosom never seen on this planet; less so the grating title character. An altogether more satisfying live-action-and-‘toon mash-up might be found in Joe Dante’s 2003 Looney Tunes: Back in Action, playing along with the rare sequel that outdoes the original, Dante’s 1990 Gremlins 2: The New Batch, which ransacks ’80s pop culture for satirical targets as thoroughly as Jones did the ’50s. Criminally, Dante’s latest, The Hole 3-D, had its theatrical rollout confined to a few theaters Georgia—we never learn to respect our native geniuses in time. But in the case of Chuck Jones, it’s better late than never.

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Richard Garet’s ‘Electrochroma’ at the Invisible Dog; Bernd and Hilla Becher’s ‘Water Towers’ at Sonnabend

Imagine one of those brain-washing scenes from a 1970s conspiracy flick and you get a pretty good sense of Richard Garet’s mesmerizing installation of light and sound he calls Electrochroma, a 58-minute endurance test of sensory bombardment. On the far wall of a small black room, projected blobs of white light flash and flicker, while unnerving electronic tones—throbbing, buzzing, droning—move through surrounding speakers, circling your head and, at some frequencies, sitting inside it. Like a symphony in length and design, the work begins with a quiet, repeated pulsing, and then gathers momentum, reaching moments of such intensity that the piercing chaos seems to vibrate actual neurons.

Garet achieved all this by digitally manipulating light and sound captured from various old-fashioned analog sources: electromagnetism, 16mm film, recordings of a projector’s mechanics, and the human voice. Near the end, when you hear several wordless and ethereal notes sung by a woman named Marylea Martha Quintana Madiman (whose Facebook avatar pictures herself as an infant reading Mad magazine), you can only hope that the joyous relief you feel is genuine. Garet’s psychedelic chamber will soon close, perhaps saving the city from further delirium. The thrills here are visceral, but they come at the risk of glimpsing your own insanity.

Bernd and Hilla Becher: ‘Water Towers’

Like obsessed collectors, Bernd and Hilla Becher, husband and wife, spent 50 years photographing the world’s industrial structures, a project of extraordinary consistency. All shot with the same cold formality, their black-and-white portraits of grain elevators, gas tanks, winding towers, and other massive objects convey a somber admiration for the functional monuments humans can construct. But when grouped into arrays of similar design (what the duo called “typologies”), the pictures are transformed from icons into fascinating studies of form and variance. In this respect, they’re not unlike serial investigations of geometry by the Minimalists (Sol Lewitt and Carl Andre were among the Bechers’ first art-world fans).

The photographs here of water towers, taken over a 20-year span starting in the 1970s, demonstrate the dogged efforts the couple made in pursuing their categorization. The typologies, mostly of European designs, display an intriguing variety of volumetric grace: towers shaped like fluted goblets, mushrooms, baskets, and the ubiquitous golf balls on tees. Each one, isolated from its environment with careful framing, takes on the presence of Modernist sculpture—a category for which the Bechers actually received a Golden Lion at the 1990 Venice Biennale.

In contrast, the towers on New York rooftops, which dominate the show, are utilitarian vessels. The long sequences of these stout, and rather clunky, wooden barrels don’t really examine shape and line but rather establish a mood, oddly, of retro sci-fi. Rising against the sky with their conical tops, central pipes, and supporting metal legs, they begin to resemble Jules Verne rockets, readied for a trip to the moon. Sonnabend Gallery, 536 W 22nd, 212-627-1018. Through December 18

Joe Diebes: ‘Chronology’

It may be one of the more remarkable performances you’ll ever encounter of Bach’s Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, but performer Joe Diebes isn’t making a sound. In a series of videos, we watch the artist’s hand, holding a pen, attempt to trace (on translucent vellum) the notes from the pages of the score as they’re played from a recording. Capturing little more than gestural approximations, Diebes produces a series of hieroglyphic loops and squiggles that delightfully appear, in the end, like some of Henri Michaux’s mystical pseudowriting, suggesting a similar, trance-like engagement.

Elsewhere, the visual expression of music—which Diebes has investigated before in several beguiling installations—becomes manic. In a piece titled anachronism 1, he wrote and then erased passages of the St. Matthew Passion onto the same manuscript page until the paper began to disintegrate. In anachronism 2, he copied Beethoven’s last string quartet in its entirety onto the same set of staves, making a dense, jittery, and unreadable score.

Then there’s the hallucinatory video Scherzo. Clips of a cellist bowing short and impossibly fast passages Diebes wrote himself were fed into an algorithm that produces an infinitely cycling piece that never quite repeats itself. Featuring MTV-like jumps and pounding, relentless rhythms, the work is bravura performance of frenzied ecstasy. Diebes is a virtuoso of the virtual. Paul Rodgers/9W, 529 W 20th, 212-414-9810. Through December 18

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Mad Worlds: Sigmar Polke and Harvey Kurtzman

You may have seen the Spiderman movie poster in which the Green Goblin appears to change position depending on the viewer’s angle. For almost a century, the gimmick of lenticular printing—placing a thin, striated lens over a flat image to create a fluttering animation effect—has enlivened everything from baseball cards to cereal boxes to campaign buttons. (The technique was employed in 1967 to embed portraits of the Beatles into the cover design of the Rolling Stones’ album Their Satanic Majesties Request.) Recently, the painter Sigmar Polke has transmuted this down-market contrivance into a series of works that meld garish gestures and quirky imagery into startlingly vibrant art.

Polke was born in 1941, in what would soon be Communist East Germany; when he was 12, his family moved to Düsseldorf in West Germany, where he eventually attended the city’s art academy. There, he came under the tutelage of Joseph Beuys, whose Fluxus-inspired performances and dismissal of painting as a reactionary medium helped steer Polke, a world-class contrarian, to the easel.

But neither he nor his friend Gerhard Richter could ignore Beuys’s emphasis on conceptual practices, and the two budding painters dreamed up a highly ironic style they christened “Capitalist Realism,” in which they conflated the mad consumerism of the West with drab, Communist Bloc socialism. Playing a game of visual Telephone with American pop art, Polke highlighted the noise as much as the signal: He emulated printing dots in coarse, near-incomprehensible enlargements of news photos; layered cartoon cowboys over abstract smears; and stenciled hunting towers across flowery fabric swatches (a more haunting evocation of Germany’s schizophrenic past than Anselm Kiefer’s Wagnerian assemblages).

For his rousing Lens Paintings, now on view at Michael Werner, Polke used a rake-like tool to craft ridged sheets of thick gel medium (a material, the artist dryly notes, that is often employed “to add the brushstrokes to the van Gogh reproduction”), then placed these translucent scrims over his canvases, distorting the underlying scenes.

A recurring image among the 29 works here is derived from a 17th-century engraving of two men viewing a dragon from different vantage points—a metaphor for Polke’s own complex demands on viewers. In one instance, the figures have been painted on fabric printed with multicolored cartoon ghosts, which seem to waver and vibrate as the viewer moves from one side of the canvas to the other. At the top of the painting, a gelatinous white cloud dissipates into a grid of drips, an ersatz geometry echoed in angular “Seeing Rays” that emanate from the men’s eyes. The grooved acrylic over some of the works has been slathered with abstract blobs, causing runnels of paint to obscure the rasterized images underneath. The figures in one such painting seem to be wearing Hazmat suits; the fact that their enigmatic environment has been painted in drippy primaries only adds to the graphic frisson.

With its fascinating, often wry content, diverse textures, and ingenious techniques, Polke’s new work is as good as third-millennium painting has so far gotten.


While it’s mostly other painters, insightful curators, and savvy gallery-goers who know Polke, everybody has been touched by Harvey Kurtzman (1924–93), even if they’ve never read his signature creation, Mad magazine. In the early ’50s, Kurtzman was writing, editing, and often drawing a series of realistic war comics. In a genre mostly devoted to tales of gung-ho GIs blasting Krauts and Japs to smithereens during the Good War, Kurtzman chose to document the then-ongoing (but undeclared) Korean War. In one story, an American soldier contemplates corpses floating down the Imjin River just before a hungry, scared North Korean infantryman attacks him. The hand-to-hand combat is desperate, fast, and brutal, drawn with Kurtzman’s astonishingly fluid brush. The original boards emphasize how far the artist could push his formal designs, as when black-and-white stripes abstractly define a pair of arms plunged into dark water.

These and other original drawings, plus published covers and comic strips spanning half a century, are all crisply reproduced in The Art of Harvey Kurtzman, in which authors Denis Kitchen and Paul Buhle note that publishing a story about the existential absurdity of war was brave at a time when “the media, echoing the government, warned that dissent might be treason.”

In 1952, needing money for his growing family, Kurtzman pitched a humor comic to his publisher. Running pell-mell through the resulting green light—although who actually conceived the title Mad is lost to history—Kurtzman dreamed up parodies that influenced everyone from R. Crumb to Monty Python to the cast of Saturday Night Live. (Does that make South Park Kurtzman’s grandchild?) He and his cadre of trusted artists first went after other comic books (Bat Boy and Rubin!), but were soon hammering the commie-hunting senator from Wisconsin in a blistering parody that envisioned the Army-McCarthy hearings as a raucous game show. In a typically wrongheaded business decision, Kurtzman left Mad just as it was being retooled into a larger-format magazine, which would soon have a circulation in the millions.

Kurtzman’s later solo work could be wildly inventive—a buxom blonde is seen through the eyes of townie admirers in a complex, six-panel scene that interweaves multiple viewpoints with maladroit charm and coarse fantasy. Like Polke, Kurtzman was maniacal about technique, using numerous layers of vellum to position word balloons, figures, and objects for maximum visual impact. Kurtzman finally received a worthy paycheck from Playboy‘s Hugh Hefner, but Little Annie Fanny‘s gorgeously illustrated titillations never came close to Mad’s rough-‘n’-ready provocations.

It was Kurtzman’s witty garishness and willingness to mix things up—literally and metaphorically—that made him a quintessential American. Perhaps similar strengths should earn Polke an honorary citizenship.

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Postal: Uwe Boll Rides Again

Regurgitating Mad Magazine, South Park, and Borat into what he believes may be some sort of comedic super-barf, German fauxteur Uwe Boll exhaustingly and pathetically attempts post-9/11 cultural satire in his umpteenth video-game adaptation (see also: BloodRayne, Alone in the Dark, In the Name of the King, et al.), yet manages to be as toothless as he is tasteless. Poorly framed, tone-deaf, and nonsensical (yet still Boll’s best!), the story follows the perpetually disillusioned Dude (Zack Ward) and his hippie cult-leader uncle (Dave Foley, boasting the year’s most embarrassing full-frontal scene) as they scheme to steal cock-shaped plush toys, then fight the bumbling Taliban. Beginning with two terrorists in a cockpit arguing over the number of virgins they’ve been promised before crashing into the World Trade Center, ending with Dubya and Osama skipping hand-in-hand into a mushroom-cloud sunset, with Verne Troyer raped by 1,000 monkeys somewhere in between, Postal desperately needs to remind you that its middle finger is permanently raised. Anarchy, my ass—this movie’s about as dangerous (or as funny) as a mouthy, caffeinated teen punk from the suburbs who just saw his first shit-flinging GG Allin performance on YouTube.

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David Hajdu’s History of the Comic-Book Panic

In 1954, comic-book publisher William M. Gaines was widely branded a degenerate following this exchange at a Senate hearing on juvenile delinquency:

Senator Estes Kefauver: “[This comic depicts] a man with a bloody ax holding a woman’s head up, which has been severed from her body. Do you think that is in good taste?”

Mr. Gaines: “Yes, sir, I do, for the cover of a horror comic. A cover in bad taste, for example, might be defined as holding the head a little higher so that the neck could be seen dripping blood from it. . . . ”

Senator Kefauver: “You have blood coming out of her mouth.”

Mr. Gaines: “A little.”

For comic-book scholars (all right, fanboys), this confrontation has always felt a bit surreal—a scarlet-letter story from the gray days of the Eisenhower administration. But in The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America, David Hajdu offers captivating insights into America’s early bluestocking-versus-blue-collar culture wars, and the later tensions between wary parents and the first generation of kids with the buying power to mold mass entertainment.

Hajdu begins with early newspaper comic strips, which William Randolph Hearst trumpeted in 1896 as “polychromatic effulgence that makes the rainbow look like a lead pipe!” In a typically sharp observation, Hajdu points out: “Magazine articles derided comic strips as infantile, brutal, unsophisticated, and subliterate; and the funnies were all that, though by design—a possibility lost to critics applying the standards of other forms of art and literature created for one class to a new form invented for another class.”

World War I and the Depression pushed WASP fears of this new medium off the editorial pages, but the late-’30s advent of Superman and other cheaply printed phantasmagorias—propagated mostly by Jews, Italians, and other denizens of New York’s melting pot—horrified the burghers anew. Hajdu has a grand time with one Sterling North, whose 1940 screed in The Chicago Daily News contrasted his own family’s book-reading ritual—”We spread out all over the floor of the living room and the sunlight comes in through the many-paned windows”—with the “hypodermic injection of sex and murder” delivered by comics. Hajdu notes that the comic-book “sweatshops of Fourth Avenue had little access to sunlight,” and that North, a writer of genteel children’s stories, “appeared discontented with the prospect that young people might prefer a kind of book wholly unlike the ones he was writing.”

By 1941, comics were grossing approximately $12 million a year, six times the take from children’s books. In an age before television and rock ‘n’ roll, comics were a magnet for a kid’s allowance. War once again diverted the censors from comics, but by the late ’40s the guardians of probity were coming back like gangbusters. Hajdu’s thorough research documents public comic-book burnings, which flared in numerous communities across the nation, and identifies the nuns and scout leaders who cajoled often uneasy children into lighting the bonfires. Fanning the flames was New York psychiatrist Fredric Wertham’s 1954 anti-comics tome, Seduction of the Innocent, which placed the blame for rising rates of juvenile delinquency squarely on comic books.

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Although comics fandom routinely pegs Wertham as a shrill prig, he was actually unembarrassed by sexual deviance and publicly defended at least one adult-themed novel from obscenity charges. This sadly contradictory German immigrant treated some violent juvenile offenders in his free Harlem clinic, and Hajdu might have fleshed him out a bit more, but Seduction‘s turgid mix of anecdote and conjecture proves too juicy a target. “Wertham chose to release his findings not in one of the peer-review publications in his field, such as The American Journal of Psychiatry,” writes Hajdu, “but, rather, in Ladies’ Home Journal, where the text of his book fit companionably among articles such as ‘Revolution in Mothballs’ and ‘Can This Marriage Be Saved?’ ” Directly after Seduction‘s publication, Wertham wowed the Senate hearings with his anti-comics spiel.

One wishes this lively book were longer. Hajdu concludes with a roll call of the hundreds of artists and writers who were never again published after the industry instituted a draconian code of conduct, wiping out hundreds of titles and neutering content for a decade. (We also learn that Gaines emerged triumphant as the publisher of the ridiculously lucrative Mad magazine.) And Hajdu’s interview with R. Crumb about the underground comix of the ’60s and ’70s feels too brief. These later artists, who grew up on the rambunctious and salacious pre-code stuff, subsequently avenged the evisceration of their beloved art form through violent and perverted tales that clubbed convention like a baby seal. That might be Hajdu’s next entertaining and erudite work, a testament for would-be censors everywhere—perhaps titled Careful What You Wish For.

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Meet the Spartans

Mike Judge predicted this bullshit would happen in his dystopian satire Idiocracy, in which Americans had become so dumb that the multiplex headliner was something called Ass: just two hours of a naked, farting rump. Depressingly, he was off by about 500 years. Here and now, the writing-directing team of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer (see also: Date Movie, Epic Movie) water down their own blend of pop-comic diarrhea in this witless, tasteless, formless spoof of 300‘s homoerotic box-office warriors. So infuriatingly lazy that its leads don’t even earn Mad Magazine–clever nicknames, the movie pits King Leonidas (Sean Maguire) and his chest-waxed army of 13 against pierced Persian Xerxes (Ken Davitian), stopping every 30 seconds to make random media references from 2006 through summer 2007: Heroes, Britney’s vagina, Ugly Betty, Paris’s vagina, Spider-Man 3,
Lindsay’s vagina, repeat ad nauseam. Carmen Electra proves herself a national treasure as our highest-priced whore, Kevin Sorbo makes a Herculean fool of himself, testicles are bitten, penguins defecate, the countless man-on-man gags land every time with a “gay is gross” eww response, at least six corporate products are placed—and, at its most offensive, a death cry of “Say hello to Anna Nicole.” I’m moving to Europe.

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The Icon’s Icon

Electrocuting Pope Benedict’s cross-emblazoned loafers will likely earn you an express ticket to hell. But the Dalai Lama? Charge up his shoes and he gently smirks. Experimenting with the Kirlian life force, artist Sylvie Fleury passed high-voltage current through a slightly worn pair of Dexters donated by Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th DL, then snapped a photo of the fiery corona. Told of the result, the man called Kundun just laughed, suggesting that since the shoes had been resoled several times, their aura might actually belong to the cobbler.

Part of a traveling exhibit that interprets the Dalai Lama—at the Rubin Museum of Art and the School of Visual Arts—the plain shoes, the photo, and the cheeky response sum up this grab-bag collection from over 80 contributors: a mix of wit, wacky reverence, and that unaffected style of the man himself. Take Chuck Close’s photograph, for example. Shot in a hotel room, and flattened by a short focus and a muted palette, the portrait is as spare and direct as a monk—but playful. Filling the frame, the Dalai Lama stares out with tinted glasses, shrewd eyes, and a knowing grin. Sure, he’s a spiritual leader, Tibet’s exiled head of state, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and a reincarnation—but if not for the red robe, he’s a character actor in a head shot, advertising a comedian’s sensibility. Buddhism has probably never had a more appealing front man.

Which could explain why a number of the artists followed Pop Art urges. In a 20-panel cartoon that might have come from Mad Magazine‘s Don Martin, painter Guy Buffet depicts the Dalai Lama (the likeness is poor, but no matter) frantically swatting at a troublesome bee before finally turning it into a lotus blossom. In the Rubin’s lobby, Lewis deSoto’s 25-foot-long blow-up Buddha achieves nirvana from an air compressor, like a solemn street-fair balloon promoting enlightenment. Over at SVA, there’s a refined, urban version of upstate chainsaw sculpture: Long-Bin Chen has expressed Oneness by carving the head of Buddha, an animal, and a knobby-nosed human from a spiraling stack of Manhattan phone books. Native Iranian Seyed Alavi captures other beliefs in the style of black-on-yellow road signs, cleverly manipulating the familiar figures into contemplative moments; two lean toward each other and share a circular head, for example, while another gains its inner self from falling rain.

The exhibit’s more pensive works can sometimes appear too devout, like fawning, overzealous groupies. Dario Campanile paints wonderfully in the Renaissance style, but his symbolism on Tibetan independence—a dove breaking free of a chain—is heavy-handed. Likewise, Bill Viola, who once studied with a Zen master, goes starry-eyed in videos that show a man and woman getting their chakras slowly probed by bright lights; the Haight- Ashbury pipe dream feels a little dated.

The best of the serious art follows Buddhism’s tenet of stripping away the extraneous. In stark black-and-white photographs by Tri Huu Luu, the backs of nuns’ and monks’ shaven heads become pristine, silvery orbs—visions of mysticism. Kisho Mukaiyama achieves a similar beauty of reduction with his exquisite mandalas, painted in diffuse shades of color on blocks of wax. And refreshing the conceptualism of the ubiquitous debris pile, Dove Bradshaw (a John Cage devotee) has hung a slowly dripping glass funnel filled with water over a cone of Himalayan salt. An elegant visual balance and a concise metaphor for time, death, man vs. nature, or just about anything else, it works as a kind of universal mantra.

Not all is so calm, though. The team of Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison, known for their tableaux vivants, have photographed an invented ritual about earthly connections—a man’s hand, wearing a contraption that draws his blood into a stylus, traces a coagulating red line across snow. At SVA, Ryuichi Sakamoto’s composition for piano and singing bowls plays through speakers that vibrate sand into patterns (mimicking a Tibetan tradition). Described as peaceful, the music happily isn’t, sounding more like the ominous soundtrack from a Tarkovsky flick; it lends a mood of strangeness to everything here.

At the Rubin, where a central stairwell projects noises from below, other works that rely on sound don’t fare as well. Even though Laurie Anderson’s “fake hologram” is visually arresting—small clay models seem to move from the scene projected onto them—it’s almost impossible to hear her story about turkey vultures, and to know why it matters. You have to concentrate pretty hard, too, to detect the intended waterfall effect in Marina Abramovic’s Hollywood Squares–like grid of chanting monks.

A show this size can’t avoid a few duds—non-starters of corporate blandness or half-baked wonder—but it’s a pleasure to see the normally staid Rubin bust out, if only for a while, with some lively contemporary work. Get your karma while it’s hot.